From Alienation to Participation: How do youth participation projects bridge the gap?

Katherine Smith

Informal education initiatives created to promote youth democratic participation in society are typically promoted by national and local policy makers. Whether by New Labour in citizenship education, local authorities in youth councils or by voluntary sector initiatives, they are often viewed as the appropriate response to tackling the lack of youth involvement in electoral politics.

Nevertheless, research indicates that people aged 18-24 are not apathetic about political issues per se, but rather are alienated from mainstream electoral politics (Sloam, 2014). To practitioners, this poses the question of how effectively different types of participation initiative break down such barriers, and asks whether there exist models of best practice, as well as potential drawbacks to such initiatives.

By examining case studies of youth political participation projects across local authority and voluntary sectors, this paper analyses how effectively projects seek to bridge the gap between young people and mainstream electoral politics. Highlighting effective areas of practice from examples including a youth forum, youth-led campaigns and a peer education programme, it also reveals limitations to these approaches.While effective approaches might influence the ‘demand side’ of the problem via youth participation initiatives, there remain ‘supply side’ issues in a lack of candidates who appeal to young people, and a shortfall of trust in political institutions.

Ultimately, the paper seeks to demonstrate that these issues cannot be addressed by educational programmes alone, and proposes a wider role for the youth sector in advocating further routes for young people to influence reform to political institutions and candidate selection.


Sloam, S. (2014), ‘New Voice, Less Equal, The Civic and Political Engagement of Young People in the United States and Europe’, Comparative Political Studies, vol.47, no.5, pp.663-688.


Katherine Smith is a youth worker currently working for a central London housing association based youth service. Having previously worked in a variety of youth settings across local authority and youth justice, she recently graduated from University of East London from a JNC recognised postgraduate programme in Youth and Community Work. Having previously completed a BA and MA at Durham University in PPE and Politics and International Relations respectively, her research interests focus upon youth participation in politics and voting.

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