Making Politics fit for the next generation
By Peter Kyle MP
Our political institutions may feel weird to many of us who are inside them. To young people looking in, they are truly bizarre
It is the method and form of what passes for our politics that is our biggest problem. There is nothing strange or peculiar about the things that young people want and need, but the way in which we talk about creating a politics out of them is
In the 20th century the British left gained support and allegiance by being part of some of the most important big narratives in history. For decades, the story of the creation of a new socialist society swept millions of people into politics. Individuals could see and feel a whole new world that was better and fairer in every respect. They could also see how their work and political contribution would bring that about. Later in the century overcoming the barriers created by gender, race and sexuality created similar movements that involved every aspect of who we are in the wider political struggle for improvement.
These powerful narratives created institutions in which generations found a home; institutions which they regarded with pride and in which they participated with happiness. ‘You can’t get me I am part of the union,’ was a song, a chant and, for many, a reality.
These generations loved the sense of been a part of a great struggle and loved the institutions which led those struggles. Much of our very identity was shaped around these movements and these institutions – indeed, around our politics itself.
For young people today, this has changed. The big narratives do not encompass young people. This change does not just affect the centre left: the right knows that its narratives – around nation and deference – have also lost their capacity to move young people. But it is a particular problem for the left. In Britain, it is the left that has traditionally received strength and renewal from young people and so a fracture between their hopes and desires and the politics of the left is of greater importance.
The purpose of The Argument is to develop political ideas to confront and, over time, overcome problems that look to be intractable. This edition is based around an essay by Georgia Gould that faces up to the gap that exists between the Labour party and nearly all young people. It has been growing wider for some time. We do not believe a tweak in policy or politics will overcome it. For the next few years it will need hard thinking, and even harder action, to bring about the changes in our policy and politics that will encourage young people to work with us.
The purpose of this edition is to start that process of recognition and renewal. Recognition begins with how we think about this. As Georgia says: “The narrative I was hearing in politics and the media around apathy and deviance bore no relation to the creative melting pot of energy, ideas, optimism, passion and laughter – but also deep anger – I was hearing on a daily basis.” What is labelled as an apathy about politics is, in fact, a rejection of how we, who participate in and run political institutions, frame politics. The young people Georgia spoke to were deeply political and many express their sense of anger and desire for change through music, poetry and other acts of personal expression. Their political engagement is deeply personal, it can be about how they shop, work or express themselves. It coalesces in flashes of shared protest or action but it struggles to find long-term institutional power.
My political development depended on books and meetings. I sat through hours of ‘minutes and matters arising’ in the hope that, at some point, something about the politics of real people might develop. But by surviving every one of those meetings, I became separated more and more from others who saw their politics expressed in other ways – for example, through music. Our political institutions may feel weird to many of us who are inside them. To many young people looking in, they are truly bizarre.
To describe someone as politically apathetic because they do not find a way into politics through the paths that we have suffered along, displays an arrogance which will only make the generational rift greater.
It is unquestionably good that tens of thousands of people have recently joined the Labour party. They have a commitment to radical social change and an ideology through which they express that commitment. This has brought them to a further commitment to a particular vision of a political party. Alongside these people who join a party we need to reach out to, and gain the allegiance of, millions of young people who do not share that vision and ideology.
But we also need to remember, as Georgia says, that far from holding fringe views the majority of 18- to 24-year-olds put themselves in the political centre. As she also indicates, far more than older people, the young see their individuality as core to their identity and their future: “I have lost count of the number of times a young person has said to me ‘I am not my class, my race, religion. I am just me.’ The young people I spoke to were fiercely protective of their right to express themselves and maintain differences.” In arguing so clearly for their right to be an individual they reject the metanarratives of the socialisms of the past. They are more likely to want to start their own business than any previous generation and in their work life they seek autonomy purpose and flexibility.
Given these strong characteristics, for most young people class-based politics and membership of trades unions are like sepia photos of their grandparents. How Labour and the wider movement address this challenge are the focus of articles by Bex Bailey and Tom Mauchline. For both, it is clear that we need a radical rethink of the traditional ways in which we do politics. As Bex suggests: “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.”
Tom shares this analysis, suggesting that: “Poll after poll has shown that young people prize their individuality but the job market millennials enter is highly competitive and unstable, making collective bargaining more important than ever. Unions need to start engaging young people outside of the workplace through schemes that support the wider movement, acting as a funnel to membership in a way that will not jar with their needs for individualism.”
It is the method and form of what passes for our politics that is our biggest problem. There is nothing strange or peculiar about the things that young people want and need, but the way in which we talk about creating a politics out of them is.
As Georgia says: “The task of Labour today is to create solidarity while respecting individuality. It is not enough to call on past identities; solidarity in the modern world has to be an active, live endeavour. The most successful youth movements invest in relationships, seeing them as the thread that holds together often hugely diverse groups. Much more thought has to be put into the art of relationship-building, fostering dialogue and constructive debate.”
We are not foolish enough to believe that a single set of discussions in a political journal will solve this political problem. Over the next few months we will report on real life examples of how the centre left is trying to develop new relationships with the new generation of very different politics. This will take time and imagination. But it does need to start.
Peter Kyle MP