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Digital Democracy discussion with Kenny Imafidon

The Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy heard the thoughts of Youth Policy Advisor, Kenny Imafidon, whilst at the British Youth Council Convention in Brighton on Saturday 18 October 2014. Kenny is author of the Kenny Reports, a strong campaigner for getting people engaged in politics and votes at 16. 

Below is a summary of Kenny's key points as well as some relevant sections from his latest report, entitled: 'Is “politics” for young people?'

“We need new faces talking about politics”

Kenny strongly believes that more diversity is needed in Parliament in order that Parliament represents the country it serves. Young people like most of the population cannot relate to politicians. The current political sphere is stagnated and needs to take a new direction, include new people and new faces.

In his report, Kenny writes:

“The young people I have tried to inspire to vote, many of whom are my friends who are disengaged from politics, have always repeatedly said to me: “politics is not for me and why should I vote?” They believe that politics is all about a bunch of old, predominately white men from private school backgrounds, jeering at one another in Parliament like kids in primary school and at the same time making out-of-touch laws that favour the privileged few and not the public at large […]

Some may say that this is not a fair representation of what parliamentary politics is about, and of course there is much more to politics than can be observed from the outside. However, many in our society who are disengaged with party politics only know as much as they see on TV at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons and sadly that is the image. Many Britons look at Parliament with the view that it is out-of-touch and that a majority of the people who represent us are not like you or me, and all very much cut from the same cloth […]

"Parliament should work with young people or organisations who can already relate to other young people to get key messages out to them."

In his report, Kenny uses the example of Rock the Vote’s engagement with young people:

“Rock the Vote engages with young people by using tools such as music, popular culture and technology to mobilise young people to vote and take part in the process and make a change for the betterment of the younger generation. Rock the Vote has used a variety of campaign tactics that can be implemented here in this country, ranging from traditional tactics such as phone calls and canvassing to modern tactics such as advertisements, social media, emailing and mobile apps. In the UK, it is rare to hear of young people who have been contacted by institutions and campaigners through social media or through mobile, to raise awareness of the political process of this country. This form of contact implemented by Rock the Vote in America can help to increase the levels of voter registration in our country, if it is executed correctly in the UK.”

“Better education, communication and information about politics is essential”

The political system is presented in such a complex and boring way that it becomes a waste of time and energy to try and get to grips with.  Better education, communication and information about politics is essential to getting more young people interested and participating in politics. Young people need to know that they can participate in politics in countless ways and that there is more to politics than voting at the ballot box. For this to happen young people need to be empowered and have a better understanding of politics.

"Engaging with Parliament and politicians feels impossible to most young people."

There’s a big problem with the accessibility of information: the information is there, but it’s not accessible to them. Young people need the key information in a clear language that they understand.

In his report, Kenny talks about the success of the Rock Enrol programme where Bite the Ballot worked with people like Tinie Tempah, Jamal Edwards and Eliza Doolittle to engage young people into politics and get them registered to vote:

“The Rock Enrol programme, co-created by the Cabinet Office and Bite the Ballot consists of 45 minute sessions with young people to bring to life why they should vote. Facilitators do this by using methods like using interactive games which gets the young people to talk about issues that relate to them. The Rock Enrol programme introduces voting to young people and gets them to open up and discuss political issues that affect or are of interest to them. At the end of the Rock Enrol sessions, young people are invited to register on the electoral register as a voter and can do it right there and then.. The programme shows young people that they can make their own decisions; and that by registering to vote, and voting afterwards, they have a chance to have a say and do something about what they care about in society. Conveniently Rock Enrol offers their programme to be incorporated in citizenship curriculum in schools69. Michael Sani, who is one of the co-founders of Bite the Ballot, told me in our interview that young people who were not old enough to register after sessions with Bite the Ballot, have been texting or emailing him as soon as they have turned 16 to tell him that they have just got registered.”

“Make it relevant – young people are interested in issues”

In his report, Kenny writes:

“Young people often do not recognise their own interest in politics, yet when a question is raised in a topical discussion about their feelings toward issues about education, health, crime, politics or social justice, they become fully engaged in the dialogue. Young people are not apathetic to politics they are just apathetic to party politics. Whenever young people are given the genuine opportunity to engage or influence decision-makers they always take it."

Kenny cited a clear example of this with the diverse team of 32 young people who are producing the Kenny report 3, entitled, “personalised politics”. Most of the team, before taking part in the project, were not necessarily interested in politics. However, when they were given the opportunity to influence decision-makers and write about issues that were important to young people like themselves, they suddenly found an interest in politics and found that they could actually create political change.

“It’s Parliament’s responsibility to reach out to young people, in their language. Parliament needs to be more proactive.”

Young people are interested in political issues and spend a large amount of their time online, participating in some form or another.  This activity is not being used or even acknowledged by the central institutions of democracy.

In his report Kenny talks about this further:

“Young people are interested in politics in its wider context and many feel very strongly about the issues that affect them directly in society” […]

Young people are expanding their political engagement through many mediums, from consumer politics and community based protests, to calls for reforms or challenging cuts to youth services. A lot of young people today raise awareness of issues that affect them online through social media. We can see young people being involved in politics informally and making changes internationally over social media, in the Middle East for example, it has been argued that young people ignited the Arab Spring popular movement […]

Studies show that when young people are faced with a genuine opportunity to involve themselves in a meaningful process that offers them a real chance of influence, they do so with enthusiasm and responsibility.[…]

The active involvement of young people in politics will change our democracy for the better by making it more representative, inclusive, and engaging.”

"Digital democracy shouldn’t be a conversation – it should just be."

At the very least, better provision and promotion of information about Parliament and politics through digital channels such as social media can help to reach the “unusual suspects” that are not engaging with politics.

“We need to make politics more easy-going”

In his report, Kenny writes:

“We need to make politics much more easy-going and accessible. This is because too many young people feel like once you are actively interested in politics, you are expected to devote your life to it or people ask for too much from you which you cannot offer. We need to stop making politics seem like a chore. Young people are always talking politics one way or another, whether they are talking about how the prices of transport have been rapidly increasing, or how much their rent has gone up."

“With Party membership in decline, Parliament and UK politics needs to be more entrepreneurial”

The role of Political Parties

Kenny believes that parities need to start selecting a more diverse range of candidates and recruit more ‘unusual suspects’ rather than the usual. Manifestos should also be more accessible.

In his report, Kenny writes:

“A major issue with party politics today, is that party policies and party manifestos are too difficult to read, not just for young people but for many of us in society and maturity is not necessarily the issue. Party policies need to be clear and accessible and able to be read and understood by the reasonable man or woman in the street, not just by the very few politically or economically educated experts."

Further information

The Kenny Report 3 is due to be published in January 2015, the same month as the Digital Democracy Commission report.