Things are changing rapidly in the world of politics. Far-right populism is on the rise all over the world, dark money and big tech companies are meddling with elections and democracies, fake news is everywhere, and the climate crisis rages on.
The situation can seem bleak at times and it’s difficult to know what ‘average Joes’ like you and I can do about it.
Well, we can talk. We need to change the parameters of political conversation in this country. We need to make time to talk openly and honestly about these issues that affect our lives more than we’d probably like to admit.
I’m 22 years old and ever since becoming engaged in politics when I turned 18, I have been baffled and frustrated by people’s aversion to talking about it. Everything related to politics seems like a taboo subject. I’ll never forget the look on my Grandad’s face when I asked him how he voted in the 2016 EU referendum – complete shock and confusion. I remember him telling me when I was a lot younger that asking someone who they voted for is discourteous and intrusive.
Why do younger people seem more ‘loud and proud’ when it comes to their political outlook? Perhaps it’s because they feel the sting of society’s issues, such as student debt, climate change and Brexit, more keenly? This could be due to the so-called ‘Greta Thunberg Effect’ which has triggered political engagement and activism in young people the world over. And the numbers are rising: according to research by Sparks & Honey 60 per cent of Generation Z want to change the world, compared with 39 per cent of millennials.
Contrast this with older voters who can appear to be less willing to discuss their political views, either because they may be more insulated from the worries of getting on the property ladder or dealing with debt or they may be reluctant to engage for fear of ridicule, anger, or worst of all, the silent disappointment they might have to endure from their children and grandchildren. Only by having prudent yet open political discussions can we bridge this old-young divide, something which has been exacerbated by the Brexit debate, and prevent it becoming yet another way to sow division.
Of course, there is a time and place for political discussions. I’ve been guilty on more than one occasion of launching into a full-blown assault on the Murdoch press or a rant on how we now live in an elected dictatorship over the dinner table, making everyone feel uncomfortable. But when we do sit down to talk about politics it’s worth thinking about how we go about it.
Politics can be an exciting topic of conversation (despite what some people think) which can result in passionate debate. This is of course a positive thing, however, it’s easy for a passionate debate to descend into a nasty shouting match. It’s of the utmost importance that we listen carefully to other people’s thoughts and opinions without interrupting them, regardless of whether or not we agree with them, without resorting to or responding to personal attacks. Debating is a skill to be practiced. And it’s worth remembering, especially when debating with family and friends, that most people are coming from the same place; they want what’s best for them, their children and their country.
This leads me on to the issue of social media. Anyone who has spent any amount of time on social media will know just how toxic the debate can quite often be – even young people are turning away from social media, with 63 per cent of British schoolchildren saying they would be happy if social media had never been invented. The relative anonymity of social media results in people saying awful things that they probably wouldn’t ever dream of saying to someone’s face. But regardless of whether they really meant it, or whether they actually thought it through before pressing send, it doesn’t foster meaningful discussions. For this reason, it is best to avoid political debates (if you can even call them that) on social media and restrict them to face-to-face.
Of course, society’s shift towards being open, engaged and educated when it comes to political debate is a slow and cumbersome one.
One thing that could hasten the transition to a society more at ease with healthy political debate would be to teach the UK political system and our political history in secondary school. According to government guidelines, Key Stage 3 and 4 students should be ‘equipped with the skills to think critically and debate political questions’, but there is currently an appalling lack of provision for politics and citizenship education under the current government. Given the fact young people are more likely to support progressive parties, is it any wonder recent Conservative governments have let this slide?
Taking all this into consideration if we want more people to be engaged in politics, especially young people, then we need to dispose of the cautiousness and reluctance that rears its head every time someone brings up politics. We need to have meaningful conversations about meaningful problems in a healthy and constructive manner.
It’s understandable that some people aren’t always in the right place to talk about certain (usually pretty depressing) issues. But we can’t blame them. We shouldn’t ridicule them, we should just talk to them. When we’re talking, things will start to make more sense. Only then can we start to unite against the malevolent intentions of nationalism, populism, the far right and divisive politics in general.
Marcus Cain is a member of Leeds Green Party.