Article: The (young) people have spoken: reflections on the general election
Former CEO of the National Youth Agency, Tom Wylie, reflects on the recent general election and how the parties spoke (or not) to young people – as well as how young people responded...
Some forty years ago a senior civil servant, Barney Baker, flew to India to represent Her Majesty’s Government at a meeting of Commonwealth Youth Ministers. Baker argued in his typically feline style that it was not really desirable to have ‘a youth policy’; what was needed was a range of different policies in respect of their health, education and so on. This approach to the needs of the young has endured through the succeeding years of British policy-making and was evident again in the general election of 2017. The major parties, particularly Labour, identified different concerns for the lives of the young but hesitated to draw these together into an explicit, comprehensive ‘youth manifesto’, though both the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party made some efforts in this direction. The reluctance was not surprising: only rarely in the last four decades has national government sought to pull together the threads of how different policies and services affect young people. The Labour years in government included the creation of an overarching but short-lived Children and Young People’s Unit and the publication of ‘Aiming high for young people’ (2007), a strong, well-argued strategy created in HM Treasury but blown away by the banking crisis. During the Tory–led coalition government, a less impressive, and soon aborted, paper entitled ‘Positive for Youth’ (2011) emerged. Almost invariably, such potentially integrative activities fall foul of the endemic turf wars between Whitehall departments. Over time the devolved governments may show greater imagination, especially as many of the issues which affect young people are now devolved.
General Election 2017
General elections provide an opportunity for the particular needs of young people to be considered whether in the round or compartmentalised in policy or service silos. Even if ‘Youth’ is identified as a discrete sub-population, any policy proposals rarely reflect the intensity required. By 2017, it was evident that economic opportunities for many young people were shrinking. Increasing numbers were growing up in poverty with poor housing and health. They struggled to get on the housing ladder and their benefits and services had been cut while those of pensioners had been protected. Students left university laden with debt. Many jobs were precarious, low–waged and offered poor prospects. And now they faced a Brexit with the likely loss of the ease of travel, settlement and employment abroad which came automatically with the less tangible identity of their European citizenship: the outcome from a referendum in which the views and votes of the elderly had appeared to carry the day. Few of these specific youth challenges featured prominently in early public debate as the election period began. Some youth organisations seized the moment to argue for their particular concerns, and ‘Young Minds’, for example, did well to secure a visit from Theresa May and hence some brief attention to mental health. Many youth bodies approach young people’s lives more broadly and the YMCA, for example, produced a comprehensive manifesto with impressively detailed action points on several themes and not just the platitudes which the youth sector is rather too ready to offer. A few organisations, including the National Youth Agency, made a case for the rebuilding of youth work after the long, decimating years of austerity. The British Youth Council flagged up the consequences of Brexit. Broadcasters made some attempts to garner the views of young people. Overall these initiatives gained little traction in the early national debates.
As for the parties themselves, Labour made a particular pitch for the young adult vote with a broad ‘retail offer’ (as political jargon now calls it; ‘a bribe’, some said) notably on tuition fees and maintenance grants for students in England and changes to the minimum wage and housing benefit. It even found space to mention youth services, as indeed did the leader of Plaid Cymru in a TV debate. Idiosyncratically, the Lib Dems favoured the legalisation of cannabis while the Conservatives still opposed votes at 16. No party had much to say about youth justice, despite the continuing high levels of knife crime, especially in London. How to re-establish a fairer intergenerational contract was an important subterranean issue but few confronted it directly, although the Conservatives seemed to be edging that way, albeit clumsily, with their assault on pensioner entitlements.
The election campaigns
There were really three campaigns. That in Scotland blended Brexit, austerity and independence issues and led to a renewed battle between nationalism and unionism (in which the latter effectively triumphed). Northern Ireland’s voting patterns traditionally exemplify a similar quarrel and the outcome of its recent assembly elections ensured that this general election would be even more of a sectarian headcount, not least as Labour still does not field candidates in the province. The outcome was to strengthen both the DUP and Sinn Fein at the price of the moderate centre. England and Wales returned essentially to the two-party struggle of yesteryear as the Lib Dems and Greens faded and UKIP imploded.
The old military saying ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’ is also true of elections. May’s wish to focus on winning a stronger parliamentary mandate for her Brexit negotiation (because the opposition parties were being, well, oppositional) was knocked off course. First, by the straightforward political matter of paying for social care (‘the dementia tax’) and more profoundly by the two terrorist attacks on people, especially young people, enjoying themselves in Manchester and London. Such atrocities usually play into the hands of an incumbent leader who can deploy the panoply of governmental power but these events did not do so unambiguously as both May and Corbyn had features in their political CVs which laid them open to challenge on security matters.
Labour fought an unexpectedly vibrant campaign and pinned much of its hopes on achieving an unusually large youth turnout. In recent elections, the participation rate of the 18-24 age group has trailed that of the older population by some 20 percentage points and, moreover, the country’s overall demography is currently weighted against younger age groups while the student vote is concentrated in Labour-held seats. Despite these drawbacks, the gamble paid off. The youth vote (especially of students) rose, symbolised and possibly aided by favourable lyrics by Captain Ska, the NME carrying a picture of Corbyn on its front cover, and notably by extensive use of social media to bypass hostile newspapers. Various youth bodies were involved in vigorous campaigning to boost voter registration (vital in view of recent changes to this process) and turnout. Corbyn himself seemed to offer a different style of politics and the Labour campaign also tapped into an anti-austerity and anti-establishment mood across the generations, including former UKIP voters. Not least, the particular incentive of the tuition fees gambit appeared to signal a renewed interest in the lives and concerns of the young: they responded in full measure.
And so it came to pass in the dawn’s early light on June 9th that not only had a hubristic May lost her majority but the ideology of neoliberal economics, with added austerity, was badly shaken if not toppled. The result holds out the possibility – nothing stronger – that the years ahead may see some repairs to the institutions which support young people; that there could be an end to the hollowing out of public services; that inequality would cease to rise so remorselessly; that Brexit may unfold more benignly. Specifically, there is likely to be a review of the flawed ‘Prevent’ counter- extremism programme; the voices of young people rather than self-appointed ‘community leaders’ need to be heard on this and much else in public policy. Just adjusting a specific approach will not address the alienation of some of the young who are tempted to murderous, often misogynist, acts nor will it put in place the range of policies and services, including better jobs, vocational training, political education, community arts and youth work, which could help turn them away from rage and all the young towards leading more fulfilling lives. Ah, ‘the audacity of hope’…. Just before the election the Conservatives committed themselves to issue a paper on youth policy; the minister responsible would be well-placed to re-draft it had he not lost his seat to the youth-driven Labour surge.
Last Updated: 20 July 2017
HM Government (2007) ‘Aiming High for Young People: a ten year strategy for positive activities’, London: The Stationery Office.
HM Government (2011) ‘Positive for Youth: a new approach to cross-government policy for young people aged 13-19’, London: The Stationery Office.
Tom Wylie is former CEO of the National Youth Agency.