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From the archive: Why young people are heading for the ‘political fringes’

From the archive: Why young people are heading for the ‘political fringes’

Michael Harris /   August 5, 2015 at 7:11 PM 1,947 views

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It’s been widely noted that Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership has been attracting a lot of young people. This has given the mainstream media the opportunity to patronise two groups at once: the ‘naive’ (but also ‘dangerous’) left, and young people.

Here’s an example from today’s Guardian. Lucy Webster – a young person herself, no less! – lamented young people’s attraction to the ‘political fringes’:

“Young people on the left are heading off into a socialist wilderness that hasn’t really been occupied since the 1970s. Syriza and Podemos are selling a vision of post-capitalism that denies the realities of the international economic system on which both Greece and Spain so heavily rely, playing a risky game. They thrive on protest, feel new and different, and many in my generation feel inspired by it. You can see the same young radicalism here, too, in the furious excitement around Corbyn. His main appeal to my university peers, possibly more important than his leftism, is that he is seen as a break from business as usual – the most toxic brand in contemporary politics. Whereas his opponents look like carbon copies of what has gone before, Corbyn seems to represent something fresh, something more genuine.”

Helpfully, the Guardian’s website ‘you might also be interested in’ algorithm places another story (from February this year) right next to Webster’s piece: ‘Youth unemployment rate is worst for 20 years, compared with overall figure, 16-24-year-olds are three times as likely to be jobless’.

Webster acknowledges this terrible context, as you might expect, when she rightly notes that:

“That’s where young people feel themselves to be: on the outside, looking in. They feel let down and abandoned by career politicians who are members of the spadocracy… And to make matters worse, their cold-blooded, calculated politics have failed young people in a pretty dramatic fashion. Youth unemployment is almost always higher than it is for the general population; in many places the young are locked out of owning their own home. And for those who may have had children and grandchildren in the second half of the century, politicians’ continued inability to tackle environmental issues is deeply disappointing.”

Webster’s aim is to defend ‘liberal centrism’ because of its’ history of delivering ‘social improvements’ such as women’s rights, healthcare, education, and advancing equality, fairness and civil liberties. I don’t mean to focus on Webster particularly – I have no idea who she is and her article is just one of many I could have picked – but this is rewriting history. All of these social advancements were fought for by ordinary men and women, including many young people, and largely resisted by the ‘centrists’ of the day, liberal or otherwise. By definition, it was the ‘political fringes’ that created campaigns, inspired others, protested, were marginalised, mocked and maligned (and sometimes imprisoned), but won through in some cases, and are still fighting in others.

If those in the centre want to re-engage young people, they’re going to have to do much more than lament their desire for ‘something fresh’, as if young people are guided primarily by a search for political novelty. And anyway, don’t we need a definitive break from ‘business as usual’? What are we going to do about youth unemployment? Or the housing crisis? Or climate change, most critically? And who is going to provide the answers, when the political centre is all but acknowledging it can’t and won’t?

Let’s recognise that young people aren’t abandoning the supposed centre-ground of politics, rather the centre-ground abandoned them a long time ago. It seems like they’ve noticed.

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