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We have just days to have the real debate that young people deserve

Friday 17-06-2016 - 15:22

NUS LGBT+ Officer Rob Young on how changing the narrative of the referendum will help get young people out to vote.

Arriving at train station after train station all over the country, for me the last few weeks and months have been more like a neverendum than a referendum! I, like so many others, have been touring around Britain trying to ensure we make the positive decision to stay in Europe and avoid coming down with a dose of Brexit. It’s been tough, but it’s been so rewarding. I have had the pleasure of talking to so many different people - young and old - about this huge decision on our future in, or out, of the EU. But I have found one thing has been most prevalent – it’s actually been quite boring. I probably shouldn’t say that, but then again, I think someone needs to.

My first debate was at City College Plymouth. Now, I often bang on about Plymouth with a smile on my face and a spring in my step and I am never more at home than when I’m in a room with active and inspiring young people. It’s probably the teacher in me. I just couldn’t wait to talk about the issues that were important to them. How the EU affected their lives. And yet, no, because the two Tory MPs sat next to me just wanted to bang on about trade. Not the issues that this group of people wanted, not how the EU impacts on Plymouth, just trade - over and over and over again. Put simply: they were going round and round like a broken record and I think it’s time we put on another song.

Not a single word about education, about the thousands of students who had directly benefited from schemes like Erasmus+. These are schemes that have allowed thousands to experience life and education in every corner of Europe - yet, the leave side act as if they never happened or somehow they are safeguarded. Not a single mention of the investment that the EU has made in college buildings in places like Cornwall and in fact all over the country. Yet again we’ve heard absolutely nothing about the European Social Fund that has put millions of pounds of funding into a squeezed further education sector. At the very least we were in Plymouth – so if you are going to go on endlessly about trade, could we at least talk about the experiences of companies in the local area, like Princess Yachts and how they have actually benefited from being in the EU? We can’t? No? Oh okay then.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not saying that FE students don’t care about trade. What I'm saying is our politicians in this debate have missed the point. We’re just days away from this historic vote and we’re still talking about statistics and figures, who said what about whom and not connecting it to the experiences and lives of people all over Britain.

We should be highlighting local projects that have been made possible with EU funding. Where I'm from, in the West Midlands, the EU didn't only make things like Thinktank, Birmingham's Science Museum, our Symphony Hall, International Convention Centre and funding for Birmingham City University possible - they also created an emergency jobs fund when MG Rover went bust in 2005, and this year have helped 16,000 young people in the West Midlands find work through funding and support. What does that look like for your local area? These are the issues we should be talking about.

Trundling along to Gloucester for my second debate, I was slightly disheartened but ready to roll my sleeves up and make the positive case for the EU and for education. The room was divided, but with most people already knowing how they were going to vote. We have to make sure we are reaching undecided voters who will hold the key in this referendum. Debates are absolutely crucial to hearing both sides of the argument – but we have to make sure that they don’t just become talking shops where people are preaching to the converted and using fear and divisive arguments because they can get away with it. We have to make sure that our democracy reinvents itself and that we are more accessible in the way we campaign, debate and vote.

The debate in Gloucester focused on immigration. Of course this is an important issue – but the rhetoric is hiding the facts. Students and young Brits are hugely in favour of immigration and we are far more likely to be outraged at the disgraceful treatment of our peers who come to the UK to study from abroad than the idea of people from EU member states coming to live here on our little island. And with an aging population; perhaps we shouldn’t ignore the facts. One million babies have been born to transnational couples who met on study exchanges. The EU is fostering learning and love all across our continent and we want in!

On one of my final debates I was with the UK Youth Parliament – active young people who are contributing to a better society and they do it all whilst at school. These were kids who were so well informed of the facts and the arguments. They knew more than me in some areas, well, in most areas! But you know what? It was devastating to know that they have been denied the right to vote in this referendum that will affect their futures just as much as mine and yours. EU nationals who are here, contributing to Britain and call our country their home, have also been locked out of the right to have their say. It made me feel an even greater responsibility not just to vote, but to ensure the tone of the debate does justice to these young people who will live with the consequences of this decision now, as they face an even tougher job market and in the future as their rights to benefit from life experiences, education and employment all over Europe are slowly taken away.

So in the next few days we need to own this conversation and have a positive debate, talking about the day-to-day realities and lives of young people in this country. We have to talk about the issues that people care about – in a way that they can engage and take part.

I am deeply worried that this campaign has turned people off who we need to turn up at the polls to stand up for Britain. Young people are saying they are bored by this debate not reflecting their issues and let’s be honest – bored people don’t vote. We have to change the narrative in the next few days, get people engaged and get them to the polls.

Like all unions, the EU is only a reflection of its own members. Being members of the European Union has given us so much, and it’s going to give us so much more. We have to make sure we’re not sat here a few days, months or a year down the line saying ‘you don't know what you've got till it’s gone.’

So in the next few days please think about what's going to make someone put their shoes on, take a walk to a ballot station, and put a cross for Remain on 23rd June. We have fought so hard to ensure hundreds of thousands are registered to vote for Thursday. Now we have to ensure that they use their voice.

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