Balloting Blair’s babies

Britain’s electoral process is set for a repackage once the results of a government study into how best to engage young people are known. Such is the level of concern about youth apathy that Net and mobile phone voting are being tested, and id

Politics is dull. At least that’s the consensus. Apart from the occasional sex or financial scandal, the Houses of Parliament are seen as a bastion of boredom. To illustrate the depth of apathy, 66 per cent of people in a MORI poll found the last general election campaign uninteresting.

But, dull as it may be, open political discourse and free elections are integral to a democracy and their maintenance one of the reasons behind the current “war on terrorism” – which is why there is growing concern over the lack of interest, particularly among young people, in the electoral process.

The last general election in 2001 had a voter turnout of 59.4 per cent, the lowest since 1918. And a MORI poll for the Electoral Commission found only 39 per cent of people aged between 18 and 24 bothered to vote. Worryingly, the downturn seems to be rapid. In the 1997 election 71.4 per cent of the public voted – and, at the time, that was a new post-war low.

The concern is that in a technology-savvy society, politics is behind the times. Developments in e-mail, the Internet, interactive TV and mobile phone technology are, observers say, making the traditional process of voting inside a cubicle in a church hall or school portakabin seem not only inconvenient but unnecessary.

New electoral netiquette

It seems people are looking for easier ways to place their vote: in the last general election, the number of postal votes almost doubled from 738,614 in the 1997 election to 1.4 million. And many are now asking why we can’t also vote over the phone and Internet.

The Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions is trying to address the issue. Two weeks ago it announced a &£3.5m trial of mobile phone, interactive television and Internet voting to take place in certain regions for the May local government elections.

The trials are the first step in the Government’s commitment to having an e-enabled voting system for elections taking place after 2006.

The Electoral Commission has also been charged with the job of finding ways to engage young people in politics. The commission was set up by Parliament in 2000 to look at ways of promoting awareness of the electoral process. Last year it launched a consultation paper – Election 2001 – which asks what lessons can be learned from the last election.

Its research suggests that introducing hi-tech ways to vote would be a good starting point. The commission’s MORI poll found that 43 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 would use the Internet to vote, and 42 per cent said they would vote by telephone – six per cent higher than the average. More than half – 53 per cent – support scrapping polling booths altogether in favour of these new methods.

The commission is planning to talk to youth agencies about how politicians should communicate with young voters and is currently conducting research – to be completed in May – to establish why young people feel disconnected from politics.

To raise awareness of the May local elections, the commission has launched a national poster and radio campaign this month, devised by St Luke’s, which targets 18- to 24-year-olds and asks them to reconsider the value of their vote.

Electoral Commission director of policy Nicole Smith says: “We need to know whether it is the age-old problem of people not being interested in politics because they’re young, or if something in particular is happening which they will take with them as they get older.”

Smith believes there may be a link between the speed and accessibility of new technology and people’s reluctance to go to a polling station to vote, and says: “A lot of people don’t work close to where they live, so the system of voting in a polling station where we live does not fit into the way we lead our lives.”

This comes as no surprise to Ian Millner, managing partner of youth marketing company Iris. Young people, he says, view going to a polling booth to vote as an inconvenience, even if it is only once every four years.

Pop-aganda

The Pop Idol/Big Brother culture, it seems, is starting to take hold. More than 8.7 million people voted in the final of Pop Idol. Of these, 450,000 people voted online and 60 per cent of online visitors were under 25, according to NetValue.

“Young people today are impulsive,” says Millner. “When they decide they want to do something – such as vote – they want to do it straight away.”

The Internet and mobile phones are potentially good means of communicating with young people, says Millner. “Young people use their mobile phones and the Internet to organise their social lives. They like to receive messages because it makes them feel popular, so they don’t consider advertising through these means a violation of their privacy.”

Politicians are waking up to the fact that using new and traditional advertising media could be the key to gaining the youth vote. Youth marketing agency B’lowfish 24 is working with an undisclosed Labour MP in the North-east on ways to appeal to young voters.

B’lowfish managing director Jason Van-Haeften says politicians need to focus on issues rather than party politics. “Sending out block text messages isn’t the answer, you need to make people aware of issues and get them to respond. Young people won’t go to an MP’s surgery but they may send a text message asking for more information after seeing a poster.”

Other proposals to engage young people in politics are emerging. Last week the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising responded to the Electoral Commission’s consultation paper by suggesting that television advertising by the political parties should be allowed on commercial TV, backed up by party political broadcasts on the BBC (MW last week).

IPA director of media affairs Geoff Russell says: “Television ads would provide clarity and simplicity because they would only be 30 or 60 seconds long.”

The sort of message which is sent out is also important. In 1997 the Ministry of Sound launched a government-backed cinema campaign called Use Your Vote to promote the general election. Chris Powell, chairman of BMP DDB, which created the campaign, says the shock approach used in the ads works best.

“You mustn’t talk down to young people,” he explains. “The Ministry of Sound campaign worked because it made people irate.”

But Powell disagrees with the IPA’s submission to the Electoral Commission. He has submitted his own proposal, arguing that ads should be allowed on commercial channels but should be aired free, with each party given equal air time. “Allowing parties to pay for air time would be disastrous. The party with the biggest budget would win the election,” he says.

But there is a more fundamental problem why young people feel disfranchised – they can’t relate to politicians and don’t understand the political process. The Government has already acknowledged this and, from autumn, social studies will be put on the curriculum for 11- to 16-year-olds. The syllabus will cover the voting process and the way legislation is created. But a generation of school leavers has already missed out on this opportunity.

The Labour Party, which sent out text messages to its members before the last general election encouraging them to vote, acknowledges it needs to learn more. A spokesman says: “There is a challenge for us to reach and engage the public, that’s something Charles Clarke [the government party chair] has recognised. We’ve got to get it right and mustn’t patronise people.”

New research into political participation from Stirling University for the Economic and Social Research Council has found there is a gulf between people’s interest in politics and their interest in politicians.

Research team leader Dr Brian McNair says: “People are interested in politics but are fed up with politicians. The way politics is conducted makes people feel excluded. They enjoy programmes where politicians are put on the spot but it often confirms their worst fears. It’s a problem for politicians to address.”

Connecting with the disconnected

Smith agrees that fundamental problems with the political system must be addressed: “There is a sense of disconnection. It’s not that people don’t care about issues, but they feel they can’t make a difference.

“People lack information about the voting process, and it’s not a process [young] people feel comfortable with. In addition, young people sense that politicians only care about them at election time.”

Johnny Hornby, a partner of Clemmow Hornby Inge – who worked on the Labour Party account while at TBWA/London, says politics have become uninteresting for the public as the lines between the political parties’ ideologies have blurred. He is also concerned that reports of MPs spending only short spells attending parliamentary debates is making the situation worse.

He says: “This is an issue which won’t be solved by text messaging. People need to see that their vote can play a role in making change and that’s why devolution is important.”

Political parties and the Electoral Commission are only now starting to learn what they can do to relate to young people. While new technology and more sophisticated advertising will go some way to helping, people will need more of an incentive to vote.

Thought-provoking advertising which addresses key issues – such as the minimum wage, student grants and even beer prices – rather than political ideologies is needed. Demystifying the political process, along with grassroots changes to Westminster, may also need to take place before young people find Tony Blair as interesting as Pop Idol winner Will Young.

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