The last in the Guardian’s 2008 series of debates, fluffily titled Who Owns The Progressive Future?, was put down by its own keynote speaker last week as Caroline Lucas of the Green Party wryly declared that she’d rather share it. Lucas, Bea Campbell, Ken Livingstone and Aditya Chakrabortty made for an engaging panel, but the mood of the debate was distinctly glum. Who owns the progressive future? Not us, was the conclusion, where us was a gathered mass of Guardian readers, most of whom had voted for Blair in 1997. I was going to be good. I was going to sit there and eat my sandwich and be quiet and be grateful for my free ticket. But when the debate turned to blaming the moral failures of today’s youth for progressive political apathy, my fingers started to itch.
A man from the audience deplored the fact that he’d caught his teenage son stealing, and declared that the ‘post-Thatcherite’ generation were ‘politically vapid’ and lacked a ‘moral compass’, at which point I found myself yelling‘absolute rubbish’ across the hall.
First of all, if your kid’s a thief, you should bloody well teach him not to steal and stop blaming society for your failures as a parent. And secondly, at no point in my political memory has this generation been apolitical. What we haven’t been is party political, and that’s a very different matter.
I’m sorry to go on about this. But when two million of us marched through London in 2003, demanding that our government refrain from following the United States into what we knew would be our generation’s Vietnam, and when we were utterly ignored, many of us ceased to believe in the power of government to change the world. For a lot of us, that was our first experience of direct political involvement – and it wasn’t a happy one.
No wonder, then, that we have reacted by abandoning the parties in unprecedented numbers. As the Stop The War generation has grown up, become voteable, fuckable, marrigeable, big enough and ugly enough to make our own decisions, we have inherited a distinct political cynicism combined with an energy to effect positive change in any way we can. As the youth vote has dwindled and membership of mainstream British political parties trickled into the low hundred thousands in every age group, membership of voluntary organisations continues to soar. It is estimated that a third – a third – of 16-25 year olds is directly involved in voluntary work. There are 20 million volunteers in this country, a figure that dwarfs party membership by several degrees.
Just take a look at Redwatch, the spotters’ site where fascists can go and wank half-heartedly over mugshots of wooly-hatted crusty lefties on demos (I like to think that this is BNP members’ version of the Man In Uniform sexual paradigm). Well, firstly, the leaked membership list now makes Redwatch worse than useless (come on, what are you going to do? Photoshop us? Go through our rubbish? Really? We know where you live now, you terrible useless scum, so come and have a bloody go if you’re going to. Are you going to write a letter to the Mail? Are you, really? Bring that storm down!). And secondly, there’s a surprising amount of fit young commies on there: Redwatch is becoming young, taut and hot as under-30s flood the anti-capitalist, green, anti-globalisation, feminist and pro-equality movements.
More of us than ever are on the streets, and fewer and fewer are choosing to engage directly with the political process. In my many soul-destroying hours interning with think-tanks and in dealings with the leached-out little New Labour finishing school that is the NUS, most of the young people I’ve met who would call themselves ‘stakeholders’ in the Tory, Labour or LibDem parties are some of the most spineless, career-oriented, name-dropping, politically vapid slimy Whitehall dishrags I’ve ever come across. They’re probably going to be in power in ten years, worse luck, and these will be the young people that MPs and political decision-makers spend most of their time with. But they do not represent the sum total of political energy amongst my generation.
Who owns the progressive future? Not Labour, not any more. They lost the young British Left unequivocally in 2003, and they might even have lost us anyway, finally sick of being screwed over HE fees, excruciating debt and an employment market that has failed to adapt to new workforce demands, leaving millions unemployed or afraid for their jobs at the start of a breathtaking recession and angry that the best Labour can offer us is ‘Not The Tories’. But despite watching our politicians fail us time after heartwrenching time, Generation Y has still not given up on the idea of saving the world: more of us than ever are socially and politically active; we are connected; we care. We just don’t care about the political process very much, and that’s their fault – not ours.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: A new activist and social community has been set up to encourage and facilitate self-organisation amongst transpeople and their allies in the wake of last month’s Stonewall demonstration. T-CAN, the Trans Community Activist Network, is live at http://www.t-can.org.uk/.