The General Election may be over but the hard work of persuading the public to believe in politicians is only just beginning. For many voters, yesterday’s ballot wasn’t just about “getting Brexit done” but about dealing with as a distasteful act to be endured until it was over.
Our first past the post voting system means that every election brings a fair amount of doleful chat about voting against what you don’t want rather than placing a joyful vote for the brightest future you can imagine.
But this year it seemed as though every conversation about voting characterised it as a chore, a burden or an act of defiance against massive odds. Ballots had to be cast tactically; dire alternatives loomed over every potential mis-vote – and if every reference to ‘holding your nose’ was counted, then GE2019 should go down as most pungent election of the century.
When a system seems so comprehensively broken there are two options before us: to despair and hide away, or to channel our frustration into hope and repair. For the most marginalised among us, we must all do the latter.
As campaigners and activists for equality and justice, our resolve has never been more tested - or more needed. Because bringing people back together and creating solutions that work for everyone means more than anything being prepared to get comfortable with messiness; to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. To embrace chaos as a clear chance for change.
Anyone wanting to rebuild better politics must start by seeking out the people least likely to have voted and asking them why they didn’t. The biggest single group of the disaffected is young women.
Back in September, Young Women’s Trust research showed that two-thirds of young women had lost confidence in politicians. Further research revealed the dreadful context that fuelled this hopelessness: young women are more likely to be offered a zero-hours contract and to be paid less than the minimum wage.
Almost 40 percent of young women struggle to make their cash last to the end of the month; and half of working mothers aged between 18 and 30 skip meals at least once a week to balance work against the cost of childcare. And against all of this, the harsh impact of daily violence and harassment: young women subject to sexism are five times more likely to suffer from clinical depression.
These perspectives must be counted. We can only rebuild from the ground up, and that means listening to voices on the ground. Many of those who feel they have been cast aside are working with or have themselves become community activists providing local solutions.
Those typically seen by politicians as a problem are in fact the best problem-solvers you could ask for. Their creativity, experience and knowledge is golden. Their solutions can provide solutions for everyone.
Our next generation of politicians must listen to – and must be – these people. They are the ones you know and admire locally. The women keeping the local women’s refuge open. The people keeping the food bank stocked. The team of local volunteers providing your nearby homeless shelter. The parents and carers staffing the library or community centre for free as respite space for those at the sharp end of service cuts. In the different voices of different communities is the perspective that can bring us all back together.
Charities can help with this. We are a font of information and perspective from our frontline working. We listen to and lift up the voices of those failed by current policy-making.
But we are also being failed by policy-making – namely the Lobbying Act that controls what we can say and do. Politicians, you must please reform this act. It stifles our capacity to bring you together with those furthest from power and so stifles your capacity to make politics work for everyone. Global watchdog Civicus warned this year that civic space in the UK is narrowing. A broader civic space would give us all more space to connect.
In the meantime, charities like ours will use the space we have to fullest effect. We are not sitting around waiting for politics to get better. At Young Women’s Trust, we understand that our work has never been more needed and that the public expect more from us. Old-fashioned models of “beneficiary” support and top-down decision-making are finished.
At Young Women’s Trust, the impatience of our service-users, ambassadors and activists is palpable. More young women than ever tell us they now call themselves feminists. More young women than ever clearly name and identify the sexism they experience daily. More young women are participating in public protest. Our job is to design a fairer future for young women by supporting young women to lead us all there. So we are building a movement for change.
The outcome of this election may have plunged many into despair. But our team of staff, volunteers, ambassadors and activists at Young Women’s Trust will go into the New Year with our hearts and our heads high. Because change is coming, mark our words. The choice is simply whether you want to be part of it.
Sophie Walker, Chief Executive of Young Women’s Trust.