Adapt or Perish

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Political parties risk a bleak future if they do not recognise how young people want to do politics.

When asked what they would do differently if starting a political party, young people put much greater emphasis on the use of social media.

The world is changing and political parties are failing to keep pace. Without action the result could be a generation excluded from decisions and parties that are struggling to survive. Faced with increasing inequality and high rates of unemployment, young people are turning away from traditional politics in favour of single-issue campaigns, protests and ‘clicktivism’. This poses a challenge for all political parties but particularly for those on the left, which are missing out on the people who share their values.

Young people are not averse to taking political action. According to a 2014 poll, 55 per cent said they were fully or somewhat engaged in the political process and many are volunteering and taking action online. The main reason they give for not voting is a lack of faith in politicians. While trust is lacking across all age groups, young people are less likely to believe that political parties can make a difference on major issues.

Faced with greater choice, young people are instead choosing other routes to activism. The disconnect between my generation’s ‘everyday’ and a distant politics stuck in the past has left a gap for a challenger: sites like Change.org are providing online activism that suits the fast-paced and often individualistic lifestyles of the younger generation. Rather than seeing them as a threat, parties should learn from them.

We live in a world full of choice and instant gratification, where everything is at our finger tips via the internet. We dip in and out – of TV programmes, of online shopping baskets, of Twitter and text conversations. Eighty per cent of young people say they would be more likely to vote if they could do so online.

The reality they are faced with is a world where the food shop can be done online in 10 minutes and delivered to your door but agreeing the minutes of the last Labour party meeting takes hours out of a Friday night.

When my generation was growing up, we waited a week for our favourite TV programme to come on. Now we stream it instantly, at a time that is convenient for us. In our early teens, we arranged to ‘meet’ our friends on MSN Messenger after school. Now everyone has the internet on their phone and is communicating constantly. Young people have been empowered – we are less reliant on our parents for political views, newspapers for news and, it would seem, political parties for change.

Those of us who are in a political party know they are essential to improving our communities. Parties can radically transform the education we get, our chance of getting a job and the hospitals we are treated in. For better or worse, they change lives. Voting for the Labour party should be seen as a way of making a difference. It should be as exciting (and easy) as any online political action. It is up to Labour to prove to young people that its actions have a clear impact on their everyday lives and build trust. This does not mean simplifying or merely explaining what it does: that would be patronising. Instead it has to demonstrate its worth by getting things done. Crucially, it means helping young people not just to lobby influencers online but to make the changes they want to see.

This has the benefit of being more exciting than a petition but we all know after months and years of slogging it out on the doorsteps that political parties are not quite as good as the internet at serving up instant gratification. Achieving change will not always be quick but Labour should enable people to easily contribute their skills and ideas in a way that fits in around their busy lifestyles. When asked what they would do differently if starting a political party, young people put much greater emphasis on the use of social media. Using technology to give people a say in our policy is a great start and we should go further. If I can do my banking on my phone at a time and place that suits me, why not put ballot boxes in sixth forms, colleges, supermarkets and online?

Political parties and young people need each other. Without young people, parties will struggle to renew, remain relevant and win elections. Without a say in political decisions, young people’s problems risk being overlooked. As long as parties fail to engage young people, they are letting them down.

Bex Bailey was the Youth Representative on Labour’s National Executive Committee

Photo by Eduardo Fonseca Arraes, Flickr, Creative Commons license

One Response to "Adapt or Perish"
  1. Paul Martin says:

    Everyone in politics wants to “engage with the youth”. It’s sometimes like ageing vampires seeking young blood, but it’s also quite often like dad-dancing – a total embarrassment.
    In the early 1980s, local Labour party meeting were still accepting solemn apologies for absence and reading out the notes of the last meeting, which was unsurprising since older working class people often had access to neither typewriter nor photocopier. We, the youth of that era, thought we were very modern when we supplied these deficiencies, even if we failed to spot that many older members didn’t read too well.
    Of course, this didn’t provide us with local knowledge, political experience or worldly wisdom, though we imagined we had that already, of course. For a while, some of us learned to use new technologies to replace the “Reading” election system, though it’s pretty doubtful that many branches can now remember how to make them work.
    What had driven our youthful selves towards the Labour Party? In two words, Margaret Thatcher. What was she doing? Destroying our public services and increasing unemployment. What did we learn – painfully – did not work? Individual angst and complaining. What did work? Persistence and serious commitment to change.
    The current era isn’t very different. After the “phoney war” of the Coalition, another generation is rediscovering that Tories are evil bastards and that just shouting won’t make them go away. Would it be good if Labour branches and CLPs learned to use Facebook and held more informal meetings for newcomers (of all ages and background)? Of course.
    But will that alone provide a cadre of people committed to providing an alternative government with a popular and persuasive programme? No. Should we agree that people whose commitment to Labour is £3 and a tick-in-a-box are more valuable than existing members and likely to prove great assets in the struggle? Not in the least.
    And why should we think that everyone under 30 is a flibbertigibbet with a gnat’s attention span who must be flattered and courted?
    The problem of passing on ideas and values from one generation to another is eternal, but the record is that it is those older people with a strong sense of purpose and a record of trustworthiness that the youth of the day are drawn to when the dust settles. And that is what is in short-supply.

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