Politics, Participation and Public Policy Recent years have seen a renewed emphasis upon citizenship, rights and participation both in academic debates, and as a medium of collective advocacy and action. These developments have been paralleled in policy circles by a growing emphasis upon encouraging wider citizen participation in public life as part of a wider strategy of fostering a culture of ‘active citizenship’. A concern with restoring public confidence in public institutions and encouraging wider public involvement in decision making has been central to these initiatives, and has focused in particular upon young people as a ‘disaffected’ and ‘hard-to-reach’ group. This chapter considers the implications of these developments for our understanding of young people’s politics. This chapter considers how youth disaffection has been presented in public policy debates and the conceptual ambiguities inherent in notions of political disconnection, disaffection and political apathy. It goes on to outline the positive contribution made by young people in a variety of contexts and the implications for our understanding of ‘the political’ and of civic participation. The arguments for widening young people’s participation in decision making are explored, within the context of a consideration of how participation has been conceptualised in democratic theory, and recent innovations that seek to facilitate citizen participation in decision making. Finally, the chapter considers the merits and limitations of life-cycle perspectives on the relationship between youth and civic and political participation. Theorising Disaffection and Participation Disaffected Youth? Declining levels of turnout in recent local and national elections suggest a growing disengagement with traditional forms of political participation in Britain. There is a concern amongst commentators about the perceived alienation of young people from electoral politics, with the low turnout amongst young voters in recent elections in Britain attracting particular attention. More generally, the withdrawal of many young people from conventional politics has fuelled speculation about the emergence of a politically ‘disaffected’ generation – ideas that have gained increasingly wide currency in media and policy discourse. Writing for the influential think-tank Demos, Wilkinson and Mulgan (1995: 98-99) argue that:

For many young people in Britain today politics has become a dirty word .... The overwhelming story emerging from our research, both qualitative and quantitative, is of an historic disconnection. In effect, an entire generation has opted out of party politics.

This concern with the apparent disaffection of young people in contemporary Britain is also evident in the media’s portrayal of young people as politically alienated, apathetic and self-interested (Harrison, 2002; Russell, 2003). For example, writing in The Times newspaper, Nigella Lawson (1997) argues that those young people who choose not to vote ‘should be treated with contempt’. Similarly, Polly Toynbee (1997), writing for The Independent newspaper, described such people as ‘political know-nothings’ before dismissing them as ‘airheads’. Writing in The Guardian newspaper immediately prior to the 2001 British General Election, Donald Hiscock (2001) also bemoaned the ‘apathy generation’ for whom not ‘bother(ing)’ to vote is fast becoming the fashionable choice. Similarly, sensational reports that comedian Ali G would be the next Prime Minister if first-time voters ‘had their way’ featured strongly in pre-election coverage. The fact that health, employment and crime were the most important concerns cited by young people in the survey commissioned by BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat received much less coverage (The Guardian, 13/05/01). Suggestions of growing political apathy and disaffection also inform New Labour’s emphasis upon citizenship education, prompted by a concern for encouraging greater involvement in political life by young people. In a speech to the Citizenship Foundation the then Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, emphasised the importance of citizenship education in attacking the ‘don’t care culture’ of young people in contemporary Britain as part of the government’s overall strategy for creating ‘a nation of able, informed and empowered citizens’ (Irvine, 1998). Speaking at a consultative conference of the Education for Citizenship Advisory Group the then Education Secretary David Blunkett (DfEE, 1998) argued that: