Kate Willoughby: More young voters need to find their voice and honour suffragettes like Emily Davison

The suffragette Emily Davison is the inspiration behind the #Emilymatters campaign.
The suffragette Emily Davison is the inspiration behind the #Emilymatters campaign.
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WITH the agreement now solidified between the Tories and the DUP, the 2017 election appears to have been finally put to rest. What started as an ‘impossible to lose’ election for the Tories surprised most commentators and resulted in a deal that many are now questioning.

One of the reasons for this change was the significant increase in voter turnout at this election – more people felt the need to engage politically and this 25-year high was largely boosted by young people, with more than half of eligible young people deciding to exercise their right to vote. This is a significant result and clearly impacted the outcome.

Yet why did people, especially young people, who chose not to vote in the 2015 general election or the EU referendum decide to use their voice this time? While there are no doubt many different answers, young people’s growing awareness that their voices matter – and can have an impact at the ballot box – is certainly among them.

In 2014 I began a campaign called #Emilymatters, which champions equality and uses the story of suffragette Emily Davison to encourage disengaged young people and women to vote.

As an apolitical campaign, we don’t promote particular parties or try to convince people to vote one way or another. What matters to us is that people value their hard-won democratic birth right and that they, as an individual, can have an impact if they choose to use their vote.

While there are many different reasons people choose not to vote, perhaps the most common is that they believe politics is boring and irrelevant, and that individual ‘voices’ don’t matter.

This sentiment is particularly common among young people. While some of their peers are among the most politically engaged, too many struggle with a profound lack of confidence when it come to going out and making their voice heard, which also impacts the number of women who vote.

This was summed up particularly well in a short interview I did with Lauren, a potential first time voter from Glasgow on the eve of the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, which caused a small storm on Twitter under the hashtag #DearLauren.

So what changed in last month’s election? While there are certainly many answers to this, having worked with groups and organisations including Girlguiding LaSER, the Sikh Network, Webroots Democracy, HMP Downview, sixth form colleges and at various events through the #Emilymatters campaign, it’s clear there is a growing awareness of the need to engage young people and women in our democracy.

It’s vital to encourage more young people and women to support each other to get involved in our democracy at all levels. By seeing others like them engage in politics, perhaps those who still believe that voting doesn’t make a difference will feel more empowered to use their voice and have their say. And the more this happens, the more those in government will have to pay attention.

We saw a fantastic increase in the number of young people voting in last month’s election, but with just over 50 per cent participating, there’s still a long way to go. Hopefully the results from this election have shown those who have not voted in the past that they can have a significant impact on election results and that they should continue to raise their voice to make sure the Government listens.

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, a major step towards universal suffrage.

The UK may have come a long way since Emily Davison and her sister suffragettes began the first wave of feminism, but their work is not yet over. We’re all part of the story and we each have a role to play, passing the baton from one generation to the next.

What began with a performance of my Emily Davison play, To Freedom’s Cause, at Bolton Castle in 2009 has found a contemporary voice through connecting the stories of real suffragettes from the North with women and young people today.

I hope that you will join us as we work to create a living legacy that celebrates remarkable women like Emily Davison, encouraging more women and young people today to step up, vote and lead. Your voice matters!

Kate Willoughby is an actress, writer and creative director of the #Emilymatters campaigns. She will be guest speaker at the Northern Power Women conference in Leeds on Thursday. Further details can be found at www.northernpowerwomen.co.uk/npwliveleeds

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