Some time in 2001, I was sitting in a booster seat in the back of a car driving home from Loughborough. I was six, and as you do at that age, asking questions about things I’d vaguely heard about but hadn’t understood.
“Mummy”, I asked, looking up from a Harry Potter book. “What’s socialism?”
My Mum laughed. “That’s the kind of government we have now”.
I didn’t press the matter further. At six, I was far more interested in ensuring Voldemort was stopped than the forward march of the proletariat. But in retrospect, it seems vaguely amusing that some people in 2001 thought they had a straightforwardly socialist government.
My parents, like many of my generation’s parents, are basically left wing (a lifelong Labour voter and a lifelong Democrat) without taking it any further than voting. So it interests me in hindsight that two years later, a week before my eighth birthday, I remember being bundled onto a train for a trip down to London.
At the time I was more interested in the exhibits at the Science Museum than the rest of the day, but I clearly remember walking slowly with a lot of noisy people, holding my Dad’s hand behind a bus blaring Give Peace a Chance from a loudspeaker. I’d be willing to bet I wasn’t the only child in the crowd that day who's now a Labour member.
The year after that, I was sitting in the lounge ploughing through something on the GameCube, when my Dad came in and asked me to go post a letter. I resisted as only a nine year old can the request to walk 300 yards to the postbox, but Dad had an ace up his sleeve.
“It’s my postal vote for John Kerry. It’ll help get rid of George W Bush."
I believe I left a child-shaped hole in the door.
I tell these three stories because they’re fun anecdotes about the early life of a political geek, but also because I believe they’re typical experiences for a lot of young people getting involved in the Labour Party. Understanding this is therefore crucial for understanding what's happening now.
To be clear - I am not typical in other ways. I’ve cast my vote for Owen Smith, I'm not convinced by the case for proportional representation, and favour retaining Trident - all decisions that clash somewhat with other lefties my age.
But the experience of growing up, and becoming politically aware in the Iraq War and Late Blair era has had a profound effect on millions of people now entering adulthood, and they are a generation mainstream political discussion can ill-afford to miss.
The revolutionaries of New Labour, it has to be remembered, took most of the party with them. Blair won an overwhelming mandate from members in 1994, on an explicit platform of continuing the "modernisation" that Kinnock and Smith had begun. These were party members sick of being kicked again and again by the electorate, and were ready to accept pretty well anything as long as they got to see the words ‘Labour Majority’ again.
These members stuck with the party at least until 2003, as winning felt damn good, but secondly because of the solid policy platform Blair’s first and second governments had put in place. It’s been said over and over than the minimum wage, SureStart and the repeal of Section 28 were hardly Tory lite, but imagine the relief they must have been to members and activists to see progressive policies enacted after eighteen years of powerlessness.
But New Labour’s revolutionaries, having made the case and won the membership, got complacent. They didn’t feel they needed to build a new ideology nor a theoretical basis on which to hang their policies, because ‘stop the Tories at pretty well all costs’ was such a potent message for long time.
As the victories stacked up, they felt the threat from the Conservatives had receded. Partly because there was no chance of Tory victory, people to the left of Blair who voted Labour began to talk of their disappointments, even of ‘betrayal’. It was the Iraq war that made it blow up among the liberal left. And who did this affect most profoundly? Their young kids.
Plenty of us have lived under a Labour government for the majority of our lives. That is historically almost unprecedented. And having grown up with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, we came to see them as not just in hock to the establishment, but as the establishment. We were born at such a time without knowing Labour almost always loses.
Funnily enough, it was The Sun that turned me Labour. I had a paper round from 2008, just as the crash hit, and saw the daily mauling that Gordon Brown took from the papers. I recall the incident when Brown wrote a letter of condolence to the mother of a fallen soldier in a scruffy hand, and was taken to task on the front pages before someone pointed out Brown is visually impaired. An instinctive fondness for an underdog made the choice obvious.
New Labour made a terrible hash of their case to those young people who most benefited from it. I and thousands of others were far better off for having primary school classes which weren’t 40 to a room, school roofs that didn’t leak, a properly funded health service and a minimum wage when we worked our first jobs. But I was 15, with a General Election campaign in full swing, before I realised that the Minimum Wage hadn’t existed 12 years earlier. I still meet young people who don’t know its history.
Along came Nick Clegg. He understood it a little better than most, at least in 2010. The LibDems had worked out that the natural radicalism of youth was not being channelled anywhere. After all, it’s hard to be burn with socialist fervour for a government that has been in power since you were two and is fighting for its existence. With a lot of empty promises, Clegg lit the touchpaper.
My school held a mock election the week before the 2010 election. 77% of the pupils - including me - voted LibDem. In a Labour/Tory marginal, no less. Part of the reason for Clegg’s success was that he was the only politician telling young people they could have it better, when all the other parties were selling were hard times and a long recovery. That may have been the more honest answer, but you don’t win friends with frankness.
The new generation of Labour members are the generation who grew up with Iraq and were betrayed by Clegg. That cruel lesson takes a long time to fade, and it bred cynicism to horrendous degrees.
It’s led to the situation where significant number of people genuinely believed Ed Miliband was a hardcore austerian, because that’s what certain populist voices say, and the record of cynicism over memorable bad decisions makes it easy to believe.
In part, it’s helped lead to the fragmentation of politics, where political engagement means signing change.org petitions on social issues rather than engaging with the idea of the country’s governance, because those battles are easier to understand, don’t involve painful compromise, and are pretty easy to win.
In short, the Blair and Brown governments engendered in a lot of young people the kind of views the Conservatives have been trying to sell for decades - that government is powerless or harmful, won’t help even if it could, and that promises are always watered down and broken. That isn’t in my view fair, but we can’t pretend people don’t think it.
It’s a good reason why Jeremy Corbyn - and previously the Greens - appeals to a lot of my generation. Though they think it would be nice if he won an election, they often suspect he won’t, but don’t think it hugely matters. It’s understandable why, in a way - they're almost entirely new to organised politics. When you don’t believe in the power of government and therefore don’t believe in the importance of taking control, all you can logically do is stick to your principles and hope for the best.
When they hear a politician say they want to be able to win elections, they don’t all hear it as a positive. It often brings back the sting of Nick Clegg’s broken promises, their parents’ anger over Iraq, and the establishment men in suits who formed the background of their childhood.
As long as Labour is still fighting the battle New Labour thought they’d won, the party can’t move on as a lot of young people want. Jeremy Corbyn knows this, and one of my main criticisms of him is the tendency to claw at old wounds to shore up his own support. But it works - the people in the party who want to move on flock to him.
But we have yet another new generation coming up. Next year, we will see the first cohort of Labour members born after the Iraq War. Their memories of childhood and early politics will be the rise of Cameron, the fall of Brown and the collapse of the Lib Dems.
Will that change their attitude to politics? Time will tell. But if young people are Corbyn’s now, it was an allegiance that began to form before either he or they knew it, in Hyde Park on Saturday February 15th, 2003.