Former rebel vows to make voting 'trendy' among young

Chairman of new Whitehall citizenship body hopes to make politics matter to teens. John Gill reports

March 20, 2008

Having left school aged 16 only to return to higher education later in life, Jonathan Tonge has few illusions about many teenagers' priorities.

Nevertheless, the professor of politics at the University of Liverpool has accepted the task of investigating how to make politics, voting and citizenship "trendy" among young people.

Professor Tonge, who has been appointed chairman of the new Youth Citizenship Commission by the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, has vowed not to duck tough questions or to focus on a politically active minority.

"We've got to go and find people who are disaffected, who have no clear concept of citizenship, and for whom the idea of going into a polling station would seem ludicrous," he said.

The commission will explore what young people understand by the term "citizenship", consider how to get them involved in politics and debate whether the voting age should be lowered to 16.

As such, its focus will differ from Lord Goldsmith's wide-ranging report on citizenship, published last week, which made a number of recommendations including the introduction of coming-of-age ceremonies for school-leavers.

Professor Tonge said: "The remit of the commission isn't to look at the formal swearing of allegiance to flags or monarchs.

"That's not to say that we won't consider it, but we're focused much more explicitly on young people and voting and what can be done about falling turnout among the young."

Another area of focus will be volunteering among young people, and whether an element of this should be included in citizenship education.

The commission will comprise about a dozen people, including academics, teenagers and youth leaders.

Professor Tonge said: "The feeling is that, whatever the laudable aims of teaching citizenship in schools, at the moment it is an add-on rather than a central issue."

His own route into academia gives him a unique insight into the issues at stake.

"I left school at 16 and went through a rebellious phase myself," he said. "I went back and did A levels at night school, so I relate to young people switching off. I did my first degree part-time in the evenings, then a masters and PhD full-time.

"So, from my own experience, I'm not naive enough to expect all young people to be into politics and to see that as good citizenship, because young people do rebel."

His first academic post was at the University of Salford, where he lectured in politics from 1994 to 2001, when he was made a professor.

He was appointed chair of the Political Studies Association in 2005 and left Salford the same year to join the University of Liverpool, where he is now head of the School of Politics.

"As an academic I deal with young people all the time, people from the age of 18 who are interested in politics," he said.

"What we've got to find out is why an awful lot of young people are not interested in politics and don't see voting as part of good citizenship. That's the tricky bit. We can go around the country and listen to young people who are politically active and conclude that there isn't a problem, but that wouldn't achieve much."

Professor Tonge said that the commission would also look at the effect that negative stereotyping has on young people, at the request of Bridget Prentice, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice.

"I actually want to go and talk to young offenders," he said. "We have to talk to people who have already transgressed the rules of society and find out why they went in that direction.

"There's no point talking to a bunch of white, middle-class, well-educated schoolchildren who are already fully connected to society - we wouldn't achieve anything."

Professor Tonge said that he was approaching the review with an open mind about the appetite for politics and other aspects of citizenship among young people, and whether lowering the voting age would be a positive step.

"I don't know how you reward voting, but I think we could make more of a song and dance of people voting for the first time," he said.

"We need to make it trendy in a way that it is clearly not at the moment - it's regarded as a dated thing, which is worrying.

"Until 2001, voting was seen as sexy by young people and the majority would vote in general elections, but now it has become a minority taste. We have to do something about that."

The commission is due to report its findings next spring.

Professor Tonge said: "We've got to do things quickly. Time is tight, but I don't mind that - I'd rather get on with the job."

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