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12 June 2017

I was part of the Corbyn youth surge – here’s why

We were tired of feeling like nothing would change, like poverty and inequality were facts of life that we would just have to swallow.

By Neha shah

The morning after the London Bridge terror attack I sat huddled on the library steps with my best friend and a fresh pack of cigarettes, talking about how we didn’t want to bring up children in a society where this kind of senseless violence had begun to feel expected. 

The morning after the election, I sent her a text that read: “Is this what hope feels like?”

Until that point, when I had dared to imagine my future, it looked a bit like this: I’d graduate from university saddled with debt, languish in years of unpaid internships while working night shifts in order to pay my rack-renting slumlord, before being left with no choice but to move back in with my parents.

I fully expected to be 30 years old and still living like a student, feeling guilty for treating myself to a flat white. I’d probably have to take out loans to pay for my healthcare under a decimated NHS. When I finally reached retirement age (which I expected to rise to around 96) I’d be cold and despairing without my winter fuel allowance. I’d be alone, because I couldn’t afford to have children – and I’d be one of the lucky ones.

Since David Cameron announced the coalition government in 2010, hope and reality have, for me and many of my peers, existed in inverse proportions. When politics has impacted upon our lives in the last seven years, it has made us miserable – the trebling of tuition fees, the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance, a housing crisis that disproportionately affected us, along with a 10 per cent fall in wages.

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Since the morning after the Brexit referendum, I’ve had a distinct sense that the world is drifting inevitably and unstoppably towards the far right, and I’ve felt powerless to do anything about it.

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Jeremy Corbyn offered a viable chance to replace the far right’s politics of fear with a socialist politics of hope. His election campaign made straightforward promises to young people. It said: if you go to university, you won’t have to pay tuition fees, we’ll bring back student grants and Education Maintenance Allowance. And if you don’t, you’ll have a £10 minimum wage, we’ll ban zero-hours contracts and bring back housing benefit for under-21s. On Thursday, almost 13 million people voted for this politics of hope, and aspiring for a future better than the one I just described suddenly felt tantalisingly within reach; logical and deserved.

I have realised for the first time that I, too, could have my basic social needs met by the things that my parents took for granted – job security, childcare support, help-to-buy schemes. Corbyn’s success has made me realise just how low my generation’s expectations had been. All we really want is health, homes and collective security, and when I put it like that, it really doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.

YouGov’s polling was correct; the surge in youth interest began after Labour published its manifesto. It was positive, policy-based and built around a progressive and costed manifesto, providing common-sense solutions to our most pervasive social problems: the NHS, the marketisation of our education system and financial insecurity.

Everyone I met who campaigned for Labour alongside me did so because we were tired of feeling like nothing would change, like poverty and inequality were facts of life that we would just have to swallow. We like to think of our generation as one that celebrates diversity and fights for equality. We don’t want LGBTQ asylum seekers to be detained and then deported to their deaths; we don’t want our grandparents to suffer under the dementia tax; we don’t want single mothers to be dependent on foodbanks in order to survive  – and we don’t understand why the Tories would. We were tired of being patronised by politicians who thought that they could do whatever they liked to us because we were too lazy and apathetic to come out and vote.

I was too young to vote in the 2015 election, when lots of my friends didn’t vote because they felt that “all of the politicians were saying the same thing, it didn’t seem to matter to me which one got in”. Corbyn inspired these same friends, people who had supposedly given up for good because politics didn’t serve them – us – to vote Labour last Thursday, because they finally had something to believe in.

My friend Amir put it far better than I ever could: “To be honest, I just really didn’t want our country being run by a woman who steals from the elderly and enforces austerity that we know doesn’t work.”

You underestimated us at your peril; not only did students and young people help increase Labour’s vote share by the largest amount since 1945, we campaigned, we went door-to-door, we educated. In the last days of the campaign, Momentum activists across the country mobilised to knock on 1.2 million doors in key marginals.

The mainstream media chose to ignore this passion. The BBC’s election coverage was disappointing to those of us trying to engage with it; it was mostly male, all white, there was no one under the age of 35, and they were discussing “young people” like bemused anthropologists. Incidentally, it’s these same pundits who claimed with arrogant certainty that young people wouldn’t vote, who are now telling us why we voted. It’s no surprise that we don’t get our news from television anymore – political commentators simply don’t bother to engage with us. Perhaps they would have been less shocked by Friday’s result if they’d just bothered to ask.

Instead, we engaged with each other, using social media to organise and spread our message; it would be naïve and patronising to claim that it was the memes what did it, but they certainly helped.

Largely uninspired by Labour’s other offerings, internet phenomena such as the Corbyn vs May meme and Corbyn’s interview with grime star JME had incredible reach among young people. In the week before the election you’d have been hard pressed to find anything but political memes on my Facebook and Twitter timelines; they reached millions of feeds and engaged thousands of previous non-voters in the debate. #grime4corbyn trended higher than the Labour Party’s manifesto on its launch day, and I’ve seen Corbyn described as “THE ABSOLUTE BOY” more times than I’ve seen him be called the leader of the Labour Party.

Corbyn may not have won enough seats, but he has won by every other measure. Crucially, he has proved that national politics can be viewed as a “movement” in the same way that student politics often is, and still be taken seriously. Along with Momentum, he has demonstrated that universalism and value-based politics should be protected and strengthened.

For so many of us, the hope that we now feel as a result of Thurday’s result began as a dark, stubborn suggestion that if we just showed up and tried to do the right thing, change would follow. Finally, we feel validated and entitled to what we want for our future society. It’s wonderful beyond words.