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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.

Photo: Getty
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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.