“Look at me — I’ve got youth on my side!” — That’s how Jeremy Corbyn responded to a question on his long-term intentions on TV this morning, following the sensational turnaround in Labour’s 2017 UK general election. I don’t know if it was a planned remark, but it was brilliant in its reflection on the energy that surrounded Labour’s leader through the final weeks of the campaign, and, more significantly, pointing to the seismic shift that took place in this election. It’s a shift that should make every political strategist (and educator) rethink their prejudices.
Because what we saw in this election was a massive turnout in the youth vote. And because almost every party other than Labour assumed that young people weren’t interested in registering, let alone voting, Jeremy Corbyn had a free run: thanks to organisations like Bite The Ballot, over a million 18–24 year olds registered in the last month of the campaign, and it’s estimated that over 80% of them voted, for the first time, and they nearly all voted for Labour.
How could the other parties ignore a demographic that had the potential to completely re-write the script? Simple. They fell for the false assumption that, because the youth vote had been so low in recent years, Generations X,Y, Z and whatever comes after Z (does it go back to A or what?) would rather stay in bed than exercise their constitutional rights. Of all the epic fails of this election campaign, this was the biggest. What the strategists failed to acknowledge was that the recent past saw the merging of party differences, blurred by a coming together around the political centre, that made it hard to tell the difference between them. ‘A plague on all your houses’ was young people’s response — except no-one was listening.
Well, they are now.
What we’ve seen, in elections in the US, Sweden, Finland, Italy and now the UK, is that when they are presented with a genuine political alternative to the dominance of neoliberal ideologies (as we saw in Obama, The Pirate Party, 5 Star and now Corbyn’s Labour) young people will re-engage with politics and the political process. Bigly. And the shock waves have already been felt in America as Democrats wonder, ‘why didn’t we do that?’
It’s too soon in the post-match analysis to say that the capture of the youth vote ensured Labour prevented a Conservative victory (not least because Labour’s campaign, and Theresa May’s so-called ‘dementia tax’, mobilised large numbers of seniors too) but the early estimates are heartening: in the UK 2005 election only 37% of 18–24 year-olds voted; in the 2015 election 43% of them turned out; in the EU referendum that figure rose to 64%. In the 2017 election it’s estimated that 72% of young people bit the ballot. That’s higher than the overall voter turnout of 68%. So can we please have an end to the ‘narcissistic, shallow, celebrity-obsessed’ stereotype of young people?
If Labour have shown that young people can be re-engaged in the political process, why couldn’t they be re-engaged in schooling? Turnout of those who describe their voting intentions as ‘engaged in school’ hovers around 30% in most developed economies. And, just as we write off political engagement, we tend to write off school engagement — ‘they’re not there to enjoy themselves’ we say. ‘Learning is hard work — get used to it’, we say. ‘You can either be engaged, or achieve’, we say.
But do we ever listen to what they think?
After 30 years of working with young people, I’m convinced that all we have to do is craft a curriculum that speaks to their solemn responsibility — to fix some of the most pressing environmental, social, economic and political problems the planet has ever faced, within their lifetime — and we’ll have their engagement, and we’ll have their attention.
At the end of my book, OPEN, I wrote this:
“I’m personally thankful that so many young people, despite the hand they’ve been dealt, are so lacking in cynicism, and so selfless in their determination to find new answers to the age-old question: how shall we live? If the 1980s spawned the ‘me’ generation, driven by material need, they are being followed by the ‘we’ generation, driven by a set of values and ethics that put us to shame. All we really have to do is not get in their way.”
The events of the past week have demonstrated that we abandon hope when we dismiss the opinions of our young people, and if it takes a political upheaval — because make no mistake, that’s what has happened — to get the establishment to take their views, hopes and dreams, seriously, then so be it. They will ignore them at their peril in the future. Something has shifted, and it can’t be put back, as Mancunian poet, Tony Walsh movingly encapsulated in a poem in today’s Guardian newspaper: