The case of Paris Brown shows the need for real youth representation

Rather than hand-picked individuals like Brown, we need elected youth panels with genuine legitimacy.

It’s been a tough week for Paris Brown. Britain’s first "youth police and crime commissioner" is hardly the first to be on the receiving end of a Mail on Sunday hatchet job. But at 17, she’s among the youngest.

The "foul mouthed teen crime tsar", so called by the same paper, found square miles of newsprint devoted to her foolish tweets, just days after her appointment was announced. Soon after it emerged that her own Kent police would be investigating her offensive comments, she resigned.
 
What lessons can be learned from this sorry saga? Those cynics who thought young people can’t make a difference might have noticed that this teenager has brought the Mail out in condemnation of racism and homophobia. Brown herself should rightfully have learned that prejudice and community cohesion are incompatible. And teens across the country might learn to think again before broadcasting their innermost urges to make hash brownies, as Dorian Lynskey discussed on these pages on Monday.
 
Yet there’s one lesson we’ll no doubt hear even more about: the folly of letting young people near responsibility. At the Telegraph, Jake Wallis Simons says the saga gives us "a valuable insight into just how stupid it is to let teenagers anywhere near heavy machinery, the wine cellar, or a county police force." Should her role have been offered to adults instead? Brown’s appointment might have seemed unusual, but "youth councils" and national and devolved "youth parliaments" have sprung up over the last decade, shadowing the work of various branches of government.
 
Who better to advise on their concerns than young people themselves? Or so the logic goes. The logic that will now be derided by the commentariat, with the Brown case held up as evidence that teenagers couldn’t keep The Great British Bake Off on the right side of the law, let alone advise the police.
Yet if politicians such as Kent police commissioner Ann Barnes see their visions of intergenerational harmony implode, they only have themselves to blame. Giving £15,000 and a chauffer to one carefully-selected sixth-former might grab headlines, but it is unlikely to reduce discontent at a time of sky-high unemployment. Just as they distracted Brown and her fellow applicants, these boons allowed the newspapers to distract from the inconvenient truth that Brown’s role was purely consultative, and carried no powers of its own.
 
A properly-constituted – or even elected – panel of young people could have a far greater claim to representation and legitimacy than a hand-picked individual. But just as this government has decided that public recognition (although you wouldn’t think it looking at voter turnout in police commissioner elections) is more important than effective policing, so politicians of all ilks have determined that gimmicks outweigh genuine commitment to youth representation. Just look at how many local authorities boast a solitary "young mayor".

What they don’t reckon on, somewhat irresponsibly, is that the culture that affords powered individuals more media coverage than collective bodies can also subject vulnerable young people to a thorough trashing.

If anything can ram the fallacy of tokenism down the throats of its propagators, perhaps this will. I’m still sceptical. Some years ago, while still at school, I was elected to the London borough of Camden’s first youth council. After some angling from members, it seemed the authority were breaking the mould and taking devolution seriously: we were handed control of a six-figure budget.

But when we proposed spending it on capital projects to fill gaps in schools provision, such as replenishing dilapidated school libraries, a parade of self-described "youth participation co-ordinators" came before a meeting to say it was a "waste of money". It later emerged they had thought we would spend the money on ceremonial chains and "wristbands".

At the time, Guardian columnist Marcel Berlins cited the Camden story as evidence that young people "cannot make the kind of informed decisions that grown-ups can". But if it tells us anything, it is that when given the time of day and not just lip-service, our youth can come up with inspiring ideas for public services.

The youth council won control over the budget after threats of resignation and local media pressure. But the scare of young people challenging their adult counterparts was enough to ensure Camden council reverted to tokenism next time round, replacing the 36-strong council with just two individuals.

Paris Brown was not the only victim of the media storm: countless others will think twice before putting themselves up for public service. But far from being a demonstration that politics has been caught in a thoughtless "cult of youth", this episode brings to light just another case of young people being fobbed off with tokenism.

Why not forget the salary and the car and let the young people of Kent decide how to spend the money? But of course, that would run the risk of the kids getting uppity.

Paris Brown resigned as Kent's youth and police crime commissioner after her offensive Tweets were unearthed.

Conrad Landin is a freelance journalist and associate editor of Left Futures. Follow him on Twitter @conradlandin.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses