It's lunchtime on Saturday in Reading and the Oracle, one of the biggest shopping centres in the Home Counties, is so rammed with teenagers and young families that it takes half an hour to find a space in the multi-storey car park. A short walk away, across the gridlocked dual carriageway, things are much quieter. The youth wing of the Liberal Democrats is meeting in the main hall of a Society of Friends meeting house.
There are more than 100 seats arranged in neat rows on the beige carpet, but facing a table on which stand cartons of apple juice and packets of biscuits, only six members have turned up. Their voices echo around the draughty room. A drab Quaker church is as inauspicious a setting as you could find, but at least some of these young adults, aged between 19 and 24, believe they are the future of British politics.
Are they insane? When, in their short lives at least, can a career in politics have seemed less enticing than now? As Westminster tries to salvage its tattered reputation in the wake of the expenses scandal, beset almost daily by petulant resignations, ugly power struggles, and yet more revelations of dodgy claims, surely the country's aspiring politicians must be having second thoughts?
"Er, no," says Elaine Bagshaw, 23, the chairwoman of Liberal Youth. "If anything, we're more motivated to get in there and change things." Neal Brown (vice chairman for membership development) adds, enthusiastically: "We're ready to take over." Alexandra Royden, 19, a member of the organisations general executive, offers: "I'm already putting in my order for ducks."
If these quick-witted and fired-up young pretenders are the future, who are they, and what do they think? Gordon Brown told a recent student gathering that engaging their peers would be crucial in the effort to "clean up politics". Engagement isn't a problem in Reading today, but can these zealous few really clean up the game, or are we breeding the power-hungry, pole-climbing politicians of the future? How do they plan to motivate their less-enthused contemporaries and, more pressingly, why on earth do they want to give up a Saturday to talk politics over biscuits in rain-soaked Reading?
Perhaps Elaine Bagshaw has the answer. A recent graduate of Birmingham University, where she studied political science, she is serving her second term as chair of Liberal Youth. Like Conservative Future and Young Labour, Liberal Youth relies largely on the work of volunteers. Bagshaw has a full-time day job working for the Financial Services Authority, but has already spent Thursday evening out canvassing for the local elections. She frequently dashes across the capital to Lib Dem HQ in Cowley Street to attend committee meetings after work, which often run until midnight. "I don't have a lot of free time," she admits. "But I'm here because it's what I care about and it's an amazing experience. I get to sit on the party's federal policy committee and work on what goes into the manifesto – and I'm only 23. It's very exciting."
When I suggest to Bagshaw and her colleagues that they are unusual, they pause. "Not unusual as in weird," I suggest, "just as in uncommon." Bagshaw looks up and down the row, smiling, and jokes: "No, we're probably quite weird." The fact is, few young people care enough about politics to vote (37 per cent of 18-24-year-olds, according to a 2005 Mori poll), much less engage in youth politics. Liberal Youth boasts "about 1,200 members". Its biggest branch, at Reading University, has about 80 members. Bagshaw was re-elected as national chairwoman in a fiercely contested battle last March (more of which later) with only 148 votes. Figures like these hardly suggest British younth is queuing up to enter the corridors of power.
So, apart from knocking on doors during elections and recruiting new members, what do the parties' youth wings actually do? Bagshaw, who grew up in Nottingham, the daughter of a painter-decorator and JobCentre official, insists Liberal Youth has a direct influence on party policy. "The campaign to lower the voting age to 16 is policy because we passed it," she says. One of her proudest achievements was organising an event for Liberal Youth's "Homophobia is Gay" campaign while she was at university. "It's still the most successful event in the history of Liberal Youth," she boasts. "We got about 250 people and made about 450 quid." What was the event? "Basically it was a bar crawl with the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Society."
Bagshaw comes across as genuinely well-meaning, but even she would have to admit today's political youth organisations are a far cry from the seething crucibles of dissent and radicalism that were their forerunners. Before Liberal Youth was re-branded at a bar in Brick Lane last spring (complete with retro logo and kitsch Top of the Pops circa-1974 website design) it was called Liberal Democrat Youth and Students. Before that, it was the National League of Young Liberals (NLYL). The organisation became heavily involved in foreign policy in the Sixties and Seventies and, under the leadership of the South African exile and now Labour minister, Peter Hain, spearheaded the opposition to Apartheid while the moribund Liberal Party dithered. They became so active that the press dubbed the NLYL the "Red Guard". The Young Liberals would challenge the party again in the Eighties, when they campaigned against a nuclear deterrent and for green economics.
Things were even more radical over at the notorious Federation of Conservative Students (FCS, which later became the Conservative Collegiate Forum and then Conservative Future). In the Eighties, it became more Thatcherite than Thatcher, supporting right-wing paramilitaries in Nicaragua and Angola. FCS members thought nothing of plastering the walls of their university offices with posters of Enoch Powell, and some of its most radical activists wore "Hang Nelson Mandela" badges. Eventually, the group became such an embarrassment for the party that in 1986 it was disbanded by Norman Tebbit.
Such behaviour from today's crop of young politicians would be unthinkable. Mark Gettleson, Elaine Bagshaw's predecessor as chairwoman of Liberal Youth, attempts to sum up what the youth wings are for: "Conservative Future tends to train people to be researchers and Tory candidates and acts as a social network – it was one big Tory dating agency, and to some extent still is; Young Labour has become a vehicle for winning control of the National Union of Students without any other specific purpose; and Liberal Youth is about getting votes into ballot boxes and getting Liberal Democrats elected."
The decline in the power and influence of party youth wings can be tracked alongside the decline of student radicalism, which some pronounced dead following Thatcher's declaration in 1987 that there was "no such thing as society" and her subsequently shafting of the miners. A sense of futility segued into an age of apathy, as universities became more about preparing for the job market than broadening one's mind. At the same time, the main parties developed increasingly powerful PR machines; casual fascism or liberal rebellion among the youth ranks would no longer be tolerated.
With no place or desire for dissent or radical thought, youth wings have arguably become nothing more than parliamentary pre-schools for ambitious youngsters to play politics. And if that means emulating the grown-ups, it's no surprise these organisations are rife with the kind of tribalism and "Punch and Judy" politics that characterises much of what we see in Westminster. Here, you might expect the Lib Dems to play clean, but judging by a particularly grubby episode that rocked Liberal Youth earlier this year, that's not quite the case.
It began when Sara Scarlett, a self-proclaimed "political animal" and rare example of a dissenting young politician (she's 21), decided to challenge the incumbent Bagshaw for the chairmanship of Liberal Youth. The race to the top soon descended into chaos as supporters of the Libertarian-leaning Scarlett and Bagshaw, a Young Labour convert, resorted to insider briefings and personal slurs. When Bagshaw was invited by the party to speak at the Lib Dem spring forum in Harrogate in March, Scarlett saw red. In front of a bemused Nick Clegg, the party leader, as well as Simon Hughes and Vince Cable, she struggled to bite her tongue when Bagshaw reeled off her achievements. "You've done nothing!" she shouted. "LibDem Youth Teeny Totty Tantrums" was the headline on the influential Guido Fawkes' blog.
Bagshaw is quick to play down Hecklegate – "it was all a bit silly, really," – but Scarlett, who believes the incident lost her the election and has since resigned from Liberal Youth, is unrepentant. "When Elaine was given the platform to speak, I was surprised largely because she isn't a very good orator," Scarlett says. Ouch.
"It sounds awful, but it was quite good to take that moment from her. She has good intentions but mostly towards her own career. She was known to stomp all over anyone's portfolio, yet if something happened that was unsuccessful, she would blame the holder of the portfolio even though she had interfered."
Sound familiar? Bagshaw refutes the "stomping" claim and denies any knowledge of smearing. Whatever really happened, the whole episode is disheartening; if politicians (and Lib Dems, of all people) are at each other's throats in their early 20s, what hope is there for the future of Westminster? The affair was also covered by Tory Bear, a political gossip blog run by Harry Cole. He wasn't surprised. "It sums up perfectly what youth politics is about," says Cole, 23. "I was getting briefings from both sides – emails were flying around with horrible, nasty accusations I didn't even print. And they're all as bad as each other. They take themselves way too seriously, acting like they're in the Cabinet when they're just chair of a youth wing."
It was hardly an edifying episode. And nor was the news last week that members of Oxford University's Conservative Association made racist jokes at a drink-fuelled hustings. Just as a sizeable proportion of MPs are well-meaning, straight-up public servants, so are many of their heirs apparent, but for a new breed of politicised youth, the party system is anathema. As Cole puts it, "You get dragged into back-stabbing and bitchy politics far too quickly. Anyone who wants a sensible crack at the top should avoid it like the plague."
Matt Bolton is passionate about politics and rubs shoulders with members of the party youth wings, but says: "It's not the route that I, nor a lot of young talented and politically-oriented people have chosen." A Cambridge graduate from south-east London, Bolton, 25, is a member of London Citizens, an influential grassroots charity campaigning for social, economic and environmental justice. "We work on wages, housing, immigration – as well as things like safer streets," he says. "Underlying that, we try to create active citizens and powerful, organised communities that can take on any issue, building a healthy democracy from the bottom up."
This kind of "broad-based community organising," remains a fledgling movement in Britain, but Bolton sees it growing fast: "We're getting a lot more interest from graduates in political science and other subjects who say there must be another way to do politics. We say we've got the alternative." Bolton says the kind of work he and his colleagues do bypasses the kind of strictures his counterparts in the establishment must contend with. "As soon as you enter that sytem you have to play the political game, and because you're influenced by the media, you're constantly having to make compromises."
The new poster boy for community activism is President Obama, whose ability to mobilise millions of young people to become community activists (and, crucially for Obama, to vote) was crucial in winning the White House. He has called his background in community activism the "best education I ever had". When he was elected to the US Senate in 2004, his wife Michelle said of her husband: "He is not first and foremost a politician. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change." His message of "hope" and "change" has crossed the Atlantic, influencing more than just David Cameron's rhetoric. "The Obama effect has already created a generation of young people, particularly from minority backgrounds, who are interested in politics and want to be the heroes of social movements," Bolton says.
So where does that leave Elaine Bagshaw and the young politicians who, despite the petty politicking and impotence that seems to characterise their organisations, have set their hearts on the party system? Back in Reading, where the biscuit supply is running dangerously low, the talk is also of a desire for change. But here, it's borne of anger – and not just at expense-fiddling, property-flipping MPs in safe seats. For Bagshaw's generation, New Labour's historic ascent to power in 1997, when "things could only get better", is a defining political memory; Labour rule is all they have known – and they're tired of it.
"I was 12, and even then I could feel such excitement and this real sense of change," Bagshaw says. "It was so inspiring that there was this one person in Tony Blair who everyone was getting behind. He brought hope, but after a few years it turned sour. We never believed Labour would bring in tuition fees, support ID cards or go to war with Iraq. I watched as Labour slid further to the right and screwed over my entire generation, so I cancelled my membership and cut up my card."
Martin Shapland, 23, is less partisan than Bagshaw but even angrier (something of a showman, he also strides into the room two hours late with a pair of shades hanging out of his untucked shirt, despite the fact it's still raining). He says he was on the verge of joining Labour, but turned to the Lib Dems when the Government ignored the hundreds of thousands of students who marched against the Iraq war. "We're furious," he says. "We don't have jobs, we can't afford housing, we're the first generation that has had to pay for university education directly, and we're not getting our money's worth. Meanwhile, we're struggling day-to-day to pay utility bills while MPs are spending our money on things we couldn't dream of buying."
Last week, Gordon Brown conceded the need for "major constitutional reform". He has also hinted that the process of change may see the introduction of voting rights for 16-year-olds. It isn't clear how far the establishment is willing to go to restore faith in the system, but "reform" is likely to be a hot topic in all parties' manifestos come the general election. And if the likes of Shapland, Bagshaw and Bolton really do represent a newly engaged and politicised youth, our next leaders will ignore them at their peril.
"These are the kinds of political storms in which radical change happens," Shapland pronounces, as the Liberal Youth pack up their notepads and pens in preparation for a night out in Reading. "Finally it's clear there needs to be reform. Parliament needs to listen to what we're demanding. If it doesn't do something radical, people will take things into their own hands. I'm not talking about a revolution, but certainly a revolution in politics. And if there are protests on the streets, we'll be on the front line."
Number of members 15,000 (approx)
Maximum age 30
Just as David Cameron is desperate to distance his party from the "Bullingdon Club" image of men of privilege who would sooner build second homes for their ducks than tackle the nation's housing crisis, so its youth wing has made great pains to rebrand itself.
In the Seventies and Eighties, the factionalised Federation of Conservative Students was a hotbed of xenophobia and libertarian lunacy. Disbanded in 1986 by the then party chairman Norman Tebbit, it mutated into Conservative Collegiate Forum, which in 1998 merged with the Young Conservatives to form Conservative Future. It still suffered an image problem, thanks to the spotty "Tory Boy" caricature portrayed by Harry Enfield and, in real life, by William Hague.
"All that's completely dead and buried now," insists the chairman of Conservative Future, Michael Rock. Considerably older than his opposite numbers, Rock, 30, was born in the Midlands into a family of teachers and engineers "made far better off by the reforms Thatcher put through." He went to a comprehensive school in Stafford and studied at University College London. "I'm more reflective of Conservative Future than the media gives us credit for," he says.
But, like their grown-up counterparts, young Tories are frequently thwarted by members who apparently don't buy in to the new image. Last week, Nick Gallagher, a member of the Oxford University Conservative Association (which isn't part of Conservative Future) was suspended from the party after making racist jokes at a drunken hustings. In 2007, Fergus Bowman, then 22 and chairman of the Preston branch of Conservative Future, was expelled for leading a group on Facebook called "homos burn in hell". In both cases, the men apologised and insisted they were joking.
As well as canvassing and championing grass-roots projects, Conservative Future supports the NOID campaign against ID cards. Rock believes Tony Blair "wasted an opportunity" after Labour displaced the Tories in 1997. "What real progress have we seen?" he asks. He regards David Cameron as "very appealing to young people, who see him as coming from a similar generation, unlike the rather distant Brown." The expenses scandal, meanwhile, has been "like a nail in the coffin of the attempts to engage young people in politics. But now is the perfect time to get involved and do something about it."
Number of members Party declines to say
Maximum age 26
The official youth wing of the Labour movement has a seat on the National Executive Committee (NEC), the party's governing body, and claims recent achievements including its support of the Votes At 16 Coalition, a joint campaign with the Liberal Democrats. Members canvass for the party at elections and attend regular social events. It recently lowered subscription to £1, almost doubling membership at a stroke.
An alternative and potentially more interesting outlet for young red-bloods is Labour Students, which is affiliated to Labour but claims independence. In past times, its members, like those of the other student wings, would frequently clash with the party and engage in radical politics. But more recently both this group (formerly the National Organisation of Labour Students), and Young Labour have been accused of lacking teeth.
Labour Students stands accused of existing primarily for the purpose of controlling the National Union of Students (NUS). The current NUS President is Wes Streeting, who was elected as a Labour Students candidate. When he decided to abandon the NUS's hard-fought campaign to abolish tuition fees, an issue that angers students like few others, left-leaning Labour members of the NUS said it marked the "death of student idealism". Streeting insisted it marked an "uprising of student realism". He raised more eyebrows earlier this year when delegates at the NUS annual conference in Blackpool voted to begin consultations to set a minimum price for alcohol in student unions.
Despite the apparent crisis facing the Government, Young Labour remains as supportive as ever. "I genuinely don't think your party members feel let down," says Stephanie Peacock, 22, a history student at Queen Mary, University of London and Young Labour's representative on the NEC. "From minimum wage to more rights for women, I think we've done some fantastic things in the past 12 years." But she admits young people are particularly disappointed by the expenses scandal. "It's a shame because it means people are less inclined to get involved. We need to completely reform the system so it can't happen again."
Number of members 900 (approx)
Maximum age 28
Their slogan is "doing more than dreaming", but it's hard to imagine its members will have a shot at grown-up politics anytime soon (barring a coalition with Labour, as mooted last week by Green Party leader Caroline Lucas). "That's not how we feel at all," counters Andy Birkby, 24, one of three co-chairmen of the Young Greens of England and Wales. "We're making good progress, and while a lot of young people are becoming disengaged from the whole system, we're continuing to grow. It's an exciting time for us."
Some Young Greens are more than just pretenders. In 2003, Adrian Ramsay was elected to Norwich City Council, aged just 21, making him one of the youngest councillors in the country. He has since been elected deputy chairman under Lucas. Now he's the party's prospective parliamentary candidate for Norwich South.
Birkby and his team are desperate to turn on young people to their cause. They give regular talks at sixth-form colleges and set up stands at freshers' fairs – Goldsmiths and Nottingham Universities traditionally have strong Green contingents. They'll also walk the streets knocking on doors and getting people to vote. They are particularly active in the South-East, where the Greens beat Labour into fifth place in this month's elections to the European Parliament.
"People are really frustrated," says Birkby. "A lot of MPs don't seem to realise just how annoyed we are. But I'm quite motivated because what it does is create huge potential for change and the opportunity to introduce electoral reform." Birkby says youth can offer something different.
"We have grown up grown up in a different environment, and whether it's the threat of climate change or the BNP, we can see we need to do things differently."Reuse content