With disproportionately low voter turnout among young people in elections, it is easy to claim that our generation is apathetic. It is true that young people are less likely not only to vote, but also to be a member of a political party than the rest of the population. However, to claim that young people don’t care about politics is totally wrong. Polling and recent events have shown young people care greatly about politics and parties need to reengage with them.
Looking at the student demonstrations from 2010 over tuition fee hikes and the abolition of Educational Maintenance allowance it is clear to see that young people are not apathetic. In the winter of 2010 young people brought London to a halt numerous times in fighting not to be saddled with debt. Furthermore the demonstrators were not just ‘middle class kids’ demanding free degrees, their ranks were swelled by pupils from low-income households attending schools and sixth forms who would be hit by the cut in Educational Maintenance Allowance.
It cannot be said that young people are apathetic, despite their electoral turnout. Polls and focus groups back this up. The evidence shows that most young people are, in fact, interested in politics and indeed express willingness to do campaigning. Furthermore, it is clear that most young people do, in fact, discuss politics and take an interest in it. Therefore the idea that young people simply do not care about politics is totally false.
However, though it is certainly not the case that Fukuyama was at all right in his assertions of “The end of history”, it is the case that our generation still is particularly badly affected by the 1989 “post-ideological” disease that gripped much of the world throughout the 1990s but is only just ebbing away with the 2008 financial crash and the resulting offensive of austerity. For instance, from my experience in student activism, I notice a disengagement from parties and traditional political models. Much activism among students is directed through charities, NGOs such as Amnesty and “ethical” campaign groups such as Student HUBs. Many who would make brilliant political party activists instead focus on these organisations.
As a student of politics, on more than one occasion lecturers have asked “who in this hall is a member of a political party”, and roughly one-tenth of the students present would raise their hand. It seems even students of politics are not sufficiently enthused by parties to join them. Indeed even the global Occupy movement could be criticised for lacking in ideological and political direction. Speaking to politically engaged students, identification with concepts of left or right seems remarkably low, let alone ideology, let alone political parties. It seems that not only is our generation alienated from electoral politics, it is also alienated from political ideas.
Ultimately I think this lack of ideological or class-based politics among this group of young politics students and activists can be attributed to the defeats suffered by the left in the 1980s which were cemented before our generation came to political maturity. Throughout that decade the labour movement suffered defeats at the hands of a global neoliberal offensive, culminating in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall with commentators remarking that the ideological and class conflicts were now finished.
In Britain, this trend was manifested in New Labour’s acceptance of neoliberal economics and the “third way” with Blair naively declaring that “we’re all middle class now”. I would be the first one to challenge the assertions that ideology died in 1989, but the idea was so hegemonic at the time that it practically became the truth as social-democratic parties across Europe embraced the free market.
With our generation growing up in such a political climate, where ideology and class were dirty words and political parties attempted to shed much of their footings in these concepts, it is no wonder then that young people are not only unenthused by electoral politics and parties, but also are alienated from political and ideological concepts such as class.
However I feel that this post-ideological trend among young people is fast coming to an end. With the financial crisis of 2008 and resulting high unemployment it is clear that the victory of the free market and neoliberalism in 1989 was a hollow one and ideology has palpably not come to an end as the onslaught of austerity (and resistance to it) rages across Europe.
Indeed a new generation of young activists is now engaged in the resistance to this neoliberal offensive, from the young people who rallied behind Melenchon and Hollande in the French election to the youth on the demonstrations in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland against austerity and indeed to the student protests against tuition fees and EMA cuts in Britain. Across Latin America, with the rise of the “pink tide” of left wing governments, young people are highly engaged in the social movements mobilising in poor urban neighbourhoods.
Nonetheless, despite this apparent interest and indeed commitment to politics, there still exists the fact that young people do not turn out to vote in anything like numbers that they should. There is clearly a gap between their apparent political engagement with politics generally and their engagement with electoral politics specifically.
There can be no doubt that one of the reasons for this disengagement from electoral politics is down to the lifestyles of young people. The differences in turnout between young and old can be attributed to the relative stake that they feel they have in society. Young people are likely to be relatively less secure in terms of housing, employment (if indeed they have a job) and more generally less well-off and more vulnerable. This leads many young people to feel alienated from society, making them less likely to identify with electoral politics and be disengaged from most mainstream political activity. It is the case that, for Britain’s youth, all that is solid does indeed melt into air which leaves them feeling like they are not really part of society.
Indeed under the coalition these problems facing young people are going to get worse as the Tories preside over rocketing youth unemployment, attacks on rights in the workplace and savage cuts to housing benefit making young people ever more vulnerable; eroding society and further alienating people from their communities.
Further polling suggests that many young people in Britain feel that politics is just not “aimed” at them. Further empirical studies find that parties fail connect with young voters and simply do not register with their political agenda. Ultimately this is the fault of the political parties. All too often parties will target specific groups of voters who they know will turn out and ignore groups who will not. As young voters’ unlikeliness to turn out makes them more ignored by parties, being ignored makes them less likely to turn out and therefore they get locked in a vicious cycle of political disengagement.
From the Labour Party’s point of view, this ignoring of young voters cannot go on. In 2010 Labour lost the election as so many of its voters had been disenchanted by a decade of neoliberal economics and a failure to tackle inequality and so didn’t turn out. Winning back these people who have been disengaged from politics must be at the core of the Labour Party’s strategy and winning over young voters has to be an integral part of this. Already Ed Miliband has made welcome steps in putting distance between himself and this, ultimately electorally damaging, political approach of New Labour by attempting to treat inequality and unemployment seriously.
Furthermore, for years the Labour Party has denied young members the youth section that they deserve. Young Labour still lacks full constitutional autonomy from the Labour party, denying young members the right to decide how they want the youth section to be run; and Young Labour groups lack access to membership lists, making local organisation highly difficult. I recently attended a European Young Socialist summer camp in July and was amazed at the strong, autonomous youth sections that Labour’s sister parties have which have many enthusiastic young activists with a real voice to affect their party. By emulating this model, Labour can begin to re-engage with young voters and activists.
This article was first published in Chartist Jan/Feb 2013 edition.