Fabian leaflet 43 begins: “Vote! Vote!! Vote!!!” Its rallying cry against apathy reminds voters of the sacrifice of their forbears to win the franchise and asks them to “use what cost so much to win”. More than 100 years on and its message is no less important. Indeed, it has a renewed resonance at a time when political apathy, particularly amongst young people, seems to have become the norm.
Young voters have good reason to be cynical. In 2010 the Liberal Democrats ran a campaign that relied on anti-politics and over promising. Assuring us that they were not like the ‘Labservatives’ – they kept their pledges – many first time voters bought their message that the other parties weren’t to be trusted. Their betrayal on tuition fees may have prompted an apology, but the short-term political opportunism of the Liberal Democrats feeds into a long-term legacy of youth disenchantment.
From scrapping Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) to discriminatory cuts to benefits for under-25s, it’s little wonder the youth of Britain feel politics does not work in their favour.
As with so much of the coalition’s legacy, Labour has a big task ahead of it to clean up the mess they will leave behind. The party must make the first move to young people by reaching out to them, not expecting them to instinctively flock to the labour movement as in the past. We need policies that show an understanding for the concerns of young people and reflect their aspirations for a better future.
Optimism used to be the preserve of youth but many of our formative experiences have been shaped in particularly hard times. We were told that each generation would do better than the last, but people in their mid-20s are realising they are far behind where their parents were at that age while 16-year-olds have spent a quarter of their lives under austerity.
Hope is an important message, but in a time of limited resources over promising in the short-term will only compound the long-term problem of youth disengagement. Labour must offer an alternative but pick its promises to young people carefully so as to avoid letting them down as the coalition has done; utopia is not just one policy away.
The younger generation is more sophisticated (and cynical) than ever before. We can grasp that the situation Labour will inherit is far from ideal, so what the party needs to do is set out concrete and achievable policies for young people, walking the awkward tightrope between realistic expectation and young people’s aspirations. Being honest about the difference between what we want to do and what we can do is essential to Labour regaining credibility as a party of government.
This is where ideals must trump idealism; where the values that underpin our party must speak to potential voters who share our vision for a better Britain. Labour can gain the trust of young people by trumpeting what we stand for and what we aim to achieve by presenting a realistic longer-term vision.
An immediate measure that would show young people that Labour is on their side would be the reintroduction of EMA. It would not just have a direct impact on many of their lives but is also emblematic – it was a policy designed specifically to help out young people that was much mourned when the coalition scrapped it. It symbolises a very clear divide between Labour and coalition thinking.
A commitment to an age-blind minimum wage would demonstrate to young people that their work is valued, whatever their age. A 17, 18 and 21 year old can currently all be doing the same job on three different minimum wages. It’s a discriminatory practice that can’t be defended and one that Labour must put right.
In the longer term, Labour must commit to a high standard of compulsory citizenship education so young people know how our political system works and how to make it work for them. All young people should know how to write to their MP to ask for help and develop an understanding on how politics and policies affect every one of us. As the Fabian leaflet says, “in public affairs the interests of those who do not vote are always sacrificed to the interests of those who do.” Young people must be made painfully aware of this, and reminded that all politics is ultimately youth politics, because there are few policies that won’t impact on them in some way.
In 2015 there is the potential for the common conceit that ‘politicians are all the same’ to be challenged in an election that sees a reawakening of ideological politics. As young people take to the polling booths, Labour must work to ensure there is a very clear choice between the parties of coalition- content to maintain the current economic and political model- and a Labour party that offers a radical rethink of how Britain can be run.
Those of us engaged in youth politics have a particular task to channel the enthusiasm and indignation of our peers. We must avoid becoming a ‘closed shop’; overly male, middle-class and London-centric, we need to do more to open the doors to others and be enriched by the variety of their experiences.
In the same way, student activism will rightly focus on issues surrounding tuition fees and education policy, but youth groups must branch out beyond that – after all, not all young people are students. Labour is right to focus on ‘the other 50 per cent’. University clubs are an easy way to attract students to Labour, but thought must be given as to how we attract more non-students to youth politics, and especially the leadership of our youth movements. We cannot hope to speak to the country if we don’t reflect them.
The Fabian leaflet continues: “A political battle is about to begin. Choose your side according to your conscience; and strike the one blow that the law allows you.” Let’s instil this message to disenchanted and disenfranchised young people, empowering them to make a stand together for a better future. A vote can change everything and in 2015 every vote will count.
This article was first published in the Fabian report 'How Labour can change Britain: Ten priorities for a future government', edited by Anya Pearson.