Nipping political apathy in the bud, Michael Sani’s Bite the Ballot is on a mission to empower the youth of Britain hungry for change.
In 1970, the late great American bluesologist Gil Scott-Heron pronounced “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. Forty years later, affronted by dismal job prospects and an academic landscape facing reductions in funding, towering tuition fee hikes and AC Grayling’s curious New College of the Humanities with a handsome £18,000 a year price tag, British teens are discovering a fire in their belly for grassroots activism. Taking inspiration from the Rock the Vote initiative in the US, which helped bring droves of young voters to the ballot box for Barack Obama in 2008, Bite the Ballot aims to engage young people in politics. With thousands of members nation wide, students are inspired to find their own political voice in an atmosphere that fosters open dialogue between parliament and the public.
In the ornate environs of committee room 10 in the Houses of Parliament, over a hundred young politicos, ranging from LSE students to reformed Croydon gang members, gathered to debate the near trebling of University fees with Lib Deb MP Simon Hughes. Appointed by the coalition government as advocate for access to higher education, Mr. Hughes has been given the task of explaining the raised cap on student tuition from £3,290 per year to £9,000 per year, a proverbial poisoned chalice if ever there was one. Lord Roberts of Llandudno acted as the emcee of the evening, bellowing an occasional Obama-esque “Yes We Can” and fielding questions. Respectful but steadfast students petitioned for more government support of the arts and humanities and asked why they weren’t being taught more important matters than inanities like ‘how to cross the road’ in citizenship classes.
Continuing to echo the successful sloganeering of the 2008 Presidential campaign that mobilised gen Y stateside, founder of Bite the Ballot, Michael Sani, urged the crowd to create the change they want to see by getting out and voting for what they believe in. i-D caught up with Michael after the spirited debate:
What inspired you to start Bite the Ballot? I was teaching at a secondary school in Dartford, it was April 2010 and a colleague and I decided to ask my 24 students if they were going to vote in the upcoming election and they all said no. It then dawned on me that we can’t keep having young people, 16, 18 leaving school with no knowledge. We look around at the countries now [such as the Arab Spring movement in the Middle East] still fighting for the vote. We have it here yet 60 per cent of young people here choose not to vote. There’s something wrong and I don’t believe it’s them. We’ve got to start getting them committed, and parliament have got to help.
Do you think knowledge equals power? Yes, certainly. The more you understand the more you want to be involved. We saw a lot of young people come here at the start saying “I don’t know enough.” One girl said “why isn’t this advertised, we want to know more”. Knowledge makes them feel powerful, makes them want to engage more, makes them better citizens, to know that they are part of the system.
With so many people, especially students, disillusioned with politics, how do you get people to engaged with the political arena? Well you put the cat amongst the pigeons. You try and put through the message: 60 per cent of you don’t vote, if you continue to grow as non-voters, then MPs are not going to put more issues important to you through. So many MPs say that their policies are grey tinted because they are the voters. My plea to young people is let’s get out there, let’s vote and let’s ask MPs to put things in the manifestos for us because we’re going to vote and if you’re not catering to our needs, we’re not going to vote for you. Let’s show them that this generation is ready to be part of the system.
What’s been your proudest moment organising these events? After each one, when people come up to us and thank us, and more people join on facebook and students are tweeting about political issues, you kind of think it’s worth it.
Check out The Politics Issue, 1989, with the cover line: “The Education Crisis – what future for students?” That was 22 years ago!