By Austen Sanders
Is it just me, a touchy 21 year old, or did the recent commemorations of ’68 carry an implicit charge of political apathy aimed at “young people today” - the individuals who, one assumes, grow up to be men on Clapham omnibuses? Such accusations are, I believe, misdirected. Young people are often interested in politics – but not in party-politics.
I’ve just graduated from university and over the last three years, in many a conversation with my friends, I’ve found that even those of us with the keenest interest in politics share this aversion to tribal politics. We’re attracted to the more marginal areas of political life such as think-tanks or the blogoshpere (apologies to all the skilled and influential individuals working in these areas).
Many of the most talented members of the next political generation are not particularly interested in sacrificing sweat and tears, (let alone blood), to party organisations. Either party politics will have to change, or a large measure of skill and enthusiasm will drain out of political life.
Many of these issues were touched on in a report published a fortnight ago by right of centre think-tank Reform and Ipsos MORI, entitled “A New Reality: Government and the IPOD generation”. The IPOD generation, by the way, is what comes after generation x. Members are aged 18-34 and are “insecure, pressurised, over-taxed and debt-ridden”.
Now here I must hold up my hands and admit that my interest in the report stems at least partly from the fact that I’m halfway through a summer internship at Reform, but it does make some valuable points.
I and another intern at Reform recognised ourselves in many of its descriptions. As it says, we “are not focused on ideology and therefore have the reputation of being uninterested in politics”. Without strong ideological beliefs to tie us to any particular party, neither my friend nor myself are particularly attracted to working within party politics.
Even our brief experience working in a think-tank has shown us how much genuine cross-party consensus there is on issues such as academies, but the major parties seem almost dedicated to obscuring these points of constructive agreement out of a fear of blurring their profiles and losing votes. We are enthusiastic about politics, and dislike the dead hand of the party line.
Most of my more politically aware friends from university are not choosing to work for, or even join, parties. Think-tanks provide a far more attractive destination. To someone leaving university, they appear as small and agile organisations in a dynamic sector which gives far more room for genuinely exciting and wide-ranging thought than a party research department. I don’t know if this is actually true, but I do know that that is what it looks like to young people making decisions about their political futures.
Technology has changed the way we see politics. We are very much aware that blogs are the place for the quickest and most exciting political news. We go to the blogs to pick up on election results before the mainstream media reports the official returns, and we can’t get enough of the gossip from blogs like Guido’s (Heat magazine in the corridors of power).
In a way, this shapes our understanding of our relationship with the political process. The blogger, and not the party activist, gives us our point of view. As a result, we identify with the perspective of the slight outsider, commenting on but not fully immersed in party politics.
The challenge for the major parties, and the party system as a whole, is to show the IPOD generation a political process that they are excited about and believe that they can take part in meaningfully. There will always be those who find their way into positions of power but a good number, motivated by the best of ambitions, may otherwise just drift away.
Solutions? I think the IPOD generation demands a political process which recognises the place of consensus within political life. The devolved politics of Scotland and Wales offers, perhaps, a possible vision of a way forward. The place of proportional representation in both electoral systems is no co-incidence.
Of course assumptions must always be challenged and alternatives provided, but the unbending rigidity of adversarial party-politics does not offer a political future the IPOD generation is interested in. Either the political process will change, or even the most passionate young people will turn off and disappear.