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 Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.