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17 June 2024

The Labour Party has a Gen Z problem

Young voters are demanding a new radicalism from politics.

By Nicholas Harris

Welcome to the first Gen Z election. Because, whatever else 2024 might be said to symbolise, for many of those (like me) born between 1997 and 2012 it is a moment of maturity. Eight million of us are now eligible to vote: Gen Z makes up 15 per cent of the voting population. We enter the political arena freighted with bizarre and contradictory stereotypes. Can our generation be living through an unprecedented period of sexual drought, and also represent a new species of bed-hopping polyamorists, kinked to the gills? The less said about our chronic laziness or teetotal neuroticism the better. But in a few weeks, rather than being defined by moral panic or media slander, we’ll be voting en masse for the first time.

Generations don’t get to choose the world that shapes them. The Greatest Generation were thrust into uniform in the 1940s, which bequeathed them their epic capacities for social solidarity and nation-building. The baby boomers came of age at a moment of demographic glut and intellectual experimentation – it isn’t hard to understand the counterculture that followed. And it wasn’t Gen X’s fault that their parents kept getting divorced, or that millennials were the first to grow up on the internet.

Each generation makes history, then, but not in circumstances of their choosing. Looking back at British zoomers’ germinal years, my generation has had plenty of history to be traumatised by. We might not remember 9/11, but it started early: even to a toddler’s ears, exotic words and phrases such as “Baghdad”, “Helmand” and “IED” sounded vaguely ominous on the car radio. Then the tune changed, with “credit crunch”, “austerity”, “benefits street” and “bedroom tax” playing over our early adolescence. By the time we reached the years of Brexit and “indicative votes”, the air of hysteria was something of a relief. Beating in the background of all this, was “climate change”, later escalating to “crisis”.

The early 21st century has left its mark. But by far the most important political issue mobilising young people today is housing. The challenge of buying a property has quickly stratified renters and landlords into something resembling a class war. In Gen Z political pub-talk, the very word “landlord” denotes something like a pest or parasite – the tapeworms of the national economy. And housing is symbolic of a more general mood of economic despair, a growing sense that while old-age benefits have risen over the past decade, the aspirational clauses of the social contract have been gradually struck out.

The good news for Keir Starmer is that so far this is translating into overwhelming support for his party. According to YouGov, around half of 18- to 24-year-olds intend to vote for Labour, a substantial increase from 2010, when 30 per cent of them voted Conservative. Starmer has made overtures in our direction, with his promises of 1.5 million homes and a sprawl of new towns. But while you have to look pretty hard to find a young Conservative these days (there must still be a few unrepentant finance bros drinking in the Canary Wharf BrewDog), Gen Z’s politics are far from straightforward. While we are progressive in our social attitudes, young people in Britain and Europe are voting increasingly erratically, attracted not to the familiar centre but the radical fringe.

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Mainstream politicians have, in part, inflicted this upon themselves. Starmer’s housing commitments have already been sidelined in the campaign of obsessive fiscal rectitude he has fronted over the past three weeks. And there are other divergences between the Labour leader and Gen Z: over the war in Gaza, but also over his abandonment of the £28bn-a-year green energy investment pledge. Among many of my acquaintances, Starmer is regarded as a turncoat, remorselessly persecuting an already weakened parliamentary left. This is registering in polling: since the start of the campaign there has been a slide away from Labour among young people, and strong showings for the Greens and Liberal Democrats, which have more radical (if less realistic) climate policies.

But Gen Z isn’t only lending its protest votes to the usual suspects. The most recent YouGov poll showed Reform hitting 15 per cent among 18- to 24-year-old voters, more than double the Conservatives at 7 per cent. And while this group will never outnumber the crush ready to vote Labour, Reform is doing its utmost to style itself as the party of youth rebellion. Farage’s popularity among young people on walkabouts and the quality of his TikTok game have been widely noted – along with the possibility that some of Reform’s social media following may comprise an army of Nigerian bot accounts. But this is undoubtedly a grassroots phenomenon. How else would we end up with Farage speeches being remixed to songs by Mitski, one of Gen Z’s favourite muses of melancholia? One such specimen is on 170,000 likes and counting.

This Faragist splinter is a tiny constituency in national terms. But a portion of the young vote leaning not Conservative but further right raises the spectre of the recent European elections. The 28-year-old National Rally president, Jordan Bardella, potentially the next French prime minister, has reached exceptional levels of popularity on TikTok (there has been extravagant talk of “Bardella-mania” in parts of the French press). Around a third of French 18- to 24-year-olds backed his party. In Germany, 16 per cent of the same demographic voted for the hard-right Alternative for Germany.

A little over a year ago, there was an outbreak of Gen Z paranoia in the British press when the conservative think tank Onward found that 60 per cent of us thought “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections” would be a good idea. The gasps of shock echoed all the way to the top of government. As Michael Gove put it in February, “If people think that markets are rigged and a democracy isn’t listening to them, then you get – and this is the worrying thing to me – an increasing number of young people saying, ‘I don’t believe in democracy, I don’t believe in markets.’”

There is no especially authoritarian or fascistic streak in Gen Z – baggy corduroys are no good for goose-stepping anyway. The truth is that the young people clustering to the radical left and right in Europe – and, to a lesser extent, in Britain – have known nothing but democratic deficit their whole adult lives. Westminster in particular has been through an exceptional period of institutional inefficiency: peacetime coalition; chaotic plebiscites; a minority government brought to its knees by Cromwellian levels of parliamentary factionalism. But despite the havoc, the same underlying torpor has continued.

Gen Z is known for its anxiety – and it is no wonder, given our upbringing. But our collective disquiet may well calcify into cynicism, a political outlook far harsher and sharper than the euphoric Corbynite “youthquake”. Young people are in search of a politics of vibrancy and dynamism, one that doesn’t supersede democracy but promises to translate it into effective political will. Most of them will vote for Keir Starmer in two weeks’ time. But if he fails to deliver the change he has so far only gestured at, they will come to revolt against their paltry political inheritance.

[See also: Can Starmer and Southgate both triumph this summer?]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation