The ready-made radicalism of the left has become just as staid and uninspiring as the parliamentary politics it is supposed to be replacing.
There is something faintly embarrassing about any attempt to get ‘young people’ interested in politics. Comedian Mark Thomas clearly felt this as he opened the Institute for Public Policy Research’s event on Young People and Politics: Apathy, Engagement or Protest? in London on Friday 30 March.
Addressing a few hundred mostly young delegates, the celebrated lefty comedian followed every reference to ‘young people’ with an ironic ‘Very good! Marvellous!’. Embarrassment aside though, the question of how, and indeed whether, the younger generation will be engaged in politics is an important one.
Delegates were given Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?-style electronic gadgets to vote on various questions about their activities and beliefs. While it was noted that this audience was likely to be unrepresentative in its engagement with politics, the numbers actually involved with parties or even single-issue campaigns still turned out to be very low (1).
To broaden the debate, the event featured several French speakers (with simultaneous translation on hi-tech headsets). Young people in France apparently are just as unlikely to be involved in mainstream politics, but there is a stronger tradition of street protest. Interestingly, there also seems to be a stronger tradition of government initiatives to institutionalise youth activism.
In this spirit, the UK government recently appointed Paul Boetang as minister for youth. He also spoke at the event. Determined to dispel the grey-suit image, Boetang became quite animated in his insistence that there are differences between the parties, and positively impassioned on the subject of voter apathy. He barked that it is people who can’t be bothered to vote who are to blame for the relative success of the National Front in the south of France.
It was the first and only sign of a bit of needle at the event. This was refreshing, and clearly impressed the audience. It is sad, though, that it took the threat of fascism to inspire a raised voice. The suggestion behind Boetang’s posturing was that if you don’t vote, the bogeyman will come and get you. Things have come to a pretty pass when that’s the best a government minister can come up with.
Rachel Newsome of the hip magazine Dazed and Confused said that young people are more likely to identify as consumers than as citizens, and that it is the clothes they wear and the music they listen to, rather than what public activities they engage in, that defines them. Billy Bragg warmed to this theme, calling for trendy but ethical clothes to be made available.
Billy Bragg seemed a strange choice of speaker to appeal to a young audience. As a left-wing folk singer, he was a major player in Red Wedge, a coalition of popstars for the Labour Party in the 1980s. Now older than the leader of the Conservative Party, he seemed a little self-conscious as he closed the event. Still, once he got into his stride of denouncing global capitalism, the years seemed to fall away.
In asking lefties to open and close the event, the IPPR recognised implicitly that a bit of political edge is far more inspiring than hours of preaching about the importance of voting. Bragg is a veteran of the days when politics meant something.
The trouble is that the ready-made radicalism of the left has become just as staid and uninspiring as the parliamentary politics it is supposed to be replacing. Anybody dissatisfied with the status quo is now expected to embrace without question the entire alternative package of road protests, animal rights and consumer boycotts.
Given a choice between the clash of the suits and ethical brand wars, it is unsurprising that most young people have little interest in politics at all. Judging from the buzz at this event though, there is a young audience out there keen to become a young public.
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