Monday, 29 August 2016

The Kids Are All Left

I was mid-way through my first degree when Tony Blair entered Downing Street. Looking back at myself then, I was a wee bit ultra when it came to some issues (and I was tediously prolier than thou). But most of the basics of my world view were in place - the importance of class to politics and Marxism as the indispensable means for studying capitalism, to name but two. So when Blair became Labour leader and then PM, I had no illusions to shatter because I (then) saw New Labour as continuity Thatcherism. Yet what was it like for those who didn't experience life before Blair, of growing up in the shadow he and the Iraq tragedy cast over British politics? Robin Wilde in his excellent discussion below has kindly provided some answers to questions that have had us old farts scratching our heads, particularly why a large number of younger activists have been drawn to Jeremy Corbyn's campaign.

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 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.


Gary Elsby said...

I struggled whether to laugh or shake my head.
I did both.
100,000 potentially blocked from voting.
....and it goes on.

Narcoboy said...

The problem here is that many of Corbyn supporters like this author have absolutely no memory of Michael Foot or any real understanding of what happened to Labour under his shambolic Leadership and why. History repeats itself, with farce.

Phil said...

Have you even read the piece? If you had, it wouldn't have escaped your notice that Robin has voted for Owen Smith.

BCFG said...

So in order to understand why young people are attracted to Corbyn you have sought the 'wisdom' of an Owen Smith supporter.

Now that's revolutionary New Labour in action!

It is time this claptrap about Corbyn resorting to old methods was put to bed once and for all. New Labour believe that capitalism is the only way humanity can organise itself, they have a fanatical belief in the main tenets of neo-classical economics. When you stand on this ideology old methods are all you have. New Labour will forever be stuck in this loop as they contend with all the age old contradictions the system creates. The trick with New Labour is to use PR to create the impression that all this crap is somehow new. New labour are hustlers, pretending to deliver something new but offering something very old.

No wonder the PR industry blossomed under Blair!

asquith said...

Yes, I remember the handwriting incident, the Baby P petition (which any halfwit can tell you harmed at-risk children more than it helped them, but did Rupert Murdoch care) and so on.

I was opposed to Pa Broon and it was embarrassing to see valid criticisms lumped in with horrifying abuse, as with Ed Miliband and the situation now. At any rate it's Tim Farron for me.

Incidentally, the other day I met the daughter of one of those people I'd never thought existed, who left the country in 1997 to avoid living under a Labour government. Imagine anyone here doing that!

David Parry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Parry said...


I have an understanding of what happened to Labour under Michael Foot. There were three main causes.

Cause 1: Divided parties don't win elections.

Cause 2: The SDP-Liberal alliance.

Cause 3: The Falklands war.

Gary Elsby said...

Can you clear something up Phil. Who is saying they voted for Smith, you or Robin? I'm confused due to the timeline which is vast.

Phil said...

Hi Gary, Robin voted for Owen. I voted for Jeremy - post about that coming up in the next few days.

Gary Elsby said...

Blair enters Downing Street, half way through my degree?
In 2001, aged 6?
My confusion is all in my head.
Up to now I have no vote and what I'm hearing is horrendous but apparently, I have until 2nd September before I question any reason why I (may) be disallowed. The NEC seems to be using a very dodgy 2 year rule which is just barmy as it is clearly another tool to abuse.
There is a rumour that someone in Stoke is gathering information and passing it on.
This is illegal.
We have 2 names.
Please note that when I wrote that 'it is the biggest open secret' as you saw Jeremy in Derby, we knew a Month ago he was coming to Stoke but we kept it a secret as requested.

Phil said...

Who do you think wrote the introductory bit in italics?

Gary Elsby said...

Ok, I missed the bit where it said 'below'.
Why older people are drawn to Corbyn though?
I've written before that I knew he was to be leader 1 second after his name was placed on the ballot paper ( say it again for the second).
The reason was because the Labour Party was split 50/50 and anyone from the left with a whole 50% all to himself was a sure winner.
But why? Why not 10 years ago?
Simply because challenges were not allowed and it would have been a tougher fight anyway, possibly keeping the status quo.
Jeremy is to win 57%-35% with 8% not known
Strip out the 8% and we get 62%-38%
The Registered vote attempt by the Smith campaign is now known to have backfired: RV 70% being won by Jeremy with 54% of TU affiliates going to Jeremy.
But why?
What the Labour party were doing in the run up to 2010 was something on an industrial scale never seen since Roman times and the message spread far and wide. Many people opting to vote in 2015 in the leadership contest wanted to 'shake things up'. The old message not being quite good enough.
Were they all anti-Trident, anti HM and nationalisation good, privatisation bad? I'm not sure. Are they anti austerity? I reckon, yes. Therin lies the downfall of ED. Full of hope but later on a feeling of let down and the final nail.
Jeremy has a weak point, that being the EU but his 'red lines' don't really get an airing of which I believe would see him climb to new heights.
I get the Iraq war bit but those of us a bit older by 5 years saw Iraq pummelled by Britain. The photos shown to me by soldiers (they made a B-line) were sick. Iraq was battered by the Tories for over 17 years but Blair gets it because.....because.....there were no WMD but let's ignore the two fingers by Saddam as he went about gassing, slaughtering and waging wars on everyone around him with not a care in the world about the UN or human rights.
Jeremy does score highly though but I'm not entirely convinced it is because he opposed conflict(s) involving Iraq or apologising (later) on behalf of the Labour party.
I believe deep down it's because 'Things can only get better'.

johnny conspiranoid said...

Jeremy Corbyn won by not being any of the other candidates. The other candidates were New Labour, associated with:-

Light touch bank regulation
Tax avoidance
Poor record on civil liberties

Jeremy Corbyn is still not any of the other candidates.

In the wider world the Greens aren't any of the other parties and the Lib Dems promised not to be, but they lied.

If you keep voting for someone why would they change?

Does the 'center' want the things Corbyn supporters didn't like about New Labour?

How do we know what the center wants?

Why describe New Labour policies as 'moderate'?

All most of the Corbyn supporters probably want is non exploding banks, public services that aren't a giant scheme for handing out money to rich people, and the freedom to go on a demonstration without being kettled and having your photograph taken. If those things were really on offer they might appeal to the middle ground, after all they were good enough for Winston Churchill and Harold MacMillan.

I'm 64 you know, and the older I get the more sense Dave Spart (of Private Eye) makes to me. But I still don't know what socialism is and as far as I can tell from sites like this, neithwer does anyone else.