Young people get so little representation”: Bury’s youth on the general election

In 2019, Bury North was the single closest seat in the UK. With the winner tending to also win the national vote, we spoke to the young people of a town that could predict the next PM.

When Grace first visited London, she couldn’t believe it.

I went for a college trip,” the 18-year-old, enjoying the summer sunshine on a bench in Bury town centre, explains. You walk along the roads and they’re just so well kept and clean. It’s like, what’s going on?”

Following the 2019 general election, Grace remembers feeling angry that Boris Johnson had won but not knowing why.

Some of this, she jokes, might be down to her big Irish family (“there’s a lot of talk about not having a taste for the English!”). But whatever it was she decided to pay attention and study A Level Politics.

Today, Grace has just completed her last exam and tells me how 14 years of austerity is evident in everything about life in Bury: from litter on the streets to instability at school.

Our school was put in special measures when we were in Year 9,” she says. It’s everywhere. Even Bury Grammar! I don’t know why you’d pay to go there.” Even the private schools are falling apart, you mean? Literally!”

Whoever is elected won’t change my life”

Samuel, 24

In the 2024 general election, young people have been spoken about, rather than to.

Take Rishi Sunak’s pledge to force 18 year olds to take part in national service if the Conservatives win (spoiler: they won’t.)

Labour has not been much better. After the youthquake elections of 2017 and 2019, where younger voters disproportionately turned out to support Corbynism, Starmer’s grey Labour” has distanced itself from that enthusiasm and is pitching almost exclusively to older voters in what has been dubbed the boomer election.

Labour’s 2024 manifesto does include a pledge to lower the voting age to 16, and there are also promises for a new network of hubs” for young people, plus a guarantee of training, apprenticeships or other support for young people aged between 18 and 21.

But why are young people and first-time voters being shut out of the conversation?

Under Britain’s archaic first past the post voting system, general elections are decided by a small number of marginal seats” that parties have to win to form a government.

Bury, in Greater Manchester, has two of them. Last time, Bury North was the single closest seat in the UK. Just 105 votes separated Johnson’s Tory party, who won the seat, from Corbyn’s Labour. Bury South isn’t far behind, with just 402 votes between the two parties.

This time, Labour has a head start: in January 2022 Bury South MP Christian Wakeford defected from the Tories to Labour, citing anger at Johnson’s leadership during the Partygate scandal. Wakeford, who claimed to represent working-class conservatism” and that young people struggling in his constituency were products of crap parents”, is now standing for Labour in the general election.

For Samuel, 24, work on Bury market started as a Saturday job on the butcher’s stall. That was 10 years, or four prime ministers, ago.

He doesn’t love the early starts – though,” he points out fairly, I only start at 6 o’clock so it’s not as early as some” – but what he does love is the atmosphere and the people.

Ask Samuel about the election and he is cheerily uninterested, saying that whoever is elected won’t change [my] life.” But ask him about the cost of living crisis and it’s clear that global events have landed on the butcher’s counter.

Since Covid, we’ve only just about picked up,” he explains. This year has been better than last year, but it’s not easy getting money out of people like it was.”

He gesticulates over glistening legs of lamb and chicken breast. People are watching what they’ve got more.”

He probably won’t vote, but is registered, unlike colleague Ewan. Aged 23, Ewan is new to market life after mostly working in customer service. This is way better. He could be tempted to register if someone fixed the roads: That would be a big one for me.” The pot holes around Bury are, he says, a joke.

All I know is that Rishi Sunak is a knobhead”

Taylor, 18

Bury Market is the star attraction of the town where Greater Manchester’s yellow MetroLink tram services come to the end of the line. This is where Manchester ends and the former mill towns and rolling hills of Lancashire begin. The Manchester Model, with its skyscrapers and equally soaring rents, has not yet reached Bury. Bury North is more well off,” explains Alice Gerrard, who works as the sole local reporter on the Bury Times newspaper, there’s a bit of a class difference [with Bury South].”

When Rishi Sunak visited Bury in 2021, the self-owning prime minister – then chancellor – proclaimed his delight at being in Burnley,” going even further and praising the world famous Burnley Market.” Cringe. That still gets talked about now,” says Gerrard with disbelief. Starmer, meanwhile, chose Bury for a speech on defence and an interview which included the grim ritual of the would-be PM announcing that, yes, he would push the nuclear button.

MJ, 18, likes to dawdle around the market between classes on psychology, English and maths at college nearby. It’s about as good as lunch hour gets, where local black pudding in puffy white baps competes for space with bulging Manchester tarts and excellent Turkish gözleme and kofta. What does he think about the Tory party? Well,” says MJ without missing a beat, I’d rather not get drafted into the army, personally.”

As a hard-working student, it felt insulting to hear Sunak’s announcement last month about bringing back a form of national service. If you want to serve the country, that should be your own personal choice. But forcing people to do something is the one sure way to get them not to.” His friend Amy, 16, agrees, and despairs about the lack of seriousness” in the bits of the campaign she’s watched on TikTok and the telly.

Everybody who came back to school after Covid really struggled,” she says – so why aren’t people talking about it? Amy was in Year 8 when Covid hit. It was Year 10 before things got even a bit normal. Now they’re talking about making maths and English mandatory at colleges,” says Amy of the Tories’ 2023 announcement that has so far not happened, but people aren’t going into jobs that will require that, so why do it?”

One message is loud and clear from first-time voters in Bury. They didn’t have a plan,” reflects Heather, 18, about the March 2020 moment when everything stopped: not teachers, not the government, not anybody. Politicians may have forgotten about the sacrifices young people made during the pandemic, but young people haven’t. Lessons on MS Teams when you could turn off your camera and go to bed” were a laugh at first, says Heather, but it was annoying for someone who wants to learn and grow.”

Heather loves drama and creativity, and has certainly been learning about the Conservative party. They don’t do a lot for the working-class,” she tells me. It’s favouritism for the upper class.” The policies she wants include an increase in benefit payments and proper action on homelessness. Rishi Sunak’s view is that they need to get off the streets and move their tents,” Heather says, of the PM who famously asked a homeless person if they worked in business. I think that’s disgusting.”

If first-time voters have less of an opinion on Keir Starmer, then perhaps it’s because they’ve learned not to get too attached. I’ve never known any leader to stay in power longer than two years,” says Matilda, I think it’s just been a very unstable political atmosphere.” Matilda’s even had a brush with politics, herself. Rishi Sunak went into a cafe where my friend works,” she says. He was definitely trying to, sort of, appeal to people.”

Matilda’s main priority is improving education in Radcliffe, a Bury town with a population of 30,000 but missing something important. It doesn’t have a high school,” she says. That’s just one of the most important things for me. I have so many friends who have to travel so far just to get a secondary education.” When Bury South’s MP defected to the Tory party, he told BBC North West that he had previously been threatened by senior Conservatives that there would be no high school for Radcliffe if he didn’t follow orders. I think that’s quite poor,” Matilda says.

After high school, things can be rough. Taylor, 18, has just accepted an offer to study fine art in York, where she can develop and nurture her artwork inspired by Bury’s the queer community. I’m going off to uni but I’ll have to work hard at a job every day,” she says – on top of my studies.” Working and lower middle class students are at a disadvantage having to juggle academic work with shift work. That no party wants to solve this makes it hard for Taylor to know how to vote. All I know,” she smiles, is that Rishi Sunak is a knobhead.”

Betsy, 17, is on her way from the Whitefield suburb to city-centre Manchester, but it’s not to meet mates or shop at the Arndale Centre: it’s to study. The library in Whitefield was closed,” she says – in 2017 Bury Council voted to close 10 of their 14 libraries due to Conservative austerity cuts – and it takes 40 minutes now to get into the centre to revise.” And, of course, the tram fares cost. Literally,” she says, I just want to be able to revise in a place that’s closer to home.”

Transport is a huge issue, but Grace, 17, is positive about how simple changes locally have proved politicians can actually act if they want to. We go to college in South Manchester,” she says, and we wouldn’t have been able to afford to get two buses there if it wasn’t for the Our Pass.” The Our Pass is a two year pilot scheme introduced by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham to provide free travel for 16 to 18 year olds in the city. We save £8 a day,” she visibly buzzes. For her, Burnham shows that politicians can be close to the communities they serve and enact change. I love Andy Burnham,” she says, you actually feel the change and what he’s doing.”

In 2024, the General Election doesn’t feel quite so visible as previous years: less posters, less campaigning, more inevitability. On Bolton Road, leading out of Bury town centre, there’s a Labour campaign office that’s open to the public and packed with boxes of the party’s new Union Flag branded flyers. Up the road, the Conservative office is locked shut.

In the town centre, meanwhile, there’s a visible sign of the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict – close to home for the town’s larger than average Muslim and Jewish communities – a Barclays bank is boarded up with thick blue signs. On 10th June, local activists from Palestine Action covered the shop front with red paint and smashed windows, demanding divestment from Israel’s weapon trade and fossil fuels.” On Saturdays, trams from Bury have been busy with young people and placards heading into Manchester for the continuing pro-Palestine demonstrations in the city.

Liam, 19, and girlfriend, Olivia, 17, travel long-distance between Bury and Rochdale to see one another. I ask who they plan to vote for. Labour’s the tax one, isn’t it?” jokes Liam. My grandparents and me come from the working-class, we work hard and expect to keep our money,” he says, calling those who don’t work lazy” and telling me he’s thinking of voting for Reform UK. If I do vote, it will probably be for them,” he says, getting back to core British values.” Brexit – which Bury voted for by a margin of 54.1% – was about an idea of core British values, how is that going? Horrible, mate!” he laughs. Olivia seems relieved that she won’t be able to vote come polling day. When Reform UK does come up among the first-time voters, it’s as something cringe their dad’s talk about. Katie, a 17 year old goth-ish girl hanging out by the shopping centre, confirms that Reform UK is definitely now a thing.”

Young people aren’t really at the forefront of politician’s minds”

Farida, 17

Over pints at Prestwich’s large The Woodthorpe pub, Raphael – who is from an Orthodox Jewish family – is trying to remember a Winston Churchill quote. The one about how if you’re not a liberal when you’re 18, his age, then you don’t have a heart, but if you aren’t a Conservative at 40 you don’t have a head. But if you’re 40 and voting Tory now?” he argues, that’s stupid.” Raphael started out as a bit of a Tory (“a David Cameron simp”) but now has grown up and started to use my brain.”

Raphael thinks that Sunak has done OK on the economy, but you don’t thank a dog for cleaning up their own sick.” Instead, he will be voting Liberal Democrat. Maayan, his friend, picks up on this and tells me that this time he feels it will be safe for him to vote Labour. Corbyn’s out isn’t he?” says Maayan, he is not someone we want running the country.”

Allegations of antisemitism against Corbyn’s Labour – which the former Labour leader denies – were cited as a factor in Bury North and Bury South swinging Conservative in 2019 (Bury’s Prestwich being the UK’s largest Jewish population outside of the capital). His policies were a bit pathetic too,” he continues, wanting to make Britain a communist country.” Since the 7th October attacks in Israel, and Israel’s continuing attacks on Gaza, incidents of antisemitism have risen in Bury and extra police and security have been deployed to synagogues and Jewish schools.

Farida, 17,

When Farida, 17, watched the ITV leaders debate, it was funnier than she had expected it to be. I was gasping, I was giggling, I was jeering at my laptop,” she jokes. Farida has been working with Reclaim, a charity nurturing diverse working-class young people in Greater Manchester to become leaders and changemakers. Young people aren’t really at the forefront of politician’s minds,” says Farida. Some of this is on young people. If young people aren’t going to vote,” she argues, and aren’t represented, then (politicians) won’t really put effort in.”

Age is one of the most important predictors of which party you are likely to vote for. The problem is, it’s also an indicator of how likely you are to vote. Britain is going backwards on this – at the 2019 election, under 25 turnout went down from 54% to 47%, well below nations such as Germany and the Netherlands at around 68%. On 4th July, the first austerity generation – those who took the flak for Conservative policies as children, and which also happens to be the Covid generation – will be voting for the first time. But British politics isn’t letting them get a word in.

Because of who votes, which is pensioners and older people, so much of politics is geared towards accommodating them,” says Farida. At the end of the day, it’s young people that are going to pick up whatever’s being done now.” She sighs. It’s stupid that young people get so little representation and so little thought. We’re actually really affected.”

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