Revitalising democracy by engaging the youth

This is the fourth in a series of blogs from the finalists of this year’s Policy Idol competition. These blogs were originally presented as policy pitches at the live final of the competition earlier this year. Policy Idol is an annual competition open to all staff and students at King’s.

By Imran Hyder

Young people’s low civic knowledge and understanding, and their lack of engagement with public issues, are well-detailed problems that plague many Western democracies. Up until the turnaround at the Brexit referendum and the 2017 general election, youth turnout for elections in the UK had been in decline since 1992, from around 66 per cent in the general elections preceding that date, to only 43 per cent of 18–24-year-olds turning out to vote in the 2015 general election. Youth turnout for the preceding 2014 EU parliamentary elections was an appalling 28 per cent. Two years later, around 60 per cent of registered young voters in the UK went to the polls for the Brexit referendum, and a similar percentage of 64 per cent has voted in the 2017 general election. So what was behind the decline and the recent apparent reversal, and how do we move forward?

Research shows that 55 per cent of 18-year olds from the UK ‘lack confidence about their knowledge and understanding of British politics, with only 36 per cent having confidence in such matters.’ Polling data from the Netherlands shows a divide along educational lines, with trust in democracy and knowledge of politics increasing with the level of education. In the UK, a corresponding improvement in turnout for elections among those a higher level of education is evident as well.


Clearly, in 2017 some effort has been made to address this ‘decline into apathy’ of young people with regards to participation in politics. According to the Financial Times, ‘a youth-focused Labour campaign, through both official and unofficial channels, is partly responsible for the uptick in engagement among younger voters’. However, similar campaigns in the 2017 general election in the Netherlands failed to improve youth turnout. Specifically trying to engage young voters during an election campaign itself seems to be able to yield some success, but to enact a more fundamental change, a comprehensive approach is required.

A collaborative paper by the Council of Europe and the European Commission recommends several changes that would improve youth participation in politics, with an emphasis on connecting participation to empowerment and agency. In the Netherlands, schools that offer a higher level of education also offer more facilities to give students positive experiences with democracy, such as debates on society and participation in decision-making, which result in higher levels of understanding and political participation.

Positive experiences with democracy can also be stimulated by using simulations. A report by the Higher Education Academy recommends simulations as a way to offer a more engaging method to integrate substantive knowledge about a subject. Simulations are very good for exploring complicated political issues that contain many dimensions and factors. By participating in simulations, students can develop a much finer appreciation of complex topics like politics than they would through more conventional approaches.

Imran on stage at the Policy Idol final

Imran on stage at the Policy Idol final

Simulation, participation and empowerment can come together through involvement in youth forums or councils. According to the Local Government Group, this type of public participation also addresses concerns regarding a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ for government. Organisations such as the UK Youth Parliament, local youth councils and young mayors, but also European youth parliaments (EYP) and model United Nations (MUN), can strengthen legitimacy for decision-makers and demonstrate accountability to young people. Beyond improving legitimacy and accountability, the involvement of youth councillors in public decision-making improved the quality of youth services and/or saved the local council money.

Taking into account such research, youth participation in politics could be improved by increasing civic education and offering more opportunities to experience democracy through simulations and real empowerment. A three-pronged approach that integrates schools, civil society, and government, could achieve the desired results.

The first prong consists of expanding the citizenship education that is currently part of the UK national curriculum in Key Stages 1 to 4. Adding political simulations to this programme would give students the opportunity to actively develop an understanding of citizenship, politics and democracy. This programme should also be adopted as a compulsory course in sixth-form colleges, further education courses and undergraduate higher education courses.


The second prong involves close cooperation between schools and organised simulation organisations such as EYP and MUN, which should liaise with a central coordination body, to ensure there are no geographic or socio-economic barriers to participation. As the British Youth Council (BYC) already runs a number of democratic youth-led networks, including the UK Youth Parliament, the Young Mayor Network, and the Local Youth Council Network, the BYC should be given the opportunity, authority and funding to expand these networks.

The third prong is a legislative push to establish youth councils at all municipal and national levels of government. This will create representative institutions for young people and strengthen the link between chosen representatives and young people. An important aspect of this is true empowerment, using youth representation to influence policy outcomes. The youth councils should therefore receive statutory powers to advise government at set times during the year on set topics, and receive a reasoned reply within an appropriate term.

By combining education, simulation, and real influence in this manner, youth participation in politics can be improved, and thus democracy strengthened.

Imran Hyder is studying for a Master of Laws (LLM) in The Dickson Poon School of Law at King’s College London.

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