Election 2015: A political era when we all belonged

Jamie Owen and Harold Wilson Image copyright Jamie Owen
Image caption The young Jamie shaking hands with Mr Wilson

How to get young people switched onto politics is one of the big challenges facing all political parties. Here BBC Wales Today presenter JAMIE OWEN looked back on his childhood and a chance introduction helped seal his life-long love of politics. He also explores how our changes in our lives over the years have changed how we engage with politics and elections.

Harold Wilson was more interested in my mother than me. You can tell from the photograph, Harold only had eyes for her. Despite fixing him with one of my best stares, Mr Wilson ignored me.

I suppose it's understandable: I wasn't old enough to vote. In an election as tight as 1974 every handshake with a floating voter mattered. Why waste time on the six-year old kid?

The Labour leader was campaigning in Pembroke Dock.

Hundreds of people turned out to hear him at a public meeting in the Albion Hall. The town came to a standstill - the police stopped the traffic. I'd never been to a rock concert but if I had then I imagine this is what the atmosphere would have been like.

Not much happened in Pembroke Dock in the 1970s so this was big news.

The Albion Hall has long since been demolished and turned into flats and political meetings addressing hundreds of voters are, for the most part, a distant memory too.

It was an accident that my mum and dad and I were there at all. Dad's best friend Gordon Parry stood as the Labour candidate in the 1974 election. Suddenly our entire family was unwittingly drawn into the campaign.


Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionJamie Owen asks why politicians are fighting apathy in Swansea East

I went to the Swansea East constituency to ask people there why turnout had dropped to under 55% at the last general election - the lowest in Wales.

Are parties too alike or are we just more cynical about the whole thing?

My brother Huw and I were not out of short trousers but we spent every evening after school and every weekend delivering election leaflets. Early on a Saturday morning, not everybody wanted a knock at the door to receive election literature. We were paid 60p a day for our deliveries; it was not so much New Labour as child Labour.

If Huw and I had to brave the shouting and swearing from the electorate angrily hanging out of bedroom windows, Dad paid a higher price for his conversion to canvassing. He had always been a member of the Pembroke Dock Conservative Association - chiefly because their bar was perfectly positioned opposite the church where he sang in the choir.

His whole life had been choreographed around convenient choir practices and church services and a quick snifter beforehand (and sometimes afterwards) at the Con club.

But Jim Owen campaigning for the Labour candidate Gordon Parry was too much to bear for Pembroke Dock Conservative Association and my father was expelled. In a small town like Pembroke Dock, this was social death. In order to be expelled from the Con Club, ordinarily you'd have to have punched someone. As a small boy, even I could see this election lark may have been more trouble than it was worth.

Meeting Harold Wilson didn't inspire me to join a political party, but it helped to hook me on news and politics. I knew our family was part of something that was sweeping the country and that not everyone agreed on the big questions of the day. (I learnt this from the housing estates where Huw and I were told to hop it if we'd made too much noise stuffing a letterbox or closing a creaking gate). Even before I could do joined up writing, I could see that politics was a rough trade.

Image copyright Hulton Archive/Getty
Image caption Harold Wilson and Edward Heath campaigning in the first of two elections in 1974
Image copyright Hulton Archive/Getty
Image caption Mixing with showbiz - Harold Wilson with Morecambe and Wise
Image caption Edward Heath showing his musical side in the 1970s

There wasn't much escape from Harold Wilson in the 1970s. In fact there wasn't much escape from politics in the 1970s. It was everywhere - Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies and Heath/Wilson on the telly.

We only had three TV channels and the politicians were on seemingly all of the time.

Polarising debate

The air was filled with big polarizing political debates - Europe, Nationalisation, Communism, Socialism, Unionism, Welsh Nationalism and other things ending in -ism which we didn't really understand.

In 1974 there was not one but two general elections. In February, Labour won five more seats than Conservatives. But because Conservative leader Edward Heath was prime minister, he had first opportunity to form a government. He remained in office for four days, failed to get support from Liberals, and Labour's Harold Wilson was invited to form a government. That Wilson government stayed in power until he called another election eight months later, which Labour won with a precarious majority.

My 1970s Pembrokeshire childhood was about belonging to things, or rather my parents belonging to groups. They were members of the church, Dad sang in a choir, Mum ran a playgroup; Dad was a member of two political parties (within as many months).

And all of this was outside their jobs and careers. Harold Wilson's generation of voters were people who belonged to political parties and trade unions, people who sang in choirs and went to church. In Pembroke Dock, the chatter from political clubs and the congregations at Evensong is almost silent now. The unions are tamed; the churches empty and the political parties no longer boast mass membership.

Image copyright PA/Getty/BBC
Image caption For the first time since World War II, the election turnout in 2010 was less in the Wales - 64.7% - than the UK average

I am a political anorak. I love politics and I'm sure meeting Harold Wilson was in some small way part of the beginning of that passion.

But not everyone's interested in elections. When Harold was in Number 10, turnout in UK elections was 78%. By 2010 turnout had dropped to 65%. So why have the crowds who voted - like the hundreds who turned out to see Harold Wilson in Pembroke Dock - declined - not just in Pembrokeshire but across the UK?

Have the great polarising debates of the past been settled? Is UK politics irrelevant in a globalized world? Doesn't it matter if we don't vote? Maybe, as one voter put it to me - we're broadly happy with our lot in Britain - and 'they're all the same anyway'?

And yet if you look beyond the traditional political parties, political debate is thriving in Britain on places like the internet forum Mumsnet. It's just that it is not dominated by party allegiances as it once was. It is perhaps a mistake to interpret disaffection and non-party allegiance as political disengagement?

More on this story