SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 226 March 2019

Politicised youth

Since the 2017 general election there has been much debate on whether a youthquake was fact or fiction. In January 2018 the British Election Study (BES) published a paper to show that there was not a statistically significant increase in the number of 18-24 year-olds who voted. Instead, its report, The Myth of the 2017 Youthquake Election, said there had been an unrelated increase in turnout in wards which had younger populations.

Much was made in the media, using this research to dispel the idea that young people in Britain had entered the political field in support of Jeremy Corbyn. This was done to play down the impact of parts of Corbyn’s programme, such as abolishing tuition fees and a £10 an hour minimum wage, which would be significant steps forward for many young people.

However, a survey published in December 2018 by the University of Essex – Why 2017 May Have Witnessed a Youthquake After All – has different results. The research used methods as robust as the BES – successive face-to-face interviews held over a number of years and a larger sample size. It found a statistically significant increase in turnout among young people.

It showed an increase in turnout for 18-24 year-olds of eight percentage points, with a 95% level of confidence. This means that there is a 95% chance that the true turnout in the 2017 general election was between 61% and 71% for that age group, with a predicted average of 66%. In 2015, there was a predicted average turnout of 58%, with a 95% chance that it was between 55% and 62%. If the age band is set at 18-25, an increase of nine percentage points is shown for 2017. There are further increases in turnout in the bands 25-29 or 26-30 years-old, of 13 and 14 percentage points respectively.

The study is not perfect. It overestimates turnout across all age groups. Nonetheless, it still records a jump in turnout among young people in 2017 relative to the elections in 2010 and 2015. This backs up the points made at the time: that this was an election in which the enthusiasm and influence of young people drawn to Corbyn’s programme was a key feature. (See: How Big Was The Youthquake? Socialism Today No.217, April 2018)

This increased turnout and political activity was not the result of Jeremy Corbyn’s personality but the 2017 general election manifesto. As in the 2015 and 2016 Labour Party leadership elections, when Corbyn was fighting against the capitalist media, the Tories and Blairites, workers and young people saw it as a breath of fresh air. Those young voters in 2017 had only seen a Labour Party fronted by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, with a programme and internal organisation representing the capitalist class’s interests. There were next to no avenues for organised workers or any new young member to change its direction.

It was an accident that Corbyn got on to the ballot for Labour leader in the first place. Following an attempt by Unite the union in 2013 to have an impact on the selection of the Labour parliamentary candidate in Falkirk, the Labour Party leadership called in the police to investigate. Ed Miliband set up a review into the party’s procedures. One of the main aims of the subsequent Collins Review was to diminish the collective weight of the trade unions in the Labour Party. A by-product of this was that new members and supporters could sign up to vote for candidates in leadership elections, the first test coming in 2015. At the time, the Blairites had thought that letting Corbyn on to the ballot paper would result in a crushing of the left.

This backfired spectacularly. Thousands of young people and workers signed up for the price of a pint to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity programme. However, the initial surge in new members – and support for the radical politics of a leader of one of the main parties – has not been translated into a transformation of Labour’s structures. The undemocratic changes implemented by the right wing under New Labour are still largely intact. Corbyn and his supporters have not used their position to make the changes necessary to wrest control from capitalism’s representatives in the party.

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is part of the anti-austerity wave across Europe. This led to support for new formations rising and in many cases falling. Support for Syriza in Greece and Podemos in the Spanish state have ebbed as they failed to provide a way forward to workers and young people. Indeed, Syriza has become the new implementer of austerity. Momentum, the organisation set up to support Corbyn’s leadership, shares many of the weaknesses of these new formations. A looseness of political programme and undemocratic structures hidden by an emphasis on online participation are examples.

Particularly among young people, the strong class ties to political parties have been eroded. Meanwhile, many older workers – who recognise the important past social gains in health, education and housing associated with Labour – are more sceptical of Corbyn. They have lived through the Blairite transformation of the Labour Party and are not convinced he can lead the monumental task of reclaiming it for the working class.

Moreover, younger people have never known a party that represents workers, so it is not clear to them what role a mass workers’ party could play in the future. There is an openness to trying out new parties and organisations, testing them out but maybe moving on. The way that Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, being elected from a base of support primarily outside or not active within the party, has contributed to this approach.

For example, if there is a Corbyn-led government, how would students and young people fight for an end to tuition fees, in the face of pressure from capitalist institutions such as the Bank of England and the Labour Party right wing? The National Union of Students is facing bankruptcy and is in the process of transforming itself into a think-tank. Already weakened by its right-wing leadership it could cease to be a vehicle for any action whatsoever. The youth and student section of Momentum was unilaterally shut down by its owner Jon Lansman!

The increase of the minimum wage to at least £10 an hour would raise a hue and cry from the bosses to safeguard their profits. So what force in society could Jeremy Corbyn rely on to implement this? The answer is clear: the organised working class. Corbyn should be making the call now for young workers to join trade unions, get involved in the union movement, and take strike action against low pay, zero-hours contracts and poor working conditions.

The preparation to fight the sabotage of the capitalists, to hold a Corbyn-led government to its pledges and to go further, is vital and needs to start now. The University of Essex report and the engagement of young people and workers during the 2017 general election show that, when a lead is given and there’s an opportunity to fight for a programme that will improve the lives of many, it will be picked up.

This support, however, has to be concretised. Otherwise, it can slip away. There has been a lack of initiative by Jeremy Corbyn, Momentum and other Corbynistas to transform the Labour Party, by kicking out the Blairites and re-founding its democratic structures. In addition, to prepare the ground – above all through the workers’ organisations – for the defence of Corbyn’s programme in office against the inevitable sabotage of the capitalist class and its representatives.

An early general election is a distinct possibility. That could result in a Corbyn-led government before the year is over. The task then would not be to "contain people’s excitement and commitment when we go into government", as shadow chancellor John McDonnell said at a People’s Assembly meeting in June 2018. It would be to harness that excitement, to organise and prepare the forces to achieve that programme.

Mark Best

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