Olivia Fletcher reviews her time at this year’s Labour Party Conference and examines the growth of youth political participation
It’s Sunday morning and Victoria coach station is waking up to the smell of stale coffee and the cries of already angry customers. Even so, I’m here, and I’m not alone. Almost everyone queueing for my bus looks under twenty-five. The coach is heading to Brighton, and the red lanyards hung around their necks indicate that, like me, they’re going to the annual Labour Party Conference.
The Labour Party has given us the opportunity to access a full day of the conference, for just ten pounds. This means that young people have the opportunity to meet campaigners, trade unionists, activists and, if we’re lucky, an MP- all for an extraordinarily cheap price.
We are not here merely to chant “Oh , Jeremy Corbyn.” Having attended the first day of the conference, I can see that there’s a reason for youth support of the Labour Party beyond Corbyn-mania. We’re here to be part of the political landscape. We’re getting involved because we can – because the event has been made accessible to us. Young people are being included and accounted for, and this is surely enough reason to offer support to the party in return.
Many commentators attributed the high youth turnout in this year’s General Election to Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees. However, months before the snap election and this promise, youth support for Labour was high. The support is still there. In October, a YouGov poll found that 72% of 18-24 year olds would vote Labour if there were another General Election. Youth support was high even in 1997, when New Labour pledged to introduce tuition fees, with 44% 18-24 year olds voting for the party regardless. This suggests that tuition fees are not the only explanation for high youth turnout.
The reason is that, beyond Corbyn-mania, young people are realising there is a place for them in politics. While promises to scrap tuition fees and increase funding for the arts and the NHS are attractive to the 18-24 demographic, there is a greater trend towards active youth membership. It isn’t the charismatic cries of Corbyn alone that have triggered this. The discounted access to the conference is one example, but there are countless other recent instances of The Labour Party encouraging active engagement from young people: the annual Young Labour conference, campaign training schemes and having active social media accounts being a few more examples.
It is not surprising then that, in comparison, the Conservative Party Annual Conference failed to appeal to young voters. Even if a young person did want exclusive access to a glum-looking Boris Johnson, or to sit in on one of Rees-Mogg’s antediluvian tirades, they would not be able to. They would not be able to afford it. For first release tickets alone it cost a student £30, and the final ticket price was an unsavoury £400. It seems it would be more enlightening, politically engaging and cheaper to take part in the protests outside the conference hall. The Conservative Party is, then, fundamentally inaccessible for young people – with the annual conference and their failed attempt to recreate Labour’s Momentum with the slightly less momentous “Activate” campaign as notable illustrations.
Of course, both parties are capable of manufacturing speeches that promise the unlikely, but a key difference between the conferences – and the wider ethos of both main parties– is that, for young people, one party offers more than empty rhetoric, unappealing policy announcements and hollow slogans.
Those in the 18-24 bracket can and do read beyond what is said in the speeches of the party leaders, despite being penned as Pavlov’s dogs, salivating at the mention of “scrap tuition fees”. In doing so, they can – believe it or not- develop their own political stance, decide what they agree with and gain valuable insight into party policy. But this can only be enhanced by what was mentioned earlier: accessibility.
Gestures of inclusion and understanding towards young people and their needs are crucial, not only to get a few more boxes ticked for a party, but to genuinely engage youth voters. If a party is unwilling to compromise – say, for example, on the ticket price for its annual conference for young people– then the party fails to recognise its most important voters: ones who will not only vote in one General Election, but who will become core, life-long supporters.
Featured image: Wikimedia