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How Tower Hamlets initiatives are addressing low youth voter turnout ahead of the elections

Youth voter turnout may be a glum picture nationally but outreach initiatives in Tower Hamlets may be heralding a brighter outlook.

‘Tower Hamlets is quite unique to other areas, I think because of the level of diversity here. So the politics is always going to be different because there’s so many voices, different voices, right?’

Young people aren’t voting, meaning they are not getting their voices heard, in turn creating a further disconnect between Gen Z and the people in power. 

According to the British Election Study, only 52% of 18-24-year-olds voted in the last UK general election, compared with 70% of 45-54-year-olds. 

With the general election in Autumn 2024 and mayoral elections just around the corner on May 2nd, it is more urgent than ever to start getting young people involved in politics and understanding that their voices matter. 

There are many theories as to why young people are disengaged with politics. Lack of trust in government, the belief that young voices won’t be heeded, familial influence, and simply finding political rhetoric confusing. 

One key issue is that young people do not feel they can relate to the people in power, and this is where Tower Hamlets ‘is quite unique’ says Momtaz Ajid, Founder, and former CEO of Leaders in Community, a charity based in Poplar. 

Tackling the issue of representation

Young people don’t engage in politics because they feel it doesn’t represent them, according to Maryam Chowdhury, founder of Beyond the Bias, a social enterprise based in Isle of Dogs. 

‘There is this deep-rooted feeling that young people’s voices won’t be heard’ she says. 

Chowdhury has described young people’s relationship with politics across the UK as having ‘quite a spectrum of engagement’. With many young people taking political action regularly, and others not knowing, or caring about, their right from left. 

On one hand, Ajid suggests that political action from young people is ‘possibly as high as it has ever been before’, with young people hitting the streets to protest, and having access to information on social media.

However, on the other hand, she also says that ‘there is still a large proportion of young people with little to no political education, who do not feel the like they can get their voices heard.’ Ajid says. 

With an overall consensus that politics doesn’t represent young people in the UK, is the picture in Tower Hamlets different? 

‘I do believe that in Tower Hamlets it’s a little better than other areas because there is such a diverse range of representation in politics’ Chowdhury says. 

‘Even our mayor himself is a Bangladeshi, and that is an entire harness of Tower Hamlets. I think this representation has inspired a lot of individuals to feel like they can relate and in fact see themselves being in politics.

‘But I think there’s still a whole lot of work around organisations, schools, councils and parliaments to work with young people to exemplify that their voices are very important.’ Chowdhury explains. 

New voter ID requirements

Another reason for young people being disengaged with politics, and somewhat excluded from voting, is the voting restrictions for young people. Anyone under the age of 25 must have either a Driver’s License or passport to vote. If you do not have either of these, you have to apply for a Free Voter ID. 

The London Assembly is calling on the Mayor of London to use his communications channels to inform Londoners of the new requirements and spread information on how to apply for a free voter ID. 

The Electoral Commission has noted that it is voters from deprived, or ethnic minority backgrounds that are most likely to be negatively affected by the new restrictions. 

According to Tower Hamlets Council, over two-thirds of the population in Tower Hamlets are from ethnic minority backgrounds. 

Political education is needed to help young voters and is at the heart of several initiatives in Tower Hamlets. 

Civic engagement from an early age 

Young Citizens is a Whitechapel-based charity that provides citizenship education. 

They work with children of primary school age, creating mock court trials, and providing legal education, and social action programmes. 

Although these projects are targeted to an audience not yet old enough to vote, encouraging young people to vote should be available from an early age. 

Naomi Kennedy, education manager at Young Citizens says that the aim is to engage people in civic participation from an early age. This is so young people can ‘start making the links between politics and their own lives’ and continue into adulthood with this kind of political engagement. 

‘There is a need for democratic education to be embedded all the time, not just during elections, so young people can continue to make those links’ Kennedy added. 

Chowdhury says that charity-led initiatives are needed to ‘give young people the freedom to change something, and have the tools and resources to do so’. 

‘I think often what it is hard for young people is they can feel very passionate about something, but not know what to do with that passion. Because in the youth sector, it’s very much like they want, and have a huge desire to do something, but it’s very difficult to do that without knowing who to go to, and how to accomplish things.

Ajid suggests that the problem lies with the fact that ‘not a lot of people in power are willing to listen or give young people the level of accountability that they deserve’. That it’s here that the ‘disconnect’ is, and not necessarily that young people are not engaged in politics at all. 

Ajid expresses the importance of opening doors for them to be involved and engaged in co-design and co-production decision-making. 

‘I mean that’s what Leaders in Community is all about. It’s about training the next generation of leaders and giving them access to ownership and a voice in the rooms where they can be heard.’

‘That’s really where I think change can, and is happening’. 

While young people’s disengagement from politics is a problem on a national level, Tower Hamlets-led initiatives are providing a beacon of hope for the uprising of young people from a grassroots level, and understanding that their voices do matter. 

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