Voting and the habit of democracy

Do young people see the point of voting? Is democracy important in their lives? Should ‘something be done’ about low election turnouts among 18-25’s?

Today, we are voting in elections for the European parliament and in many areas we are also electing local councillors. Those of us who work with sixth formers have been encouraging them to register and now to vote. We tell them that this is their big opportunity to make their voice heard and to bring about change. We remind them that not so long ago people fought hard for the right to vote. We also warn them that a low turnout among young voters makes it easier for policy-makers to ignore them as a group.

But what is the point? Are we simply asking young people to join in a ritual which has little meaning and which will bring about little change? Is our call to them to exercise their right to vote just a way of giving some legitimacy to a bankrupt system as a substitute for the real change they might prefer?

Voting every once in while is only one of many routines within the habit of democracy. But voting is not enough to ensure a vibrant democracy. Simply telling young people they should vote is like handing them a hammer and chisel without teaching them how to carve. Hitting the chisel is fairly easy, but the skill is in knowing what to do with it to create something.

So, among its other aims, the citizenship education we offer needs to develop the practice of democracy. Young people need to learn how to evaluate policies and candidates, to develop a personal belief system and model of leadership and to challenge and engage others in debate. Voting needs to be seen as the periodic culmination of this democratic practice as well as the expression of an individually considered collective popular will.

We need schools of democracy where the habits of democracy are learnt and exercised daily. Our schools and colleges should be places where deliberation, debate, disagreement, persuasion and compromise are celebrated as important aspects of community life, in the governing body, staff, student and parent councils and in every classroom, study circle or friendship group. To get better at democracy we need to practice working alongside others, including people we might not have chosen, in communities of citizens and learners, each of whom has clear rights and responsibilities and each of whom is deserving of respect. If we don’t learn this at school, where else will it start?

Collective activity is vitally important but we shouldn’t fetishize active citizenship at the expense of reflective citizenship by insisting that campaigning and volunteering are the only ways of demonstrating citizenship. Being a citizen is just as much about quiet contemplation; thinking things through and asking ourselves: “Do I understand this? What more do I need to know? What do I really think? What should I do?”.

Building citizens is a big responsibility and one which all educators should take seriously. Working together to shape our collective life for good is a difficult endeavour so it’s not surprising that some get frustrated with how much work is needed and how long change can take and search for short cuts.

Politics can sometimes seem like a spectator sport with most of us consigned to the sidelines cheering our team and jeering at the opposition with elections as an occasional popularity contest. It’s understandable that some people simply lose interest or switch off because it seems both too aggressive and too remote.

But elections give democracy its pulse and by exercising our right to vote we help to generate that pulse. So, voting is crucial, but it’s only one part of the habit of democracy.

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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