As the exit polls of the 2019 general election flashed up on our television screens, signalling an abysmal defeat for Labour, a row ensued over on ITV. The former Labour home secretary Alan Johnson scolded veteran left-wing activist Jon Lansman for the party’s demise by telling him: “Go back to your student politics.” The remark eventually spelt the introduction of a new image for Labour, one that was cemented in Keir Starmer’s “contract” with voters this week.
A surge in younger voters coming out for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in 2019 was a defining moment. That year, 62 per cent of 18-24-year-olds voted for the party in the general election, compared to 27 per cent for the Conservatives. A similar event occurred in 2017, when the party gained 30 seats, with the same percentage of young voters believing in Labour policies.
An uptick in party membership under Corbyn’s tenure was partly down to young voters feeling inspired by Labour’s socialist principles. It’s these young members who were out on the campaign trail, promoting a progressive agenda on the doorstep, in contrast to the mainstream media’s incessant attacks on Corbynism.
At grassroots level across the country, many constituencies’ youth officers have a tough job continuing this optimism under Starmer. The current leadership focuses solely on winning back older, more socially conservative voters in the red wall.
After lacklustre by-election results in places like Hartlepool and North Shropshire, young members have felt ignored and deflated under Conservative dominance and a meek leader who is only supposedly on their side. One young party member in my constituency who I spoke to described how Starmer’s image replicated Tony Blair’s; one that is “outdated” and “fails to recognise the forward-looking perspective of its young members”.
The leadership must quell distrust in young people by defining their movement as bold. Calls for common ownership of public services, the abolition of tuition fees and a green new deal to salvage the planet are regularly espoused by millennials and Gen Z. These measures aren’t just popular with certain generations, but also with potential Labour voters who call for a more interventionist approach to the economy.
Instead, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves refused calls to nationalise water in a recent interview with The Observer, confirming a lurch to the right from Corbynism. Her parliamentary colleague and shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, apologised for nominating Corbyn in 2015, stating he “never believed” he would become leader. It is clear that senior figures seek to erase the Corbyn era from Labour’s current image, no matter how popular it was with young voters.
However, the disenfranchisement of young members really began last year. Labour’s criteria for the Future Candidates Programme allegedly rejected young members on the left of the party. A party source responded to LabourList editor Sienna Rodgers, saying: “This isn’t factional. We just aren’t insulting voters with piss poor candidates anymore.”
If left-wing candidates, willing to endorse policies overwhelmingly popular with the general public, are being ostracised from the process, then they may look to other parties. Without a mobilised young activist base, youth officers will find the task of imploring young members to stay and help organise a unified opposition against the government very arduous indeed.
The pandemic has exposed how difficult things are for young people finishing education and entering the world of work. With an economy in dire straits, a Labour Party that welcomes these voters by promising transformative change is necessary.
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To retain its share of the youth vote, Labour officials must collaborate with young members to placate any worries they may have regarding their prospects in the party or beyond. At grassroots level, Labour-led councils must engage more with their constituents to galvanise the local electorate and ramp up the support from local young members.
Sceptics like Alan Johnson condemned Corbynism and those who advocated for it by ignoring the impact it had on younger generations. Starmer’s popularity in parliament and across the political establishment has only recently made a dent in the government’s approval ratings. As the prime minister is mired in sleaze scandals and corruption, Starmer and his coterie of advisors have used this time to tighten their grip on Labour’s internal warfare and depart from socialism.
Labour’s young members, pivotal in leading the party for the future, should not be undermined in their push for an egalitarian society. The party has a lot of work to do before the next election, with rumours swirling that one will be called as early as 2023. To create a strong opposition to Tory rule, Labour needs its young members more than ever.
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