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WHEN mainstream media commentators berated themselves in the wake of the June 2017 general election for failing to predict the Corbyn surge, they spotted that it was down to the youth.
Why, agonised the commentators, did young people respond to an older, white, male leader when all the received wisdom was that politicians should appear trendy and claim to follow musical trends and popular television shows as avidly as they read Hansard.
A glib answer pointed to Labour and Momentum’s aptitude with social media. More seriously, there was the abolition of student fees in the manifesto, along with ending zero-hours contracts and other policies. Along with Corbyn’s personal appeal, as a man of principle and authenticity.
Those are partial explanations, but they fail to give credit to the young people themselves. Young people are far more politically motivated and aware than the middle-aged believe. I saw them not only queueing to vote but campaigning for Labour on the streets of Croydon, Hackney, even Sevenoaks, and proclaiming, loudly and visibly, that voting Labour mattered.
They defied the lazy characterisation that they are snowflake millennials, self-absorbed, ignorant of world affairs, only interested in consumerism. Liam Young, youthful adviser to Corbyn, brilliantly tells the story in Rise (Simon & Shuster, 2018).
Indeed, young people have always been politically engaged. Over the last 50 years, anti-war movements (Vietnam, Iraq), feminism (from women’s lib to #MeToo), environmental campaigns, black power and anti-racism, liberation campaigns (from lesbian and gay liberation to LBGTQ+ and now gender fluidity), international solidarity (South Africa, Palestine) have been fuelled by young people.
They have been told that they will grow out of it, but that is just as lazy as the apathetic stereotype. Most of us will recognise our youth in some of these campaigns. We’ve joyfully and defiantly refused to grow out of it.
Sixteen to 17-year-olds jumped at the chance to vote in the Scottish independence referendum. Some 75 per cent of them did so.
Many secondary schools in Scotland debated independence, so all school students, whether they could vote or not, were engaged with the momentous decision.
Equally, in the 2016 EU referendum, many 16 and 17-year-olds were furious that they could not participate. It’s an old slogan, but it’s worth repeating: if you can marry, join the army, pay taxes, or have sex at 16, why can’t you be trusted to vote?
Labour is committed to votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, in all elections. We have policies that benefit young people. Not just tuition fees, also abolishing unpaid internships and zero-hours contracts, increasing the minimum wage and ending lower rates for young workers, employment rights from day one, investing in apprenticeships and green and digital technology.
Labour will tackle the housing crisis, which hits young people disproportionately hard, by building a million homes, half of which will be affordable, and requiring long-term tenancies in the private sector. More recently, we’ve announced free bus fares for everyone under 25.
Those policies stood in stark contrast to the Tories’ dementia tax, making older people pay for their care needs.
Labour can’t just sit back, though, and take the support of young people for granted. We need to be on the side of young people when they take action, as we were for the McStrikers striking for a living wage and action on sexual harassment. We need to offer to come into schools and talk politics.
We need to be seen on university campuses, in workplaces which employ young people, and at young parents’ events.
We need to be taking action against poverty, both by campaigning and through practical solidarity supporting foodbanks etc. At football matches and concerts, we could be campaigning on ticket prices. We need to acknowledge and start to tackle the terrible cost that mental illness inflicts on individuals and on society. We need to go to young people, not expect them to come to us.
We also need to be promoting political discussion and engagement within citizenship education. Despite the youth surge of 2017, turnout among young people remains too low. Too many believe that all politicians are the same, or politics doesn’t affect them.
Motivating young people to vote isn’t solely about making voting more technologically accessible, it is also about connecting a desire for cleaner air or better pay with political change.
Trade unions, and the work they do in reaching out to people in insecure, traditionally unorganised sectors, are vital to that. And when trade unions reach out to the young, they find themselves campaigning not just on traditional employment issues, but also on austerity, liberation issues and the environment. When young people join trade unions, they bring about change.
Momentum is the organisation that has best understood and organised young people, by using social media, encouraging sharing, targeting information. And by events such as The World Transformed, which are now being held locally (Derby, Norwich, Southampton) as well as at Labour Party Conference.
We’re not doing badly at attracting and retaining the respect of young people. But we have to get it right. Most people, old and young, prefer political discussion at Labour Party branch meetings to infighting, or endless reports of other meetings. Most people, old and young, who join the party want to be on the streets campaigning to elect a Labour government.
We have to welcome and nurture the energy and enthusiasm of all those young people who want to change the world, and who trust the Labour Party to do that with them.
Liz Davies is a member of Southampton Test CLP and was formerly constituency secretary of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP. She is a housing rights barrister and honorary vice-president of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. She writes this column in a personal capacity.
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