Inequality, Political Participation and Political (Il)literacy in the UK

I grew up in a very working-class area. My school had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Europe when I was attending, and I vividly remember metal detectors propped up outside the school gates greeting me some mornings as I ventured in to start my day of learning. The teachers at my school, God bless them, tried their hardest to get everybody to learn, but my year group still came out with a 32% 5A*-C GCSE rate, significantly below the national average.

The year after I left, the school was converted into an academy. What I’m saying is, there was not much that I learnt at school academically speaking that has been very fruitful to my career trajectory thus far. When I went to university a few years later, I realised just how woefully my schooling had prepared me for adult life, critical thought, and an understanding of how the world works outside the little microcosm that is my hometown. I had no understanding of the political system and how the government’s choices affected my day to day life, I thought feminism was an extremist ideology which required me to burn all my bras on sight, and I had no understanding of the extent to which British imperialism and colonialism had destroyed nations and continents. Was this a reflection of my ignorance to the world, or was it a result of the materials in which I had access to, to educate myself with? 

After spending years in a small university town in which most shops sold a diverse array of newspapers, broadsheets and tabloids, and I had unlimited access to a library that was beautifully stocked with all the knowledge I could seek, coming back home was eye opening. Every time I go back home, I do a tour of the local corner shops and see what is on the newspaper and magazine rack, and every time I am disappointed. Without a fail, there’s your usual gossip and tabloid magazines, such as Heat, Take a Break and Hello!, sharing the news on the latest celebrity boob job or cheating scandal, as well as the sensationalist tabloid papers such as The Daily Mail and The Sun.

These are magazines that littered my childhood, reading about the horrific ‘real life stories’ in Heat, and learning about the ‘state of the country’ from the Daily Mail, and these experiences seem to be pretty common for those I speak to from my background. I used to think that these papers were chosen out of preference, perhaps they were the cheapest, the prettiest, or the most reliable, but since growing up and reading more into them, I realised it’s probably for different reasons. However, it’s the prominence of these papers in working class areas that leads to political literacy and disengagement in those that are working class. 

So, where does this issue of political literacy stem from? I’d argue that it’s the language used – the more unreliable the paper, the more accessible it is linguistically. According to the National Literacy Trust, 12% of adults in Wales, 16.4% of adults in England, 17.9% of adults in Northern Ireland and 26.7% of adults in Scotland have very poor literacy skills. This means that “they can understand short straightforward texts on familiar topics accurately and independently, and obtain information from everyday sources, but reading information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics, could cause problems.” This is also known as being functionally illiterate.

The language used in these papers is incredibly accessible – even those in my family with lower levels of literacy, are able to fully understand what is being said. So when the Daily Mail twists some new research, a news story or a finding and sprinkles in their own bias and sensationalism, it’s reliability isn’t questioned because often, it’s the only thing linguistically that makes sense, or isn’t headache inducing to read and try to understand. The issue we have in the UK with political literacy and participation isn’t because people don’t care about politics or making changes in their community, but it’s because the information surrounding politics and participation is in a language that is alien to so many people – including myself, someone working on a PhD, at times.

According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, electoral participation amongst the young and the poor is declining dramatically. Arguably, these groups will have lower levels of literacy (when you’re young, you’ve had less time to build up that literacy and critical thinking outside of a schooling environment, and when you’re poor, you have less access to materials and resources that can aid in improving literacy, or less time due to working ridiculous hours and having more pressing issues than understanding the BBC). People only engage and participate politically when they understand why democratic politics is important, and how it can improve their life. When politics is seen as something that only happens at Westminster, and only concerning the Eton elites, political participation will be significantly lower. 

How do we change this, when the working class are significantly underrepresented in journalism, academia and politics, the main sources for this information? We need to push for more accessible language, support grassroots organisations working to demystify politics for those who do not have the financial resources to subscribe to many pay-walled more ‘reliable’ sources or the time to read long extensive articles and books wrapped up in jargon that takes extra time and mental capacity to comprehend.

It starts with throwing away this jargon we use to make ourselves sound smarter to try and overcompensate for our massive inferiority complexes that we all have – if it can be said in easier words, say it that way. I promise you that those who will think less of you, probably weren’t your target audience anyway. Political literacy is a basic social requirement that empowers people to being politically engaged and active, so lets start bringing down those ivory towers of who can engage in politics and social justice discourse by making it accessible to all, regardless of their literary abilities. People will only turn out and vote when they understand the why, and what voting and campaigning can do for them, in their communities, and for the individual and very valid concerns and challenges that we all face.

Comissioned for the Everyday Magazine

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