Interest in Ukip's Young Independence, for party members aged under 30, is surging. Photo: Getty
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Could political party youth wings galvanise young Brits to vote?

As interest in Ukip's Young Independence surges, youth wings of political parties may be the best hope of staving off apathy in the young.

Ukip's Young Independence, the party’s youth wing, launched its annual conference today in Birmingham. The number of under 30s attending is modest at 140, but it is the party's largest youth summit so far.

It marks a surge in interest in the party from young voters in the past eight months. Last week Ukip announced that membership of its youth wing in the eastern region has increased 100 per cent since the beginning of this year.

The youth wing has experienced an explosion in growth nationally too, with membership up 40 per cent since March this year to 2,600 members at present. Ukip hopes to hit a target of 3,500 young members by next August.

While membership is increasing rapidly, Ukip still has some way to go to rival the Conservatives. The Tories claim that Conservative Future, their youth wing for Under 30s, has 15,000 members and is the largest youth political organisation in the UK.

Comparisons with the other parties are difficult to draw. Labour refuses to disclose the breakdown of membership of its youth organisations, which include a group for 14 to 20 year olds, and another for 20 to 26 year olds. Meanwhile the official website for Young Labour, which is linked to on the party’s main website, comes up with an error message at present. The Lib Dems do not publish their figures either.

The decline in partipation of young citizens in British politics is reaching constitutional crisispoint. The UK now has the worst record in Western Europe for the gap between youth voter turnout and overall turnout.

Over recent decades, voter turnout among 18 to 24 year olds have fallen sharply  to under 50 per cent in UK general elections. It is predicted that the Coalition’s individual voter registration reforms will damage youth participation at the ballot boxes next May even further.

So are political party youth wings a good bet for galvanising young people and encouraging them to take an interest and vote? Tim Stanley, a journalist and historian with personal experience of intense involvement in youth politics, is wary about people getting deeply involved in politics too young.

A former chair of the Cambridge University Labour Club, who joined the Labour party at age 15, he regrets his former earnest involvement with politics.

Debating the matter with former Conservative minister Ann Widdecombe on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning, Stanley lamented failing to “sleep around” and enjoy his adolescence and early twenties.

He said: “If you’re young, you’re better off spending your time on something more useless.” He added that young people committed to politics “tend to be immature, tend to be driven towards the fringes, they tend to see life as very straightforward and easy and they've got all the answers. You quickly discover you haven't.”

He added: “You wake up one day and think: what have I done with the last few years of my life.”

Widdecombe rejected his pessimism. “There’s nothing wrong at all with young people thinking on serious matters, even if they’re going to reject what they think in later years, getting involved in local politics and thinking about how the country is run.”

She added: “If you don’t get engaged, if you’re not interested when you’re younger, when exactly is that interest going to come?”

Jack Duffin, the 22-year-old chairman of Ukip’s Young Independence, staunchly defends the importance of having young voices in politics.

He told me today that he is firmly on Widdecombe’s side in this debate. “Youth politics are fantastic,” he said. “I can’t wait 20 years for Labour or Tory governments to destroy my future even more. Our generation will have to live with the mess these governments are making.”

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue