On the night before the dissolution of parliament, young people across Great Britain were glued to their laptops, smartphones and television screens in their tens of thousands — not downloading music videos, but following the passage of the Digital Economy Bill through the Commons wash-up.
After weeks of demonstration, letter-writing and vocal public opposition, young campaigners sat down to watch the results of their determined national effort to halt the passage of the bill, which threatens to summarily disconnect any internet users suspected of sharing copyrighted music and video files.
Most were under no illusion that Peter Mandelson’s proposals were targeted at young people, who represent the bulk of file-sharers, and when the handful of MPs present at the debate voted to pass the bill, the response on Twitter was immediate and anguished.
“All three parties screwed us by not thinking properly about the issue. This is the opening salvo in a generational war,” said one young activist.
The people behind this storm of political activity are the same young voters whom the press and political classes routinely condemn as apathetic. The prevailing public narrative about Generation Y has us involved in a species of listless social torpor, but it is anger, not apathy, that best describes young people’s assessment of politics.
“I’m incensed about the lack of debate on the Digital Economy Bill,” said Katie Sutton, a grass-roots campaigner for the Open Rights Group.”Twenty thousand letters were sent to MPs expressing concern over the way it was rammed through wash-up with no consideration for the democratic process, and yet 410 MPs just didn’t care enough to show up and vote. It’s appalling.”
Sutton, who at 22 is a first-time voter with little prior political experience, organised the Stop Disconnection Demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament on 24 March. Hundreds of young people assembled, wearing gags and holding black placards to symbolise their fear of being “silenced”. Yet despite this pageant of political passion, many young voters intend to remain silent on election day.
Most of the available polling data predicts that turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds in 2010 will follow the dismal pattern established in 2005, when only 37 per cent of young voters went to the polls, down from 39 per cent at the previous election.
Not voting, however, does not imply not caring: much of the young citizenry disproportionately dispossessed by the financial crash of 2008 has flung itself into civic action, and from Climate Camp to Hope Not Hate, young campaigners have been at the forefront of the progressive political agenda, our energies focusing on single-issue campaigns.
Disenchanted by the corruption and inefficiency of central government, Generation Y is creating its own ways of doing politics, using technology to build campaigns and share ideas. The online “people-powered movement” 38 Degrees, which also fought the Digital Economy Bill, reports that in just ten months of operation its membership has grown to 100,000 — over half that of the Labour Party.
The Digital Economy backlash is the latest iteration of a youth agenda whose radicalism is overlooked by parliamentary parties where it cannot be exploited.
“My MP claimed to be as concerned as I was when I wrote to him, but he didn’t show up to vote,” said Barney Carroll, a young web designer. “I don’t trust any of the three main parties at present to represent public concerns.”
For the young, the sincerest irony of the election period will be watching a party system that has just voted to police our access to transformative technologies lumpenly enthusing over the power of “digital engagement”.
After watching Barack Obama surf into the White House on a wave of online campaigning, Westminster routinely flies in members of the president’s team to explain to eager parliamentarians precisely why sitting administrations find it difficult to manufacture bespoke grass-roots activity using technology they barely comprehend. The message is plain: positive engagement with the digital generation is of interest to the political classes only when they want something from us.
Make some noise
Young people’s despair over the state of parliamentary politics should not be mistaken for lazy indifference: many of us crave political change, but are unsure whether choosing between a narrow selection of mainstream parties will bring that change.
“Most young people think politics is important. They think democracy is hugely important. They just don’t think their vote matters,” said Edmund Ward, 24, an organiser for the Pirate Party.
The young people of Britain have every reason to feel angry and disaffected. Stereotyped by the media, shut out of the economy, saddled with debt and policed by a parliamentary system that claims to advocate “change” while pursuing the votes of middle-aged Middle Englanders in swing seats, many of us cannot imagine that voting will deliver the quiet revolution that we crave.
Our putative revolution is technological and transformative, based on electoral reform and progressive values; it was conceived online, under the radar of the Westminster village, and it may yet change politics for ever. Our revolution will be stillborn, however, if we fail to make our voices heard at the polls.
In an election whose outcome is fascinatingly uncertain, the youth protest vote may still make a very real difference to the shape of the next parliament. Despite the poverty of practical options, young people have much to gain by voting, not least a stake in the political conversation that will determine our cultural inheritance.
Whitehall will not be able to ignore the transformative politics of the digital generation for ever, and those of us who intend to vote on 6 May will do so to remind Westminster that our voices matter, that our values matter, and that a new blueprint for British politics is on its way.
We may have been let down, but the young people of Great Britain have everything to vote for. It’s time for Generation Y to make a stand.
Laurie Penny is a writer, journalist and feminist activist from London. Her blog, Penny Red, was nominated for the 2010 Orwell Prize. Her book “Generation Square” will be published later this year by Zero