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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder