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22 April, 2003

Young people are 'engaged sceptics' reveals study of virgin voters

Young voters in Scotland and Wales are less interested in politics than those in England, despite having their own regional assemblies, according to the first large-scale British study to focus on new voters, published today.

However, the research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found that all those who will be eligible to vote for the first time in the forthcoming Scottish Parliament, Welsh National Assembly and UK local elections on May 1 are all actually much less apathetic than their stereotypical image would suggest.

The study found that in general young Brits were sufficiently interested in politics to wipe out the myth that they were apathetic and politically lazy - the report concludes that they have a clear interest in a range of political issues. A picture emerges from the report of a British youth keen to play a more active role in the political process, but who are turned off by politicians and the political parties.

When asked about politics in general, 56 of respondents replied that they had 'some or more' interest in the topic, compared with 13 who had 'none at all'. Nearly half of the young people who took part 48 said they were interested in the General Election held in June 2001 17 had no interest at all. The research found a majority 54 said they would discuss politics with family and friends in the future.

Researchers Dr Matt Henn and Mark Weinstein of the Nottingham Graduate School for Social and Policy Research conducted a postal survey of 705 'attainers' 18 and 19 year olds eligible to vote for the first time, focusing on their views and levels of attachment to the democratic process in general and party politics in particular. The survey was designed to yield a representative sample from across Scotland, Wales and England, with respondents chosen at random from the electoral register.

Dr Henn, the school's acting-head, said of the findings:

'Young people in England are statistically more likely than those living elsewhere to be interested in politics, have more confidence in their knowledge and understanding of political affairs, more satisfied with the way in which democracy works, and that voting can help to change the way that Britain is governed.

'In contrast, young people in Wales appear to be less politically connected and enthused by the workings of British democracy.

'It is surprising that there appears to be no appreciably higher support for the democratic process in Scotland and Wales, given the additional layers of government there following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.'

Yet the study has uncovered a group who indicate that 'politics' is remote and inaccessible, with few channels open to them to influence the political process. As a result they feel politically powerless.

Mark Weinstein explained that all the evidence from the study pointed towards a group of young people who were interested in matters 'political', yet considered themselves at a distance from where the key decisions affecting their lives are taken.

He said: 'In tracing their first participation in the 2001 General Election, we have uncovered a deep antipathy to formal professional politics amongst first time voters. It is clear who they hold responsible for this, the political parties. Politicians are clearly regarded as a group with self-serving interests, in whom attainers have little faith or trust.

'Those charged with governing on their behalf are perceived as self-serving, unrepresentative and unresponsive to the demands of young people. The conclusion we draw from these findings is that young people today are engaged sceptics.'

The report states that if this generation is to become more politically engaged, the main political parties must take a more positive and proactive approach in their attempts to connect with young people.


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