Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2014.
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Ivan Lewis: Labour needs "stronger and bolder" policies to win over young voters

In an interview with the NS, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary says the party's programme is "not as well developed as it needs to be". 

At no general election in recent history have young people had greater potential to determine the outcome. In a contest this close, small movements of voters could decide whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband becomes prime minister. Research by the Intergenerational Foundation found that there are 20 seats where a 2 per cent increase in turnout among the young could determine the result and 41 where a 5 per cent increase could. In 2010, just 44 per cent of 18-24-year-olds voted, compared to 65 per cent of the total electorate and 76 per cent of over-65s.

Ed Miliband has named increased youth turnout as one of his election priorities, not least because it is Labour that stands to benefit (it was among this age group alone that the party led at the last election). The man charged with spearheading this quest is Ivan Lewis, the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary. Aided by Lisa Nandy and Janet Royall, the Bury South MP is leading the party’s Shape Your Future project, a mass consultation with young voters.

“It’s not just an initiative for this election, it’s a long-term commitment to do things differently in terms of young people,” Lewis explains when we meet. “We’re launching a Young Britain manifesto, we’re talking to young people around the country about what should be in that manifesto, we’re telling them about some of the policies we already have on increasing the minimum wage, incentivising the living wage, Compulsory Jobs Guarantee, Generation Rent”.

But he warns: “The reality is that, first of all, that offer could be stronger and bolder. Secondly, if we’re frank, a lot of young people are unaware of what Labour’s offer is. We want to say to young people: ‘At the moment, these are some of the policies that we have.’ But inevitably we think there are some areas where policy is not as well developed as it needs to be and other areas where you would like us to be bolder.”

When ask I him how Labour’s policies could be made “stronger and bolder”, he replies: “We know that Ed has said in the context of the funding of universities ‘watch this space’, so we’re very conscious of the fact that young people feel very betrayed, particularly by what the Lib Dems did on tuition fees.

“But we also know, for many young people, that affordability in terms of university is becoming a big issue. We know that we have a developing policy around gold-standard apprenticeships, I think young people, though, want to know what the clear route through is if you don’t want to take the academic path. Is there a route of equal value and equal status? Then there’s the whole question of young people on apprenticeships and the level of the minimum wage, where young people feel that it’s at a very low figure.”

Lewis talks excitedly of a “spill-over effect” by which policies to address young people’s concerns incentivise support among older age groups, too. “One of the primary reasons that parents and grandparents get up every day and work hard is they want their kids and grandkids to have better life chances than they’ve had - and that is at risk like it’s never been at risk before.

In a recent speech at Sheffield Hallam University, Miliband warned that the coalition’s introduction of Individual Voter Registration had led to a million people, many of them young voters, falling off the register. Does Lewis believe the government’s move was politically motivated?

“The Electoral Commission did issue warnings saying this was all being done too quickly and those warnings were ignored. I think that you would have to be sceptical about whether it’s in the interests of the two coalition parties to see a big turnout among young people at this election,” he says. “I think the jury’s out, they still have time to demonstrate through their dealings with universities, with local authorities that they want to put this right. But at the moment the level of urgency is simply not there. It’s not that they weren’t warned about the potential consequences.”

He adds: “The problem is that if nearly 80 per cent of over-65-year-olds vote and less than 50 per cent of young people do, it’s no wonder that political parties in the past have chosen not to take the voice of young people seriously.

“Now, I’m delighted to say that the Labour Party is not taking that view in terms of the election and has made young voters a top priority and that is Ed’s personal mission, it’s a personal choice he’s made. But there’s another issue, some people simply say ‘don’t bother with young voters’ because you’re never going to change the fact there’s low turnout, so when you look at what your focus needs to be it’s not just that it distorts your offer, it’s also some people say ‘they shouldn’t be a priority, don’t bother with them’. That’s why I’m pleased to have been given responsibility to lead this as an integral part of Labour’s election campaign.”

Some in the party criticised the voter registration intervention as coming far too late. It was in May 2012 that Miliband vowed to undertake “the biggest drive to register voters in a generation”. But critics complain that little action resulted. Lewis, however, unambiguously rejects this charge. “I think that’s unfair. People like John Spellar have been doing amazing work on this and also Stephen Twigg, who’s been leading on this and he’s been working with Labour MPs, candidates, Labour councils ... Sadiq [Khan] has been focusing on this for some considerable time, we’ve been working with excellent organisations like Bite The Ballot, so I think to say that we’ve just woken up to it is disingenuous.”

The party that has recently enjoyed the most success in attracting young voters is the Greens, who have surged to joint-second among 18-24-year-olds, partly through defections from Labour. Lewis tells me that his party needs to offer “hope and optimism” to win them back.

“That’s about supporting individual young people to fulfil their ambitions, to pursue their dreams, to have a government that will help them to do those things. But also a government that is passionate about a fairer country, a fairer society, young people are very passionate about inequality, what is Ed Miliband’s great political passion? It’s tackling inequality in this country and around the world, so I think we need to get that message out there stronger.

“Ed was the lead politician who actually negotiated the historic climate change deal at Copenhagen and many people who were there would say that without Ed Miliband, demanding and insisting on the best possible deal, that would never have happened.”

He adds, however, that if this positive appeal fails, Labour should not resile from warning of the

negative consequences that could result from voting Green. “Let’s not patronise young people, they’re also quite sophisticated, and if you say to them ‘the consequence of not voting Labour in your community is that you will end up with a Tory or a Lib Dem MP’, then many, many young people will not want that outcome.”

The fate of the election could turn on whether he is right.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Keir Starmer MP: Choosing ideological purity before power is a dereliction of duty

The former director of public prosecutions believes getting involved with Brexit negotiations is crucial. 

 

Three weeks after Brexit, Keir Starmer held a public meeting in his London constituency of Holborn and St Pancras. “We had hundreds turning up,” he remembered. “The town hall was absolutely packed - it was standing room only and we had to turn people away. We haven’t had a public meeting of that size for some time.”

When it comes to Brexit, Starmer is an obvious Labour asset. Director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013, he has the legal background to properly scrutinise an EU deal. His time spent as a shadow immigration minister means he understands some of the thorniest problems facing negotiators.

But instead, the MP finds himself on the shadow back benches.

“My decision to resign was driven by Jeremy’s decision on the referendum,” he told The Staggers. “I was particularly troubled by his suggestion that we should invoke Article 50 straight away, and start the exit process [Corbyn has since backtracked on this suggestion]. 

“That is not for me a question of left-right politics. When he said that, I felt he was in fundamentally a different place from me in terms of how we fight for the future of our country.”

Starmer is not a man to enjoy life in opposition, and he has little time for airy promises. “Jeremy talks of dealing with inequality and housing projects, and a fairer society - all of which I would agree,” he said. “What I haven’t seen is the emergence of detailed policy that would get us to these places.”

He also gives purists in the party short shrift. “I would reject wholeheartedly any notion of a Labour Party that is not committed to returning to power at the first opportunity,” he said. “Of course that needs to be principled power. But standing on the sidelines looking for the purest ideology is a dereliction of the duty for any Labour member.”

Starmer believes Labour should be joining Scottish and Northern Irish leaders in trying to influence Brexit negotiations. He sees the time before invoking Article 50, the EU exit button, as crucial. 

Nevertheless, the man named after the Scottish founder of Labour, Keir Hardie, is pessimistic about the future of the UK. 

“It is going to be increasingly difficult to resist a further referendum in Scotland,” he said. “It will be increasingly difficult to keep Scotland as a part of the UK. I hope that doesn’t happen, but everyone knows David Cameron has put that at risk.”

Starmer may be a London MP, but he follows events in the rest of the country closely. While still in his shadow cabinet post, he embarked on a countrywide tour to learn more about attitudes to immigration.  

He condemns the increase in racist attacks post-Brexit as “despicable”, but insists there is “a world of difference” between these and genuine concerns about resources. “If you lose your job because there has been an influx of labour from another country, that is a legitimate cause for concern.”

He is equally scathing about the Government’s net migration cap. “If immigration is simply seen as a numbers game, nobody will ever win that debate,” he said. “The question should be: what is it we want to achieve?

“What do we expect of those who are arriving? What is the basic deal?”

In January, Starmer visited the informal camps in Calais and Dunkirk. “What I saw in Calais was appalling,” he said. “It is an hour from London. 

“To see families and children in freezing, squalid conditions without any real hope of a positive outcome was enough to make anybody think: ‘This is not the way to solve the refugee crisis.’”

The new PM, Theresa May, built her reputation on a rigid asylum policy, but Starmer believes a strong opposition can still force change. “If you take the Syrian resettlement scheme, that started life as a scheme for victims of sexual violence,” he said. “When pushed, it became a scheme for 20,000 Syrians but not if they reached Europe. When pushed, the Government accepted the case for some unaccompanied children in Europe to come to this country. 

“Labour needs to keep pushing.”

For now, though, Labour is divided. Starmer has been tipped as a future leader before, in 2015, but declined to run because of a lack of political experience. One year and a Brexit on, he certainly has some of that under his belt. But he rules himself out of the current leadership challenge: “I am 100 per cent behind Owen.” What will he do if Jeremy Corbyn wins? “Let’s cross each bridge when we come to it.”

Starmer is clear, though, that Labour can only win an election if it comes up with a more ambitious project, an economy with purpose. And the Brexit negotiations provide an opportunity. “We have to ask ourselves,” he said. “Do we simply want a series of trade agreements, the more the merrier? Or do we want deals that achieve certain ends? It is a moment to recast the future.”