Why has a TV presenter, probably best known for presenting Tool Academy and the Made in Chelsea end of season shows, written a book about politics (None of the Above; Simon & Schuster, March 2015)? It’s a question I’ve asked myself quite a lot over the last couple of months, often whilst weeping.
There’s a long answer and a short answer and I’m going to make you wade through the former. I don’t see why you should avoid the pain. When I started presenting Free Speech, the BBC3 show that evolved out of some Young Voters’ Question Time specials, I was not especially politically engaged. I voted, sure, but more out of a sense of duty than anything else. I was one of those guys skim-reading the pamphlets in the queue at the village hall.
Then, as I did more of these shows and spent more time talking to the audience about politics, listening to their questions, I found myself getting sucked in. The thing that really hit me was that young people were in trouble. They weren’t voting and that meant they were getting the rough end of a very short straw (Yes I’ll mix idioms as I please…).
Moreover, the young people who weren’t voting seemed to be getting written off as apathetic, but that didn’t tally with my experience of actually, you know, talking to them.
Presenting some theoretical solutions was one thing but I wanted to do more.
I read around the subject and wrote a couple of blog posts about it. This lead to me being approached by the organisers of a TEDx event at the Houses of Parliament who asked if I would be interested in doing a talk about youth voting. I felt panicked and out of my depth, obviously, but also flattered to have been asked so I accepted and got to work writing the thing.
I spoke to as many kids and experts as I could and put together some practical ideas that I thought would help get younger voters to actually turn up. The talk was pretty well-received but I was left wondering what else I could do.
Presenting some theoretical solutions was one thing but I wanted to do more – to try and act upon some of the stuff I’d mentioned. The one complaint I’d heard most was that there wasn’t enough clear, accessible information available. It occurred to me that perhaps I could provide this information, and also encourage people to vote. That’s the basis of my book.
There can be little doubt that I am not the best-qualified person to write None Of The Above, but what I am hoping is that people who wouldn’t normally read a book about politics might read a book about politics written by that guy from T4.
Let’s be clear, this book isn’t for readers of the New Statesman. In fact, an NS journalist described the book as ‘not a page turner’ – frankly, I would hope that none of the information in it would be novel to him. Pleasingly though, the response from readers, so far, has been really positive. What I’m hoping is that the book might get a few more people to the polling stations on May 7.
The UK has one of the widest gaps between the turnout of old and young people.
My reasons for wanting people to vote are quite simple. I believe that the strength of our democracy is hugely improved when everyone has their say in choosing our government. It’s clear to me that it would be better if the government had to consider the whole electorate when making policy decisions.
And conversely, I can see what happens when certain sections of society don’t vote: they become invisible to politicians and decision-makers. You could probably argue that if overall turnout was a mere 10 per cent, but demographically representative of the whole population (so 10 per cent across all groups), that would be less of a problem.
But what we have now is wildly unequal, and one of the widest gaps between the turnout of old and young people in Europe. That’s not good enough.
As the number of young voters dwindles, so too does the incentive for politicians to care about the issues most relevant to them. That’s the thing that hurts. The government looks after the people that vote for it. So whilst pensioners get triple-locked pensions, Winter Fuel Allowance, free bus passes and free TV, the young get trebled tuition fees, their Education Maintenance Allowance scrapped and plans to cut housing benefit for 18-21 year olds.
Public spending cuts have affected everybody, but hit young people the hardest. Since 2010 an IPPR study has showed that in real, cash terms, over 55s are about £1,300 worse off because of the cuts, while 16-24 year olds are £2,850 worse off. Do you really believe that’s a coincidence?
Over 55s are about £1,300 worse off because of the cuts, while 16-24 year olds are £2,850 worse off.
An easy way for politicians to excuse this bias is, as I said before, to label the 56 per cent of young people who didn’t vote at the last election as apathetic. They don’t care, so why should we care about them? Crucially, that logic falls down because young people do care.
They are getting involved with online campaigns and petitions, volunteering more than ever before – they just aren’t being engaged by the political process. That’s not their failing. Very few people who don’t vote say that their reason is not being interested or not caring. They tend to talk about a lack of information, not being able to tell the difference between the parties, or not feeling represented by any of them. That’s not apathy – that’s being let down.
Which brings me to the title of the book. I firmly believe that there should be a ‘None of the above’ option on the ballot paper. A way of giving honest feedback to the parties – and legitimately expressing dissatisfaction with the available options. That would carry a lot of power in itself because it would prove that people are engaged, that they want to vote, but none of the parties are representing them well enough.
I will be pushing for this option to be introduced at the next election. In the meantime, I am encouraging anyone who feels that none of the candidates is doing enough to earn their vote not to stay away on May 7, but to spoil their ballot. I want everyone to have their voice heard.