Tuesday, 17 July 2012

On young people in the Labour Party...

Recently I went to two back to back events; the first put on by the Fabian Society, the second by the Young Fabians. The first, the Fabian Society’s Annual House of Commons Tea, was a discussion about how to better engage people in politics, while the Young Fabian event was a discussion about how to get young people more engaged in politics.

I assumed I wouldn’t be the only person attending both these event back to back; as it turns out I was only one of two. And in the House of Commons Tea there was quite a notable lack of young people (which is a bit of a blurry term, so broadly speaking I’m talking about typically student age, or younger). Of course, it should be noted that the Young Fabian event was free while the Commons Tea cost £15, and the Young Fabian event being held in the evening may also have made it more accessible, but this does reflect a trend I am  increasingly aware of in the events I attend; that with the exceptions of big, national events (National Conference, Progress Conference, Fabian Conference; although even the Fabian’s summer conference had very few young attendees) young people tend to attend “young people” events; Young Labour, Labour Students, Young Fabians etc, but seem less inclined to attend events not specifically aimed at young people.

I often get asked at such events “how do we get young people into politics?” and it always confuses me because I know so many incredibly politically active young people…but then I’ll look around the room and realise that I am one of very few young people there.

This is not to say that there aren’t problems of political apathy in my generation (both in terms of a general disinterest and a dissatisfaction with mainstream politics; two rather different issues that are often clumsily grouped together), but that I can understand why some people would be forgiven for thinking there are hardly any young politicos at all; which is just not true.

As I said, this isn’t the case with big, national events; but it’s also untrue on the campaign trail. When activists are out on the doorstep, there is a clear mix of age groups, and young activists are almost without a doubt out in force.

So why, when it comes to events, might young people be so much less inclined to attend events not specifically aimed at them? Perhaps there is a worry that, as someone younger, you’ll be patronised/ignored/etc. Personally I’ve never experienced this, but I can understand why it might be a worry for some people.

Young Labour, Young Fabian and Labour Student’s event are also, I’ve often found, more discursive than events not aimed at young people; with a far more open format than the “panel that talks after which people ask the panel questions” format; where the audience is really able to engage in discussion and debate. This explanation does become rather circular, though; are young people drawn to more discussion based events, or are they better at putting on more discussion based events?

Do young people just need…some sort of hook; something to tell them “you! This event is for you!”. The other exception I’ve seen to the young-people-not-attending-not-young-people-aimed-events was the recent Fabian Women’s network summer reception, at which there were plenty of people my age; these were all women (as, of course, were most of the attendees; but not all); so not drawn in by the fact that this event was aimed at them as young people, but that it was still specifically aimed at them as women. Perhaps. This is just speculation.

And this whole post is really just speculation and personal reflection; I’d be interested to hear how far it reflects other people’s experiences; young people who feel they only really attend young people events, or that they attend a range of events, older people who feel they do or don’t see young people at the events they go to etc.

Because if this sense I’ve got of this generational divide between activists is accurate; I don’t think that’s that great a thing. I love the younger wings of the party; I think they hold amazing events and are full of amazing people, and I think having these events and groups aimed specifically at young people is without a doubt a good thing. But when these become the only parts of the party young people really interactive they can become somewhat inward looking; and I don’t think that helps young people understand or feel part of the wider movement.

That’s, of course, just the problem; I have a few thoughts on why this might happen and I want to start exploring potential solutions. But it’s only something I’ve recently come to really register; and it’s not something I ever really hear discussed when we talk about young people in the Labour movement; so I thought that it was at least worth pointing out.

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