Rick Edwards: TV's man on a mission to mobilise the youth vote

Written by Sebastian Whale on 10 April 2015 in Culture
Unlike Russell Brand, former Channel 4 presenter Rick Edwards wants to revive the youth vote by getting more people to the ballot box

Voicing the importance of young people utilising their vote could be seen as going against a growing celebrity consensus. Or at least against the Russell Brand School of politics.

But for Rick Edwards, the dwindling polling day turnout among 18-24 year olds is an issue of some concern.

The former presenter of Channel 4’s T4 is anxious about this demographic finding its place on the peripheries of the political thought process.  The result of this anxiety is ‘None of the Above’, Edwards’ book on voting and why it’s important for young people to do so.

Through the book, Edwards hopes to provide a decluttered guide to policies held by the Westminster parties. Unapologetically void of “jargon” and “dense political language”, Edwards makes an admirable effort to cut through politicians’ convoluted rhetoric and provide readers with information he perceives isn’t readily accessible.

“At the moment there are quite a lot of people out there suggesting the opposite and saying actually you shouldn’t vote, I think that’s quite dangerous. So I felt it was important to offer a counter to that.”

Core to Edwards’ argument around championing the youth vote is to reverse a “vicious cycle” of politicians overlooking the needs of the demographic due to poor turnout on polling day.

“The reason I think it’s important that everyone votes is because when you have an unequal voter turnout between demographic groups like we have now – people over 65 are almost twice as likely to vote as 18-24 year olds - then politicians look after the people that have elected them or the people that might elect them in the future.

“It means if you are a group that isn’t voting you’ll get more adversely affected if there are cuts or see policies less tailored towards their needs and interests. I think that’s avoidable and it’s a crying shame as well that it is happening,” he says.

What seems unclear is what triggered this oversight – did young people stop voting because they felt politicians did not represent them, or did low turnout trigger the lackadaisical approach politicians took to targeting the youth vote?

“It’s tricky to work that out isn’t it? It’s a little bit ‘chicken and egg’. I have thought quite a lot about the reasons that young vote numbers have dwindled and I’ve not come up with any definite answers on it. I’ve more tried to look at how you might be able to rectify it.

“I think it can happen in two ways; either suddenly young people start voting again and then politicians will sit up and take notice and speak to them more directly, thinking about what they  need, or; on their own volition politicians start going after the youth vote specifically trying to chase it.”

Edwards maintains that despite a turnout of just over 50% of 18-24 year olds at the last general election, young people’s reasons for not voting are in no way apathetic.

He explains that while carrying out research he encountered many examples of young voters engaged with local issues but who simultaneously felt “absent” from the wider political process.

Asked to pinpoint the cause of this increasing disenfranchisement with UK politics, Edwards says: “I think people feel that it’s hard to trust politicians at the moment. I don’t know but the sense I get is that this is more keenly felt than ever.”

So should Nick Clegg should bear the brunt of the responsibility? He gracefully lets the Lib Dem leader off the hook.

“There are a lot of examples of politicians saying one thing and then doing the opposite. That’s really hard to defend.”

For Edwards, no political party is doing enough to bring back the lost and much maligned younger voters. His concerns reach a crescendo over comments made by Labour MP Sadiq Khan.

“I keep coming back to that thing that Sadiq Khan said that if you are on the campaign trail and you have an hour spare and your campaign manager says ‘well you can go to an old people’s home or a sixth form college’. Then 99% of the time they’re going to go to an old people’s home. That’s the thing that has got to be tackled.”

Edwards does not portion blame squarely onto politicians, however.

The TV presenter accepts that the nature of five-year parliaments mean a “pragmatic” approach to targeting voters is inevitable. Edwards is more preoccupied with breaking this “dangerous pattern” to ensure the interests of young people are taken into account on a national level.

For this, Edwards is not without solutions. During a TED talk last year, the ‘Free Speech’ presenter put forward ways to ensure more young people turn up on polling day. These included introducing online and even mandatory voting for first-timers.

Edwards, however, is currently uncertain as to whether the latter proposal could work in practice.

“With compulsory voting, in all honesty I’m in two minds about it. I think it’s a good thing to consider; if you just said compulsory voting first-time voters that would immediately bring in around 3.3 million votes that the parties would know were going to be cast, so then that would break that cycle and force them to try and go after those votes.

“The negative is do you want to ‘force’ people to vote; ideally you wouldn’t. But sometimes you need to take drastic measures I guess to break a vicious cycle.”

For those who refuse to comply with the mandatory requirement, Edwards would support an Australian style system, where absent voters are made to pay $26, rather than “hammer” them with a hefty fine.

Of greater significance, Edwards believes if compulsory voting were to be introduced then an option to not choose any of the parties on the ballot sheet should be made available.

This ‘None of the above’ option, the books title, Edwards foresees could be a “powerful trigger” for politicians to take heed of young voters interests with greater sincerity.

“You have to give that option; I think also it could be a very powerful trigger as well – if ‘none of the above’ got significant proportion of votes then again it would act as a really clear wake up call to politicians that they need to work harder to gain the support of the people, and they need to work out what it is that they are doing wrong.

“I think if you introduce it you would also have specific consequences if ‘none of the above’ won in a particular constituency. I guess you could trigger an open primary and re-run the election, like you would in a student election. I think people would feel that was a good step for our democracy. If people had the power to reject, I think it’s important to offer that.

“Spoiling the ballot I think is definitely a much better and more active way of expressing discontent and dissatisfaction rather than not voting. The problem is when 50% of young people didn’t vote in the last election, politicians and the media didn’t look at them and say that’s a huge number of angry people who want change - they said that’s a load of people who don’t care so we don’t need to worry about them.

“Whereas if there was a swell in the number of spoilt ballots then that could be significant, it would at least be news worthy, get reported, and make politicians think carefully about how they can get to those people who are dissatisfied.”

Clearly Edwards holds an opposing view to the man who speaks the ‘Trews’, Russell Brand. Though he openly disagrees with the comedians opinions, Edwards believes anything that engages the public in debate around issues in current affairs can only be a good thing.

“I don’t agree with his point of view on voting at all, but then I think what he is doing is a bit like the debates really; he is getting an awful lot of people talking about politics and thinking about issues who might not have been doing so before.”

Edwards does feel his own suggestions are “more realistic” than Brand’s proposal to forego your vote, as engaging with the parliamentary system to make improvements is the only credible route of achieving change.

Edwards himself has always voted, though he openly confesses to not previously being politically savvy. He believes he is on the edge of a generation who viewed voting as the ‘done thing’, and considers himself politically neutral – a swing voter – unaffiliated to any party.

Seemingly, Edwards is determined to overturn the misperception that young people are “lazy” or simply don’t care about politics.

His concerns over voter turnout seem authentic and from a place of genuine trepidation.

“It’s really a huge problem and it’s a bigger problem here than in any other European country – the voter turnout is more unequal in the UK. I think that is leading towards probably a negative perception of young people within the political class, or the neglecting of them anyway.”

A man who can carry some weight among young voters, Edwards is on a quest to quietly carry out his own revolution, reviving the UK’s flagging democracy among its young people. And if politicians aren’t taking on the task, there’s certainly a void to be filled.

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