Turned Off By Politics? TV Presenter Rick Edwards Wants You to Spoil Your Ballot Paper at the Election.

Originally published for OPEN Magazine

Over the past few years, only 38% of those aged 18 – 24 have voted in any election – that’s 18% less than the EU* average. In 2010, over 65s were 23% more likely to get down to a polling station than the under 25s. This “generation gap” is a seemingly recent development; in 1992 the difference was just 12%.  Something isn’t right. Are the youth of Britain actually apathetic and lazy, or is the system failing the younger members of society?

(*The European Union – that thing Nigel “I’m not racist but…” Farage is always banging on about leaving.)

“I so very rarely come across anyone that’s like ‘No, I have no interest in politics whatsoever’ – really, really rare,” BBC Free Speech host Rick Edwards tells us. “So something is going wrong. Is it in school? Is it a lack of political education? The barriers? Is politics not accessible?”

Whatever the cause may be, Rick is on a one man mission to recruit those missing voters. While many may have scoffed at the presenter of a show calledTool Academy turning his hand to more political matters, the former face of T4 is silencing any doubters; engaging an alienated generation in politics and urging them to use their voice and vote.

It’s all very well encouraging people to get on the electoral register, but some may not have a clue where to mark their X once they get in the polling station. That’s where None of the Above steps in to help – Rick’s unbiased guide to all the country’s major parties, the elective system and all the issues affecting UK citizens. Think British Politics for Dummies but funny, and not patronising either. If after learning about who wants your vote and what they pledge to do for you, you don’t feel anyone is a worthy candidate, None of the Above comes complete with a handy sticker to help you spoil your ballot.

With the deadline to register to vote Monday 20th April, and the election less than a month away, OPEN had a chat with Rick Edwards to find out why he thinks young people don’t vote, what needs to be done, and just how he feels about Russell Brand’s reluctance to exercise his democratic right.

OPEN: There’s a general feeling that young people* aren’t politically active. March’s budget appealed to homeowners, savers, married people – basically, an older voter. It seems the fact the under 25’s don’t vote has resulted in politicians not bothering to appeal to them.  How different do you think a budget would be if young people actually got down to the polling station?

RICK EDWARDS: I think you’re absolutely right – I think if politicians in government – and not in government – thought that young people were going to vote in the numbers that old people do then you would see that in their budgets and policies. Unfortunately, I don’t think at the moment because they kind of know that young people aren’t going to vote as much as older people are so they look after the people they know do. That’s why we have a big problem as young people aren’t getting the care that they deserve.

It’s such a vicious cycle. If I’m a young person and watch that budget, or listen to politicians of all parties and they’re not saying anything specifically relevant to me I’m going to feel like I don’t care, so I don’t vote. Then the politicians don’t have any incentive to appeal to me and the cycle continues. It’s dangerous and that’s the cycle that needs to be broken – either by young people suddenly voting in much greater numbers or politicians courting the youth vote by saying what they can do for young people with stuff like minimum wage, affordable housing etc.

We say young people aren’t voting but we all become older eventually. Our parents and grandparents voted from a young age – do you see this as a generational problem?

Well, so I guess the question really is, if you don’t vote when you’re younger, will you ever vote? I think the answer is, yes, but not as much as you’d expect. You’re much less likely to vote later in life and that is going to cause a decline in voting numbers which again, it’s not a good thing – you want as many people exercising their democratic right as possible. That’s democracy functioning at its best but it’s quite important to not see this as a generational war, pitting young people against old people because as you say, they’re not two distinct groups  – young people do become old people.

When I refer to generations, I mean more so like millennials etc. Will we become the under 25s that are one day over 65s that don’t vote?

Ah I understand. Actually, it’s a good question. Honestly, I don’t know the answer. It’s safe to say young people of comparative age in the 60’s and 70’s were voting much more, so there is a clear distinction there but what has that been caused by? I don’t really know which makes the problem harder to solve. If you know what’s causing it it’s easier to deal with. I suppose what I’m trying to do is focus on things I think will help, as opposed to what the causes were. Are you a millennial?

I guess, I’m 25.

And what are your feelings on it?

Well, I’m a bit of an anomaly as I’m from quite a politically active family so I grew up aware of the importance of voting so I don’t think my views are necessarily the norm. I know a few people who don’t vote simply because it’s quite a complicated process (NB – it’s not,register HERE) – I’ve struggled to register this year, taking three times online and ringing up multiple times, so I can see why many don’t bother.

Exactly. There are all these barriers to entry which shouldn’t be there. Like you say, if you’re not really kind of engaged to think “I will sort this” then you are more likely to think “Oh, it feels like they don’t want me to get involved anyway, I’ll just give up.” And there are so many ways we can change that. It’s frustrating.

I don’t think it’s just the system though – I think a lot of young people, particularly the working classes, feel like they haven’t got anyone to vote for. Many see Labour as Tories with a smile.

Do you think that? I can see why you’d think that about New Labour but I feel like with Miliband it is different. 

I quite like Ed Miliband. I think it’s funny when people say he’s not tough enough to be Prime Minister, yet they’re quite happy to vote for a man scared to debate with a supposedly weak man. The TV elections are a great thing and really help a lot of swinging voters.

They really are. David Cameron himself said those TV debates in 2010 really did engage people and that’s where a lot of people got their information from ahead of that election. I think Ed Miliband has actually been talking about trying to introduce legislation where the leaders are obliged to take part in a debate – quite interesting. 

I saw you tweeting David Cameron the other month about him appearing on the BBC Three’s Free Speech – have you had any response from him yet?

We have been nagging him for a while now to come on Free Speech, we don’t know yet, but we think his schedule isn’t going to allow it. It’s a bit of a shame as we’ve obviously had all the other leaders from the major parties on. I just thought, maybe a tweet would help (Laughter) and goad him into it but weirdly, he hasn’t got back to me. 

Do you think there’s a danger of first time voters just following family traditions and copying their parents vote?

It’s probably more worrying that if your parents don’t vote than you don’t vote – that concerns me more than “My parents vote this way so I’m going to too.”

Maybe the first time they may be led but after that you start making your own decisions, I do believe that. Also, the number of people that associate with parties strongly is so low now that’s it’s probably a small number. I suspect there aren’t many families that are die hard Labour or Tory and therefore not many kids are getting, not the right word, but indoctrinated by their mum and dad. So yeah, it worries more if your parents don’t vote, you don’t.

I voted because my parents did. Interestingly, my parents have never told me, or each other, who they vote for – which I really like. Lived together 40 years and never once told each other.

My grandad refuses to tell me who he votes for which I don’t understand – I’m proud of my vote and explaining why I vote for who I do.

Well obviously I don’t know your granddad – as far as I know – but with my mum and dad I think it’s for a few reasons. My mum is quite private and I think she’s concerned they may argue about it. My dad is a stronger character and could persuade her when she just wants to do it in peace so they don’t really talk about politics a great deal.

I like the fact I know both my parents take it seriously privately.

And to be fair, broadly speaking, I know who my parents have voted for at every election. I know them pretty well and what they want and what’s important to them – You can figure it out but they never explicitly say. Weirdly, it’s prepared me for working for the BBC – I’m not allowed to express any opinion on anything.

Do you think you would be vocal if you didn’t work for the BBC?

If I did the same kind of job to some extent in the public eye and if I felt really strongly about an issue or a campaign I think I would speak out. Though I haven’t voted for different parties at every election but nearly, so my vote is all over the place and it would be hard for me to come out and support a party. I think I’d be more likely to speak about a specific issue or campaign I imagine and that in itself might slightly align me with a party but not explicitly.

Have you made your mind up who you’re voting for next month?

I think so. As it gets closer you think more about it and it could change but I enjoy the process of thinking about it. My vote is partly to do with the candidates in my area in North London. I know the candidates, not personally, but there’s one that I like!

I won’t ask anymore and get you in trouble but you say that there is one you like which is rare – it seems the norm to hate politicians and think they’re all corrupt.

I strongly believe a lot of politicians get into it for the right reasons and are trying to do good things to help people. I really do. I know this is not a view shared by everyone, by any means. I’ve met a few politicians over the last couple of years who I have really liked and respected and felt that they were genuine. I find that encouraging. If I took the view that they’re actually all pricks and self-serving then it would all be too depressing.

It must be annoying being asked about him all the time but, Russell Brand! He’s gone down a very different route than you – encouraging people not to vote without really having an alternative plan in place. Do you wish he’d support spoiling a ballot instead?

Firstly, it’s great that he’s widening the political conversation; making more people aware of issues they may not know about. He needs to be applauded and encouraged, totally.

I obviously don’t agree with what he says about not voting. I read Revolution excited as I wanted to know what he suggests we do, if we want revolution. It’s not that I necessarily want one, but I was interested to see what he had to say, but I feel he didn’t really give me any answers.

So I don’t agree with a lot he says but never the less, I think he’s galvanising people in a positive way.

I’ve very briefly mentioned None of the Above to him, and spoiling your ballot etc., but I don’t think he buys into it, unfortunately. Even though, deep down, I think he would like a None of the Above option on the ballot paper – like a revolution from within, if you like. It could sit with his principles but I don’t think he’ll come out in favour of any of that at the moment so I’ll be the one to keep banging on about it (laughter). 

Finally, one none political question, just because I’m curious – why do you support Liverpool FC? You’re not from the city and don’t seem to have any links to the club?

I support Liverpool for a very pathetic reason – when I was a kid my dad loved all sports but he was especially keen for me to play football. We’d watch it on TV, but whereas I loved live games and playing, I found watching it on TV boring. When I was about 6, he was forcing me to watch the ‘86 Cup Final and I was bored. He told me to pick a team to support and that way I’d enjoy it and I happened to pick the red team. That is literally it. I have been a Liverpool fan for a long time now and there is no link whatsoever. Purely random – all because I liked red at the time. It could have just as easily have been Everton!

Regarding the Hillsborough Justice Campaign; the work and dedication they have put in for getting justice for the 96 killed is just incredible and I’ve got nothing but respect for those people. It just shows what can be done if you care about something and don’t let things lie. It demonstrates just what people can achieve if they keep going – even with some serious obstacles in their way.

* “By the way, I wish there was a better term for young people than ‘young people’. I know it’s hopelessly patronising, especially given I am not one. I am open to alternative suggestions. For now, though, I’ll persist with young people. Just know that I wince every time I write it.”  Expert from None of the Above

Same, Rick. Same.

None of the Above is out now

See also: Are You Registered to Vote?