I’m sorry to fray your patience with the same old question — but what did you make of the Olympic opening ceremony? I ask mainly because the thing that stood out for me wasn’t the NHS or the multiculturalism or all those other political talking points. It was the show’s spectacular regard for young people and youth culture. From the industrial revolution to the Internet, from Dizzee Rascal to dizzy nights out, much of the emphasis was on either the world created for future generations or the world they’re creating for themselves. And that was even before the torch was lit by seven teenage athletes.
Some of this may have seemed corny and heavy-handed to the discerning viewer. Even I winced when the BBC commentator alighted on the symbolism of the teenage torch bearers — “literally, passing the torch” — as if it wasn’t brain-shudderingly clear already. But it was the wider context that diluted my cynicism back down to naught. A year ago, riots blazed through the country, perpetrated mostly by young people. Young people have protested, occupied and been arrested. And yet here was youth being held up to inspire and be inspired. It was a marvellous strategy on Danny Boyle’s, or whoever’s, part.
And this was also what contrasted most with Aidan Burley MP’s infamous tweet. Let the member for Cannock Chase have his views on the opening ceremony, of course — but it just so happens that the “leftie multi-cultural crap” he attacked helped describe a modern Britain that most young people will be both familiar and comfortable with. That’s less true of the “red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones” that he subsequently hankered for. The past may belong in the endless, colourful tapestry of British life as much as the present or the future, but to focus on it exclusively is alienating and self-defeating.
There are some Conservatives who recognise this (among them David Willetts, who delivered an ideas-stuffed speech on these themes and more at the weekend), but it’s still a problem. Political parties in general have lost the ability to converse with and inspire younger people, if they ever had it in the first place. All the mutual reference points seem to be fading fast. I mean, 47 per cent of 18-34 year-olds voted in the last general election. That’s down from 73 per cent in 1997.
There will be lots of factors involved in this decline, from the steady erosion of party identification to sheer, intestinal disgust at politicians. But none of those factors will be this: that young people have no political concerns. There are now numerous publications (including Mr Willetts’ own The Pinch) about how teenagers, twenty- and thirty-somethings have, in some ways, got a raw deal compared to their baby-boomer parents. Debts are higher, competition for jobs is fiercer, the property ladder looks increasingly vertiginous — and many of these problems have worsened since the financial crisis took hold. We now know this story well, and young people know it horribly, intimately well.
The problem behind the problem is that politicians have done so little to help the situation, and have frequently aggravated it. And even where they have the right ideas, they broadcast them not to young people but to other sections of the electorate. One of the Conservatives’ pre-election posters was a good example of this; the one with a picture of a baby, and the caption “Dad’s nose. Mum’s eyes. Gordon Brown’s debt.” This was a decent enough poster in itself, but it was also calibrated to appeal to parents and, I suppose, politically-aware newborns — not the childless masses in between. Seldom have today’s home-leavers, the ones who are currently feeling much of the pain, heard how or whether they will eventually benefit from a policy of deficit reduction. Politicians tend not to make eye contact.
But why should politicians much bother with young people, when older people are where the votes are? This is a question that, to my mind, the Olympic opening ceremony went some way to answering. The nation is a whole made up of countless different ideas, voices and histories; it is graffiti as well as Chelsea pensioners, it is Beckham as well as Shakespeare; and these things can be geared towards the future. But too often politics whittles it down to sectional interests, based on what’s happened in elections past. That’s how we end up with absurdities like universal benefits, while taxes go up elsewhere. It’s basically an abrogation of duty.
But politicians might also appeal to young people for reasons of naked self-interest. There is a case that the next general election could be fought and won in the margins, with relatively small numbers of votes in key areas marking the difference between majority and oblivion. And this is why the Conservatives ought to worry about how Labour are currently poised to suck up the youth vote by default. The most recent YouGov poll has Labour ahead by 27 points (52-26) among those 18-24 year-olds who are likely to vote, and by 9 points (45-36) among 25-39 year-olds. Just before the last election, the Conservatives actually led by 10 points among 18-34 year-olds.
And what if the youth vote doesn’t remain as marginal as it was at the last election? Admittedly, there are few signs of this at the moment, but I’ve always suspected that if young people are given a reason to vote, then they will vote. They have enough cares and worries. It’s just that the political system has ignored them for decades.
Besides, the attitudes of young people have a habit of changing, and sometimes in surprising ways. Around the year 2000, in America, 18-29 year-olds became, in the words of Michael J. New, the ‘most pro-life age cohort — even more pro-life than senior citizens’. There is now talk about ‘hipster conservatives’. And while none of this means that young people are a neat voting bloc just waiting to be inspired, it does mean that it’s worth trying. Call it Boyle’s Law, if you like, after the creator of the opening ceremony.