‘Politicians need to connect with the digital age’

As we approach May’s general election, Mollie Malone, representative for youth-facing organisation Stand Up Be Counted, asks if politicians are doing enough to engage young voters

“I’m probably out of keeping with the warp and weft of the world.” That’s what MP Stephen Pound told me when discussing the benefits of engaging with young voters via social media. “Twitter is narcissistic,” he said. “I don’t care about what somebody is having for dinner tonight.”

And I don’t blame him either. Yet, as a Sky News Stand Up Be Counted (SUBC) representative, the point I was trying to get across was that while social media is no substitute for face to face interaction with our politicians, it’s at least a starting point.

Pound soon told me that he was a “dinosaur” and that I had “totally destroyed” his argument. Whether he was just trying to get me to shut up, or whether he actually meant it, I don’t know. Yet I take my hat off to him for recognising that politicians need to make, adapt, and use social media to communicate with voters who have been brought up in a digital age.

This is not to say that they should endorse celebrity politics. I’m not saying they should aim to rack up the followers. They have a job to do, and it shouldn’t involve falling prey to the shallow, self-indulging dangers of social media. But what it should involve is using every channel possible to embrace those typically disconnected with the political process.

“While social media is no substitute for face to face interaction with our politicians, it’s at least a starting point.”

As a trainee journalist I’m always using Twitter to arrange interviews – a quick and easy tool to pre-empt meeting someone in person. To me, the fact of the matter is that people of our generation simply aren’t used to having to email a PA or secretary, wait for two weeks for a response, to hear that “unfortunately [insert name] does not have time for you”. That’s fine. But why not cut out the middleman with a quick tweet to tell us that two weeks prior?

From my perspective, young people often assume that politicians simply don’t have the time or desire to hear from our generation. Sky’s Stand Up Be Counted campaign has capitalised on this sentiment, giving 16-25 year olds the chance to be heard.

It’s all very well reading that Ed Miliband plans to reduce tuition fees to £6,000, or that Nick Clegg wants to introduce postgraduate loans. Yet hearing it from the horse’s mouth, with the chance to ask ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘why is that important for me’, is, and was, a totally different story.

SUBC’s Ask The Leaders event in February was not, as is often the case, a chance for party leaders to spiel off a load of personal achievements completely irrelevant to the question posed. Instead it was an opportunity for 60 young people to grill them; an entirely free rein to hold them to account in accordance with our own agenda, all live on TV.

Green party leader Natalie Bennett was the first up, followed by Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and lastly Prime Minister David Cameron.

I was picked to ask Natalie Bennett to what extent she believes unpaid internships to be justifiable. From personal experiences and with many friends trying to break into competitive industries, this is something I feel strongly about.

As expected, her response was that they’re not, stating that there is a very fine line between work experience and doing the job of a paid staff member, with no financial gain.

I was, however, still left questioning the extent to which it would ever be possible to completely eradicate unpaid internships or work experience placements entirely.

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Only a small handful of those that attended Ask The Leaders, and indeed a small proportion of the voting population, will put a cross against the name of a party leader in May. Yet with the rise of what’s known as ‘presidential politics’ in the UK, a chance to question the figureheads themselves, was invaluable.

For me, it also was an event that helps discredits the myth that young people don’t care about politics. Some 60 people turned up, all passionate about issues ranging from internships to tax evasion.

SUBC is set to continue, with various contributors helping out at various counts on the night of the election. Stay tuned.