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Laurie Penny: The Digital Economy Bill has betrayed the young

Positive engagement with the digital generation interests the political classes only when they want something from us.

On the night before the dissolution of parliament, young people across Great Britain were glued to their laptops, smartphones and television screens in their tens of thousands -- not downloading music videos, but following the passage of the Digital Economy Bill through the Commons wash-up.

After weeks of demonstration, letter-writing and vocal public opposition, young campaigners sat down to watch the results of their determined national effort to halt the passage of the bill, which threatens to summarily disconnect any internet users suspected of sharing copyrighted music and video files.

Most were under no illusion that Peter Mandelson's proposals were targeted at young people, who represent the bulk of file-sharers, and when the handful of MPs present at the debate voted to pass the bill, the response on Twitter was immediate and anguished.

"All three parties screwed us by not thinking properly about the issue. This is the opening salvo in a generational war," said one young activist.

The people behind this storm of political activity are the same young voters whom the press and political classes routinely condemn as apathetic. The prevailing public narrative about Generation Y has us involved in a species of listless social torpor, but it is anger, not apathy, that best describes young people's assessment of politics.

"I'm incensed about the lack of debate on the Digital Economy Bill," said Katie Sutton, a grass-roots campaigner for the Open Rights Group."Twenty thousand letters were sent to MPs expressing concern over the way it was rammed through wash-up with no consideration for the democratic process, and yet 410 MPs just didn't care enough to show up and vote. It's appalling."

 

Digital disengagement

Sutton, who at 22 is a first-time voter with little prior political experience, organised the Stop Disconnection Demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament on 24 March. Hundreds of young people assembled, wearing gags and holding black placards to symbolise their fear of being "silenced". Yet despite this pageant of political passion, many young voters intend to remain silent on election day.

Most of the available polling data predicts that turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds in 2010 will follow the dismal pattern established in 2005, when only 37 per cent of young voters went to the polls, down from 39 per cent at the previous election.

Not voting, however, does not imply not caring: much of the young citizenry disproportionately dispossessed by the financial crash of 2008 has flung itself into civic action, and from Climate Camp to Hope Not Hate, young campaigners have been at the forefront of the progressive political agenda, our energies focusing on single-issue campaigns.

Disenchanted by the corruption and inefficiency of central government, Generation Y is creating its own ways of doing politics, using technology to build campaigns and share ideas. The online "people-powered movement" 38 Degrees, which also fought the Digital Economy Bill, reports that in just ten months of operation its membership has grown to 100,000 -- over half that of the Labour Party.

The Digital Economy backlash is the latest iteration of a youth agenda whose radicalism is overlooked by parliamentary parties where it cannot be exploited.

"My MP claimed to be as concerned as I was when I wrote to him, but he didn't show up to vote," said Barney Carroll, a young web designer. "I don't trust any of the three main parties at present to represent public concerns."

For the young, the sincerest irony of the election period will be watching a party system that has just voted to police our access to transformative technologies lumpenly enthusing over the power of "digital engagement".

After watching Barack Obama surf into the White House on a wave of online campaigning, Westminster routinely flies in members of the president's team to explain to eager parliamentarians precisely why sitting administrations find it difficult to manufacture bespoke grass-roots activity using technology they barely comprehend. The message is plain: positive engagement with the digital generation is of interest to the political classes only when they want something from us.

 

Make some noise

Young people's despair over the state of parliamentary politics should not be mistaken for lazy indifference: many of us crave political change, but are unsure whether choosing between a narrow selection of mainstream parties will bring that change.

"Most young people think politics is important. They think democracy is hugely important. They just don't think their vote matters," said Edmund Ward, 24, an organiser for the Pirate Party.

The young people of Britain have every reason to feel angry and disaffected. Stereotyped by the media, shut out of the economy, saddled with debt and policed by a parliamentary system that claims to advocate "change" while pursuing the votes of middle-aged Middle Englanders in swing seats, many of us cannot imagine that voting will deliver the quiet revolution that we crave.

Our putative revolution is technological and transformative, based on electoral reform and progressive values; it was conceived online, under the radar of the Westminster village, and it may yet change politics for ever. Our revolution will be stillborn, however, if we fail to make our voices heard at the polls.

In an election whose outcome is fascinatingly uncertain, the youth protest vote may still make a very real difference to the shape of the next parliament. Despite the poverty of practical options, young people have much to gain by voting, not least a stake in the political conversation that will determine our cultural inheritance.

Whitehall will not be able to ignore the transformative politics of the digital generation for ever, and those of us who intend to vote on 6 May will do so to remind Westminster that our voices matter, that our values matter, and that a new blueprint for British politics is on its way.

We may have been let down, but the young people of Great Britain have everything to vote for. It's time for Generation Y to make a stand.

Laurie Penny is a writer, journalist and feminist activist from London. Her blog, Penny Red, was nominated for the 2010 Orwell Prize. Her book "Generation Square" will be published later this year by Zero

Join us for the first TV leaders' debate this Thursday.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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