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So why should you have a Young Mayor? Is it because it's a nice idea? Or because it sounds like fun?
Hopefully it is both of those things, but it might just be a lot more....
Why young mayors?
Benefits for children and young people
The key ingredient is that it passes the first test of any democratic process: it is clear, simple and young people understand it. It takes less than 10 minutes to explain and the reaction is universally positive. Once the process begins, with awareness raising and calls for candidates to put themselves forward – we find a full and representative field of young people prepared to take the big step of putting themselves in front of their contemporaries.
The fact that young people do not generally have a lot of knowledge about formal political processes should not be confused with lack of intelligence or indeed interest. Young Mayor Schemes are demonstrating that they can become important vehicles for giving a focus and a cutting edge to a range of engagement and participatory initiatives. Candidates who stand and fail to be elected – far from being alienated – are keen to participate as young advisors or as part of a youth council.
There are personal benefits, in skills and experiences gained, for the Young Mayor, Deputy, Youth Council members, advisers, as well as the candidates and nominees via the election process. Beyond this there are the young people acting informally as election agents, campaign managers and of course the thousands of young people who can be touched by the nomination process – and then onto all those young people enjoying the educational experience of casting a vote.
Young Mayors link individual – and communities of – young people directly with their elected representatives. Young Mayors increase the influence that young people have on local decision-making – direct access to a high profile young person who has been democratically elected across the borough is a powerful tool to change the minds of opinion-formers.
Properly resourced and supported, Young Mayor Schemes typically achieve election turnouts approaching 50% - the envy of their adult counterparts. The March 2009 election in North Tyneside achieved a 59% turnout.
Young Mayors are a route to strengthening local accountability for young people and a route to improving local public services. They can further and foster understanding among young people of the borough’s governance and democratic structures. Young Mayors can help to speed the modernisation of local government and spearhead change towards more user-driven public services.
Campaigning, fun and the excitement of an electoral process is an amazing driver for greater involvement. Engagement of young people can draw much from a political process – translation of the physical act of voting into very local and visible change during an annual election cycle. Importantly, the Young Mayor election process can begin what will hopefully become a lifelong habit of civic participation in elections and democratic processes. To this end most Young Mayor elections mirror the practicalities of voting that will be encountered in adult elections.
Figures below are taken from a poll (London Young Residents Survey 2005, Taylor Nelson Sofres) conducted during the second year of Lewisham’s Young Mayor Scheme – it is possible there are other factors at play but there is no identified explanation other than the Young Mayor for the substantial differential in perception.
Benefits for adult decision-makers
Young Mayors raise the visibility of local young people and awareness of the issues affecting young people. They are a high profile demonstration that the local authority is serious about changing the lives of young people in the borough. A Young Mayor acts as a stimulus for corporate commitment to and action on involving and taking account of young people within an authority. The act of having a Young Mayor crystallises the need to reference young people across services and departments.
Properly supported a Young Mayor can have a large influence on the lives of local young people. Individual Young Mayors will by nature be more reactive to annual concerns during their cycle in office. Long term the schemes are proactive and transformational – bringing about a culture change amongst young people who see a local mandate fulfilled and associate this with democratic accountability.
Casting forward (no substantial data is available yet) we believe there is likely to be an increase in democratic participation. As young people who are educated and informed by positive local experiences of a Young Mayor move into the 18-24 age bracket we believe they will place a higher value on democratic participation and municipal elections will see increased turnout.
The legitimacy of elected politicians is significantly enhanced when acting on behalf of young people in authorities where there is a Young Mayor. Effective youth democratic structures grow a mandate as much as the perception of those structures. A strong Mayor or Leader will ensure they have regular and direct contact with a Young Mayor so that they speak for young people and effect meaningful change – legitimacy flows both ways in this relationship.
Adult politicians benefit from the raised profile of young people’s issues and are better able to serve those residents who historically have little voice and influence; yet live in the area, contribute to the local economy and raise educational standards as they travel through their young lives.
Complementing existing structures
It is easy to understand some resistance to the concept of a Young Mayor on the part of those actively engaged in providing support for young people through youth services and other agencies. These concerns centre on the competitive nature of the contest and a legitimate desire to protect some young people from the adversarial nature of the process. This is often compounded by a concern that young people who face additional barriers to participation in general – through disability, social or economic factors – may be disadvantaged.
Experience runs counter to this view. Indeed, engagement has been highly representative and with proper support and appropriate interventions many young people who have not felt able to engage in more conventional initiatives have benefited immensely (and remain involved) in schemes. For example, several candidates with learning difficulties have stood from special schools and one candidate was elected as Deputy Young Mayor in Lewisham.