Voting by beer mat?

New Labour's campaigning techniques assume young people will vote Labour after being handed a leaflet in a club, because we'll associate Labour with clubbing. In fact, this just insults us.

Fran O'Leary

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Topics Politics

Swindon Young Labour group had the pleasure of trying out one of Labour’s new campaigning techniques before the Easter holiday. Armed with a handful of first-time voter flyers, they descended on a local nightclub and attempted to persuade the clientele to vote Labour in the upcoming general election (1).

Other young Labour groups are now being encouraged by the Labour Party to follow the Swindon group’s example. But these new campaigning techniques are more likely to insult young people like me than to encourage us to vote Labour.

The Labour Party seems desperate to make its politics appear relevant to young people. Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East, encourages his young activists to hand out Labour Party beer mats when they are in the pub. Emma Thorne, Labour’s election delivery and local recruitment officer, shockingly revealed to a conference of student Labour supporters on 17 November 2000 that the party had noticed young people communicate by email and text messages. The party plans to develop campaigning techniques that use this technology to communicate with young people during the next five years.

Parties can canvass young people by stuffing leaflets through their doors or by telephoning them. Young people can be contacted through these more traditional campaigning techniques just as easily as older people can. So the motivation behind adopting new campaigning techniques cannot simply be about finding opportunities to get Labour’s message across – enough opportunities to do this already exist.

Thorne’s statement suggests that Labour thinks, to get young people to listen, it is necessary to use the same methods of communication that young people use. But, just like older people, we can hear when politicians pontificate on the radio.

The assumption is that we will only take notice of the content of their message if it is delivered through a medium that we associate with our lifestyle. According to this rationale, we will vote Labour after being handed a leaflet in a club because we will associate Labour with clubbing….

Labour has good reason to be concerned with enthusing young people. While just eight percent of the total UK population have said they have no interest in politics, a corresponding figure of 24 percent for young people was found in the same survey (2). More recently the mere mention of politics was enough to make some young people surveyed ‘switch off’ (3).

Any party that manages to attract the support of my ‘apathetic generation’ may gain seats in the House of Commons. Of those who have not registered to vote, the highest proportion is among the 21- to 24-year old age group (4). Catching these ‘missing voters’ could make a significant difference to the results of elections in marginal seats.

Labour’s strategy for attracting the support of these ‘missing voters’ seems to involve a huge gamble. If they just spin their message the right way, young people will join their party in herds. If their choice of words or medium of communication isn’t quite right, their mission will fail. And they are likely to fail, for two reasons.

Campaigning techniques such as these involve a lack of understanding about the way young people’s lives work. Amy Huebler, a 20-year-old garage cashier from Cambridge, expresses doubts about leafleting clubs. ‘When you’re out with your mates you just want to have a laugh’, she says. ‘You don’t want to be bombarded with that stuff.’ She concedes that her friends may sometimes talk about politics, but that this will only happen if she and her friends are in the mood to discuss such things.

Although the Swindon Young Labour group managed to sign up three new members while campaigning in Swindon’s finest clubs, Amy Huebler says, ‘Most people I know wouldn’t listen, they’d just laugh or take the piss’.

Similarly, young people might regard receiving Labour text messages and emails in the same way they do junk mail. These new campaigning techniques appear unlikely to convert many young people. They are more likely to add to the 45 percent of young people who believe that those involved in politics have a limited understanding of normal working life (5).

Another reason why these techniques are likely to fail is that they are based on insulting assumptions about the nature of apathy among young people. The Labour Party’s approach assumes that all it will take to get us to be enthusiastic about its message is to change the medium through which it is presented, rather than the content. Presumably Labour hasn’t considered that the reason why some young people do not actively support Labour might be because they don’t support its policies.

We should expect parties to believe both that their policies are right and that certain groups in society would support them if they only listened a little harder. That the Labour Party is directing some of its campaigning resources towards converting young people suggests it believes young people are one of these groups.

We would think it strange, though not surprising given the current lack of innovation in party politics, if Tony Blair spent the election campaign begging for policy ideas from his younger constituents rather than presenting them with a coherent set of proposals. But that it is normal behaviour for parties to assume their policies are worth supporting doesn’t make any less insulting the assumption that I would be more likely to vote Labour if presented with a Labour Party beer mat.

The assumption that we haven’t noticed what is going on politically is also more than a little odd. The Labour Party must imagine young people as being incapable of seeing further than our noses – that text messages, emails and clubs are our only link to the real world.

But political disputes can affect our everyday experiences of life – young people are made only too aware of this fact. I couldn’t help but notice when my grant cheques stopped arriving during my second year at university. Meanwhile, my sister is aware that she may nearly be able to afford to go on holiday next year, thanks to the four percent pay rise she was allocated in the last budget.

However little interest young people may have in the ins-and-outs of parliamentary politics, it has left its mark on many aspects of our lives. Our lack of interest is more likely to be a result of how uninspired we are by the parties’ limited commitment to improving our lives, rather than a lack of information about how they have done so and how they plan to do so in the future.

We don’t need to be approached by young Labour campaigners in the pub to be reminded that politics exists, or to work out what we think about it.

Fran O’Leary is a student at Oxford University

(1) Countdown – Young Labour and Labour Students, Issue 1 February 2001, published by the Labour Party

(2) ‘International Social Attitudes: The 10th BSA Report, Social and Community Planning Research, 1993’, in Youth in Politics report for BBC Research, NOP, June 1995

(3) Political Interest and Engagement Among Young People, National Centre for Social Research, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, May 2000 – Ref 520

(4) Treasury figures as reported in the Independent 7 November 1996

(5) NOP/TIC report 1996. When asked whether politicians really understood what working life was like, 45 percent of the young people questioned answered ‘not very well’

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Topics Politics

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