Pop stars try to rock the vote

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 January, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 January, 1996, 12:00am

IT has to be a rare moment when one can feel any sympathy for the Young Conservatives. But the charming chaps and girlies who used to delight in wearing 'Hang Nelson Mandela' badges and tearing up copies of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union are in a bad way.

The youth wing of the Conservative Party - where John Major used to go to meet girls - has found its membership plummeting so badly of late that I am sorry to have to report that its annual conference planned for next month has been cancelled.

Only 20 years ago the YCs, as they like to call themselves, could claim 500,000 members.

Now their numbers have dropped to just 5,000 and there were serious doubts about how many would turn up for the conference.

Not that the party grandees will be sorry to see the end of the event. It has frequently been the focus of media attention of the worst sort as photographers and reporters turned up to goad the exuberant youth into doing something silly like lifting up their kilts or saying something outrageously right-wing or offensive.

Young Labour has by contrast managed to boost its 25,000 members by 7,000 in the past 18 months since Tony Blair became party leader. But even that figure is ridiculously low for a country which prides itself on advanced political debate and a love of democracy.

Enter Rock the Vote - a new multi-party organisation to be launched next month aimed at turning Britain's youth on to politics.

With an all time low in the number of 18 to 24-years-olds registered to vote something needs to be done.

Emulating a similar organisation featuring Madonna - set up to interest American youth in voting ahead of the 1992 presidential election - it will include rock bands urging the new generation of post 18-year-olds to got out and do their democratic duty. There will be stickers on CDs and cassettes urging young people to vote, events in nightclubs and the whole grand scheme will come to a climax with a Band Aid-style concert.

During the 1992 United States presidential elections the organisers claimed it contributed to a 20 per cent increase in young voters, bringing in more than 250,000 new votes.

I suspect the British venture will fail. Youth in the UK are not so much disillusioned about issues, or complacent, they just show little belief that politicians can do anything to ease their plight.

Sixteen years of the same party in power and endless disgraceful stories about the behaviour of MPs have hardly done much to endear politics to young people.

They will also smell a rat when the whole HK$12 million campaign is being orchestrated by the head of one of Britain's major recording companies, albeit with the blessing and backing of the three main parties.

I suspect that if popular music can be used to campaign for anything it must be on a single issue theme like Band Aid or Rock Against Racism, which found some success in the late 70s and the 80s. There have even been successful concerts for organisations like Greenpeace. But turning youth on to party politics - no.

As someone commented this week: 'Youth don't expect their politicians to be hip, they expect them to be effective.' The organisers admit the campaign's 18 to 24-year-old target audience is neither apathetic nor self-centred, but remains unconvinced of their power to effect change by using their vote.

THE most recent poll indicated that 60 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds are Labour supporters, with 21 per cent favouring the Conservatives and 13 per cent the Liberal Democrats. This compares with the position after the 1992 election, when 38 per cent of those 18 to 24-year-olds who voted chose Labour, 35 per cent the Conservatives and 19 per cent the Liberal Democrats.

If it is to succeed the campaign will have to attract to party politics those young people who have abandoned the traditional system and opted for single issue politics such as the environment or animal rights.

The polls show 25 per cent of young people have not yet decided who they will vote for.

The Tories, with their low showing, have more to gain. But the odds are that a young person voting for the first time is more likely to cast it in the direction of Labour.