#GE16: Why are politicians so scared of young people? – Part 1

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The 2016 General Election is now just a week away.

I hadn’t planned on writing anything about this year’s election as I won’t be voting (living in the UK and having already booked a holiday months ago for February 27 means getting back to vote would be a nightmare) – but then I realised that was all the more reason to write something.

Enda Kenny announced this election on February 2 – a little more than three weeks before it is set to take place. I believe Kenny and co decided on this date for a number of reason, but they all boil down to one simple explanation: they’re scared.

Fine Gael and Labour – especially Labour – have plenty of reasons to be scared going into this election and a short election gives the opposition less time to challenge them as they’e already playing catch-up. Public opinion isn’t too high, the economy is still pretty crap despite the constant spouting about “The Recovery™”, and Irish Water has been an unmitigated disaster.

But I think there’s something else that politicians are scared of. Something that they don’t understand and they kind of wish would just go away. Politicians are scared of young people.

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Last year’s same-sex marriage referendum saw an unprecedented level of political mobilisation of people aged 25 and younger. From simply getting up and voting to going out and canvassing, I doubt anyone will disagree that the marriage referendum was the most engaged young voters have ever been.

So where is that enthusiasm now? A reported 66,000 people signed up on the supplementary register just to vote last year. Without even taking into account the amount who registered for the first time before regular register closed, that’s good for 3% of total votes cast in 2011.

While that may not seem all that significant, Sinn Féin improved their tally of first preference votes by 3% in the 2011 General Election and saw an increased return of 10 seats in the Dáil – more than tripling the amount of seats they held after the 2007 election.

In fact, 2011 saw a record amount of new TDs elected – with 45% of those elected never having served in the Dáil before. All of this points towards a desire for change and a new, politically-engaged generation.

Independent politicians have found a way to tap into this through direct action on specific issues. Smaller parties like Anti-Austerity Alliance–People Before Profit and the Social Democrats have grown to the extent that many felt they were the most impressive performers of the debate on Monday, February 15.

Hell, even the previously unelectable Sinn Féin have made progress.

So why aren’t the ‘big three’ of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil going after these new voters? After all, studies have shown that political affiliations die hard. If you attach yourself to a particular party once, you’re far more likely to keep supporting that party for the rest of your life.

In a 2010 study, Ethan Kaplanyand Sharun Mukandz found that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks there was a 2% increase in the amount of newly-18-year-olds who registered as Republican above the expected level. More significantly, this 2% difference held firm through to 2008 (when their data finished).

While America’s two-party system is more partisan than Ireland’s, it still makes sense over here. Our political affiliations form a part of our social identity, and we are often very rigid to change these identities and often become very defensive when these identities are challenged.

The optimistic outlook is that the likes of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour have no idea how to go about capitalising on this new-found enthusiasm. The cynical one is that they don’t want to.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that our current political system is not built for young people. Political parties don’t make a whole lot of sense to a generation who grew up online, and who are able to easily able inform themselves about about pretty much everything.

The current structure of youth politics looks more like a bunch of kids dressing up in their parents’ clothes than an actual, coherent movement. When Young Fine Gael propose cutting the minimum wage by €2, it’s hard to take them seriously as anything other than career politicians trying to impress the big boys.

Most young people care about issues, not parties. For outsiders to the system, it can seem like the only thing politicians are interested in is scoring points for their team. The same goes for speaking to party supporters.

The established political parties in Ireland can’t build on the momentum of last year’s referendum because they don’t see the difference between celebrating a movement and co-opting it.

Seeing Fine Gael and Labour attempt to take credit for last year’s Yes vote is transparently false to pretty much everyone outside of those two parties apparently.

But that pales in comparison to the disgusting attempt by Fianna Fáil to jump on the same-sex marriage bandwagon after the fact. This is a party that has been in power for 60 of the last 84 years, and did nothing about same-sex marriage besides try to fob us off with civil partnership when pushed by the Greens.

Not only that, but Averil Power, one of Fianna Fáil’s most progressive members, quit the party over the refusal of her colleagues to publicly support the amendment. Power said that Fianna Fáil members laughed at her when she suggested canvassing for a Yes vote, despite the party’s official support of the campaign.

The sooner political parties realise that the internet is fact-checking them in real-time, the better. When issues are the most important thing, people will remember your stance, so you better have a damn good explanation for your change of heart.

Labour appear to have finally caught onto this simple fact, as they have decided to go down swinging with their latest stance on the eighth amendment. They may get decimated on February 27, but they might just be sowing the seeds for a base of future Labour supporters.

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