Why West Yorkshire mayoral race must inspire young voters – Lauren McGaun

AS campaigning intensifies for the May local elections, attention has shifted to who the first West Yorkshire Mayor will be and what effect this will have on improving devolved powers in Yorkshire.

How can voter participation amongst young people be increased?

From the economy to policing and housing, mayoral powers will significantly increase the autonomy of the region, providing the West Yorkshire Combined Authority with a similar level of decision making to that of the Liverpool and Sheffield City Regions.

Whilst the appointment of a new West Yorkshire Mayor is an important step for Yorkshire achieving more autonomy on issues such as transport and regeneration, such structural changes will be ineffective without political engagement from young people.

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According to data from the Local Government Association, in 2018, the proportion of councillors below the age of 25 was just 0.6 per cent, with those over 60 accounting for more than half of the council distribution – a concerning statistic.

Voters will elect the first West Yorkshire mayor next month.

When it comes to education and involvement in political literacy, the figure is just as tragic – according to the Joint Council for Qualifications, only 2.3 per cent of A-level students receiving grades in a politics-related subject.

Given this lack of enthusiasm and engagement for local politics at a young age, it is no wonder that policies fail to reflect the needs of young people.

If devolution in the North is to be truly effective and long lasting, it must have the support of all generations, ensuring that local policy decisions can be made with the full input and interests of young people across Yorkshire in mind.

Our generation has been hit with the effects of the pandemic the most, suffering the loss of months of education and socialisation. The essence of devolution is bringing decision making closer to those it most affects and young people must be at the heart of this.

To tackle this participation crisis, youth charities and organisations such as Youth Politics UK, My Life My Say and Young Voices Heard have committed to amplifying the youth voice and increasing voter turnout in a bid to enthuse citizens with local politics at a younger age.

We promoted National Voter Registration Day to make significant progress in reducing the nine million people not on the electoral register, a third of whom are young people.

At Success4All, a North-East education charity focused on encouraging youth activism, members have shared panels with local MPs, informing them on issues relevant to the local community; such issues include race hate crime and combatting fake news.

Despite the progress of these organisations, however, there is still a long way to go. “Whilst representation is slowly improving, there is definitely more that can be done,” said a spokesperson for Success4All. “If they want to plan for the future, then it is only fair that young people are part of the discussions.”

Dan Lawes, founding chair of Youth Politics UK, agrees: “There has been great progress in the area of youth engagement in local politics in recent years but there is still a long way to go.”

To improve young people’s engagement with politics, efforts must stretch far beyond education, with co-operation across generations an essential step in amplifying the voices of young leaders.

“The first step in this long process is for community leaders to listen to young people, including what they believe the barriers to engagement are and potential solutions,” Dan Lawes added.

Many young people no longer consume mainstream media, making it increasingly difficult to inform them of current events. This makes it ever more important for political parties and councils to rethink the way they engage with young people in their communities, drawing more of a focus on our increasingly digital society.

Last year, BBC Sounds saw a 21 per cent increase in podcast listening, indicating some interest in politics is still there, but that young people are now getting their information in different forms. To keep pace with this digital revolution, politicians must move swiftly.

Devolution will bring vital benefits to Yorkshire but these efforts will be in vain if there lacks an enthused new generation who can take these ideas forwards in the years to come.

My peers and myself deserve better than to be forgotten by politicians and councils. Tackling the youth participation crisis will bring huge benefits to the region, and society more broadly.

Lauren McGaun is a university student and writer. She is also the Editor in Chief of Empoword Journalism.

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