As Keir Starmer continues to push the Labour Party further and further right, many young people are feeling increasingly politically disenfranchised
This article is part of Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here
“Youthquake”, defined as “a significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”, was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2017 word of the year. This was largely in reference to the ‘youthquake’ which struck the UK in June that year, as young people turned up to polling stations in droves to vote Labour.
The reason behind the surge in young voters was attributed to the new Labour leader – a leader who, for once, hadn’t forgotten about them. A leader who promised free university tuition, who promised to lower the voting age to 16, who promised to ban unpaid internships and zero-hour contracts and raise the minimum wage, who promised free bus travel for under-25s. A leader who met them on their level, turning up to Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage and offering interviews to youth media outlets like NME, Kerrang!, and The Tab. In the end, in the 2017 general election, young adults voted at rates not seen since the early 1990s. 60 per cent of all the 18- to 24-year-olds who turned up to polling stations voted for Labour – and, by extension, for Jeremy Corbyn.
While some researchers have since cast doubt on whether Labour’s strong performance in the 2017 general election was down to a massive youth turnout, others have refuted this and argued that there was undeniably a significant increase in turnout for under-30s. And no matter what you think of Corbyn and his politics, it’s indisputable that no other politician in the past 20 years has engaged with young people quite as much as him.
The situation today could not be more different. Since Keir Starmer became party leader in 2020, he has: dismissed the Black Lives Matter movement as a “moment”; gone on embarrassing tirades about anti-social behaviour and the smell of weed “ruining lives”; refused to condemn transphobic comments from backbencher Rosie Duffield; sacked the shadow transport minister for joining striking rail workers on the picket line; ruled out repealing the heartless, evil ‘stop the boats’ bill; and most recently, backtracked on a promise to ban tuition fees. Of course, there are some policies from the Corbyn era which have survived – Starmer also wants to lower the voting age to 16 and scrap zero-hour contracts – but it’s still hard to be excited about a supposedly ‘progressive’ leader doing the absolute bare minimum, especially as it’s impossible to tell whether he’ll U-turn on these pledges too.
Many young people have posted on social media about their dissatisfaction with the Labour Party and publicly revoked their support, and there’s more than just anecdotal evidence for Labour’s declining popularity under Starmer too: Labour membership dropped by 90,000 in 2021 after Starmer took the reins of the party – by contrast, membership rose by 325,000 between May 2015 and July 2016 (Corbyn became leader in September 2015). Additionally, recent polling by ITV found that 20 per cent of young people think Corbyn would be the best Labour Party leader – more than the 17 per cent who said they’d go for Starmer.
“At the moment I feel like the two main political parties in England have slowly veered to the right,” says Joe, a 26-year-old living in Glasgow. “Starmer [neglecting to address] trans rights, strikes and environmental issues makes him essentially a wolf in sheep’s clothing – in terms of being Conservative – in my view.”
“I think policy is geared towards old people because they vote more so you have to appease them to win. Pensions are a public benefit but they don’t really get touched in cuts” – Martyn, 27
25-year-old Katie, who lives in London, feels similarly. “There’s nothing remotely inspiring about either Labour or the Conservatives manifesto points [...] Call me naive, but Corbynism inspired something joyful in all of us, at least,” she says. “I’m particularly horrified at Keir Starmer and Labour’s refusal to remove the whip from Rosie Duffield. It’s made me lose all faith in Labour.”
Likewise, 27-year-old Martyn from Derby says he feels “totally disenfranchised” at the moment, and that “all the tenets of the traditional Labour Party have been voided by the Labour right”. He adds that he doesn’t think there’s anyone who is truly listening to young people – particularly working-class young people – at the moment. “There’s always a conversation about how young people can get on the property ladder, but less about rent controls or access to public spaces for example,” he says. “I think policy is geared towards old people because they vote more so you have to appease them to win. Pensions are a public benefit but they don’t really get touched in cuts.”
This abandonment of young voters tracks with Starmer’s game plan: win back his idea of the ‘red wall’ and assume traditional Labour voters (including young people) will choose him anyway, no matter how disgusting a pill he is to swallow. It’s true, of course, that young people are more likely to foster left-wing views and vote for progressive parties (as the aphorism goes: “if you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart”). But Starmer is not only being complacent – he’s actively pushing young voters to their limit with his shift to the right, and it’s likely this will cost him votes.
But if not Labour, are there any other parties sparking the interest of young people like Joe, Katie, and Martyn? Joe, who lives in Scotland, says “you’d think the SNP would be the best option”, but given their recent financial controversies he feels “worried” about potentially “voting in a cabal of crooks”. He’s slightly more optimistic about the Greens, but even then he doesn’t agree with their opposition to building lots of new homes. “So I’ll continue to pay ludicrous amounts for rent and continue to see the likes of BP and Shell destroy the planet,” he says wryly.
Katie feels more inspired by the Greens, and she says she voted for them when she was living as a student in Brighton. “I felt that they did quite a good job at reflecting what I want out of politics,” she says, adding that she’d like to see major parties focus on creating “a future built on community”.
But equally, Katie feels like the Greens’ “influence is fairly minimal”. She’s not wrong: it’s telling that Caroline Lucas has announced she’ll be standing down at the next election to focus on the fight for climate justice, the implication being there’s little room to do so meaningfully while acting as an MP for a minor party within the two-party system. At present, thanks to the ‘first past the post’ system, Lucas is the Greens’ only MP, despite receiving more than 850,000 votes. Under proportional representation (PR), a more democratic electoral system, the Greens would have won 12 seats in 2019 – still a mere drop in the 650-seat ocean, sure, but undeniably better than just one seat. Plus, it’s likely smaller parties like the Greens would receive more votes under a better electoral system anyway, as it would eradicate the need for tactical voting and voters would have more ‘confidence’ in choosing their preferred candidate.
With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that just 19 per cent of young people surveyed earlier this year felt that UK democracy serves them well. “A party ruling a country when the majority of people didn’t vote for them feels fundamentally undemocratic,” Martyn says. He’s right: only 43.6 per cent of people voted for the Conservatives in 2019, which hardly seems like a ‘landslide’.
The situation seems bleak. The Conservatives may be finally, finally on their way out, but it’s a bittersweet feeling when Labour are helmed by a bootlicking, slippery, punitive, carceral bureaucrat and it’s hard to throw support behind smaller parties when the electoral system is firmly rigged against them. This isn’t to say that all hope is lost, of course. As Martyn says, it’s important to remember that “politics extends beyond the polling station”.
He says he feels “somewhat positive about community organising efforts”, and cites the Enough is Enough Campaign as a “great” example of people successfully coming together “to shift the conversation towards wealth distribution rather than wealth creation”. Katie adds that her time in workers’ and tenants’ unions has opened her eyes to the impact local organising can have. “The idea that it only takes a few people to totally transform our working and living conditions is so powerful to me,” she says.
‘Politics’, after all, doesn’t have to be something which is always done to us. There are ways of making our voices heard aside from drawing crosses on ballot papers, like getting involved in unions, campaign groups, and other organising efforts, as Katie and Martyn have done. This might sound idealistic and naïve, but hope is surely better than despair. And besides, from the suffrage movement to the poll tax riots to protestors flinging Edward Colston’s statue into the Bristol harbour to Kwajo Tweneboa holding social slumlords to account, history has shown us that real power has always resided with the many, not the few.