Gemma Worrell would be better served to tell politicians what they’re doing wrong then any of the chino-wearing young politicos hobnobbing around Westminster. Photo: Getty
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Calling Gemma Worrall a “dumb bitch” doesn’t change the fact that young people feel ignored

When it comes to voter turnout, the UK has one of the largest gaps between young and old. Is it a surprise young people don't get involved with politics when a simple faux-pas in a tweet can cause such hate?

If you tweet something stupid, and no one is around to read it, will it make a dent in the public consciousness? The answer is usually no, as anyone who has been unfortunate enough to peruse the underbelly of Twitter for more than three seconds will well know. Unfortunately for 20 year-old Blackpool native Gemma Worrall, however, people were actually around to read it, and thus her brief foray into the world of current affairs in the form of the spur-of-the-moment tweet “if barruca barner is our president why is he getting involved with Russia, scary” was retweeted thousands of times. Naturally, a worldwide piss-taking has ensued.

The derision and condescension that Worrall has faced does not reflect well on any of its participants. Much of the abuse she has faced has been sexist or misogynistic, comments such as “why are the dumbest girls so fit”, “stupid cow”, “dumb bitch” and “you just keep working on being pretty Gemma and leave the thinking to people with brains”. It’s impossible to know whether her “barruca” statement would have gone equally viral had it been made by an Orc-like male of the same age, but we suspect not. Twitter is a hilarious lambasting tool when used against the powerful – see the ceaselessly funny “Ed Balls” gaffe or the PM’s recent attempts at telecommunications portraiture – but when it’s used against members of the general public who might not be as worldly as the Twitterati, then it just makes the baying crowd look like a bag of dicks.

One of the standout remarks to be made from this saga is that anyone is remotely surprised that this level of political ignorance exists (perhaps everyone else’s Facebook timelines are populated by PhD-touting members of the left wing intelligentsia?). If you think that this is a mistake writing home about, then sorry, your social group just isn’t wide enough, and you need to climb down from your ivory penthouse. It’s astounding how some politicians seem baffled by this country’s political apathy, when evidence of it is all around us, if you bother to look. Which none of them do. Some might say that the blissful ignorance of the unwashed masses is somewhat convenient for them.

In an interview with the Mail, Worrell said: “People are telling me to ‘Go back to school’, but even at school we never learned about politics and current affairs.” It’s a small comment in what amounts to a rather long article about the impact the Twitterstorm has had on Worrell and her family (incidentally, her nan is really upset. We hope you’re all proud of yourselves), but it’s an important point.

Everyone has gaps in their knowledge. Admittedly, these are not always gaps as large as not properly knowing the identity of the leader of the free world, but gaps they are nonetheless. Whether it’s mispronouncing a word that you’ve only ever seen written down or thinking Denmark is an island off the coast of Britain, people make mistakes, often. Having met a staggering number of people who believe this country uses proportional representation, suffice to say this is especially true of politics. People don’t know about it, because people aren’t taught about it. And unless you pick a “government and politics” module or, at a stretch, possible history A-level, then it’s a sad fact that you’re likely to leave school with very little knowledge of our political system. And, though class and family background are factors, they’re not the be all and end all. One of us recalls a trip down south for university interviews, an admission process which, applicants had been told, would require a well-rounded knowledge of national and international news. As she and her school chum sat down for the long journey south, her friend turned to her and said: “So, can you explain to me the current affairs?” She has eleven A*s at GCSE, university-educated parents, and ended up going to Oxford. Political ignorance is not class-specific.

Calling Gemma Worrall a “dumb bitch” doesn’t change the fact that the education system has, as she admits herself, essentially failed her. Sarah Vine, while praising the miracle of state education in her Daily Mail column, still admitted that she didn’t know her Kings and Queens or where Cumbria is. Some of us, perhaps due to a long held fear of being thought stupid, or thanks to the encouragement of our parents, patch up the gaps in our education ourselves. Others have got so used to being thought stupid that they just give up trying, or simply aren’t interested. Why blame them?

Those who wondered why Russell Brand’s “don’t vote” manifesto in his New Statesman guest-edit gained such popular appeal could find their answers in the nation’s “airheads”. Why participate in a system that you barely understand? To compound this, young people feel ignored. Those who say that a lack of education is not an excuse, that you should make the effort to read a newspaper and educate yourself, forget that that newspaper is more often being run and written by old men whose political in-jokes make any coverage impossible to navigate, especially not from a beginner’s perspective. Even if it does make sense to you, you realise pretty quickly that it’s not written for you. Oh, and it’s boring to boot.

When it comes to voter turnout, the UK has one of the largest gaps between young and old people. In 2010 only 44 per cent of those aged 18-24 voted. This is compared to 76 per cent of those over 65. If you’re wondering why, then you’re not looking hard enough. Those politicians interested in changing this might do well to have Gemma round for a cuppa. She’d be better served to tell you what they’re doing wrong then any of the chino-wearing young politicos hobnobbing around Westminster. Mock or ignore the politically innocent at your peril. As with many things, the answer rarely lies with those who are engaged, but with those who aren’t.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle