Biting the ballot - the youth vote

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 10 June 2011 in Diary
Diary
More than 60% of young people didn’t vote at the last election, a fact which has been true for decades. Martin Shapland speaks to the founder of ‘Bite the Ballot’, Michael Sani, who is trying to politicise a generation

In April 2010, Michael Sani, a teacher at a school in Dartford, asked his 24 college students who they thought they would vote for in the upcoming election. None of his 24 students could give him an answer, and none of the 24 planned to vote.

Mike, as he prefers to be known, is 28, teaches three times a week and is the son of a chef and a silver service waitress. He grew up in Mottingham, South London and hesitates to call himself working class. He is, however, deeply passionate about engaging young people politically. After asking why his students weren’t going to vote he set up a school project ‘Bite the Ballot’.

The apathy stemmed from a lack of knowledge about politics, to one student telling him they felt silly going into a polling booth. Mike replied by setting up a school debate on politics and voting, and asked the council to run a school referendum so his students could practice voting.

He believes that the important thing is to develop better citizens. He looks at the Middle East where young people are fighting for democracy, and wonders why young people in the UK are so apathetic. His answer is to ensure politics relates to young people. Bite the Ballot debates revolve around issues young people care about, pub licensing laws, the cost of travel, downloading music or access to education.

After the election, Mike enlisted the support of The Lord Speaker, and Lords Shipley and Roberts to help run events in Parliament. The last one attracted over 100 young people, MPs like Jo Swinson and Duncan Hames, Alistair Stewart, news reader at ITN, chaired and he even arranged for a drop in from the deputy prime minister.

Mike recalls that, despite the student fees episode, Clegg got a round of applause, not because people were happy to see him, necessarily, but because the people in the room felt like they were being listened to and engaged. He thinks too many polices are aimed at the ‘grey tinge’ and is desperate to ensure that young people pay attention to, and understand, politics.

What started as an engagement programme at a single school has rapidly grown, Bite the Ballot is engaging young people at schools right across the south, and Mikes got plans for expansion. The campaigns organising a major fundraiser -Bite the Ballot, Run Walk and Roll - with support from Baroness Gray Thompson and the 2012 Paralympics team, and is launching an online TV station, BTBTV, with a launch programme in July with sponsorship from Apple, who will be providing the audience with Ipods to live vote and tweet their reactions.

Mike draws inspiration from Rock the Vote, the movement to get young people to vote in the US which is credited with driving the highest turnout amongst the under 30’s in a generation.  Bite the Ballots mission statement is to ‘Make Politics simple, personal and fun’ and Mike is keen to ensure it is relevant to young people, signing up celebrities and boasting the support of student beans, a university website with 6 million annual visitors.

It’s a little odd to think that what started in a classroom in Dartford could end up being a major drive to engage young people in the political process across the UK. Mike’s proudest moment was when one of his students, Jacob, 14, told his mother that if she didn’t vote, she couldn’t complain. He’s still teaching, but he has set himself an ambitious target: 4 years to change the fact that young people don’t vote; it could be the start of something momentous.

Tags: Bite the Ballot, Michael Sani, Youth vote

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