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28 May 2001

Politics just isn’t good enough

Generation Next - Tom Bentley finds that our young people are not Naomi Klein. But nor are

By Tom Bentley

”Fat boy getting egged, and hitting tree-hugger”, was how one respondent in our survey of 15- to 21-year-olds neatly summarised Labour’s less-than-perfect day. There were few who did not think this was the most memorable day of the campaign so far. In other words, reality television beat careful choreography. It’s not surprising, given that Labour’s youth-friendly election broadcast with Geri Halliwell had all the gloss of an MTV video, and as much substance.

More than half of our 2,000-plus respondents – contacted by e-mail through the internet company – thought John Prescott shouldn’t be blamed for retaliating, while about a quarter thought it was an incident that had no bearing on his ability as Deputy Prime Minister. For most respondents, his image was enhanced, or at least undented. Meanwhile, over half thought that using an ex-Spice Girl trivialised important election issues, while 38 per cent recognised it for the publicity stunt it clearly was.

We suspect that this group understands the media game that is being played, and it is not terribly impressed. But neither does it opt out entirely: an overwhelming majority regard newspapers and television as their most important sources of electoral information. Taken together, attitudes to the two news “events” seem to highlight an unfulfilled desire for “authenticity” in politics that was previously illustrated by high approval ratings for politicians such as Mo Mowlam and Clare Short. Asked which politicians other than the party leaders had made an impression during the campaign, many singled out John Prescott and David Blunkett, both of whom have worked to maintain reputations based on a social reality deeper than that of the “political classes”.

So generationNEXT, it seems, is politically and media-literate. It is aware of what’s going on, but does not believe passionately in the political process as a way of effecting change. More than one-third (38 per cent) say they do not know the name of their local MP or the party that he or she represents. Slightly more than half (51 per cent) think the outcome of this election will make no significant difference to their lives.

Yet the majority (68 per cent) expected to talk about the election campaign among their friends, and a surprisingly high 41 per cent expected to read at least one of the parties’ election manifestos. (It should here be added that this group, as self-selected respondents to a survey conducted by computer, is unlikely to be representative.) For politicians, therefore, the problem is not so much to get their message across; rather, it is to persuade this age group that politics is relevant. This is perhaps no different from the attitude of the electorate as a whole, but there are clear indications that generationNEXT would like to believe in politics as a force for good. It is not, as might be imagined, uniformly scathing about politicians.

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Nor are its views shaped entirely by self-interest. This may be because it has fewer interests – in an economic sense – to be selfish about, but we detect a latent desire to believe in politics as a driver of progress.

GenerationNEXT is not full of budding Naomi Kleins, but nor is it full of potential Beavises and Buttheads. As Dominic Wring of Loughborough University has observed, it is not clear whether this age group exhibits “committed scepticism or engaged cynicism”. The generationNEXT survey suggests an element of both; as the opening comment indicates, the quips of a Have I Got News For You? contestant seem to be the preferred tone.

Young people clearly see little difference between the main parties, and flippancy is one way of expressing the distance they feel. The lack of differentiation underlines the sense that the traditional left-right divide does little to explain political choices or forces. But there is also an apparent tension between liberalism and social obligation. This is a generation that seems, on the one hand, to want greater individuality and freedom of expression, but, on the other, recognises that there may be a greater good. Asked which election issues were likely not to be debated during the campaign, our respondents commonly listed “human rights” and “climate crisis”, but also “legalisation of cannabis”.

There is also an uneasy sense that common concerns and obligations are not sufficiently asserted. This seems to be the real challenge for politicians and parties seeking credibility; to find a way of building on a latent sense of social concern, a desire for collective agency, but a rejection of institutions and social classes as a way of corralling it.

This is not the much-discussed apathy, but a frustration that the major political parties do not seem to knit together a range of concerns into a coherent story. It is not even clear that there is any expectation that they can. The Liberal Democrats seem to generate an impressive approval rating – at the very point when they have dropped the usual election-time fiction that their party could take power. Meanwhile, 30 per cent consider themselves to be likely to vote for a minority party such as the Greens or Socialist Alliance in the face of an expected decisive Labour victory. First-time voters are the group least likely to identify with one party, but also most likely to say that they would change their vote according to policy on a specific issue.

Unsurprisingly, education emerged as the top issue, with 84 per cent saying they would pay particular attention to this topic, ahead of health (74 per cent) and crime (56 per cent). In a series of follow-up questions relating to education policy, 42 per cent thought that the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to abolish university tuition fees might be enough to persuade them to vote for the party, while 34 per cent didn’t believe any party could afford to implement the policy.

The majority also saw that Labour’s commitment to extending higher education to half of all under-30s raised a serious question about standards. Nearly a third of respondents felt that the more people had degrees and diplomas, the more devalued a currency such qualifications would become. The economy may rate only fourth in their order of important election issues, but our respondents seemed in full command of the laws of supply and demand.

The Liberal Democrats’ appeal extends beyond education to a high approval rating for their leader, Charles Kennedy. This may be partly to do with Kennedy’s own youthfulness but also relates to that rare quality in politics, “niceness”. More than half thought Kennedy was the nicest of the three main UK party leaders, while 27 per cent thought him nicer than William Hague, but not as nice as Tony Blair. Only 8 per cent thought him the least nice of the three. And how important is “niceness”? For 70 per cent, it is either very important or quite important. Among generationNEXT, nice is the new angry.

Tom Bentley is the director of Demos

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