Geriatric Politics

The main political parties have little to offer young people

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 28th January 1997

It would be hard to find anyone who publicly laments the addition of half a million young people to the electoral register. Even the Conservatives, who know that 60 per cent of them are likely to vote Labour, find themselves constrained to mutter approbation. Everyone else is united in the belief that this is the wonderful news we’ve been waiting for. It breaks the pattern of progressive disenfranchisement that prevailed even before the poll tax knocked a million young people off the register, and suggests that disillusionment is finally surrendering to hope. The tunnellers of Exeter can emerge into the sunlight and swap their head torches for voting slips: MPs will at last be forced to listen to the demands of the young.

Or will they? It is easy to see what young voters will do for certain parliamentary candidates, but rather harder to see what the parliamentarians will do for young voters. The irony of a huge youth vote for Labour in March or May is that the party, in common with the Conservatives, has seldom if ever been less responsive to young people’s concerns. It is not hard to see how a sudden political spring could yield to a winter of disllusionment even bleaker than that from which the young appear to have emerged.

The Labour Party has expressed timorous support at best, overt antipathy at worst, towards many of the issues that most concern the under-25s: civil liberties, the environment, animal welfare, immigration and disarmament. Attacks on beggars and squeegee merchants and a faltering response to both the Criminal Justice Act and the Jobseekers’ Allowance should perhaps have prepared young people for the utter, uncomprehending shock with which they greeted Jack Straw’s enthusiasm for the Police Bill.

Labour MPs’ rejection of fox-hunting scarcely compensates for the party’s commitment to Trident and its silence over the sale of Hawks to Indonesia. Michael Meacher might have raised two cheers for the environment, but Labour planning authorities don’t yet seem to have heard them. The obsessions Labour shares with the Conservatives – taxation and law and order – suggest a drift towards exactly the sort of single-issue politics of which Tony Blair, quite wrongly, accuses politically active young people.

Labour appears to rely instead on appealing to young people’s self-interest. David Blunkett wants to address student hardship, and seems prepared to reverse the government’s proposed imposition of fees for higher education. Tony Blair has pledged to provide training and education for an extra 250,000 young people. Such promises, of course, are welcome. But appealing to the under-25s on these grounds alone suggests that front-benchers have forgotten what first kindled their own interest in politics.

There’s no question, of course, that part of the reason young people’s views are so poorly represented is their low turnout at previous elections. But it seems to me optimistic to assume that voting in large numbers will, by itself, ensure that Labour embraces the issues close to young people’s hearts. It is just as likely to do the opposite.

A big youth vote for the least youth-oriented Labour Party there’s ever been could suggest to Labour that its shrivelled policies are endorsed by the young; that the under-25s will vote for any alternative to the Tories, even if becomes no more than the party for sharp suits and hairdos. This was the message that President Clinton heard, after the Rock the Vote campaign helped to secure his first term in office. He expressed his gratitude not with radical measures to help the young people who had voted for him, but with anti-piracy laws to help the music industry which had organized the campaign.

The very means by which Labour governs itself could scarcely be more hostile to youthful idealism. The party’s fixers may be younger than ever before, but with every week they seem to become more withered in spirit. The manufacture of consent, spin-doctory, calculated insincerity – all reflect the values of antiquated schemers, not those of uncompromising youth. Labour now speaks the language of power, rather than the language of liberty. It is this that renders it scarcely distinguishable from its hoarier opponents.

I hesitate to propose the very calculations which younger voters so rightly abhorr, but a small inoculation of cynicism now could avert a terminal infection later on. Were the new voters to abandon their idealistic hopes that the Labour Party will listen to them in 1997, and use their unfamiliar power to punish it by voting for those smaller parties which still uphold some of their ideals, they might not elect many candidates, but the party would be begging from their table in 2002. In the meantime, don’t abandon the dug-outs. The new voters’ pleas may fall on deaf ears, but the youthful voice of the underground is coming over loud and clear.