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9 May 2001Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Blair's other babies
What lies behind New Labour's infantile obsession with Young Britain?

by Jennie Bristow

'Buzzing...Best day I've had in ages.' 'I really enjoyed myself.' 'It was brilliant.'

Were these young people raving about a trip to Ibiza or Glastonbury? No - they were talking about a day spent at the Sound Republic nightclub in Leicester Square, London, consulting with home secretary Jack Straw, minister for women Tessa Jowell, and the rest of the Westminister Massive. 'Baroness Jay was really interested in the work we'd done', eulogised one easily impressed young woman from the north of England. 'And she knew where Fleetwood was.'

These snippets dominate the glossy first pages of 'Listen Up: a dialogue with young people', published in April 2000. The 'dialogue' was a joint effort by the Home Office and the Women's Unit 'to find out what matters most to young people today and what they think their government should be doing for them'. And if the kids enjoyed their day out, the ministers came away in ecstasy.

'I sat at a table listening to these young guys and I understood that what they were saying would mean I needed to think again about advice services', said an official from the Department for Education and Employment. Calling the day a 'groundbreaking event' and 'a real opportunity to listen and learn', Home Office minister Paul Boateng breathed, 'The voices, displays and powerful performances of the young people themselves have stayed with me ever since'. As for Tessa Jowell: wow. 'Listen Up has laid bare the vulnerabilities and strengths of young people', she intoned. 'We must now respond. Their participation is part of the solution of delivering better policy, not part of the problem.'

Yeah, yeah, yeah. To hear government officials bleating on about the need to take young people seriously is nothing new. It usually falls within the same category as 'we are not telling people what to do', and 'I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing with you'. But this government really seems to believe in taking young people seriously. From the creation of Cool Britannia to this latest youth consultation, young people are held up as the pied pipers of New Britain, with government ministers bopping behind them.

New Labour's love affair with youth first attracted public attention with the 1997 pre-election 'Rock the Vote' campaign, which lined up pop stars to preach the importance of first-time voting. Once in government, one of Blair's first moves was to invite celebrities such as Oasis' Noel Gallagher to hang out at Number 10. The wheels of Cool Britannia were set in motion, creating a makeover for Britain as young, hip and creative.

On discussions about everything from drugs to education, Tony Blair slips in strategically placed references to his kids (although he slates every journalist/nanny who dares to do the same, with squeals about his children's right to privacy). In fact, he was not so long in government when he brought his kids right into the heart of public policymaking with the 'Euan test' - the notion that the contents of the Millennium Dome should be decided on the basis of their appeal to his young son.

But before New Labour even entered government, it was clear that Young Britain had very little to do with the teenagers of today. Insofar as the government has an attitude to actual youth, it is in the context of a feverish nightmare about kids who need controlling. The Crime and Disorder Act of 1998 introduced night-time curfews for the under-10s, reduced the age of criminal responsibility from 14 to 10, and brought in Antisocial Behaviour Orders - civil injunctions imposed on people whose behaviour was seen to cause 'harassment, alarm or distress', and which Jack Straw expected to be used 'quite routinely against the middle age range of 12- to 17-year olds'.

The New Deal youth unemployment programme demanded that everybody under 25 was engaged in employment, education or training or voluntary work. If not, they were sent on the sinisterly named 'Environment Taskforce'; and if they refused to comply, their benefits would be withdrawn. The Tories had tried a similar 'no work, no money' approach with their 'Workfare' scheme, and received a vitriolic response; the New Deal went through on the nod.

The Labour Party had supported the Criminal Justice Act of 1995, which effectively made rave parties illegal by outlawing 'repetitive beats'; by 1997, New Labour had introduced punitive measures against council tenants who play their music too loud. New Labour has talked about boot camps and homework camps, about banning chips in school and mobile phones, and raising the age of smoking and driving to 18. Young Britain, it seems, is anything but a party.

But New Labour's desire to surround itself with yoof has not been, as many tried to claim, mere PR. Others tried similar tricks to the shirtsleeves and popster glitz cultivated by Blair's party - and failed spectacularly. Tory leader William Hague turned up to the Notting Hill carnival in a baseball cap, and Prince Charles tried jiving with the Spice Girls, only to find themselves fodder for caustic newspaper columnists and stand-up comedians. No - mutton dressed as lamb was a loser, transparent and embarrassing. New Labour made it work because this was mutton working in 'active partnership' with lamb, and bleating along in harmony. It wasn't the image of youth that the party was trying to capture, but its essence.

'We live in a new age but an old country', proclaimed Blair at the Labour Party conference in 1995. 'I want us to be a young country again....Not resting on past glories. Not fighting old battles.' New Labour, with its Third Ways and New Britains, was forged self-consciously out of a desire to transcend the past. At its heart was a recognition that the old politics of left v right, of socialists v conservatives, of capitalism v communism, were just that - old politics, no longer relevant. The Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended, the left collapsed and the right, standing in the ring with nobody left to fight, simply chewed itself up. By the time New Labour came on the scene the Conservatives were sleaze-ridden, flea-bitten and deeply, deeply depressed, bitching behind the one-dimensional back of that definitive grey man, John Major.

Declaring war on the past is fine, but where do you go then?
When Blair called upon his party to 'build a new and young country that can lay aside the old prejudices that have dominated our land for generations', he was talking about more than just a new government. He was talking about a clean slate. And who better to make the first etchings on that slate than young people, innocent of the past, untainted by politics, 'the old prejudices that have dominated our land for generations'?

In many ways, then, Young Britain was a euphemism for going beyond the past - both Labour's own past and the broader framework of traditional British politics. But it was also an expression of a certain desperation that has characterised New Labour from the beginning. It is fine to declare war on the past, but where do you go then, today and in the future? Blair's party has never had a clear idea about this - the only thing it was ever certain of is that Labour should be New. The preoccupation with novelty and youth, without any big ideas or long-term gameplans, is what gives New Labour's politics its hollow ring.

'There was a time when politicians stood aloof from the nasty underworld of popular music', said Voice columnist Tony Sewell in 1997. 'Now they are all falling over themselves to show us how they can play electric guitars and drink cocktails from coconuts.' That New Labour was so interested in youth culture - let alone the extent to which it held pop stars up as role models for Young Britain - indicated its own lack of ideas or inspiration.

Youth culture had always been treated with disdain because it was angsty and irresponsible, the very antithesis to mainstream parliamentary debate. Now that parliamentary debate had nothing to say, and no way of connecting with the world outside, it was precisely this 'out there-ness' that politicians found so attractive.

Sewell went on: 'Musicians once did the cool thing and burnt their invitations to 10 Downing Street. This was when music was anti-establishment. Today, singers can't wait to get their hands on the champagne and canapés at the Blairs'. 'He was having a pop at the pop world - but there was more to it than that. Yes, pandering to the pop stars appealed to some pretty base narcissism - as Oasis' Noel Gallagher would later admit, 'I just thought, if the prime minister of England wanted to see me, then, fuck me, I must be a fucking geezer. I was convinced that I was going to get a knighthood that night'.

But really, the pop stars' athletic vault on to the bandwagon of Cool Britannia was motivated by the fact that politics had become so empty, as uninspiring as they were non-antagonising, that there was not even anything for the pop stars to be anti. As the New Musical Express (NME) explained it in 1998:'Yeah, of course we tried to be cynical, sneering at the TV pictures of all those New Labour pod-people in their shiny Next suits, dancing like geeks to D:Ream's Things Can Only Get Better. But who were we kidding? After 18 years, the Tories were gone! Eighteen years! In rock music, that's forever!'

In the bleak political nothingness of 1997, New Labour had one main attraction: its ability to get the Tories out. Once that was done, the hole at its heart was exposed. But why would this be a problem? After all, New Labour's rootless politics and lack of principles had always been a central part of its appeal.

'Let me talk to you about my generation', said Blair back in 1995. 'We were born into the welfare state and the NHS, into the market economy of bank accounts, supermarkets, jeans and cars. We had money in our pockets never dreamt of by our parents....We built a new popular culture, transformed by colour TV, Coronation Street and The Beatles. We enjoy a thousand material advantages over any previous generation; and yet we suffer a depth of insecurity and spiritual doubt they never knew.' He added: 'Mine is the generation with more freedom than any other, but less certainty about how to exercise it responsibly - the generation that knocks on the door of a new millennium, frightened for our future and unsure of our soul.'

'Frightened for our future and unsure of our soul' may not be the kind of bombastic rhetoric you might expect from a wannabe prime minister on the brink of a landslide victory. But it was true. Blair, as the NME explained it, was 'leading a cabinet of former student radicals, most of whom had cut their political teeth marching for peace, free love and the legalisation of dope in the 1960s and 70s'. They achieved none of these goals. They had witnessed, firsthand, the defeat of left-wing politics and 18 years of Tory rule. Politics had become reduced to that simple mantra: things can only get better.

Blair's generation peered into the depths of their own insecurity, looking for something that could take them beyond all that and into the next stage of their lives...youth.'Then, much faster than it would take to tell it, out of the window came her hip, her little bottom, her bare midriff, her tube top, her wide shoulders, her long wavy black hair with its heavenly auburn sheen. Youth! She hadn't even bothered to open the door. She had come rolling out of the Camaro like a high jumper rolling over the bar at a track meet.'

Roger Too White, the light-skinned black lawyer in Tom Wolfe's epic A Man in Full, has in common with the other older main characters his fascination with, and envy of, young women. Charlie Croker, a physically powerful property developer in his sixties, has dumped his wife for a twentysomething 'boy with breasts'; Raymond Peepgass, the slimily pathetic banker in charge of Croker's account, is reduced to near-penury with demands for child maintenance from a Finnish mistress, the affair with whom broke up his marriage.

The theme of a middle-aged man undergoing a mid-life crisis who looks to young women to reaffirm some sense of his self is so commonplace it is almost boring (was anybody really that shocked about Clinton?). When a middle-aged man gets off on his fantasies about youth, it is seen as seedy and contemptible. Yet when a government tried it, it was widely seen as exciting, exhilarating, sexy even.

We are confronted with a grotesque caricature of youth
In the Daily Express in 1996, Tony Blair wrote a cloying address to his then youngest child Kathryn, eight years old at the time: 'I only have to watch you throwing yourself into new activities - acting, playing the piano, or swimming - to realise that the energy and fearlessness of young people is the energy to make Britain once again a country of enthusiasm and new ideas - a young country.' The essence of youth, for Young Britain, was not the scruffy boisterousness of real teenagers, or the critical minds of a generation on the cusp of adulthood.

It was the childish innocence of kids - untainted by politics, prejudices or principles, ignorant of everything except the here and now. Somehow, it was hoped that this very innocence of the grubby world of politics could soothe the insecurities of their parents' generation and take us through to that brave new world of New Britain.

The problem with this strategy is, as Philip Larkin put it a quarter of a century ago: 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had, And add some extra, just for you.'

The idealised youths of New Labour's fantasies are, in reality, as caricatured as the tearaway teenagers of their nightmares. Society can look for answers in young people, and be sure to find nothing but its own insecurities writ large - because, after all, they are the ones writing on that clean slate. And so we end up confronted with a grotesque caricature of youth, who speak New Labour and think New Labour - because New Labour is the cartoonist.

The website for Number 10 Downing Street has a section dedicated to youth, in which a page titled 'If I were prime minister' carries a fortnightly contribution from a school student. On 28 April 2000, the winning entry came from Naomi Sharp, aged 14, from Robert Gordon's College. 'If I were prime minister, I would think ahead', she writes. 'I would think about the future of our world: the children of today. So many people are falling into misuse of drugs and alcohol, missing school, not working at school.'

She goes on to outline how she would 'implement a hard-hitting drugs and alcohol abuse programme in schools', and then 'investigate ways of making children stay in school and study'. 'By these simple improvements', she says, 'unemployment and homelessness will decrease....Death by drugs will decrease, and there will be fewer children whose parents have abuse problems. These children will be happier, and this in turn will increase the work they do at school, and their likeliness of jobs. Teenage, and adult, suicide will drop'.

This formulation could have come straight out of the Social Exclusion Unit's 'Bridging the Gap' report on unemployed 16- to 19-year olds, which states that they end up in 'a variety of relationship, family and health problems, including homelessness, persistent offending or problem drug use'. Young Naomi's final flourish, however, sounds more like one of Blair's own speeches: 'As prime minister, I would realise that not only today is important, but tomorrow as well.' It seems credible that one young person has learned the New Labour lingo better than most of the ministers. It seems rather less believable that a whole generation thinks like Naomi. Yet this is precisely what the government is trying to believe, when it publishes, with no sense of irony, a youth 'consultation' like Listen Up.

The Listen Up consultation, for all its protestations, was not exactly what you would call a scientific survey of youth attitudes. It was a consultation with just 500 young people between the ages of 13 and 25 - according to the report, there are 5.1million teenagers living in Britain. The 'dialogue' was not with any old young people, either - tearaways from the local estates, or rebels without good causes were excluded. Many of the participants were part of that rare breed of reconstructed teens who were 'already participating in youth groups'. And the methodology would not even have passed a GCSE in sociology. The 'messages' fed back to government during the six-month consultation 'came in many and varied forms, through videos, songs, rap dances, artwork, poetry, magazines, drama, CD Roms, puppets, posters, diaries and digital imagery'.

As you might expect from all this, the conclusion of the inquiry into what matters to young people tallies almost exactly with the government's own views and policy measures. So on the subject of the family and family life, we learn that 'young men want more education on parenthood and for fathers to be given more help to get them involved with their children'.

When asked about school and school life, 'young people want schools and teachers to demonstrate greater cultural sensitivity, provide more relevant personal and social education and give better careers advice'. On pathways after 16, 'girls want gender stereotyping to be addressed'.

On sex, sexuality and relationships, 'young men want opportunities to explore emotional development with male teachers and youth workers; better communication skills; an understanding of the factors that determine self-esteem; and a focus in PSHE on concepts of masculinity'. When it comes to health and health-risk behaviours, 'young people want...health education about drugs and alcohol'.

When asked about mental health, 'young men want suicide prevention programmes and a focus in the school curriculum on emotional literacy'. And for the finale, when it comes to the issue of young people and offending, 'young people want the police to be more involved in youth and community projects' and 'more counselling and better education in prisons'.

'I need a father who's a role model', Jane complains. 'Not some horny geek-boy'
A focus on concepts of masculinity? Opportunities to explore emotional development? In the words of Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot: 'nobody talks like that.' Certainly, nobody under the age of 25 without a think-tank contract talks like that. But the peculiar thing about this non-consultative consultation is that the ministers involved in it really seem to believe that they are 'listening up'.

So where does this leave young people? In the film American Beauty, teenager Jane considers whether to kill her father. After he falls for Jane's coquettish best friend, dad has lost his job, rediscovered dope and bought a radio-controlled toy car. 'I need a father who's a role model', Jane complains to her boyfriend. 'Not some horny geek-boy who's gonna spray his shorts whenever I bring a girlfriend home from school.'

This is a film about an insecure man in an insecure world, looking to a virgin his daughter's age for the authentic experience of youthful innocence. He fails his daughter, and ultimately himself. Confronted with an authority figure with no authority, Jane is given nothing to live up to, and nothing to aspire to. She needs somebody to inspire her about the adult world she is growing into. She does not need some geek trying to recreate the emptiness of the childhood she is trying to escape from.

So it is with the Kathryn Blairs of this world, the next generation of society's leaders. They are not, as the government would like to believe, a generation who spontaneously thinks on-message with New Labour. At best, the government inspires the kind of lukewarm endorsement given by GCSE politics student David, aged 14. When asked what the difference was between the political parties, he replied: 'The Conservative Party are a little bit more older and a little bit more formal, posher, I don't know why. And Labour are a little bit younger, more outgoing, a little bit more aimed at teenagers, easier to get interested in, I don't know why. The Liberal Democrats, I don't really know much about them really.'

At worst, the emptiness of this politics that is nothing but 'new' provokes a thoroughgoing cynicism about everything political. According to a recent survey by the Adam Smith Institute, over half of 15- to 24-year olds say they are 'not interested in politics' - hardly a surprising result. And when the NME ran its high-profile popster rebellion less than a year after the New Labour landslide, under the headline 'The stars kick Blair's arse', this was an attempt by the embarrassed pop world to distance itself not just from New Labour, but from all politics and politicians.

Take these responses to the question 'Do you see any difference between the current Labour government and the previous Tory one?'. Cerys Matthews of Catatonia: 'Different colour. More parties at Number 10.' Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy: 'It's rapidly getting worse, I must admit, but it's certainly better. But government is government, full stop.' Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai: 'Labour are just as evil as the Tories but fewer people are aware of their vindictive policies.' Mark Hamilton of Ash: 'I don't know. I don't know anything about politics.'

This level of cynicism with all aspects of the political process can only lead the younger generation to two responses. Either you just get on with it, accepting everything, challenging nothing, and becoming bored out of your brains by the time you hit 30 with the emptiness of your own petty, personal life. Or you end up on the kind of 'fuck everything' demonstration held in Trafalgar Square on 1 May, or in Seattle last November.

Born out of a healthy desire to be anti something, but without any notion of what they should be for, these demonstrations reflect the utter destructiveness of anti-ness with no solutions, of idealism with no ideas. Nice coffee, fast food, statues and roads - these things become targets for no other reason than that they represent society as it is today. The protests might look extreme, but the lack of ideas behind the brick-throwing and seed-planting make them little more than a childish tantrum. And Tony Blair might bleat about the 'mindless thuggery' of May Day, but it is his government that encapsulates the mindlessness, the emptiness behind the petty vandalism.

In a world of role models and geeks, this government is as geeky as they come. Surely, after three years in government, it is time for New Labour to put away its childish fantasies and grow up.

Reproduced from Last Magazine, summer 2000

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Read on:

Wake up! The truth about youth apathy, by Jennie Bristow

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