"if you're not a socialist at 20 you've got no heart"

It is our birth right to be discontented, don't tell us the world is lemon scented. Youth politics has taken a battering. This was supposed to be the time of our lives, so how and why did we end up here? And where do we go now?

by Felix Petty
21 August 2015, 2:00am

For a moment it seemed like teenage girls had saved us all. It seemed, for a moment, however brief and effervescent, that they had rewritten the whole political narrative. They would be the kingmakers of the 2015 General Election and, with their Milifandom, they would wipe clean five years of right-wing press slander against Ed Miliband and propel him, on the backs of their Twitter accounts, to heartthrob status and on to Downing Street. Who would have dreamed something so ridiculous, yet so beautiful? For a day it was all I could talk and think about.

There he was, Ed as chiselled hunk, or wreathed in a halo of delicate pink flowers, reimagined as a gung ho machine-gun-toting action hero - Ed remade as Hulk Hogan, James Bond and Superman. It was Ed's Kim Kardashian moment, very briefly, and however weirdly, breaking the internet.

But it was naïve to think teenage girls were going to be the saviours of socialism and the country. Who, after all, pays any attention to teenage girls? Especially when it comes to politics, socialism and what's best for the country.

Ironic or not, I think they saw in Ed what I saw in Ed, that for once it would be nice to have a leader who is nice, a leader who is slightly geeky, clever, who cares for people, who isn't a hubristic megalomaniac, content to prop up and expound a political system that offers no respite for women, the poor and ethnic minorities.

There's a famous unattributed quote, "if you're not a socialist at 20 you've got no heart, if you're still one at 40 you've got no head." It implies that socialism is for the young, idealistic, foolish, and that when we're all older and wiser, we'll grow up and grow out of voting Labour, out of believing in making things better for people who are disadvantaged, and slowly shift to the only thing that's sensible: boundless self-interest. It's a quote that sums up the government's response to young people, suggesting their treatment of young people is for their own good, enacted by those who know better, and that the young should just put up, shut up, and deal with it. In politics' familial metaphors, it's more absent but abusive dad than overbearing nanny state.

So the government cut benefits for under 21s, scrapped the Education Maintenance Allowance, and raised tuition fees. They've launched something called the National Citizens' Service, a scheme for young people that's a lot like doing community service without even having to go through the hassle of committing a crime. Then there are the "back to work" schemes that force people to do unpaid labour for private companies if they want to get the few benefits the government hasn't scrapped.

Lucky there are so many jobs then? Because you can't afford higher education and you can't be unemployed either. So now young people are more than three times more likely to be unemployed than the rest of society (good thing we've not cut youth unemployment benefits). The youth unemployment figure is comparable with the general rate of unemployment in countries like Iraq, Zambia, Palestine and Tunisia. Then there's the rising cost of living, spiralling rents and sky rocketing house prices in London, where pretty much all the jobs are, to further exclude young people (or at least young people without massive financial parental support) from making a living.

It's when we're young that we form our political opinions, and it's when we're young that we're at our most oppositional.

This is the world young graduates and school leavers are trying to navigate through, and it's the kind of political event that you'd hope would have an effect at the next election, as well as seeing action from young people today.

One political reason the government might be so keen to do disproportionate harm to the young, unemployed and ethnic minorities, is that they are all groups less likely to vote than the middle-aged, pensioners and home owners, and even less likely to vote Tory.

Abby Tomlinson, who started the Milifandom, wrote a scathing piece in the Guardian, on Conservative MP John Redwood's comments that politically active teenagers are a myth. If anything, the disenfranchisement of youth is more likely to help propagate that myth because if teenagers have no say in how the country is run, then why should they be politically engaged? Equally, if teenagers have no say in how the country is run, why should the government stick up for them? You can fuck who you like at 16, but you can't decide which party fucks you. And because of this disenfranchisement we get such a shock when people like Abby create something like the Milifandom, and for a moment are allowed a place within the conversation, even as a curiosity.

People who were eight when the coalition came to power will be able to vote at the next election. They will have matured and grown up without knowing anything but Conservative government. Things like the welfare state, the NHS, the Human Rights Act, maybe even the EU, will be to them what miners, British industry, and trade unions are to us: a vague feeling, something we're aware of having once existed without having any direct experience of. It is these experiences that will shape their lives and their political outlooks.

It's hard to say though what effect growing up under at least ten years of Conservative government will have on today's youth. Will today's eight-year-olds be destined to think of affordable living, class mobility, and the safety net of benefits as archaic and idealistic instead of realistic and necessary? Will they fight back and take a stand?

These government policies will of course have a knock-on effect on our culture too, further shunting working-class voices to the sidelines. Unable to afford to live in London, where the majority of media jobs, art galleries, publishing houses, and professional networks are, these people will move away, and the media and creative industries will become even more homogenous — whiter, more middle-upper class.

When I graduated I signed on for a year, claimed housing benefits, did nothing but write a lot, tried to make professional contacts, and did a few internships. Without this, is it any wonder many recent graduates are seeking alternatives in more affordable cities like Berlin in order to pursue more creative endeavours, or even pursuing other options seeing that there's no place for them in the arts? And what will happen to London when it's left to those who can afford unpaid internships and those who already have professional networks in place to secure jobs?

Working-class voices are already being pushed out of music, where they're either patronised or mocked — grime's resurgence is the exception, not the rule. And because of this we have had the "political" reworked and revoked into something vaguely soft, a liberal, cosy version of left-wing politics, when it should swing both ways — not speaking up and not saying anything is as much of a political act as writing a protest song. Sponsorship and corporatism in culture is the unchallenged norm nowadays. It's left to the tired, old, irrelevant Red Wedge of the 80s to speak up and be wheeled out in protest. They say we get the politicians we deserve and it's the same with pop music, or art, where critique is clouded in art world jargon, available only to those who've studied expensive Master's degrees.

So, the youth resistance to government policy is coming from unusual places, or rather, with the absence of a cultural rebellion, it's finding form in places of "traditional" politics — so much for John Redwood's claims of the young not being interested. It takes place on social media, blogs, online petitions; these powerful new forms of communication have freed us to rewrite our own political narratives, clash against opposing voices, and stand up against abuses of power.

From Spain's indignados to the 2010 student protests in the UK, and more recently, the Black Lives Matter campaign, we are seeing new methods of protest, combining online activism with traditional direct action, and the youth are at the forefront. E15 Mothers took up against the housing crisis, UK Uncut apply social media's mass communication to protest corporations getting away with tax avoidance, the Occupy Movement was a diverse, non-hierarchical movement around the globe, powered by social media and disgust at the way people were being treated by the fallout from the banking crisis.

And it's this same feeling that has propelled Jeremy Corbyn, in the months following the General Election, to frontrunner in the Labour Party's leadership election. He's so old, so out-of-date, that somehow he feels current - a politics culled and developed from Labour's most leftwing period, of 79-83, is a natural fit for the world young people find themselves in. Though Labour's party grande dames might be falling over themselves to prevent him winning, each attack only seems to make him powerful, because it's the fact that he's the opposite of what Blair turned the Labour Party into, that people most seem to want from it now. He's relatable, passionate, down-to-earth, principled, a human being -- each attack the media makes against his "personality" only reminds us how little personality the rest of our political class has. Each attack that says he has no chance of winning only gives people hope, to dare to dream that he might.

It's when we're young that we form our political opinions, and it's when we're young that we're at our most oppositional. This is almost certainly the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn to the young, -- we're all more aware, connected, and conscious of politics, the effects felt by the few of the policies of the powerful. We all have the opportunity to have our voices heard. Maybe Corbyn will spur a generation into action?  


Text Felix Petty
Photography Rosie Ellis

Jeremy Corbyn
Ed Miliband