How Labour is re-engaging non-voters

The party is responding to the sense that governments are powerless in the face of vested interests.

My election as the MP for Manchester Central has the unfortunate record of being the lowest turnout for a by-election, indeed any election, since the Second World War. In my constituency, turnout is particularly low in areas with high numbers of young people and students like Hulme and Ardwick.  

Our politics is broken, with turnout falling and people disengaged and switched off from politicians and the political process, but do developments over the last few weeks offer a turning point?

I’m part of the People's Politics Inquiry, the Labour Party's policy review on political engagement, I have been keen to speak to younger voters, or non-voters in most cases. What I've found, while not unsurprising, is telling and is making me re-think how I do things, and how we as a Pprty could start to address some of the issues.

I arranged to visit a Street League group of young people in my constituency to engage them in a discussion.  Street League is a charity which uses football to get 16-25-year-olds into work and training. Only one of the eight lads I met had ever voted but he couldn’t remember who for or why. At first they were sceptical about meeting and hearing from an MP. but what quickly unfolded was a highly political and informed discussion. They were intensely interested and knowledgeable in what was happening in their own communities, as well as national issues.  

Their views of politicians were familiar: we are all the same; we avoid answering questions; we don't look and sound like them; we don't understand their lives.  Even though these are familiar refrains, it's still depressing. On politics more generally, they don't vote or participate quite simply because they don't see politics as a vehicle for change.

They found me different to their perceptions of a politician but they still didn’t see me as being able to deliver change for them. They didn’t see that the choice of which party was in power mattered for their communities. They wanted to see politicians and parties rooted in their communities. Physically present amongst them, not just on the airwaves or on social media. 

The group felt that politicians were part of a cosy club, which ensures that all their interests are looked after while everyone else pays the price. 

I take from my conversations that, yes, we must continue efforts to diversify our stock of politicians, but, perhaps importantly, we need to encourage and help create a political culture that allows for difference, for greater freedom to be outspoken and to live normal lives with their inherent mistakes. This isn't just a challenge for political parties but also for those who follow and report on politics. That’s why Ed Miliband’s stance on the Mail is such an important marker. Politicians and their families must be allowed to have lives.

On policy, we need to be bigger and bolder in our politics. The lads from Street League articulated what many others feel: that the power of politics and governments is increasingly limited in the face of vested interests – global financial markets, big business, train and energy companies and so on. Ed Miliband's ambitious challenge to these cosy clubs, as he showed with the energy companies last week, is very important here. We must continue to flesh out a bold policy programme across a range of areas as we build on what has the potential to be a powerful and popular cause.

Ed Miliband is on to something. I will continue my dialogue with non-voters to see how they respond to this new direction as we build towards the general election and beyond, taking action for the many against the vested interests of the powerful. 

Delegates walk past a banner outside the Labour conference on September 23, 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education. 

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad