Is it time to get young guns on the ballot paper?

Liam Atkins casting his vote
Liam Atkins casting his vote

WITH a neighbouring council recently welcoming a 23-year-old new member, reporter Rob Alderson looks at whether Hastings could do more to encourage young people into local politics.

A FEW months ago I was invited to an event where Parkwood Sixth Form students were able to grill Amber Rudd MP and Mayor Kim Forward.

Terri Dowling

Terri Dowling

There was standing room only as the teenagers asked a series of intelligent questions, challenging the MP on her Government’s record and registering their anger on a range of issues.

But even in that room of enthusiastic, engaged youngsters, when Ms Rudd asked how many of them would consider getting involved in local politics, the response was underwhelming.

It’s not a problem that’s confined to this corner of 1066 Country though. Figures from the Local Government Association show that the average age for councillors in the UK is 58.8, while two thirds of Hastings Borough Councillors are over 50.

Battle Town Council (BTC) last month co-opted Rob McDonald, who at 23 is the youngest member of the authority by some 20 years. He stood after a chance conversation with the town clerk and admits he is still getting used to his new role.

Rob McDonald

Rob McDonald

“I have always been interested in local issues and have a real passion for the town but I had this perception that it would be impossible to get onto the council. But I keep hearing that they are pleased to have some young blood and everyone has been very welcoming.

“People might imagine it’s really boring and they could just be in the pub but I find the meetings really interesting.”

Crucially perhaps, BTC is an apolitical body, and Cllr McDonald admits that he would have thought twice if he had to nail his colours to a party mast.

“A lot of younger people are not very clued-up about party politics and I am probably one of those,” he said.

Hastings Town Hall

Hastings Town Hall

His admission chimes in with Ms Rudd’s views. “I think we need to take the parties out of local politics to attract younger people,” she said. “I would like to see a cross-party initiative encouraging younger people to come and find out more. Young people may not know which party they belong to, but we can stress how they can help their community.

“I think we need to take politics out to young people and make them realise that the way to influence local services and local issues is to get involved.

“At William Parker we had a fantastically full room and I have lots of people coming up to Westminster on work experience so I know there’s a lot of interest. But I don’t think it’s just up to elected officials to reach out to young people - I think teachers, community leader and parents all have a part to play.”

At the last local elections here in Hastings, the youngest candidate on the ballot paper was 19-year-old Terri Dowling who stood for Labour in Ashdown ward. She didn’t win, but dad Bruce - who is also chairman of the local Labour party - insists it was a great experience for her, and is bullish about the party’s commitment to fielding younger candidates.

“We haver got some younger councillors - people like Emily (Westley) and Michael (Wincott) - and we have panelled some candidates under the age of 30 for the next elections. We are also lucky because we have a very active Young Labour group - people who are 15, 16 and 17 and they will get the chance to be selected as candidates if they are interested.

“We have got young people coming up through the party - much more than we did 15 years ago.”

Miss Dowling savoured a swing to Labour up against sitting Tory John Wilson, but the second youngest candidate came even closer to winning a seat. Liam Atkins was 20 when he stood for the Tories in Hollington and came within 27 votes of pulling off an eye-catching victory. He found his age was actually an advantage during the campaign.

“I had one person who said in passing he thought I was too young but 99 per cent of people responded really well - given the idea of a traditional Conservative, people did not expect to see my face on the doorstep.”

Mr Atkins made use of social media including Facebook and MSN messaging and believes all parties have to be more technologically savvy if they are to engage younger people. But he is adamant that something needs to change.

“I am not saying there should be young person’s shortlists but there is a shortage of young people on our council.

“There are a lot of big decisions being made for them but no young people are having their say. They need a voice.”

Come next May, a quick glance at the candidates will show whether there really is an appetite for change, both among the next generation and the parties themselves.