For my parents’ generation, politics was characterised by conflict. It was a clash of opposing ideologies, left versus right, direct action and demonstrations. By contrast, young people today have seen politics shaped by New Labour pragmatism, compassionate Conservatism, politicians competing for centre ground and running on tickets of competent governance.
While this approach may have been successful in terms of winning votes, it has also contributed to the political disengagement of a generation. A survey earlier this year by the University of Essex found that less than one-third of young people express any interest in politics. There is a pervasive sense among them that politicians are “all the same”. The battle for centre ground which has characterised the politics of my life no longer interests or inspires young people.
Whatever your judgement of Thatcher, hers was surely the last truly ideological premiership. For decades, politicians presented Britain with contrasting plans for the country’s future. These differences meant that politics was a genuine battle. It was fought not just in the media but on the ground, in the form of CND rallies, poll-tax riots and miners’ strikes. Thatcher’s politics may have divided the people but it also engaged them. The British Social Attitudes Survey showed that in 1983, 85% of people aged 24 to 33 identified with a political party.
In 1994 Tony Blair became Labour leader and everything changed. Nationalisation was erased from Clause IV, big business was courted and the country’s most read paper declared “The Sun Backs Blair”. Blair modernised the Labour Party, making the argument for pragmatic governance not beholden to historic ideological interests. In the process he reshaped how politicians fought for power. This legacy can still be felt today. As the main parties jostle to occupy centre ground and present policies devoid of explicit ideology, young people are increasingly disassociated with political parties. By 2012, only 66% of 23- to 32-year-olds identified with a party, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey.
Paradoxically, recent trends suggest young people are the driving force behind a number of political developments. There is the soaring popularity of Russell Brand as a self-styled revolutionary and political pundit, evidenced by his almost 10 million followers on Twitter, and the “Green Surge”, driven by Caroline Lucas, which saw Green Party membership rise by 100% across 2014. These are both clear examples of youth engagement.
The popularity of these figures can partly be attributed to the fact they are engaging with the “big ideas”, discussing motivations and appraising ideologies – in short, having the conversations of generations past. They are also seen as more genuine and more credible because of their ability to voice minority opinions. Divisiveness is not a vice, rather it is celebrated.
Part of the problem for many politicians is that they are still approaching young people with arguments for pragmatism, lists of what they can offer to persuade us they are more “on our side” than the other guys. Yet for those who voted in 2010 for the Lib Dems, a party of the centre that prioritised a pledge on student fees above all other issues, their experience is perhaps one of betrayal and disappointment. Unsurprising, then, that pledge-based politics is seen by many as hollow and uninspiring.
The major parties must reassess how they present their politics to young people, if they have any hope of recapturing their interest. If ideological differences still exist – and as a member of a political party I believe they do – politicians need to demonstrate them differently. Rather than presenting policies and hoping we will see the underlying, implied ideology, they must be braver, more explicit. Young people are seeking to engage with political ideas and ideologies in the same way as generations before them did, and politicians now need to look to the past for guidance to shape a successful future.