Young people and the upcoming elections

What is it that we look for in our politicians is it experience, judgement or is it youth?

I ask this as over the past few weeks on Twitter parties from all sides seem to be nominating younger people (18-30 years old) to contest the upcoming elections. As I have pointed out in a previous post-Northern Ireland actually does well in getting younger people into the assembly when compared to the rest of the UK. However, despite this rise of young people coming up the party ranks just 51.3% of young people bothered to vote in the 2011 election.

The apparent disparity between the amount of young people running and those actually voting has gotten me thinking do younger faces on a ballot actually translate into more young people voting?

I always remember my experience at university fresher’s fayres handing out leaflets and taking part in political campaigns which at the time seemed to me to be very effective, but looking back I realise how little the rest of the student body actually cared about any of the issues we were ever talking about. Sure, we all hear the stories of the great turnouts at events and the ‘but deep down the really do care’ but to me this was always just a PR exercise in trying to make people seem like they were interested when really the majority of the students were in the bar playing pool.

I mention this as this experience is typically where the younger people running in elections here come from. Growing up in a political environment you naturally become consumed by it and think that this is the way things operate for everybody. However, the best advice I was ever given about politics was being told ‘Dave, to be honest, the average punter goes for days without giving politics a second thought.’ I was honestly perplexed when I heard this for the first time as in my passion for the topic that I loved I couldn’t understand why anybody couldn’t care about politics?

Then life kicks in-I was fortunate enough to be able to work in and associate with people who were completely a-political and really did not give politics or any current affairs item a second thought. Here, I think is where a lot of the younger candidates running don’t actually make a connection with any younger voters,  as like me most of them probably cannot comprehend why anybody wouldn’t care?

Think about it and it begins to make sense-you joined the party in your first year of university, you ran a few campaigns, sat on the executive, then worked for an MLA/MP and now you’re a candidate in the local elections. This is how a lot of younger people in particular work their way up through a party these days and like every person’s experiences shapes how they view the world.

But, the key thing in beating apathy is to understand what causes it and for a lot of younger people spouting out the ‘if you don’t vote, you can’t complain’ line doesn’t work. Try to make that connection and understand why exactly they have stopped voting or in many cases not voted at all and make it your business to feed that back to your political parties.

It will be interesting to see how the youth turnout rate goes in this upcoming election. It is always good to see young people in parties and putting their hands up for elections but I just hope that for those who do go out into electoral battle actually keep in mind that the challenge of young people engaged and that means asking some hard questions about not just your opposition but of yourself also.



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  • Peter Mair’s book “Ruling the Void” explains the growing gap between the electorate and the political system

  • notimetoshine

    ‘if you don’t vote, you can’t complain’

    Well not if there aren’t any parties to vote for…

    24 and I have never voted in my life, I take an interest in politics but the parties available are shocking; token attempts at courting the youth vote but they fail miserably.

  • There will of course be fewer councillors after May.
    A lot of older councillors of different parties have grown old together and with boundaries and councils actually changed, many have understandably taken the opportunity to stand down…and the gaps on the tickets are being filled by younger people.
    I dont think that it has any significance beyond that.
    A lot of it is down to young people cutting their teeth in the upcoming campaign. Some will lose and simply drop away from politics.
    In fairness a lot of it is due to interest in Politics in schools up and down the Six Counties…Q and A sessions, tours of Stormont etc and some fairly well organised Youth Groups in some of the Parties.

    A lot of the credit has to go to MLAs mentoring young people….not necessarily in their own party
    For example John McCallister MLA spoke at the 2012 SDLP Youth Conference in West Belfast.
    Gregory Campbell MP and Michael Copleland MLA spoke at the 2013 SDLP Conference in Derrys Culturlann.
    It would also be right to praise the work of the Norn Iron Youth parliament. Which necessarily involves young people from all the parties.
    And only today, I witnessed two local sixth formers being brought to Stormont for a tour.
    I myself will be involved in some campaigns. There are some very talented young people who deserve a lot of support.

    I DO think there is a downside.
    There is a social media generation…MetroTextuals…..who are interested in the political game rather than the nitty gritty of real politics.
    A MA in Politics is possibly a very bad qualification for REAL Politics. The great danger is a generation of political “professionals” who would be equally at home in more than one Party.
    As the late great Pete Seeger might have sung ….”and they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same” (M Reynolds)

  • Charles_Gould

    Young candidates don’t necessarily attract the young. Good articulate candidates can.

    Young people can be surprisingly conservative. Sometimes life experience is needed to see the injustices of the system and the need for change. Vote for change: vote SDLP.

    SDLP have great young candidates. I think they are attracted by the labour values in many cases.

  • sean treacy

    The stoops must have the biggest collection of young fogies on this island.

  • ayeYerMa

    I would be considered young, yet I don’t think young people should be involved in politics directly. We have far too many career politicians already, and need more people in politics after experience in the real world, rather than coming out with naive student ideologies.

    What we have in Northern Ireland is far too many politicians. We need a cull for quality. I say, scrap Stormont elections entirely and let Westminster politicians sit in Stormont on NI issues, and travel to Westminster for national issues (obviously, would need some alignment with Westminster on when certain issues are discussed, but would be a good solution to the “West Lothian question” if replicated across the UK).

  • We had an 18-year old candidate in the Oxfordshire County Council elections last year.

    As for Pete Seeger, not all look the same. Peggy Seeger now lives in Oxford, where at 77 she wrote and performed a song to save a local swimming pool (, and joined the Green Party. (Labour are closing it down to build a new one in a Labour-voting ward.)

  • Charles_Gould


    There are certainly a lot of poor politicians at stormont. It is relatively easy to tell them apart: the weak MLAs hold up a sheet of paper and read, even for a question. Someone else perhaps wrote it. They read out their speech, clutching their paper for dear life, in the dread they might have to think on their feet.

    The idea you might memorise a speech or speak with minimal notes is apparently not one that occurs to the weak ones.

    I think the professionalisation of politics is well underway. I am not too unhappy about that. More articulate people would help stormont.

    Conall McDevitt was one of the few very articulate ones. He might be seen as professional…. Be he did have real SDLP values too.

  • sean treacy

    Why would Irish politicians travel to England to discuss”national issues”. Would Dublin not be the place for that?

  • sean treacy

    Conall didn’t sound too articulate on TV the night he resigned.An incoherent ramble and then cryin like a wain !

  • Coll Ciotach

    I would not even consider giving anyone under 35 a vote, because I am old and grumpy and prefer to go with someone who is as old and grumpy and cynical as I am. Besides what young person could be bothered – far better ways to waste your youth.

  • notimetoshine

    I dread the idea of young politicians, likely they will end up as career politicians sucking on the public teat, only chosen by their parties at that age as a misguided sop to appeal to younger people.

    Look at the front benches of labour, the libdems and the conservatives, chock full of career ‘professional’ politicians. Causes a real disconnect with the electorate.

    I would also say that the guys I went to school/uni with who were really into politics and have gone on to be involved in political parties tend to be really doctrinaire, think of the cliché of rapid lefties in universities. They may not be the best choice at all for sensible reasoned representation.

    Give me an older articulate candidate with life experience and realism.

  • Mr Treacy,
    We have some high calibre old fogeys in SDLP …I hope I am one.

    Mr Newman,
    I dont know who “we” in Oxfordshire are. But I believe one local party here had two 18 year olds in the 2011 Locals.

  • Charles_Gould


    Stephen Agnew is young. But I think he is a good addition to the assembly. So too D McKay, M H Durkan,C McDevitt (sadly gone), J McAllister, and so on.

    One of the things CMcDevitt used to say was that the attitudes in the assembly were last generation’s, but today’s problems need tomorrow’s attitudes.

  • notimetoshine

    Well if CMcDevitt really meant what he said why was he a member of a party (like them all in the assembly possibly with the exception of NI21/Alliance) that is steeped in the last generations problems and attitudes?

  • Coll Ciotach

    If todays problems need tomorrows attitudes why bother going in today – what drivel some people come out with in the desire to impress us.

  • quality

    Coll Ciotach

    It’s like he raided the waste paper bin after an Obama speech writing session.

    Co-opting MLAs is a curious thing. Sinn Féin putting forward a young woman who (if I remember) hadn’t yet finished university was hilarious. A relief they have no real powers other than high hedges etc eh?

  • Reader

    sean tracey: Why would Irish politicians travel to England to discuss”national issues”. Would Dublin not be the place for that?
    Well, if a politician wanted to discuss the tax rate that applies across the UK – and therefore in Belfast – then Westminster is the place to be.
    However, supposing you are using a different interpretation of “national” (were you unaware that AyeYerMa is a unionist?) then the discussion could realistically take place either (1) in the pub or (2) at a meeting of one of the north-south bodies [wherever, whenever and if-ever they take place]

  • David’s article is very much about engaging young people in the political process but, as a few have mentioned, there is an interesting question in NI about what young candidates can actually do to deliver once elected.

    I’ve observed a number of young council candidates from various parties on Twitter and Facebook and it seems like many of them have yet to establish a career or an expertise in any particular area. Some of the candidates I’ve observed are currently at University and running in their second election already!

    It is completely possible for a young person to have strong, articulate and well-informed views on particular issues (NI Youth Parliament a great example of this), but holding these views and having the ability to articulate them does not necessarily translate into being an effective legislator or representative of your constituency.

    Like many, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of the career politician. I would prefer that MLAs and Councillors bring with them a background or some experience in a particular area that has helped them develop the capacity to understand the issues that they will be legislating on, to be able to work effectively with opponents and compromise where necessary for the greater good, and to relate to the individuals that they represent. I don’t think that the absence of a life outside politics necessarily prevents you from being able to do these things, but I do believe that it is a huge asset. If nothing else, it gives you that perspective on the world outside the confines of your own party. If you do nothing else with your life, from your formative years onwards, but work for Sinn Fein, the DUP, the SDLP etc., how can you reasonably be able to understand the views of those with whom you disagree? How are you to be expected to see where compromise and conciliation really are the only way forward? Many people who join parties at a young age often have an uncompromising and almost fanatic view of their party, never realising that it is impossible for them to be right about everything or to have the solution to every problem.

    I firmly believe in the right of these individuals to run for office, and I believe much of the responsibility lies with us in who we choose to represent us (although easier said than done in NI). I also believe that it is certainly possible that a 21 year old could turn out to be a good legislator, however on balance I don’t think it is probable. I believe that a career of some sort before politics (be it in the public, private, voluntary sector – in whatever capacity – as long as it is outside of your own party) gives you the life experience, skills and perspective that are so essential in being an effective public representative.

    I am entirely sceptical about anyone aged 18-25 that I see running for office, straight out of University, and I don’t believe that it is a good thing for parties to encourage this and create ‘cookie-cutter’ public representatives in order to ensure a strong and focussed party. However, the more people from the 25-40 bracket who start to move from successful careers into politics (for a spell), the better.

  • Charles_Gould

    Why would anyone 21-40 who is successful go into politics?

  • Reader

    Charles_Gould: Why would anyone 21-40 who is successful go into politics?
    Excellent pension schemes.

  • Charles_Gould


    He He. But seriously a successful person would not be attracted to politics. If you look at the people who went into politics mid career, it is quite not the successful. There are some exceptions — for example the Tory MP Rory Stewart, or the Labour MP Tristram Hunt. Both are impressive speakers. But these are unusual cases.

  • Charles_Gould

    I think what I said was a little harsh.

    There is no shame in feeling your career isn’t what you hoped for, and turning to politics as a result. Or finding that your career has come to an end for whatever reason and then turning to a political career. So we sometimes see ex-military people, or ex-business people. I suppose its true that there are a couple of QCs in the Stormont Chamber, so some people who are successful do move into politics. Not many succesful businessmen, though again the Mayor of Belfast is a highly successful businessman.

    So, what I have said does need to be qualified. I just think that if you have a successful career it would be quite a sacrifice to go into politics.

  • The Raven

    There’s a candidate in my own new council area standing in the next council elections in his early-twenties. I am singularly unimpressed. I’ll say nothing more so there is no danger of identification – but he has no work experience; he has no life experience; he hasn’t travelled; he just puts out lots of press releases. I want a bit more. I’m not trashing youth. Just youthful arrogance. Don’t get that mixed up with youthful desire for change. I just want that same youthfulness to know what it’s talking about.

    Anyway….this is probably just the ramblings of someone who is realising that youth is past him. Casting a jealous eye on those with more years and better knees.

    Worth throwing something else out though: I understand that my new council will have someone standing who may be the near side of 90 should he finish his term. Anybody got a problem with that…?

  • derrydave

    No problem with pensioners being on the council – as long as they are able to do the job and attract the requisite votes, then they should continue to use their experience to hopefully do ggod and give back to society. I do have to admit to having concerns over people barely out of their teens standing for election – what possible life experience can these people bring to the role ? seems faintly absud really.

  • quality


    In NI, the earning potential for being an MLA outstrips most other professionals a younger person could go into (assuming you stay at ‘home’).

    Even at Sinn Féin’s average industrial wage, Megan Fearon earns significantly more than her peers – either working in retail post-uni waiting for an opportunity, or even ones who get grad schemes in Belfast.

    I assume the great hope for a university graduate who is set on staying at home and wants to earn £25,000ish is politics or the civil service graduate scheme (not sure that even still recruits in NI with any regularity?)

  • quality


    Modern politics prizes youth. I say this as a ‘young’ person (well under 30), rather than someone in the midst of a midlife crisis.

    There’s an idea that once the current generation of politicians is weeded out, it’ll all be ok. Ignoring the fact that the next generation of professional politicians (and due to co-option this is far more acute than other local governments) is just as brainwashed and even less capable.

    Have you ever had the misfortune to be in the presence of one of our party’s youth wings? Terrifying.

  • son of sam

    Just one Q C at the moment in Stormont ;the redoubtable Jim Allister.There are however a number of Junior barristers.Alban Mc Guinness Peter Weir and Nigel Dodds come to mind.Arlene Foster and Alex Attwood were solicitors.I’d imagine most Q C’s at the moment would be taking a big pay cut by entering politics.

  • Charles_Gould

    Quality, as successful lawyer, accountant, economist, business person, engineer, … More rewarding than politics.

  • Red Cortina

    The youth wings of political parties are extremely embarrassing as ‘quality’ pointed out. Even worse is the youth wings in the digital age. The spiel of nonsense and bickering is awful, rather than turning people on to politics it is extremely off putting.

    In terms of young people as candidates, it’s quite clear that these are, in the main, ‘second candidates’ to pick up straggling votes that will ultimately transfer to the main candidate to get them over the line. Or they may be running in an area where they have no chance of getting as seat but are glad of the experience, ready to step up in a safer constituency the next time round. But largely it’s a show by the parties to say ‘look we have young people too!’

  • Charles_Gould

    Not enough ethnic minority and women candidates, either. Or any openly gay ones in stormont.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Why would Irish politicians travel to England to discuss”national issues”. Would Dublin not be the place for that?

    Didn’t Connor Murphy of Sinn Féin discuss Irish issues at the Conservative Conference, or were they British in his view?

  • Icky

    Just noticed this thread. Have to agree with quality. My experience of most individuals in the youth wings of the parties is that they are using politics to boost their own profiles, and that seems to be of more importance to them than actual political policies. I shudder at the thought of some of them becoming elected representatives one day.
    Saying that, it would be nice to see more young people (especially females) get involved in politics. Particularly if they know what their own politics are before they join a party, regardless of their background. The amount of flip flopping you see from certain individuals involved in youth wings of parties on social media is ridiculous, and just shows that their politics have not yet matured. Their thoughts are simply guided by populism.

  • David Crookes

    Whatever party you belong to, don’t touch any persons, especially if they are graduates of a “youth parliament”, whose otherwise vacuous minds are filled with self-importance.

    I feel sorry for young people. They are fed with positive self-esteem tripe all the way through school. Then they watch episode after episode of The Apprentice. On top of that they hear every kind of loser telling them how marvellous they are in general before they’ve done anything in particular. Finally, they look at our present lot of MLAs, and assume that they could do better.

    Hard to argue with them on that last count.