Broken Utopia: Britain’s Young People After the Referendum

By Benjamin Bowman

The situation for young people in the UK was tough already, before the Referendum. To quote one young participant I spoke to in the course of my research, it’s about communities needing investment and being told “well, we haven’t got the money”. Austerity has had a deep effect on young people who have been hit hardest by years of cuts. At the same time, we know the horizons for young people’s politics have shrunk. The tuition fees debacle and the failure to bring young people into the heart of the policy process (for example, by including youth wings in party policy discussions) coincide with a changing toolbox for young people’s participation. Young people see elections as pretty useless, returning the same old lot of men in suits, when they would generally prefer to get involved and do things for themselves, autonomously, at a local level.

The Referendum was, sadly, quite the opposite. A campaign dominated by elites and especially elite, white men was mostly argued on the basis of elite, macro-level economic conditions. Even young people who were leaning towards leaving likely doubted the mystical £350m a week would ever reach them. The suggestion 75% of young people voted remain is believable, not least because they have more experience of and more hope that they can personally experience freedom of movement as an opportunity to expand job searches, meet people and live happier lives. 

There’s no surprise in the headlines about young people after the Referendum. At first glance, it is business as usual. First, Britain is talking about “young people betrayed by older voters”, typically (and accurately) identifying a contemporary political arena that considers young people’s needs expendable as established wealth is fortified and older generations protected. Second, the blaming of young people for their marginalization by saying “they can’t be bothered to vote”. Dr. James Sloam estimates young turnout to have been around 60% – far higher than at any recent General Election – but electoral abstention by young people who are turned off by political campaigns is the second way Britain talks about its youth, and that has not changed. 

If we are to be Brexit Britain, we must include young people in our decisions about what that Britain will look like. After all, Brexit threatens to turn young people’s lives upside down, with a recession and further cuts on the way, and opportunities like the Erasmus programme going the way of the EMA. The campaign, too, may deepen the water separating young people from political institutions in this country. In a response to the Referendum result, Dr. Sloam said “young people were both unenthused by campaign and strongly opposed to its outcome”.

We need to involve young people in the outcome, and not by giving them a voice: they are equal citizens and they must have power. For party activists, now is the time to push youth wing members into the discussion of party policy on the economy, health care, and so forth. For regions looking at an independence vote, young people should be leading and informing campaigns, not just stamping the ground with flyers. Most of all, if we are disposing of opportunities for young people at supranational level, we must rebuild the networks at local level for welcoming young people as full, autonomous citizens. Tearing down and reconstructing the Government’s failed apprenticeships scheme would be a good start and, if we are expecting a recession, we should be training and supporting young people’s cooperatives as a way for them to take control over their own lives.

Benjamin Bowman is a Teaching fellow in Comparative Politics at the University of Bath. He tweets at @bennosaurus.

Originally posted 3rd July 2016

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