On a train journey back from London last week, I overheard a conversation between two elderly pensioners which upset me, and so I decided to respond with this article.
For years, British politics has been characterised by a unilateral black and white view of the world and of governance, everybody offering the same means and ultimately the same ends to an ever exasperated electorate. Voting has been like some sort of political pilgrimage for the elderly, the ‘grey-haired battalions’ marching remorselessly to polling booths voting as they always have done, in many cases informed by The Sun or The Daily Mail, to name but two of this nation’s most popular propaganda prints. They consider themselves ‘informed’ and ‘educated’ because they have what they term ‘life experience’. In a way, although not directly or deliberately, they have spent far too long claiming an effective monopoly of political power in UK elections.
But the last election on June 8 was different. Not because these people began to use their brains to form opinions and stopped relying the Daily Mail, or because the grey-haired battalions laid-up their colours and disbanded: far from it. No, this election was different because for the first time perhaps in living memory these battalions were opposed by young people, invigorated by a new and more nuanced political argument. They were given something to believe in, something to vote for and a hope things could be different. They voted in their millions for a politics which offered a future of prosperity and a fighting chance for the younger generations, who for so long have been a political non-entity. Yet, election result aside, what has been the result? Has it been a dramatic celebration of young people becoming involved in their futures and engaging in politics? Has it been a welcoming of young people into the realm of the politically engaged? Neither: it has been an attack on the democratic right of young people to vote, on their apparent political ineptitude and their supposed ‘wishy-washy red, left-wing, commie’ politics. It has been a reaction of shock and awe that young people had the temerity to turn out and vote as they did. It is this reaction I want to address. Before I do, I will ask you not to be so obtuse as to think me naïve enough to class all members of the older generations as members of the grey-haired battalions or as part of this backlash against young people. I am of course generalising. I would also like to state that I in no way oppose the right of anyone to hold either of the views I will discuss, both are legitimate standpoints and I in fact agree with the first of them. What I intend to oppose is the reasoning put forward by so many to support them.
In addressing what is ultimately an age divide, or dare I say conflict, I propose to look at two of the major strands of this reaction.
I turn first to a relatively common argument. As often happens, the dispute surrounding the voting age has been wheeled out again and the massed ranks of bloggers, journalists and party hacks have set about flogging what is already a very dead horse. The arguments are the same as ever of course; young people are ignorant and not able to make important decisions as they live sheltered lives detached from the social reality. Indeed, an article published on this site has argued against lowering the voting age, effectively on the grounds that young people might vote the ‘wrong way’. It epitomises everything wrong with this first strand of the reaction to the youth vote; a reaction forged from self-interest fixated on effectively excluding those who might not vote the way ‘you’ want. Follow this to its conclusion and you reach a very dark place indeed. To advocate against enfranchising a new group because they might not vote as you wish is the lowest of political arguments and stems from no reason, thought or logic. It must surly be the reserve only of those scoundrels unable to formulate an argument with any substance or strength.
This argument, that people are either to ignorant to vote, or might vote the ‘wrong way’ is the same argument that was made in 1832, 1867 and 1918. It was used to try and stop working class people, women and ethnic minorities being enfranchised and as I type, I can just see John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Disraeli and Emily Davidson spinning in their graves that this argument has surfaced once again: It was wrong then as it is now. But more than this, the argument of ‘ignorance’ made against lowering the voting age is generally so patronising its unbelievable; an insult to the intelligence of younger people.
However, as backward as it might me, this argument is also I feel, self-defeating. By telling young people both below and above the voting age that they are politically illiterate, the only result is to resolve them further to oppose you and exercise their democratic rights accordingly. These arguments are a cry into the darkness, that of those who have realised they cannot control the minds of young people, or their political views.
But, much of this feeds into the second strand of the social reaction I wish to address; a much more common idea among our aforementioned grey-haired battalions and many others besides, that young people should not be permitted to vote-period. Now, this ludicrous suggestion is very much based in the arguments made about lowering the voting age; that young people are politically illiterate and incapable of understanding politics let alone economics. Again, this patronising attitude is unacceptable and unfair. It is the politics of selfishness and self-interest personified. The irony is of course that in this election, our older generations in fact voted almost robotically against their self-interests. Had it not been for the younger generations voting Labour, the elderly would have just witnessed a Queen’s Speech heralding the end of the triple-lock, certain benefits and their ability to leave more than £100,000 to their relatives if they were unlucky enough to require social care. Their actions were almost masochistic; they should thank young people for their actions, not bemoan their right to choose.
Now, I have no doubt that most young people have been told by their grandparents that they ‘don’t understand’. Indeed, the members of our grey-haired battalions regularly profess their refusal to vote for leftist or sometimes liberal politics with lines such as ‘I don’t want to go back to the “bad old days” of the 1970’s, you wouldn’t understand hardship and strife’. Indeed, I don’t profess to understand life in the 1970’s, but what so many who oppose lowering the voting age and who distrust the political intelligence of young people don’t understand is that most young people know and comprehend the hardships of life and austerity very well. Do they think that young people are blind to homelessness, poverty, debt, starvation, the healthcare crisis, educational underfunding, unemployment or benefit cuts? Do they think young people are ignorant that there is great suffering and distress in 21st Century Britain? Many young people have experience of these: something not, I might add, reserved for those from older generations. Student debts are through the roof, homelessness up 300% and poverty among those under 21 is rising, yet the profits of the grey-haired battalions, Richard Littlejohn being a good example persist in arguing young people don’t ‘get it’. And I will reiterate: what I am trying to attack here is not the principle of the argument against lowering the voting age or even that of the suggestion young people should in some way be kept at arms length from political decision making; both standpoints are perfectly legitimate and I respect the rights of people to hold them. It is the substance of these arguments as they currently so often sit that I oppose. They are both on the whole illogical, backward and focused on stopping enfranchisement for fear that people might, heaven forbid, not vote how you tell them to!
Likewise, the aforementioned profits have pilloried the young for seeing Jeremy Corbyn as a good leader and voting for him over Theresa May. According to them, young people ‘don’t understand’ what makes a good leader. Let’s get this strait, Corbyn is a bad leader and the people voting Labour politically inept because he, for example held talks with Sinn Fein to try and bring peace to Ireland, yet May is a good leader and those voting for her ‘sound’ despite the fact she is now doing a deal with some anti-abortionist homophobes? Make sense? Thought not: its just another excuse to attack young people for their different political views. The same principle applies when referring to the ‘nuclear button’ and the attacks on Corbyn and de facto his supporters for refusing to push it. Again, I say at what point did a willingness to obliterate the planet categorise you as a good leader?
The reason most of the grey-haired battalion have this view of leadership is in my opinion, however unpopular it might be, simply this; they haven’t had an original thought in decades, growing complacent and in many cases, quite bitter. They base their politics and views of leadership on whatever the Daily Mail happens to be spewing out at any given moment, on a frankly idiotic belief that Mikhail Gorbachev and Nikita Khrushchev are still sat in the Kremlin with their hands over the nuclear triggers; on a fear of the unknown, a fear of change and a fear of the future. This is why they ridicule young people for voting for the latter two of these three things, they just want to be left alone to live quiet lives in houses they just so happen to own. I, and all young people have some news for the grey-haired battalions however: We are here to stay. Our vote counts for as much as yours and our voice can be equally as loud. We will not apologise for our differing political beliefs and we are far from sorry for them! The fact is, its what’s called ‘democracy’ and funnily enough, we value it just as much as you profess to do. But fundamentally, the message of the young, sent by this election is this; the future is ours to win. However much you crow, however often the Daily Mail or other tell you that we, the new-guard are inept and incompetent, we remind you, there is nothing you can do about it. This is a democracy of which we are just as much a part as you. We will have our say, and we will be heard.