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28 September 2010

Labour’s lost generation takes the reigns: Laurie Penny on why we need rampant idealism

It is time for the young left to stop schmoozing and get on with what it does best.

By Laurie Penny

Behind the railroad pass in the quiet backstreets of central Manchester, the Young Labour Party is in full swing and, rather fittingly, two check-shirted DJs are spinning out the greatest hits of 1994. Here, the weary, battle-worn young volunteers, envelope-stuffers, advisers, canvassers, councillors, hash-taggers, tweeters, bloggers and fiddlers have come to unwind after nine sweltering months on ever-more desperate and depressing campaign trails. The room is full of shirtsleeves, sleepy smiles, and the barest suggestion of sex as a hundred earnest men and women in their early twenties realise that for the first time in almost a year, there’s time to flirt.

Yesterday Ed Miliband spoke lavishly of Labour’s young people, and here they are. This is the “new generation” of whom so much is promised, whose task it is to revivify the party and move on from the more embarrassing losses of the New Labour project. Watching them giggle and slurp pink cider and shuffle to the strains of Salt-n-Pepa, one wants to yell: you’ve just suffered the greatest defeat the Labour Party has seen for a generation! Most of you aren’t even old enough to remember the last Tory government! The coalition is about to turn on the public sector with what Mehdi Hasan today called “fiscal sadism” — cutting for the sake of cutting — and your gang could be out of power for another ten years. Why on earth are you all so bloody happy?

Perhaps it’s because, as one young Labour blogger told me, “we don’t have to pretend any more”. There is certainly an atmosphere of relieved sincerity at this conference, with less naked ambition and jostling for ministerial internships and points on CVs. Perhaps now the young left can finally stop “schmoozing and gossiping about who went to dinner with whom” and get on with what it’s best at: rampant idealism.

Earlier this week, a prominent Labour figure commented that the party has been so caught up in campaigning that it has not yet come to terms with the profundity of its defeat. That may be true of the shadow cabinet, but it’s not the case for Labour’s “new generation”: these young people know exactly what has been lost, and why, and how badly. They are fully aware of the scale of New Labour’s defeat, and the atmosphere is exhilarated. “I think a lot of people are excited,” says Vince, who volunteered on Ed Miliband’s campaign. “The real fight is still to come, but we’ve dropped a lot of baggage, and it’s all a clean canvas now.”

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For my generation, remember, New Labour is overwhelmingly associated with betrayal, hypocrisy and disappointment. Despite the Ace of Base pumping out of the sound system, most of us are far too young to remember the true horror of the Thatcher years, or even the elation of 1997. Instead, we remember top-up fees, civil-liberties crackdowns, the crash of 2008 and the Iraq invasion.

“As part of a generation who have grown up under New Labour, turning the page on old orthodoxies couldn’t come soon enough,” says Sam Tarry, the National Chair of Young Labour. “Ed Miliband’s campaign really connected with the next generation of party members — his willingness to listen and move on mobilised young activists to get involved in a big way. With many of the new young MPs backing Ed Miliband, too, this could signal a re-imagining of the party at the grassroots, with more focus on setting out a credible economic alternative.”

Labour’s new cohort knows what it’s like to lose. We are, after all, the lost generation. We don’t expect our dreams and ideals to be realised without a fight, and we don’t expect much help from the grown-ups. There is a profound sense at this party conference that the elder generation of Labour statespeople has failed us, and that the time for deference is finally done. “Young Labour is buzzing with ideas, enthusiasm and anticipation of what can be achieved following this conference,” said Tarry. With the politicians who saddled us with debt, tanked the economy and took us into Iraq shuffling off into the twilight, one thing’s certain: it’s our turn now.