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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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.