Tulip Siddiq and Sam Bacon were 2 of the 80-strong Young Fabian-Labour Staff Network delegation that headed to Ohio in late 2008 for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. In a post originally published on Labour List they argue that young people are interested in a different type of politics, and present the implications for party organisation.
“Oh, they don’t care” – a common claim made about young people. Apparently we’re all apathetic and disengaged from politics. Not true. A lot of us do care. The disconnect is not of young people from issues or from politics – if we take politics in the true sense of the word. The lack of engagement comes from apathy about party politics.
The march against student fees had a record number of young people. Recognising the importance of this to their lives, young people took direct action to make their voices heard. But our political interest stretches beyond self interest. An overwhelming number of young people marched against the Iraq War and in the recent climate change ‘wave’ march. The Million Women Rise march, a woman’s only event, had five thousand women last year – significantly bigger than anything of its kind for decades – and a high proportion of participants were young. Oxfam, Amnesty International and campaigns such as Make Poverty History have young people as their key members.
And it doesn’t stop at marching. Politics plays a part in how young people live their lives. Young people are the predominant customer base of ethical free trade shops. It’s actually quite ‘cool’ to shop and live ethically, to eat fair-trade chocolate, buy make-up that hasn’t been tested on animals, to recycle, to attend concerts that raise awareness about issues…you get the idea.
We know of a young Muslim women’s group in Camden. They meet up weekly to discuss issues such as the growing threat of terrorism, free school meals, misinterpretation of Islam in the media and the bureaucracy associated with claiming housing benefits.
These young women would never attend the Young Labour events that take place in Parliament, or party political events anywhere in the country.. And why? Frankly speaking, Party politics is often viewed as a closed shop. It’s for the elite, by the elite. Often it’s seen as a club just for white, well connected London-based men. The lack of women and BAME MPs doesn’t help to counter this view. The national tone of PMQs (a rugby match anyone?) doesn’t encourage participation from all areas of society either.
Young people don’t see how voting or supporting a political party has any real connection to the issues they care about. And, frankly, we’re awful at explaining it to them. They don’t recognise that the actions they take are, in fact, political actions (to live ethically, engage in direct action, etc) and when repeating the mantra that “young people are all apathetic” we too fail to recognise this.
If we want them to engage in Party politics, we fundamentally need to change the way we ‘do’, ‘sell’ and ‘support’ politics. We need to show how politics affects individual lives. Party politics needs to be shown as a coalition of action, as working towards achieving specific outcomes and harbouring certain values. It can’t just be about ‘the Labour Party’ because a lot of young people don’t care about party loyalty. Unconditional party support is a relic of the past. We need to work harder to show people why we matter, what we can do for them, and what we will allow them to do for us.
Let’s face it – we live in an increasingly individualistic age. We need to clarify that being part of a party doesn’t mean you agree with every single policy. Being part of a flock that blindly follows the leader just doesn’t appeal to young people.
We both volunteered on the Obama campaign. And let us tell you – we need to change the culture of appreciation in British politics. We were inundated with food, drink and gushing praise the entire time. In the UK, it’s not unheard of going to campaign for a Labour MP for hours (in the bitter wind) and not even receiving a small thank you. We have to realise; the days of people doing menial tasks for little personal reward or thanks are over.
There are a lot of opportunities for young people to volunteer, and ‘make a difference’ with organisations will give them real responsibility. 3 hours of putting leaflets through letterboxes just doesn’t compare to being responsible for a shop floor at Oxfam. Time is a precious commodity, and experience is all important, so let’s think carefully about what we offer young people in return for their help.
There’s a lot of work to be done. And with declining party memberships (from all parties), it’s necessary too. But let’s start this work from the powerful realisation: yes, young people care.