John Harris

Journalist & Author

Voter apathy alive and flourishing in once radical Manchester

The seat of Manchester Central witnessed the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 but 200 years later few younger electors seem to think voting matters

It’s an awkward irony, to say the least. In 1819, the area of Manchester then known as St Peter’s Field was the scene of a watershed moment in the struggle for universal suffrage, when around 15 protesters were variously bayoneted, shot and trampled to death in the so-called Peterloo Massacre.

The site now sits at the heart of Manchester Central, the ultra-safe Labour seat that recorded the UK’s lowest turnout at the last general election: 44%. In 2012, a subsequent byelection registered an even more miserable figure: 18%, a low without precedent since the second world war.

Around 30% of adults here are reckoned to be in full-time education, which in tandem with the turnout figures underlines two things: that students form a very transient part of the population, and that there is a more general correlation between voting and age.

There is also the small matter of poverty and social exclusion: well away from the middle of the city, Manchester Central contains such neighbourhoods as Hulme, Moss Side and Ardwick, all affected by the kind of problems that tend to go hand-in-hand with political disconnection.

All in all, then, the seat suggests a messy tangle of all the factors that militate against turnout, with disaffection among the under-25s well to the fore.

Within sight of the commemorative Peterloo plaque stuck on the outside of the Radisson Hotel (once the Free Trade Hall, which probably says something about the smothering of civic values by consumerism), most of the young passersby I talk to amount to a case study in generational abstention, albeit for a variety of reasons.

In vain, I try to extol the wonders of putting your cross in the requisite box. “I don’t know how to do it,” says Jordan Storey, 20, who is currently unemployed. Was he taught about the importance of voting at school? “No. I didn’t learn anything at school. Not really.”

Rachel Fairburn, 21, is in the last year of a French and German degree at Salford University. “I feel like whoever I vote for isn’t going to do what they say,” she tells me. “I was going to vote for the Lib Dems last time – and they would have messed me about. The smaller parties don’t amount to much, so you’ve only got the big three to choose from. And they do sod all.”

Does she know about the Peterloo Massacre? “No. I understand that the vote is important. Especially … well, I’m a woman.” A pause. “It’s great that I have the right to vote, but it doesn’t get me anywhere. It’s really depressing. Horrible.”

Ten minutes away in Hulme is Loreto sixth form college, an award-winning Catholic establishment with an amazingly diverse student body (I did my A-levels there, not long after Peterloo). For an hour, I talk to five students who embody one huge tension within many young people’s perceptions of voting: the fact that plenty of under-25s are eminently politically aware, but increasingly fail to see the point of either the rituals of Westminster, or elections. They will all have the vote in 2015, but all five say that they will at least consider abstaining.

It is, perhaps, sobering to consider that they were all born between 1995 and 1996. “My life until 2010 was New Labour,” says 17-year-old Hattie Cooper Hockey. Voting, she imagines, would feel “sad”. Her generation, she says, is “not a major force in elections, so no one cares, whereas if you start attacking pensioners, that’s really going to go massively against you.” In which case, I suggest, more young people ought to vote.

“Yeah. More young people should vote. But if they’re not voting, that isn’t necessarily because they’re lazy and apathetic. It’s because politicians don’t appeal to young people.”

Their generation, they tell me, has been hugely affected by a couple of recent historical events. When they were seven or eight and had just started to notice what was on the news, they watched Tony Blair defying public opinion and sending British troops to Iraq. And seven years later, as they and their peers were finishing secondary school, the Lib Dems did their volte-face on tuition fees.

“There was a walkout at my high school because of that,” says Cooper Hockey. “It was the first time that a lot of my friends became aware of what was going on in politics, and it was against young people.”

And what did it tell her about the political process? “That you can vote for something, and it’ll never happen.”

Seventeen-year-old Tom Sullivan talks about non-party initiatives such as Unite Against Fascism and UK Uncut, and the fact that the main parties feel so distant from them. There is mention of such young(ish) columnists and online polemicists as Laurie Penny and Owen Jones: “They seem more like normal people,” reckons Rowan Gourlay, 17. “They interact with people on social media, and it makes them seem more in touch with what’s happening.”

Tribute is also paid to the ubiquitous Russell Brand, who has evidently become a byword for everything we talk about. “The thing I thought was surprising was that I logged on to Facebook one evening, and loads and loads of people had posted the video of the interview with Jeremy Paxman and his article from the New Statesman,” says Joel Pearce, 17. “People thought, ‘We like him. He’s saying something we relate to.’”

There are some complaints about the lack of political education that goes on in schools, though at least one of my interviewees thinks that’s a relatively minor problem. “I don’t think people need to learn more about the political system,” says Pearce. “People are aware of the issues; people are aware of politics. But they make an active choice, that there’s nobody on the ballot paper who represents them.”

To finish, I hark back to Peterloo. What about the fact that people were killed trying to get the vote?

“Just because people died for it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s now politically useful,” says Sullivan.

“They fought for a change, but what’s the change now?” says Sara al-Attbi, 18. “Nothing’s happening. We need to do another march.”

And what would they write on the placards?

Her answer surely speaks volumes about the distance between her generation and the cliques of Westminster. “Stop being old men,” she says. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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