I volunteered for Bite the Ballot during the election last year, trying to get students on my campus to register to vote. Suffice to say, despite the organisation’s incredible innovation, our efforts were largely met with shrugs.
I believe trying to empower and engage young people is undoubtedly important in politics. I want new ways to bring democracy to the next generation. It is also imperative in the EU referendum. But while we are having this debate on how to get young people to vote, everything we hold dear is being taken away from us by a government we did not vote for. Most of us didn’t vote for anyone. Just 44 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds voted, compared to well over 80 per cent of over-65s. Over-65s vouched for the Tories in four times greater numbers than they did Labour. So we ended up with a Conservative government. We are Britain’s least powerful constituency.
Campaigners and charities ought to continue their tireless efforts in seeing that 44% rise, no doubt. I certainly will continue to do so. But Labour – indeed, any party that seeks government- should not prioritise it. Not anymore. At least, not in who their messages are aimed at.
The government’s White Paper, announced on Monday, will see tuition fees uncapped and our Higher Education heavily marketised. It is the latest in five years of assaults on education that was free for everyone that sits on the government frontbench. On top of this, we have a government slashing at public services, a government committed to a council home sell-off, overseeing rents and house prices soar. This government is a dream for boomer landlords and boomer homeowners. It is a catastrophe for everyone else. It will leave a country devoid of functioning public services or housing. My generation will be left without any stake in a society that sought to be a society of stakeholders thirty years prior.
If we compare what this government has done for my generation with what was offered in the Labour manifesto in 2015, it paints an exhaustingly upsetting, contrasted picture, a reminder of the difference each outcome meant for the future of Britain’s youth. On top of various measures to appeal to young people, Ed Miliband sought to cut tuition fees. He, and we, appealed tirelessly toward the young. It culminated in that interview. Labour in 2015 saw young people as a potentially powerful constituency.
It won that constituency, but it lost the election.
It ended in failure because we banked on a non-voting constituency. We banked on those with no stake to rival the stakeholders. There is little to suggest we will vote anytime soon. There is no skating around this. Unfortunately, I see Labour doing it again, and I envisage a Labour reaction to this White Paper, and to other education reforms, as appealing over the heads of the old for the young. If Labour focus efforts in 2020 on appealing to young people on their own, we will lose. And they will lose out as a result. No, if Labour wants to fight intergenerational unfairness, if it wants to stand with the young, it must govern. And in order to govern, it must win back my grandparents.
Labour needs to reframe the debate, and it needs to steal the Tories’ clothes. Instead of appealing to students and young people directly, or almost solely doing so as it did in 2015 with just a passing reference to the pension triple lock Westminster consensus, it needs to appeal to parents and grandparents to join them in the fight against intergenerational unfairness. To build an intergenerational coalition.
There is no more powerful word in the political lexicon than ‘family’, and with ruthless efficiency and discipline, it is a rhetorical device that has been mastered spectacularly by the Tories. You could not turn your head without seeing ‘Vote Conservative for you and your family.’ Labour had ‘hard working families’, sure. But the Tories emerged hegemonic for the ‘family’ vote because they also retained hegemony over ‘security’, too. Of course, a vote for the Conservatives has been anything but. But in 2015, it was the seemingly secure vote, for parent and child. ‘Family’ wins elections. We can either blame the voters for our inability to capitalise on this, or we can blame ourselves.
This is not a plea for Labour to abandon commitments to the young, policies that would benefit my generation. Rather, Labour should invest substantially more of its time and effort into rhetorically framing future policy offers like cutting tuition fees or building homes as being in the parents and grandparents’ interest too. The interests of parents and grandparents are the interests of their children. If their children will not vote, let’s ensure their grandparents and parents vote on their behalf. A secure future for the family does not include cut public services, lack of affordable housing and the marketisation of education. The Tories really should not be winning ‘the battle of the grandparent’ with a White Paper like that. The reason they are is because Labour is simply not battling for the grandparent at all.
Government’s consistent intergenerational unfairness threatens to become a crisis. The White Paper will be just one of many reminders in the next four years that this government is not on the side of the young. The only way to reverse this is for Labour to win. But the route to power cuts through the retirees in surburbia, not the campus. If it had to be an either-or, in all my years trying to increase turnout, I would rather have spent it winning over the likely voters we needed for a Labour government, so that this White Paper would never have happened. In light of this latest assault, I’d urge Labour to take heed, and prioritise winning over my grandparents, for my own sake.