Last November and December, a selection of YouTubers grilled the leaders of some of the UK’s main political parties in a series of live online broadcasts.
Ed Miliband (Labour), Natalie Bennett (Green), Nigel Farage (UKIP), and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats) all took part, but at the start of this year, Conservative Party leader (and current UK Prime Minister) David Cameron controversially pulled out, claiming there were “no dates that would work” before the general election in May.
TenEighty caught up with Rebecca Brown, Lewis Parker, Rosianna Halse Rojas, and Hannah Witton, who all took part in most of the Q&As, to find out what they thought of Leaders Live, who they were impressed by, and how they may (or may not) be voting – as well as speaking to Bite the Ballot’s managing director Michael Sani, to find out more about how the project came to fruition, and where it’ll be going next.
“Bite The Ballot was born as an idea in a classroom in the build-up to the 2010 election,” says Michael.
At the time, Michael was a teacher, and his boss, David Hughesman, helped him recognise the political power everyday citizens have if they decide to use it. “I was 27 at the time and I couldn’t believe that I’d never engaged during my own education and – more importantly – there were no efforts to engage those in education today,” he says.
After this realisation, Michael, along with a group of staff and students, formed Bite the Ballot. “It was only supposed to be a school project,” he reveals. “But the demand was there, so I quit my job to try and create a movement.”
Michael believes that the reason young people are so disenfranchised with politics is because they’ve never been inspired to participate. “No effort is made in school to engage people and allow them to shape their own democratic journey,” he says.
“This plays nicely into the way governments make disproportionate cuts on young people because they know there is no risk of being punished.”
With Bite the Ballot, Michael hopes to ignite the potential in young people across the country and release their political power. “We promote an ethos that politics is a life long journey and participation is the key to change,” he says. “No more elite decision makers; politics is for the people, by the people.”
Rebecca was first introduced to politics at school and says that she has never favoured a particular party, as she has a mixture of views. “I truly did not appreciate politics – or begin to understand it – until I was in my twenties,” she says.
Rosianna says her political leanings are mostly centre-left, although more left when it comes to social issues and welfare. Despite this level of engagement she was still disillusioned with politics as a whole. “I’ve never liked the parliamentary discussions very much,” she says. “Prime Ministers Questions were starting to really get to me, as it seems like such a clear example of the classism that still deeply exists in this country.”
Hannah reveals that she studied A Level politics and defines herself as a ‘leftie’ but, even with her good foundation of knowledge, often found politics hard to engage with. “I care about a lot of things that are affected by politics but most of the time I don’t really know what’s going on,” she says.
Unlike the others, Lewis was very engaged in politics; nonetheless, he has always felt unsure about who to vote for. “Since the first televised leaders’ debates in 2010, I have been gradually submersing myself in politics A-Z,” he says.
When securing the debates, Michael knew that he was in for a long process, but he is glad he remained persistent. “When you engage with their offices and quickly realise that some of the Special Advisors are pretty useless it can become quite tiring,” he says.
“Nevertheless, each debate has proven there is a demand from young people and that political parties can ignore them at their own peril.”
But what did the YouTubers think of the debates, and who impressed them most?
“I was surprisingly impressed by Ed Miliband,” says Hannah. “Although I don’t know if that’s just because he’s had some damn good media training.”
Noting that the debates trended on Twitter during each live stream, Hannah believes Leaders Live was a success. “I just hope that online engagement actually turns into young people registering and then turning out to vote,” she says.
Similarly, Rosianna was most intrigued by Ed, despite her previous uncertainty when he was chosen as leader of the Labour Party over his brother. “I found him open-minded and much more personable,” says Rosianna. “Someone I could really see at the head of the negotiating table but – more importantly – someone who wouldn’t cave in to people around him.”
She also notes that Nick Clegg was disappointing. “He was great when we had the opportunity to speak to him beforehand, but the moment the cameras were on he turned to old yoghurt,” she says.
For Rosianna, Leaders Live succeeded in engaging young audiences; she says it was wonderful to watch her Twitter followers and the community take part. “The questions I got from Twitter were so sharp and on point, and I’m grateful that they see engaging with these leaders as valuable.”
Lewis agrees, but unlike Hannah and Rosianna, he was impressed most by Natalie Bennett. “I went into the first Leaders Live not knowing much about the Green Party, only thinking what the media have told me about them – that they’re a ‘nonsensical small party with no real policies’,” he says.
“By the end of that debate I found myself agreeing with most things Natalie had to say. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have my vote in the election.”
Rebecca, on the other hand, was more impressed by how captivated the Leaders Live audience were than any particular party leader. “I was shocked and proud of how passionate our team were,” she says. “It just proves that young people do care!
“We had tens of thousands of people view the debates online and hundreds – if not thousands – of people engaged on Twitter,” she continues. “I’d say that’s a great step forward! We have a long way to go, but we are heading in the right direction.”
All four agree that time was an issue with the debates, mentioning that they would’ve liked more, as it often became a frustrating restraint. However, Rebecca feels this could have been combated if the format was simpler and the party leaders’ responses more straightforward.
“Some of the leaders were not focused with their answers and went on tangents,” says Rebecca. “There were moments where members of the panel and myself didn’t understand what was being said. More control and simplified answers would make it easier for us to follow and then engage better.”
Rosianna feels that immigration should’ve been discussed with each party leader for an extra hour in its own right. “Those discussions have so many implied sentiments and practised sentences that no one is getting to the heart of it, because no one wants to admit that it’s racially motivated,” she says.
Michael says he enjoyed the debates and believes they went well, but also reminds us that it was the first time Leaders Live ran. “It’s a new platform and we were piloting the concept of digital engagement through idols and influences, as they act as the mouth piece for young people and their fans,” he says.
Discussing the debates further, he reveals that Natalie and Ed stood out to him. “They clearly made an effort. They took onboard the format and came with manifesto pledges,” says Michael.
However he was not impressed with Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage, the latter of whom had hung up on Michael a week before his appearance saying he wouldn’t take part. “He blabs on about British values – surely he needs to practice what he preaches and be polite even when the cameras are not on him,” he says.
“As for Nick, well he admitted to the influencers that he hadn’t watched any of the debates and that he didn’t know the format,” he continues. “Which was clear as he dragged out his answers.”
Despite previously applauding the movement and agreeing to take part in Leaders Live, David Cameron turned down the opportunity in early January. This decision has been met with a lot of animosity from the YouTubers who took part, who say they’re disgusted, angered, and disappointed.
“He’s missing out on a great opportunity to connect with young people,” says Hannah. “It’s unfortunate that he’s sending out the message that he doesn’t care to hear our voices.”
Rebecca agrees, and emphasises that he’s not only let down the youth audience Leaders Live aim to capture, but also shown that he does not appreciate the work Bite the Ballot are doing. “Regardless of age, we are all valid citizens and make up a huge percentage of our population,” she says. “Our opinions, concerns and votes do count.”
Rosianna feels strongly about this too, pointing to many of David Cameron’s policies that have disenfranchised young people in the UK. “It’s ridiculous that our Prime Minister doesn’t have 60 minutes to spend with young people,” she says, “particularly while being so vocal about seeking to legislate against things like WhatsApp and Snapchat, while also being the leader of the government that hit young people with tens of thousands of pounds of tuition fee debt, making it even harder for a young person to graduate university with over £0 in the bank.”
Pointing out how, a week later, the PM pulled out of the national televised political debates scheduled for April, Lewis expresses his disgust. “Pulling out is a dangerous path for him to go down,” he says. “And him sugar-coating the decision claiming the Green Party should be included is a load of bullshit.”
However, Michael is giving the Conservative party leader the benefit of the doubt, and suggests that the PM’s chief strategist Lynton Crosby probably made the decision. “We have been told by several credible sources that Crosby’s strategy is to not care about those who aren’t registered to vote. Therefore not to target young voters but instead concentrate on the grey vote,” he says.
“I wonder how that guy can even be called a strategist if he represses certain parts of society and rinses and repeats on former election strategies,” continues Michael. “I just wish our elected decision makers would appreciate their role which is to serve the public. Part of that must be to engage new voters: something (it seems) the PM doesn’t have time to do.”
But did Leaders Live help the YouTubers decide who they will be voting for?
“Yes, probably Labour,” says Rosianna. “The debates definitely made me feel much more in favour of supporting Ed as party leader, and rid me of any last lingering hope in the Liberal Democrats.”
Rebecca, Lewis, and Hannah, unlike Rosianna, all express uncertainty about who to vote for. Nonetheless, they all agree that they will be voting.
Either way, Hannah expresses how helpful Leaders Live was towards her own decision. “It was definitely useful hearing policies from the different parties,” she says. “But you have to remember that you’re not voting solely for a party leader. You’re voting for an MP. So I’m going to do some research into the candidates in my area.”
It’s clear that although Leaders Live may not have directly swayed all of our YouTubers towards one party or another, it has achieved its primary goal of encouraging young people to pay attention and get involved with politics. And this isn’t the end of the conversation. Over the next four months – in the run up to the election – Bite the Ballot will carry on campaigning and delivering content.
They have already launched National Voter Registration Day, which hopes to inspire 250,000 people to register themselves on 5 February. They are encouraging people to hold events, run their own NVRD rallies, and to share the #TakePower video.
Michael also reveals that they still intend on bringing us the Conservative Leaders Live debate, but also mentions their content will become more issue-based with calls to action for their global community.
“The traditional news doesn’t tell us what’s going on and most of the time they show upheaval and conflict: this is a way of keeping us repressed through using fear and frustration,” he says. “We want to create our own network, peer-to-peer, so we can hear from people from different communities about how they are affected by certain issues. Get involved!”
Some of the YouTubers also intend on creating content for their channels., but Hannah is holding her cards close to her chest. “I’m hopefully going to be working with Bite the Ballot and Jamal Edwards on a video, so look forward to that!” she says.
Rosianna plans to highlight particular topics such as immigration and women, mentioning a phrase that is constantly thrown at female voters. “‘How could you not vote when 100 years ago women died for the right for you to do so?’” she says.
Rosianna is uncomfortable with the phrase, feeling it’s not a compelling way of encouraging women to vote. “I think many women find it very difficult to relate to the suffragist movement because they’re primarily used to guilt people now,” she says. “I just don’t think that’s very helpful.”
Lewis also expresses his intent on making politics-based content. “I feel like YouTubers have real power and too many of them don’t use it for good,” he says. “I want to.”
Reiterating this, Michael truly believes that the YouTube community has the potential to make a difference in the young voter turnout. Citing the suffragettes and the civil rights movement, he emphasises how much change people can bring about when they pull together. “Each of those movements did amazing things, and they did it without the one thing we have today,” he says. “Which is the ability to communicate as effectively as we can. So let’s do this.”
Reminding everyone the importance of politics, Michael encourages us to become a Bite the Ballot activist. “Politics is everything. It’s how we live together, it’s how our society functions, and it has to be about creating a better future. Time is the only factor that determines the level of change we see,” he says.
“You matter: if you believe you have a role to play, then start now,” continues Michael. “Even if it’s just sharing your views and opinions – it’s our time, become a Bite the Ballot activist and #TakePower!”
Find out more about Bite the Ballot, Leaders Live, National Voter Registration Day and become an activist today at bitetheballot.co.uk/activist.