Why do so few young people in Jersey vote?

Few people in Jersey vote. In fact, we are the worst performing country in the OECD for voter turnout. Only 36% of the Island turned out in 2011, putting us behind the likes of Mexico and Estonia for civic engagement.

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But the problem is particularly acute amongst the younger demographic. In 2011, only 16% of Islanders between the ages of 16-34 cast a vote, and I bet the percentage was even lower for 16-25 year olds.

Why so? I won’t revisit the standard reasons given for general voter apathy in Jersey. It is probably true that factors such as the complexity of our political system, the lack of party politics and an honest disinterest in all things political play a strong role in keeping voters, both young and old, away from the ballot box.

My focus will instead be one of the key problems that I believe specifically deters young people from voting: the lack of quality political education.

But before discussing this, a disclaimer. I recognise that lots of young people will choose not to vote regardless of what the States does, having better, more exciting things to do with their time. I still think, however, that there is a core of interested young people in Jersey who would be more politically active given a more supportive civic environment.

And let’s be clear. This is an issue that deserves our attention.

The democratic habits learned at a young age carry through into early adult life. Even if you don’t think politics should be the concern of a Jersey teenager now, that teenager will soon be entering the world of work, paying taxes, looking to find accommodation and using Social Services.

Encouraging civic engagement at a young age will support the health of our democracy for tomorrow.

The key problem I see is that young people are unlikely to engage with something that they do not understand.

Currently, the workings of local politics are taught as a minute fraction of the curriculum in PSHE lessons, which in turn occur only once a week. When students reach sixth-form, the age at which politics is becoming increasingly relevant to their lives, there is no formal provision whatsoever for learning about local politics within the hours of education.

As a result, the average student in Jersey probably knows more about the US political system from watching House of Cards than they do about the workings of the States.

This has to change. The Education and Home Affairs Scrutiny Panel conducted a report into Political Education back in 2010, but nothing significant seems to have come of it. Sporadic school councils and occasional States initiatives such as the annual Youth Assembly aren’t enough for preparing young people to be active, well-informed citizens in Jersey.

Here are some recommendations for change.

In the classroom, the PSHE curriculum needs to be reformed to give more quality time to local politics. The States should be aiming for students to have a good grasp of how our political system works by the age of 16. Senators, Deputies, Constables, Scrutiny, the Council of Ministers: young people should know how it all fits together and what they can do to lobby and influence those in power.

In sixth-form, students need more than their current zero hours on local government. And if that’s too much to ask, the States should at least establish a permanent Youth Assembly (as voted for by Jersey students in 2011), rather than the current annual affair. The Youth Assembly gets students directly involved in politics and its permanent establishment is a short-term solution that would instantly increase civic engagement.

Improving political education is just one of the important ways of increasing turnout amongst the younger demographic. But this article is merely the beginning of a discussion that the people of Jersey need to have. Tackling voter apathy needs to start from the bottom-up and, as the statistics show, this is an issue on which the States is currently failing.

This article was originally published at http://www.change.je, an independent project that seeks to build and engage the political power of young people to achieve progressive change in Jersey. The PDF of the article is here: http://change.je/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Why-do-so-few-young-people-vote.pdf

John Bercow addresses the Durham Union Society

John Bercow MP, the Speaker of the House of Commons, gave a rousing address at the Durham Union Society in the first week of Michaelmas term.

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In front of a packed Debating Chamber with the bells of Durham Cathedral ringing outside, Mr Bercow spoke passionately about his work as Speaker and the importance of the institution of Parliament, displaying an eloquence and oratorical flair befitting of his title.

Mixing amusing anecdotes with a comprehensive discussion of his job, the Speaker likened his role in the House to that of a “referee in a football match, or, perhaps more fittingly, the headteacher of a school.”

He spoke of his efforts to create a “culture change” in Parliament and to make sure that it “best works for the benefit of the British people”, achieved through measures such as improving the conduct of Prime Minister’s Questions and giving greater parliamentary time to backbench business.

On the frequently questioned issue of his relationship with his constituents, Mr Bercow drew a parallel with Government Ministers, saying that he could not speak in the House on their behalf but he still maintained correspondences with them and addressed their concerns.

In addition to his discussions of Parliament, the Speaker drew frequent laughs from the audience with a selection of excellent impressions of famous politicians, ranging from a spot-on William Hague to an aptly haughty and powerful Margaret Thatcher.

The address was then followed by a lively question and answer session, with students present doing their utmost to draw the Speaker into commenting upon party political issues.

Robert, from Hatfield College, asked Mr Bercow which party he thought was the worst behaved in Parliament.

Responding even-handedly, the Speaker said that all the parties were as bad as each other but that female MPs were certainly the best behaved.

Dermot, from University College, questioned Mr Bercow on whether he thought he would be calling more UKIP MPs to speak in the House after the next general election.

The Speaker commended the ingenuity of the question but responded frankly and said that he did not.

On the question of the media, the Speaker admitted that he took very little notice of what was written about him in the papers, but that he enjoyed reading parliamentary sketches.

Mr Bercow also spoke combatively in defence of his wife, Sally, acknowledging that she was a controversial figure in the Tory press but he said that she had every right to express her own views.

The Speaker was thanked with rapturous applause at the end of his speech and signed autographs for attendees.

French, politics and chaos in the Ivory Coast

This summer I spent a memorable week in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast participating in the 6th ‘Parlement Francophonie des Jeunes’, a youth parliament for French-speaking countries, with participants from as far afield as Laos, Lebanon and Togo.

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Representing my home island of Jersey alongside another student and a local politician, it was simultaneously a week of chaos, tropical weather, maddening African bureaucracy, life-long friendships and fascinating political discussion.

Our conference kicked off with an opening ceremony at the Assemblée Nationale of the Côte d’Ivoire, presided over by Guillaume Soro, the President of the Assembly.

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Reaching the Assemblée by bus proved an eye-opening experience and revealed a town in the process of post civil-war reconstruction.

The sign ‘chantier’ frequently appeared amidst dilapidated, mucky buildings and there was a chaotic buzz of grimy orange Toyota taxis battling for the road against trucks laden with building materials.

We jumped straight into our committee work after the opening ceremony and I was working in the ‘Commission de la Cooperation et du Développement’, with a specific focus on the role of the youth as a force of development.

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I was nervous at first and found it difficult to keep up with the quick-fire French spoken in a plethora of accents but I soon got the hang of it and was able to make some significant contributions to our work.

Our aim as a committee was to devise a resolution that took a holistic view of what it means to ‘develop’ a country, looking beyond the merely material and including considerations of sustainability and investment in human skills.

The most interesting problem we discussed in light of these considerations was the ‘brain drain’ – where developing countries invest heavily in the education of their youth only to see those students depart for the developed world after their studies in pursuit of greater opportunities.

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At the end of the week we reviewed the resolutions of the other committees, which had considered issues such as the penalisation of the transmission of HIV and the role of parliaments today, and proposed amendments, before voting on their passage. These resolutions were then presented to the senior ‘Assocation Parlementaire de la Francophonie’ (APF) conference.

But whilst the politics of the week was a resounding success, our experiences around the conference were frankly chaotic.

Our troubles began at Abidjan airport when the immigration officials retained our passports without explanation and ushered us through to the baggage area.

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After a couple of hours of remonstrating with a variety of ear-piece wearing, gun-wielding men in numerous different military uniforms, we were informed that our passports were to be held at the police station pending the receipt of our visas.

Eventually we retrieved our passports from this police station later in the week but only after much haggling, stress and a decent quantity of West African francs.

And if getting into Abidjan hadn’t been easy, we were well prepared for the trials of getting out.

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First came the unforgettable journey from the Assemblée Nationale to the airport in a ‘government car’, essentially a flash Mercedes with its hazard lights on, which saw us negotiate the eccentricities of the Abidjan rush hour, including goats, men selling enormous paddling pools and cars mounting the central reservation of the motorway.

Second came the flight cancellation, consigning us to another night in Abidjan and the necessity of boarding one of those ill-fated orange Toyotas as we attempted to catch the next plane to Brussels.

After all this and many hours of travelling I was astounded to be safely reunited with my luggage at Heathrow Airport and never have I been happier to set foot on Jersey soil.

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Overall, including all of the drama, the PFJ was a great life experience where I improved my French, learnt an enormous amount about other cultures and made many friends for the future.

I came to appreciate the importance of the Francophonie and the power of the French language, and it was an honour to represent the youth of Jersey at such a conference.

Eurozone crisis – it just got personal

Until now, the Eurozone crisis for me has been a vague, distant phenomenon. I would turn on my TV to see mass protests in Athens, numerous summits between EU leaders and hear abstract talk of financial markets and rising yields on Greek government bonds.

Yes, there was a crisis going on, but it was all comfortably remote and happening in slow motion. Whilst I could feel sympathy for the austerity-stricken Greeks, I struggled to appreciate why this crisis really mattered. What was all the fuss about? How did any of this affect the average person in the street? Ultimately, who cares?

Well now I know. At a personal level, this crisis now has a human face.

Meet Enrique. He lives in Algeciras in southern Spain, the largest city in the Bay of Gibraltar. He’s my Grandpa. This week he discovered that the municipal tax on his house has increased by 50%. He fears that taxes on rubbish collection will also rise. ‘The crisis is reaching people with low incomes’, he tells me. Enrique also saw the value of his savings dive as the share price of Santander Bank fell, a consequence of growing uncertainty over the safety of Spanish banks.

In other words, he’s getting poorer. And at root, this is the tragedy of the crisis in the eurozone. Citizens of European countries, and it’s beginning to happen in Britain too, are having to pay higher taxes and endure lower living standards so that their governments can begin to pay off their debts. It’s pretty simple: governments are choosing to spend less and tax more to try to appease bond markets that take fright at the first signs of economic mismanagement.

Things look particularly bad for Spain because their fourth-biggest bank, Bankia, is asking for a €19 billion bailout from the Spanish government. Bankia’s balance sheet is weighed down with toxic debts following Spain’s burst property bubble in 2008. Spain’s bailout fund isn’t yet big enough to save Bankia, so it will have to go to the financial markets to borrow the rest. But with investors demanding interest rates of almost 7% for holding Spanish government bonds, the cost of this bailout is looking eye-wateringly high.

Indeed, it was borrowing costs of 7% that forced both Ireland and Portgual to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund to seek bailouts in the past. There’s now a real chance that Spain could be next.

And whilst these question marks hang over Spain’s financial credibility, investors will continue to withdraw capital from the country. A record 66.4 billion euros was moved out of Spain in March alone. This lack of confidence means further falling share prices for banks like Santander and further troubles for people like my Grandpa.

So what is to be done? How to end this seemingly never-ending crisis? In general terms, the answers to saving the euro would seem to lie in the following: greater fiscal integration, a degree of debt mutualisation and the political will to stomach long periods of depressed living standards.

On the point of fiscal integration, the euro zone area needs to start acting like a single country with a centralized approach to taxation and spending. Different countries with different economies pursuing different tax and spend policies but united by a single currency was an idea doomed to failure. Europe needs to become more federal. Getting voters across the continent to agree to this is another matter, but it has to be done.

Meanwhile, richer euro zone countries like Germany need to be prepared to stand behind the debts of the likes of Spain and Greece. The German people may not like it but it’s the price they’ll have to pay for saving the single currency. And they should see that it’s a price worth paying given that the success of the German manufacturing industry is in large built upon the favourable price of the euro relative to other currencies. If they were forced to revert to a strong deutschmark, their exports would most likely slump. So Angela Merkel needs to concede ground and accept some form of debt mutualisation.

Will any of this actually happen? Based on past form, you’d say not. But Spain’s problems have given the crisis a new momentum. If the euro is going to be fixed, it’s going to have to happen sooner rather than later.

But whatever happens next, this is now personal. It was previously easy to overlook the fact that this crisis touches real people with real plans and real interests. Spain’s troubles, however, and my Grandpa’s in particular, have changed that. This crisis really does hurt the person in the street.

And in this globalized 21st century, a butterfly flapping its wings in Madrid stands to create an economic hurricane the world over. Britain is very much in the firing line. Unless Europe’s leaders act quickly to implement a lasting solution to the continent’s problems, the human cost is only going to get worse.

Published in The Bubble, Durham’s online student magazine – 5th June 2012

http://www.thebubble.org.uk/politics/eurozone-crisis-it-just-got-personal#!page=2