This Much I Know… – Educate Joey Essex and Engage Young Voters?

If you Google ‘Joey Essex’ what do you expect to find? Nightclub appearances? TOWIE gossip? Or the Labour party rally in Warrington? Today, the latter is the first link to appear.

Having already interviewed (and posed for a selfie with) Nick Clegg, Essex’s appearance in Warrington  follows in a series of segments conducted by the reality TV star for ITV2’s programme Educating Joey Essex. The purpose, Essex states, is to engage those who are disillusioned by simplifying the political conversation: ‘I’ve never voted in my life because I don’t understand politics and I don’t think you should vote for things if you don’t understand them’ he told the Daily Mirror. ‘The way I see it is that if they can explain it to Joey Essex they can explain it to anyone. And then some young people might see what they’re on about.’

Perhaps this is testament to the inescapability of the election debate or further example of the celebrity-turned-politically-conscious-spokesman trend (is Joey Essex just an orange, Valentino clad, less articulate Russell Brand?) but do we really need the ramblings of a reality star, famous – it would seem – for being professionally stupid, to inspire young people about politics? I’ll be honest: I’m torn.

There is reason, significant reason, why many young people care so little for politics. MPs embroiled in expenses scandals, who put the bonuses of bankers before the welfare of new generations and rose from elitist professional trajectories unrecognisable to most young voters, have very little chance of galvanising much in the way of youthful engagement. In 2010 students impassioned by the Liberal Democrats promises to safeguard tuition fees marched to the polling booths with newly formed hope, only to have their first political act rendered useless by subsequent broken promises. Since the first whispers of a ‘credit-crunch’ in 2008, our political conversation has turned to one of blame, mistrust and feelings of inevitable misfortune: the frequent reference to ‘recession’, ‘recovery’ and ‘deficit reduction’ instilling in the next generation of voters an unwavering sense of doom. If you grew up amongst the nihilistic language of the economic crash, the politics of hope may seem an abstract alternative. And, if you have no sense of hope, why would you bother voting? In 2010 only 44% of 18-24 year olds voted while the figure was 76% of those over 65.

But young people are not indifferent. The internationally praised engagement in the Scottish referendum proved that. Cynicism should not be mistaken for apathy; the pessimism felt by most does not reflect the characteristic idiocy which Essex capitalises upon. Across the country first time voters are listening, reading and discussing, seeking information, and challenging the Westminster establishment. From the housing crisis to the job market, claiming that this upcoming election will affect young people most is not an easily dismissive case.

In Scotland young engagement was achieved by allowing young people access to the debate, giving them platforms on television and making the possibility for change a tangible reality. Celebrity endorsement (on both sides) played a role and I don’t wish to delegitimize the importance of that contribution, but nobody waited for the avocation of a high profile figure to spark their engagement for them.

So is Joey Essex, as well intended as his efforts may be, a necessary ally in the fight to get young people voting?

TV presenter Rick Edwards, in his sincere plea to the young electorate with his book ‘None of the Above’, writes that voting turnout will not be improved by ‘media saturated with calls to vote, and party campaigns, and books about politics by Z-list celebrities in the run-up to an election’ (incidentally Edwards’ self-awareness is something I distinctly admired). The process of political engagement needs to stem from a culture shift in our entire approach to political discourse. It’s not enough to have these conversations every five years and express belated hope in a high turnout at the polling stations. We need to make politics a constant conversation. Something which doesn’t fade with the creation of a new government or a No vote to independence but continually evolves. Politics should not be a distant, boring alternative to pop-culture but interwoven within the mainstream.

With this in mind, I’m forced to rethink my initial scorn toward Essex’s endeavours. A few weeks ago I was delighting in the news that Paloma Faith was taking journalist Owen Jones on her tour in an attempt to promote an anti-UKIP message to her fans. Faith is a singer, a Brit award winner and celebrity who reaches audiences beyond those who routinely watch Question Time or read The Guardian. She is also someone I’m a fan of, and so news that she would engage with politics (regardless of her background knowledge) was something I applauded. But aren’t Essex’s actions predominantly the same?

I am not alone in rolling my eyes at Essex as he poses for selfies with the party leaders but I’m willing to recognise a potential class dimension to the mockery he receives. I can’t pretend to be a fan of Joey Essex, and so I find myself placing a double standard upon the work he may be doing. His talents may be less notable but his audience reach is considerable, and if he uses that platform to advocate for political engagement – who am I to criticise. Reports say this election will be the closest to call in decades and we should all have an input to the inescapable debate.

[Tara Fitzpatrick – @TFitzpatrick25]

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