header image

How do young people form political opinions?

A Note by the Director (Ditchley 2007/11)
 
8-9 December 2007
On a wet and blustery winter weekend, Ditchley returned to the subject of young people in political society, five years on from our rather pessimistic assessment of young people’s approach to civic duty and voting.  This time we were concluding a series of conferences on culture and identity, the  ingredients of Britishness, the difficulties of governing in a freer world and the long term impact of the  internet.  We had around the table an excellent variety of professions, nationalities and age groups, with some inspiring presentations from the younger participants in particular on what was changing in the modern world.  The one noticeable lacuna was a full range of politicians. 
The discussion ranged so widely and the issues on the table interconnected with so many others that it might help to set out the questions which really concerned us: 
  • How actively interested are young people in public affairs and the requirements of society?
  • What influences them in forming their views on politics and public issues?
  • What are young people looking for and how do they communicate?
  • What different categories of young people are we talking about?
  • What are the main generational differences in this field?
  • How should politicians, political parties and other decision-makers respond?
Active interest
The conference looked closely at a wide range of well-presented statistics.  Voter turnout was to some extent a problem amongst young people and certain social classes, but participants were clear that this did not equate with public apathy.  There was no hard evidence that young people were any less interested in public affairs and the future of society than previous generations.  The sense of civic duty was just as strong.  Interestingly, it was pointed out that the teaching of civic duty was becoming less intensive in the United States, which many people had regarded as a model in this respect, and growing in the United Kingdom.  Where young people felt disenfranchised because their involvement did not seem to make a difference, it was as much from society as from electoral participation. 
We also had no doubts that young people were deeply interested in global issues, on which a huge amount of material was now freely available.  This often produced an impression, perhaps a justifiable one, that younger people (we were thinking of the generation below 30, though sometimes also of young adults voting for the first time) were inclined to focus on single issues rather than on the complexity of society as a whole.  We also took note that younger people were as prepared to volunteer to help with causes as they ever were.  “Think global, but act local” summed it up well.  But we also took on board that, as one participant put it, “the energy of youth activism tends to be outside the political structure”. 
Influences
We asked where young people derived their sense of identity from, noting that multiple identities were more common in a globalised world.  We found no reason to believe that parents, teachers, the media, peers and other typical role models were any less important than in previous eras.  The context was nevertheless changing in important ways.  For instance, sources of information were now much more diverse;  and they were usable in very individual ways, which reflected the atomisation of society.  Young people, like anybody else, could choose to go only to comfortable sources of information and thus think that things were fine in their particular world (or, conversely, that things were uniquely bad in their particular world).  With marriage coming later and a sense of independence and economic self-sufficiency coming earlier, young people had a longer span to explore and develop their own philosophies of life before the weight of material responsibilities constrained them.  Yet, with this wider choice for individuals, it might be that much more common to feel how hard it was to make a personal difference, leading to a “why bother?” reaction.  The ebb and flow of these conflicting influences, not all that well analysed and sometimes aggravated by the media, needed some quite careful unpacking. 
What are young people looking for?
Most participants agreed that, like their predecessors, today’s young people wanted to change the world for the better.  They wished to make a direct difference and, being used to much more direct forms of communication nowadays, they wanted to see this desire responded to.  Young people were handling well the interplay between individual and collective and mostly wanted to promote community solutions to shared problems.  On the whole, they had a low regard for the capacity of politicians and political parties to respond to ordinary people’s concerns.  Adept at communicating amongst themselves, they were turned off by non-communication from others.  Low trust in the political class was paralleled by low trust in journalists.  This was perhaps both a symptom and a cause of a feeling amongst young people that they would have to do things for themselves.  Nevertheless, while thinking globally and acting locally, they were also aware that effective power was concentrated at the national level.  This produced a frustration that local action might change too little, global action had no democratic structure, but national action – the effective level – did not really respond.
 
Different categories
Only a small number of countries – Canada, France, Finland, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States – were represented around the table, but each of them had their own characteristics within our subject area.  We were also conscious that different social and economic backgrounds produced different responses and styles of approach amongst young people.  The well off, for instance, could easily opt out of social activism because money could buy satisfactory alternatives.  The middle class were really what we were talking about most of the time;  and they were the best connected and most motivated to organise an approach for change.  But we acknowledged that there were very different problems associated with those who were uncomfortable with the social norm, disconnected from modern instruments of communication, disengaged from the political and social structures and therefore very frustrated.  We set aside references to an “underclass” and referred mostly to the “disconnected”.   Theirs were hard issues with which wider society was having difficulties in coming to terms.  Nevertheless we noted that, over ten years or more, there was a declining tendency for this category of people, and particularly its younger members, to riot, demonstrate or lobby aggressively.  At the extremes, as we had recently seen, they could be very violent.  There were also strong tendencies to criminal activity.  The rest tended to be sullen and disappointed.  Nevertheless it was essential to make an effort to bring them back into the mainstream, which would mean finding ways of communicating with them which had not yet been properly developed.  If this section of society was left untreated, it would increasingly become an area of influence for the more extreme parties, such as the BNP.
Generational differences
Throughout this discussion, we were largely reassured to find that the differences between the generations might not be all that great.  Perhaps in earlier decades there was a more automatic acceptance of civic duty, whereas now young people tended to follow what they wanted to do.  Nevertheless many young people understood the importance of civic responsibility.  The modern context of greater freedom and independence was also important (for all generations), which produced a lower focus on the political centre and a different attitude to power (partly because some of it had devolved to the individual).  Perhaps also there was a less pronounced faith amongst young people in the institutions of the state and of society, for instance parliament.  Methods of communication had evolved, particularly through the use of the internet, enabling young people to create much broader structures of collective exchange and activity than was possible for their parents.  This made the choice of channels for activism much wider, so that politicians no longer had a monopoly of the instruments for organising change in society.  But with all these noticeable differences in instruments and style, the conference did not feel that the spread of attitudes amongst younger people was so markedly different. 
Policy prescriptions
Participants felt quite strongly that political parties and their leaderships were not responding well to the younger generation.  Some people wondered whether political parties really cared about the young vote as much about the older generations, who tended to turn out more in greater numbers at elections and respond to political overtures.  Others felt that parties did not have the political will to open their doors and show that there was a place in politics for everyone in society.  Communication, even through use of the internet, was still too much one-way.  Young people communicated horizontally, politicians vertically.  Political parties might also be missing the point that party discipline tended to reduce effectiveness.  In the modern world more than in the past, there was a paradox of discipline:  if you allowed people, within a certain set of guidelines, to follow their own initiative and work independently, the effect could be much more powerful than through a rigidly controlled system.  This was linked with the issue of trust.  Taken together, they were affecting the ability of political leaders to make an impact.  Apart from anything else, it was in the interests of the parties themselves that they should connect with today’s youth, who would become tomorrow’s middle class.  One day they would vote in greater numbers.
The conference did not discuss in detail what requirements there might be for institutional change, even if young people appeared to have a lower respect for the effectiveness of today’s institutions than in the past.  The majority of participants favoured a connected series of small adjustments rather than an great change of direction.  There was some criticism, however, of the Westminster parliament, which in some respects only had itself to blame for not making more of an impact.  Not least when compared with the more modern style of the Scottish and Welsh devolved parliaments, Westminster’s antique and over-formalised style of forms of address, procedures and voting were a turn-off for the younger generation even before the substance was reached.  It was also noted that of the thirty-six members of both British Houses of Parliament invited to this conference on such a significant subject, only one eventually attended, the youngest member of the Commons.  This in itself was an indication that communication between the younger generation and the political class had gone wrong. 
Participants felt that this gap could not be laid at the door of a fundamental lack of young people’s respect for the political structure.  Many of today’s youth wanted to respect politicians and connect with them.  They realised that a healthy democracy was an important framework for their own lives and careers.  They were capable of recognising that, even if they themselves were keen to lobby on particular issues, a process was needed to produce the trade-offs from a multiplicity of different demands in a complex society.  No doubt with some exceptions, they were capable of realising that a balance had to be created.  Likewise, it was difficult to accuse politicians of failing to realise that the legitimacy of their political action and executive decision-making was in some part connected to the number and range of people who bothered to vote.
We therefore spent some time and effort in discussing what needed to change.  We began by acknowledging that more young people had to be persuaded that the changes they might be seeking in modern  life were most likely to be produced through the political process.  But the persuading ought to be done primarily by the politicians in reaching more consistently to young people generally, and particularly the disconnected;  and in reforming the political processes so that they appeared relevant to modern life.  Second, parents and teachers needed to instil a deeper idea of civic duty as something that was owed by an individual to society.  But it had to be recognised that no-one would feel that they owed a duty unless they felt they were getting something back.  Disconnected young people in particular did not see that two way compact working. 
We therefore discussed, although we did not unanimously approve, a set of recommendations for action which included the following:
  • The distribution of a broader and more reliable range of unbiased information and data  on the main issues of public policy;
  • The encouragement of mainstream journalism to report public issues with more respect for truth;
  • Reform of the journalist lobby in Whitehall and Westminster;
  • Recognition of the power of online transmission of information, but greater focus on the translation of on-line approaches into off-line activism, with greater face-to-face contact (and no recourse to on-line voting);
  • A wider distribution of cheap laptops to disadvantaged and disconnected communities, perhaps with free WiFi coverage as a new public service;
  • A more consistent focus on education in all these areas, with special training for teachers, adjustment of the curriculum to include civic education,  more widespread use of school councils and young people’s parliaments and local councils;
  • A more deliberate approach to encourage voter turnout, perhaps by moving elections to weekends, allowing proxy and absentee voting, last minute registration and better information on exactly where to vote; 
  • A return to the idea of a Citizen’s Charter, for which Prime Minister John Major had been criticised by politicians and the media but which had found plenty of support from the general public;
  • A new approach by political parties to two-way communication with their constituencies, and particularly with younger people;
  • A real focus within political parties on welcoming newcomers;
  • Outreach to the disconnected sector between, and not just before, elections;
  • More independence for political parties’ youth movements;
  • Finally, and perhaps counter-intuitively for political parties, a much greater concentration on face-to-face canvassing by politicians, which we saw as carrying a qualitative advantage which outweighed the quantitative attractions of TV advertisements, on-line canvassing and blogs. 
The 18-80 range of the age groups around the table, the articulateness and passion of the presentations made, the importance of the subject and the rare opportunity to tunnel underneath modern trends made this an exceptional experience for all those who participated in it.  We owe particular thanks to our chairman, who combined informality with a substantive and procedural discipline which kept the debate moving along.  The conference ended on a note of optimism about the younger generation and their perceptions which we were not expecting at the beginning, but perhaps that was also linked with an assumption that some of the prescriptions we suggested might be acted upon.  No-one who attended this event, or who reads this Note, should feel complacent about the need for new thinking and new approaches if the health of the next political generation is to be assured.
This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.
 
 
PARTICIPANTS
Chairman  :  Mr Robin Lustig
Presenter, Newshour, BBC World Service;  Presenter, The World Tonight, BBC Radio 4.
 
CANADA
Mr Francis Dumais
Member, St Lambert City Council, Montréal.
Ms Alison Loat
Fellow, School of Public Policy and Governance and Director, Centre for Health Sector Strategy, Joseph L Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto (2007-).
Mr Alexander Swann
Vice President, Gandalf Group, Toronto (2007-).  Formerly:  Director of Communications to the Hon Robert Rae, Liberal Leadership Candidate (2006).
FINLAND
Ms Lotta Backlund

Student, Swedish School of Business Administration and Economics, Helsinki;  Journalist, Radio NRJ (2006-);   Columnist, Papper and Etelä-Saimaa (2006-);  Member, Educational Board, City of Helsinki
(2006-).
FRANCE
Mr Raphael de Montferrand

Journalist, Paris.
Mr Wladimir d’Ormesson
Junior Magistrate, Administrative Court Versailles.  Formerly:  Mouvement Démocrate Party Candidate, Legislative Elections (2007).
UNITED KINGDOM
Professor Roger Ainsworth

Master, St Catherine’s College, Oxford (2002-);  Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Oxford University;  Delegate of Oxford University Press;  Professor of Engineering Science, Oxford University, Honorary Fellow, Jesus College, Oxford.
Mr Yasser Baki
Member, Climate Change Team, Department for International Development, London.
Mr Tom Bell
Press and Publicity Officer, Axiom Films, London (2006-);  Co-Founder, Focus Point Films Limited (2004 ).
Professor Vernon Bogdanor CBE FBA
Professor of Government, Oxford University;  Fellow, Brasenose College;  Professor of Law, Gresham College;  Honorary Fellow, Society for Advanced Legal Studies.
Ms Elana Cheah
Research Assistant to The Rt Hon William Hague MP, Shadow Foreign Secretary, House of Commons, London.
Mr Dom Loehnis
Consultant, Egon Zehnder International, London.
Mr Michael Maclay
Chairman, Citizenship Foundation (2000-);  Executive Chairman, Montrose Associates;  Senior Adviser, Weidenfeld Institute.
Mr Emran Mian
Adviser to Lord Goldsmith on the Review of Citizenship, commissioned by the Prime Minister;  Contributing Editor (pseudonym, Kamran Nazeer), Prospect Magazine.  Author.
Mr Rajay Naik
Trustee: ‘v’ (2007-);  National Youth Agency (2006-);  Changemakers (2006-);   British Youth Council (2005-);  Governor, City College (2006-);  Council Member, Learning and Skills Council (2005-).
Mr Ben Page
Managing Director, Ipsos MORI Public Affairs, London;  Chairman, Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, London.
Mr John Pullinger
House of Commons Librarian and Member, House of Commons Board of Management (2004-).
Mr Mark Rusling
Chair, Young Fabians (2007-);  Member, Chatham House Under 35s Steering Group (2007-);  Campaigns and Education Officer, United Nations Association of the UK (2006-).
Mr Justin Stennett
Youth TV Film Director, The Bridge.
Ms Jo Swinson MP
Member of Parliament, Liberal Democrat, East Dumbartonshire (2005-);  Shadow Women and Equalities Minister (2007-).
Mr Patrick Tomlin
DPhil Candidate, Political Theory, Balliol college, Oxford;  Columnist, Education Guardian.
Mr Andreas Whittam Smith CBE
Director and Weekly Columnist, The Independent (1998-);  Chairman, With Profits Committee, The Prudential Assurance Company;  Chairman, The Children’s Mutual;  First Church Estates Commissioner.
Mr Simon Woolley
Co-Founder and Director, Operation Black Vote, London.
Professor Sir Robert Worcester KBE DL
Chancellor, University of Kent (2006-);  Founder, Market and Opinion Research International Limited (MORI) (1969).
UNITED KINGDOM/IRELAND
Mr Conor McGinn

Vice-Chair, Young Labour;  Executive Member, Fabian Society;  Vice-Chair, Labour Party Irish Society.
UNITED KINGDOM/UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Countess Anna Theresa von Arco

Chief Feature Writer, The Catholic Herald, London;  Member, Oxford Canning Club.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Ms Alexandra Acker

Executive Director, Young Democrats of America, Washington DC.
Dr Vincent Boudreau
Director, The Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies, City College of New York;  Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science, City College of New York.
The Hon John Brademas
President Emeritus, New York University (1992-).  Formerly:  Chairman, American Ditchley Foundation (1990-2006);  President, New York University (1981-92);  Member, 86th-96th Congresses (1959-81).
Ms Justine Fleischner
Student, International Studies and Economics, City College of New York;  Community Engagement Fellow. Formerly Accredited Priority Observer, National Presidential and Parliamentary elections, Sierra Leone (2007).
Mr Christopher Heller
Consultant, Phillips Oppenheim, Tempe, Arizona (2007-).  Formerly:  President and Chief Executive Officer, Kids Voting USA, Phoenix, Arizona.
Dr David Jackson
Visiting Professor, Katedra Amerykanistyki I Mass Mediow, Poland (2007-);  Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Bowling Green State University, Ohio (2000-).
Dr Peter Levine
University of Maryland:  Director, Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (2006-);  Director, Leaders for Tomorrow (2004-);  Research Scholar, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy (1993-).
Mr Patrick Phillips
Executive Director, Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, Council for Excellence in Government, Washington DC.
Dr Ryan Streeter
Vice President, Civic Enterprises LLC, Washington DC;  Adjunct Fellow, The Hudson Institute.  Formerly:  Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, The White House (2005-07).
Mr Laurence Zuriff
Partner and Portfolio Manager, Granite Capital, New York (2000-).
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/CANADA 
Mr Ricken Patel

Director, Avaaz-The World in Action, New York.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/COLOMBIA
Ms Angela Pérez

 Debrich New American Scholar, Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies, The City College of New York.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/UNITED KINGDOM
Mr Will Straw

US-UK Fulbright Scholar 2008, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University.  Formerly:  Senior Policy Adviser, HM Treasury UK;  President, Oxford University Student Union (2002-03).