Claire Ward is the very first Mayor of the East Midlands. Credit: East Midlands Combined County Authority.

Newly-elected East Midlands Mayor Claire Ward wants to solve longstanding regional issues, including getting more young people involved in local decision-making. She talks to CBJMagazine  

As the General Election looms on July 4, the question of how and when young people might have a louder political voice has become all the more pertinent.

The East Midlands could soon see a panel of young people participating in local politics under a policy proposed by Claire Ward, 52, who on May 3 was elected as the first mayor of the region.

Ward, formerly Labour MP for Watford, pledged to improve many aspects of East Midlands infrastructure: from transport links to establishing a new ‘homelessness task force’. She sees these problems as overlapping with the need to include young people in local decisions.

“Young people that go to university here or live in the counties don’t often stay here: our retention rates are much lower than the average,” says Claire Ward, adding, “overall, it’s because our connectivity is poor: particularly if you live on the county outskirts and must get over to the city for good quality work.

“The bright lights of London or Manchester may seem more appealing for good jobs and transport. I think that we have the potential to establish those things here, but we could do better.”

Alison Jolley is the CEO of Young Leicestershire: the largest provider of open-access youth clubs in the county. The charity oversees many companies which aim to give young people the best start in life.

Jolley believes that a youth-led panel contributing to local decisions in the East Midlands would be a positive step-forward, as long as it is put together with care.

“I think that any panel is a good idea as long as it makes a difference,” she says. “I think that it would need very clear terms of reference and a purpose: a proactive partnership of organisations and networks.”

“I would also suggest that these networks already exist, because there are regional youth work units all across the country, comprised of local authorities and voluntary groups talking about youth work, with young people’s voices at the heart. I suppose that all the Mayor needs to do is to tap into them.”

“Young people can feel that the consequences of politics are done to them”

In September 2023, YMCA reported that 86% of under-25s intended to vote in the next election. Up until this point young people have been very disengaged from national decision-making: the 2019 general election saw just 47% of 18-24 year olds casting their vote, a 7% decrease from 2017.

Matt Ashton, politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, says: “Young people often get involved in the political process but terribly, become a little bit cynical about it because an awful lot of the political process is deal-making, compromise and arrangements where you get about 20% of what you want.

“Research shows that young people are tremendously interested in political issues but, of course, they will often prefer direct action, marching, protests and similar.”

General elections in recent years have seen a relatively low youth turnout. Credit: Claudio Divizia

Ward’s election as the East Midlands’ first mayor is part of broader changes, the process of ‘devolution’ which transfers decision-making power from Westminster to local authorities across the country. With more citizen assemblies and local investments on the horizon, this could well be the best time for young people to push for direct action on the issues that they care about.

“Devolution is often a good thing, as long as there is the financial budget to back it up,” says Ashton.

“But I think that to get young people involved you need to say more than ‘there are these new roles available.’ You’ve got to recognise that young people might be in full time education, they might be carers, they might be working multiple jobs to stay at university – there’s not a one-size-fits all solution.“

“Hopefully young people will be able to champion the cultural change in politics”

The first stage of Claire Ward’s solution is to recognise that young people should no longer be standing on the fringes of the conversation. Then, she says, will be the time to set up collaborations between youth organisations and local authorities.

“Young people can feel that the consequences of politics are done to them,” says Ward, adding that the current debate about national service has sparked interest from young people but “not in the right way because it doesn’t take into account the long-term benefits of young people in society.”

But what about real young people representing their constituencies?

Nottingham East’s Nadia Whittome, 27, and Selby’s Keir Mather, 26, are two of the youngest MPs standing for re-election in July. Last year, Sky News reported many younger MPs were quitting their roles due “a toxic working environment at Westminster.” Claire Ward is advocating for this to change, too. 

MPs in their mid-20s may often struggle to stay in Parliament for the long-term. Credit: Farnaces via Adobe Stock

“Politicians of all parties need to raise the standard of what’s acceptable in terms of the way that they behave,” says Claire Ward, adding, “but we also need the media – social and mainstream – to behave more appropriately.

“If we want to encourage more young people, women and people from diverse backgrounds into politics then it needs to be a more welcoming environment.

“Hopefully young people will be able to champion that cultural change in politics.”