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 the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @conradlandin.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.