I knew that I’d reached the wrong side of what could charitably be described as “youth” when at Conference I caught myself lamenting to a friend about how to “re-engage young people in the democratic process” in the wake of the riots. They were words I’d have balked at just a couple of years ago, but I’m not alone in thinking this, nor were the riots the first time the issue has been raised – “how we get young people interested in politics” has been a question dominating political discourse since Pitt the Younger hit 30.
Nowhere is there more handwringing over the question than in the Conservative Party, where some still find it difficult to understand why young people are now more likely to find their future partners on mysinglefriend.com rather than in the local Conservative club. Those discussing the “youth” problem” tend to split into one of two camps: those that propose a variety of increasingly wacky, hip, and ultimately futile schemes to get young people interested in politics, and those resigned to writing young people off as some kind of feral underclass; more interested in smashing up Clapham High Street than signing up to “Better Off Out”.
You’d think, then, that when young people showed an interest in politics, they’d be welcomed with open arms across the political divide as proof that young people do care – Mrs Jones can finally sleep easy assured that her retirement pensions policy isn’t going to be decided by someone who thinks that life annuity is a cheat for “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare”.
So it’s astounding that in general the reaction is quite the opposite. From 16-year old William Hague’s speech at Conservative Party Conference in 1977 to Rory Weal’s speech at the Labour Conference this year, young people who actually do care about their country’s future are treated with derision and mockery and are subjected to a level of vitriol far beyond that which occurs across the despatch box. Barely a day goes by on the blogosphere without someone taking pleasure from the misstep of a young SPAD, the ill-advised Facebook photos of a wannabe politician, or the drunken activities of yesterday’s rising star.
Worse than those individual examples is the way that you hear some, in our party and others, refer to young people involved in politics. It’s always with the same adjectives: “smug” “self-promoting” “careerist”, and people take great glee in seeing them fall. Nowhere was this clearer than in the student protests over fees last year. As someone who passionately believes that the Coalition’s tuition fees policy creates a more progressive HE system and as someone who believes that the actions of a small minority of protests was inexcusable, I still felt that the level of bile directed at student leaders like Aaron Porter who, to their credit, were taking a stance against something they disagreed with, was unforgivable.
And why is this? Some give the classic answer that young people should stay out of politics until they have “more life experience”. Regardless of the merits of that argument, no one is actively proposing that Ed Miliband swaps Ed Balls for Rory Weal in his Cabinet, just that he should be encouraged to have a voice. No doubt in part, it’s motivated by the politics of envy, especially for those who resent new “rising stars”, but that argument is still too simplistic. In general, there seems to be an underlying and deep-rooted resentment of the young in politics.
There’ll be those that come back to me and say “why shouldn’t we take the kid gloves off for young people?” “Surely it’s just patronising?” but I’d be the first to agree if it were actually the politics of young people that we were challenging – it’s not. Hague’s speech at Party Conference counted against him, not because of anything he said, but because he said it so young. Weal’s treatment went far beyond challenging his arguments and descended into an outright personal assault – incidentally, exactly the kind of assault we derided Labour for attempting during the Crewe by-election.
Others will argue that “student politics has always been the nastiest form of politics”. Perhaps true, but that doesn’t mean that adult politicians and commentators who ought to know better should join in, especially through the forum of anonymous comments on blogs.
The riots were a wake-up call to the problem of youth disengagement, but the treatment of Rory Weal, however barmy his politics, should act as an equally powerful wake up about the way that we treat young people in politics. Young people in politics will do silly things and they’ll look back at school mock-elections or youth parliament hustings and cringe, but when they do, we should be encouraging them, respecting what they say, and if necessary, challenging them on the issues, not their personal circumstances, because young people who are brave enough to stand out from the crowd deserve it.