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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.