From the archive: Why Corbyn’s ‘dinosaur politics’ appeals to young people
Writing in The Guardian yesterday, Jonathan Freedland suggested that support for Jeremy Corbyn among some Labour Party members could be explained by identity politics: “Telling supporters he won’t win is futile: elections are not their priority. They want to be true to themselves.”
Freedland suggested that Tony Blair’s intervention in the Labour leadership race, like others, is destined to fail because it misunderstands this attraction of Corbynites to their cause.
Freedland particularly applied this to Corbyn’s younger supporters (and similarly referenced Bernie Sanders’ rise in the US Democratic Party’s primary race): “Like Corbyn, he is dismissed as an old white guy whose views were out of date a generation ago. And like Corbyn, he is enthusing the very young people usually written off as being disengaged from politics.” Freedland also suggested by way of explanation that these younger supporters lack the memory of the Party’s successive defeats in the 1980s, and equally why it won in the late 1990s and 2000s.
For Freedland, this means that those who think Corbyn would mean the end of the Labour Party for a generation need to find a different way to talk to those drawn to the ‘rebel backbencher’: “Sounding like the grownups lecturing the kids won’t do it. Hurling insults won’t help either. …Instead, Labour’s pragmatists will somehow have to match the excitement that’s been unleashed.”
But this is precisely the point, isn’t it? The other leadership candidates, and the Party’s senior figures over the past 10 years at least, have proved unable to generate ‘excitement’ in any notable way. And the reason isn’t, as Freedland’s analysis implies, because Labour’s leaders have refused to play identity politics; it’s because they’ve offered neither electoral success (Labour hasn’t won a national election since 2005) nor a values-based political programme.
If the ‘pragmatists’ can’t deliver the former, young Corbynites might fairly reason, we might as well have the latter.
Further, to describe Corbyn’s appeal to younger Party members (some of them new) as ‘exciting’ because it merely articulates what they ‘feel’ is of course to patronise them. Instead, it might be better to recognise that the ‘kids’ might know something that the ‘grownups’ don’t.
For a short time after Ed Miliband was elected, I thought Labour might be able to develop a strong new appeal to younger people. Miliband looked youngish – this was later used against him in the Tories’ repeated ‘weak’ characterisation – and had the potential to represent a new generation of (albeit wonky) political leaders. Labour recognised the importance of the ‘youth vote’, and in the election campaign emphasised tuition fees, apprenticeships, support for first-time home buyers, and rent controls. And it’s true that Labour did well among younger voters at the general election, winning the support of 43 per cent of 18-24 year old voters and 36 per cent of 25-34 year olds. The youth vote also increased compared to 2010 and 2005, though it still turned out below 60 per cent.
But Miliband was never able to generate the ‘excitement’ that the much older Corbyn seems able to do for some in young Labour. And the reason is not some values-based irrationality among the young, but the content of politics, which is to say policy.
Whatever you think about his politics, Jeremy Corbyn articulates a clear idea of what Labour is about and what it is meant to achieve. A political ‘dinosaur’ can appeal to young people more than Labour’s post-Blair and Brown generation of Miliband, Burnham, Cooper and Kendall, because his politics has a deeper and wider sense of purpose than the supposedly ‘grownup’ technocratic pragmatism of the latter group. Where they pitch competent stewardship, he preaches a better economy and society – and young voters, because they’re not stupid, know that the problems we face are bigger than merely tuition fees and the price of rent.
Rather than patronising the young Corbynites for starting with a politics of values, perhaps Labour needs to learn from them.
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