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27 November 2019updated 09 Jul 2021 7:16am

Life in the electoral wilderness

By Imogen West-Knights

In 1997 Tony Blair defeated John Major in a general election, ending nearly two decades of Tory rule. I was aged four. I was primarily interested in biscuits and wouldn’t have known Blair from Art Attack presenter Neil Buchanan.

In June 2001 Blair was re-elected. I was eight years old and devoting my summer to playing Pokémon Gold until my eyes shrivelled in their sockets. On 5 May 2005 Blair triumphed for a third time. I was 12 and everything I knew about politics I got from half-watching Have I Got News For You, simply because it was on in my family living room.

When Gordon Brown replaced Blair as Labour leader in 2007, this change felt sad to me in an indefinable way, a sign that something was over. Blair had occupied the same space in my mind as the Queen: in charge, in perpetuity. Neither good nor bad: just there.

All of which is to say that by the time the 2010 general election came around, in the year of my 18th birthday, I had experienced almost a whole lifetime of relatively stable Labour government, which I fully expected to continue.

Everyone’s personal political history looks different. Some of us were already politically aware as teenagers, some weren’t. Some came to politics through disgust at the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, through the 2010 student protests, or through their families.

But for every person on the political left in the UK under the age of 30, one thing is constant: we have never celebrated winning a general election that we voted in.

It’s not unusual for political parties to endure long stints in the wilderness. The Tories were widely thought to be unelectable in the late Nineties and early Noughties.

But what is happening now to the left in the UK feels generational. Almost two thirds of voters aged under 30 voted for Labour in 2017. It’s odd to think that there must be groups of under-30 right-wingers who have celebrated every time we’ve been commiserating.

For the majority of young people, however, each of the past three general elections has been a story of defeat. Not to mention the 2016 European referendum, in which almost three quarters of my then age group, 18- to 24-year-olds, voted to remain in the European Union.

The nature of each defeat is different. In 2010 David Cameron’s rebranded, friendlier-faced Tory party entered coalition with the Liberal Democrats. There was the stinging whiplash for young people when “Cleggmania” was promptly followed by Cleggmutiny after he reneged on his promise not to raise tuition fees.

In 2015 there was Ed Miliband’s queasily terrible election campaign, when we watched aghast as the so-called EdStone was unveiled in an unloved car park.

The defeat that year felt particularly shocking because the polls had confidently predicted a hung parliament. The 2015 election raised the spectre of “shy Tories” once more: in your offices, at your dinner table, perhaps even sharing your bed.

When the snap general election of 2017 was called, the young left were so excited about a chance at victory under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn that people were planning the celebrations weeks before polling day. There was the now infamous Facebook invite to a “Jeremy Corbyn victory party”, complete with Photoshop-ed image of Corbyn clutching bottles of Buckfast. We lost, of course, as many knew deep down that we would.

But that year, the defeat had more of a feel of defiant hopefulness. We were eager to celebrate the gains where we got them: taking significant seats from the Tories in London, and strongholds such as Canterbury; ousting Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam.

In the end, the bitterness of losing was only slightly tempered by the sweetness of the Conservative Party losing its majority, because it also put the Democratic Unionist Party in a position of alarming influence over Brexit negotiations and the state of the Union.

But even if the circumstances around the Labour defeats of 2010, 2015 and 2017 were unique, we left-wing under-30s all have the same grim memories of general election results nights. Staring dead-eyed at the bottom of a pint glass, or sinking further into a second-hand sofa at a viewing party in front of some shonky BBC graphic; eventually dragging ourselves off to bed for six hours’ rest before the next five years begin.

And there’s the same familiar choice of targets at which to direct your anger: the electorate, the first-past-the-post system, the media, the opposition, the leadership, or yourself, for not personally doing more.

Top all this with the fatigue of Brexit and we should be all out of energy. And yet somehow the opposite seems to be true. Young people in this country are a politically engaged generation; youth turnout at the 2017 election was the highest in 25 years. No wonder: we’re poorer than our parents were at our age, burdened by rent, and our jobs are terrible.

This year, I have been canvassing for the first time, along with lots of other long-time left voters I know. I get the sense that the renewed desire for victory is driven partly by a sense that we’re running out of time.

Labour’s climate policy is set to be the most comprehensive and radical on offer and if we miss this chance to set the necessary targets for the environment, we may not get another one. There is a quiet awareness, though, that a greater number of people taking part will magnify the disappointment if we lose.

Perhaps all these past defeats mean that we’re particularly idealistic: we haven’t yet had the chance to become disillusioned by getting what we wished for and seeing it fail to live up to our expectations.

But winning couldn’t be worse than suffering yet another defeat, and just in time to ruin Christmas. People voting for Labour this year want ambitious climate protection goals, radical reforms to social welfare and a final say on Brexit. But we also want, just for once, to have a good time.

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This article appears in the 27 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question