After the Cleggster interview (went very well, thank you! He was on good form and publication – this being a monthly glossy – will be mid-March) I tried looking at the youth/politics problem from the other end, so to speak, and wondering if the reason for disengagement lay with those carefree cats in their twenties rather than the grey men in suits (“reason” not being the same thing as “blame”, of course).
On the one hand I think it is true, as Sockpuppet pointed out, that there is a paradox in how politicians collectively behave towards Generation Y. Half the time is spent running after them begging to be allowed to engage with them, to answer their questions, to know what they want, and the other half is spent passing legislation that stops them having any fun and concocting vicious smear campaigns against them in concert with tabloid newspaper editors. To this extent, it is not a surprise that the collective response of Gen Y to politics is, at best, ambivalent.
But is there also something more structural going on here? The bread and butter of politics for fifty years has really been public services. Oh, you can dress it up with messaging that purports to be about some more abstract value, like efficiency, or taking care of the little people, or indeed fairness. You can see it through any number of economic prisms including the antithetical notion of privatised services or the present will-we-won’t-we cuts issue. But the services are still at the heart of it. They are what the government do, either themselves or through intermediaries. They are what any government does in any country that is broadly organised as a social democracy.
And Gen Y don’t use services very much. I’ll qualify that – the youngest third (depending on which measurement you use) of Gen Y are still at school and university, some exceptionally unlucky Gen Y-ers have to use care and health services all the time; some twenty-somethings have children, although they are getting older, and rarer; all twenty-somethings will at least remember school and some university; they might well have grandparents who use services. But on the whole, with the odd exception such as busting an ankle at five-a-side or needing your stomach pumped, people in their twenties just don’t have to engage with services in the same intensive and universal way people in their thirties and forties do. Or people in their fifties and sixties. When they’re not actually at school (as reluctant consumers), schools and hospitals are at best matters of abstract importance to most people under 30 (and of course, when they do use hospital services to get their stomach pumped, they’re smeared as evil wasters). And they may be actively hostile towards the police service, sometimes, sadly, with good reason.
This is why, when you ask young people to fill in surveys to indicate what political issues they care about, you get impressive and high-falutin answers, such as the environment, equality and, the ultimate meta-issue, youth engagement. I’m not for one moment questioning the honesty of these responses. But in making these high-minded, abstract choices, they are actually revealing how very little there is in the government’s core business which affects them directly. It’s a nice truism to say that we’re all affected by everything the government does; but I’ll tell you, from this side of thirty the future of schooling in this country looks considerably less like a theoretical tut-tut issue and more like a source of imminent hair-tearing terror.
So what’s the answer? I think it might be that there is no answer. If people don’t need the government’s services, they don’t need them and it’s as simple as that; they’ll soon start voting when they do need them. Meanwhile, the politically engaged young will tend to be from a cultural class that promotes political engagement, and the views they develop will centre on that class’s great mainstay issues, like the environment and equality.
On the other hand, there might be an answer. I think about what life throughout my twenties was like for me and I come up with three core themes.
1) Money. Like everyone else I was at the start of my career with no savings working quite hard for not much money, and it was a bit hard. Not an awful lot, but a bit.
2) Renting. I was a private tenant. I didn’t have any truly horrendous experiences, just all the usual disadvantages that goes with the experience of tenantry in this country.
3) Drinking. Going to the pub is (in spite of the government’s best efforts) still a lot cheaper than going to the cinema, so it’s mostly what I and my friends did.
If you think about political responses to these three strands of experience over the last decade or so, you will find they were respectively to slightly ignore, to totally ignore and to castigate.
First, most of the concern for people on low incomes is directed at people with children or at older unskilled people. Try doing a Working/Child Tax Credit calculation if you don’t believe me. Working tax credits, as I recall, cut off altogether around the £13k pa mark. Any more than that, and if you don’t have children you can lump it. And if you’re under 25, you’re not eligible for them at all. There has never been, to my knowledge, any particular help for people in full-time employment under 25 on very low wages except Housing Benefit (which, of course, consists of the state paying the mortgage of buy-to-let landlords and thus supports high house prices and high rents, so ultimately the extent to which it “benefits” the recipient is arguable). Of course, I do see why. A young person – particularly a young graduate – on a low salary still has their whole life in front of them to fuck up. It’s those who have already fucked up that really need help. And of course, a real solution here would revolve around reform of the tax system, which is still mostly a political no-no outside the Lib Dems.
Second. I realise that this cannot represent reality, but I do not personally recall a single instance, either in the last two years of active political interest or the previous 28 of apathy, of a politician mentioning the “r” word. Private tenants simply do not exist in political discourse. They are so invisible that, whenever anyone uses the word “tenants”, it is taken as read that they mean social housing tenants (eg, the name of a new government quango for social housing tenants, which I momentarily and foolishly got excited about: it is called the National Tenant Voice). Private tenants in this country get a worse deal with legal protection and with typical contractual terms than tenants in other European countries. I don’t know a great deal about the issues and I’m sure there aren’t instant and obvious answers. I’m just struck by the way no discussion is ever aired at all.
Mention first time buyers to politicians on the other hand, and they’ll jump like scalded cats. It’s ridiculous. No party has been able to come up with a real solution for all first time buyers “struggling to get on the property ladder” for a very good and simple reason: prices are too high and Generation X is sitting on all the money. We all know this. And no government is ever going to actively cause prices to fall even if they could. Given the Sisyphean impossibility of solving this problem by buying everybody a house (which has been the approach taken by Labour), I am genuinely puzzled as to why politicians don’t go for the lower-hanging fruit: consider the young’s actual lives as tenants instead of their aspirational lives as homeowners. Stop calling them first time buyers because they ain’t buying anything, and start calling them what they are.
Third. Well, we know what I think of youth demonisation and the shoddy, hypocritical and insulting way alcohol consumption is treated in public discourse. This country has made great strides, in the last ten years, of associating young people, and especially young people drinking, with criminality, so that now it is considered normal for law enforcement to confiscate alcohol from young people in public places. Needless to say, this association has the makings of a self-fulfilling prophecy. (On this note, I learn to my great distress that Lee Griffin, who did a lot of excellent collation and investigation work on the government’s record, has lost a lot of it.)
So the reason for “young people’s disengagement” with politics might just be that politicians can’t or won’t produce solutions for the problems Gen Y most commonly faces, and actively denigrates some of their most important social experiences (whether their importance is unfortunate or not, this is what happens).
But you’ll never learn this from people in their teens and twenties, because the ones that don’t care will just say that. Concrete demands that politicians do something about the shittier bits of their lives will usually not be attempted because they know that will make them look selfish, and they already fight against a daily tide of influences telling them they are too selfish. The ones that have been brought up to care will default to caring about abstract issues that, in that heart of hearts invisible even to themselves, they know they “should” be seen to care about. So on the whole they’ll carry on getting more disengaged, and vote less, so politicians will prioritise the services still more because the people who use the services are the ones voting. And so it will carry on until the core premise of government changes, if it ever does.