Britain’s politicised youth: ‘This feels like a once-in-a lifetime election’
Members of Momentum and Blue Beyond on what the general election means to the young
In the north Wales town of Aberconwy, Liam McGuinness (12) explains why he is canvassing for 25-year-old Labour candidate Emily Owen. He became politically engaged at the age of seven and now talks fluently about old people not being able to get social care and how budgets are being cut in his school.
“The previous Labour Party was led by people who were neoliberals and so was David Cameron and [there was] very little difference between them,” says McGuinness. “So people had no hope for change ... Jeremy Corbyn changes that.”
Owen, who is standing nearby, says: “Liam is my policy adviser.” She says it with something like awe.
We are at the Llandudno Junction & District Labour & Social Club, a grey one-storey structure, where more than 100 people have gathered to hear Guardian journalist Owen Jones speak in support of Emily Owen.
Momentum, the Labour Party group formed in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid, has organised a series of “unseat” events, encouraging their 45,000 members to canvass in marginal seats. This one is billed as “Unseat the Tories in Aberconwy with Owen Jones!”
Many of the people here have come from areas with safe Labour seats. Some of them are part of Momentum’s Labour Legends programme, which encourages specially committed activists to take a week off work to canvass. “It’s a bit embarrassing to be a Labour Legend,” says London-based PhD student Jessica Adams a little later. “But this to me feels like a once-in-a lifetime election.”
Here in Aberconwy, the Tory incumbent, Guto Bebb, beat Owen by about 500 votes in 2017. Bebb is now an independent and no longer a candidate. The Tories replaced him with Robin Millar, who lives in Suffolk. “He can’t even vote for himself,” McGuinness tells me.
I’m here because I’m interested in the youth vote within the Labour Party. Corbyn’s surprise electoral bump in 2017 is sometimes attributed to a “youthquake” of newly registered voters often associated with Momentum, although experts differ as to whether that’s what actually occurred.
The British Election Study team concluded there was little evidence of a significant increase in younger voters, but two other researchers, Patrick Sturgis and Will Jennings, recently used data from Essex University’s Understanding Society Survey to argue otherwise. More recently, 3.2 million people have registered to vote since Boris Johnson called the election and two-thirds of those were under 34.
Here in this room in Aberconwy there are red Labour T-shirts and sweatshirts and posters reading, in English and Welsh: “Elect/Etholwich Emily Owen.” Not everyone is a member of Momentum and not everyone is under 35 (though I’d estimate around half of them are) but most seem to have come to the party in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s election in 2015.
Pink-haired Karolina Taylor, for example, is here with a small curly-haired dog named Kevin and never felt strongly enough to canvass prior to Corbyn’s leadership. “I sell insulation so I know how many new homes are needed. I know what’s going on in society.”
Is Kevin a Tory? “No. He would not be allowed in my house if he were. Would you, mate?”
Local activist and teacher Ray Wood introduces Emily Owen, who speaks to the room with self-deprecating humour about her accidental career as a politician. She had always voted Labour, she says, but hadn’t taken an active role in politics until she heard Corbyn on the radio. She went to a party meeting and was soon being asked to run for council.
“I spent an evening googling ‘What is a councillor?’ ” She speaks about how shameful it is that the fifth-biggest economy in the world has so many poverty black spots and the need for “normal people” to become politicians.
Next Owen Jones pumps everyone up.
“Are we going to paint Aberconwy red?”
“Yes!” says the room.
“Are we going to get the incredible, the inspiring superstar Emily elected?”
“Yes!” says the room.
“Are we going to kick out Boris Johnson?”
“Yes,” says the room.
“Throw him in the sea!” shouts one man.
“Obviously I can’t encourage that,” says Owen Jones and everyone laughs.
He talks about how the Tories have multibillionaires and the right-wing press on their side but “they don’t have this – they don’t have a mass movement”.
He’s a good hype man. Some people are almost out the door before the local activists can drag everyone together for a photo and a short video. “Dogs at the front!” says 23-year-old Momentum organiser Anastasia Palikeras (there are several dogs here, including one pug clad in Labour red).
Everyone shouts, “Register to vote!” for the camera.
“Beautiful,” says Palikeras.
A couple of days later I attend one of Momentum’s “Let’s Go” canvass training events in a room in the Baptist church in the village of Harrow on the Hill. These events began before the 2017 election with the guidance from the Bernie Sanders campaign.
I watch a teacher, Holly Rigby, encouraging 12 new canvassers to discuss their favourite Labour policy and root it in their personal experience.
Earlier, in a restaurant in Holborn, Momentum director Laura Parker, tells me she too is a relatively recent convert to the party. She was Corbyn’s private secretary from 2016 to 2017 and stood as a candidate in this year’s European elections, but she started out as a volunteer on his 2015 leadership campaign, joining the party “at four on the morning after Jeremy won”.
Momentum was founded by Jon Lansman and others after Corbyn’s victory but Parker argues that they were simply connecting up pre-existing grassroots campaign groups. “It’s like a federation.”
It was a product of different things, Parker says – the way Ed Miliband opened up membership of the party (Parker was briefly a Labour Party member in Miliband’s time), the rise of leftist parties like Syriza and Podemos and the fact that a Labour leader was finally offering a distinctive alternative.
Some mainstream Labour members have characterised Momentum as “a party within a party” akin to Militant Tendency in the 1980s. Parker disagrees. “We’re the mainstream now,” she says. “We are embracing and supporting the agenda of the elected leader of the party. This is not some secret sect hiding in the corner.”
Parker acknowledges that anti-Semitism in the party is a problem but thinks it has been overblown by the press. “Momentum’s view has been very clear. We released a statement in 2018… where we were unequivocal: (a) It’s wrong (b) We have a problem (c) We need to do something about it. Since which time we’ve endeavoured to do, what you’d call, for want of a better name, ‘political education’.”
Why is Momentum attractive to young people? “Lots of the young people campaigning for Corbyn had been plugged into the anti-student fees movement, the growing climate movement. Corbyn has a very broad hinterland which reaches well beyond the confines of narrow party politics and into social movements. He enabled people from single issue campaigns to join the dots.”
She talks about Momentum’s Let’s Go training events, their Labour Legends programme, their Unseat canvass days and crowd-sourced campaign videos. “Momentum is campaigning nationwide. We’ve got MPs from across the party engaging with us. I’m sure out the other side of an election, people will resettle back down into their internal tribes, but the truth is, the effort we’re making is seen and appreciated by people across the party.”
She doesn’t know if the youth vote made a difference in the 2017 election, but she is hopeful it might make one now. “The politics of the campaign is very young. The look and feel of the campaign is very young. There is some indication that huge numbers of young people have registered to vote in the last few days and weeks ... [But] nobody really knows how the electoral map has settled since the last election.”
The challenge is to convince people that change is possible, she says. “I just don’t believe a group of middle-class Blairites in their 40s can’t be persuaded there can a better way of doing things. I also don’t believe the vast majority of people in Britain couldn’t be persuaded to choose something else. It’s just whether you can do it in six weeks when you’ve had 40 years of neo-liberal stodge.”
In Aberconwy, the Labour canvassers split up and I follow Emily Owen’s group to a large suburban housing estate. On the doorways the passion of the canvassers meets the drudgery of the suburban rain and the apathy of some voters. Many doors do not open. When they do, the same issues recur: the NHS, local services, schools, bin services. Brexit comes up a lot too, I’m told, but it’s always the second thing.
“I think the Tories want to focus on Brexit exclusively,” says Palikeras. “But what we should be focused on is, we have newborn babies going to food banks and millions of children living in poverty.”
Almost every canvasser I meet today, incidentally, is a Remain voter who views Corbyn’s neutral stance on Brexit as a tactical necessity. I ask Owen Jones how this differs from canvasses he has experienced in the past. “The key difference is that in 2015 there just weren’t that many people,” he says. “The membership was a husk. It was about a third or less of the size.”
Does he think there has been a political “youthquake”? He hopes so. “Twice as many people under the age of 35 registered to vote as compared to the same point in 2017.”
Jessica Adams returns from a door. “He was Tory,” she says to Ray Wood, who has a clipboard of historical voter information, which he updates as they go along. “I thought he was Labour last time,” says Wood.
“We get people saying, ‘I used to be Labour but I’d never vote for Jeremy Corbyn,’ ” says Jones. “And then you say, ‘Did you vote for Labour in 2015?’ and they go, ‘No.’ ‘Did you vote Labour in 2010?’ ‘No.’ One person when asked, ‘When did you vote for Labour?’ They said ‘Harold Wilson.’ ”
Emily Owen is at the doorstep of Dylan Parry, a lifelong Plaid Cymru voter who is veering towards Labour because he’s worried about education and health investment and wants a second Brexit referendum. “Her challenge is to convert me,” he says.
“It’s a strange seat this,” says Owen, “because in the general election it’s a run between Labour and the Tories ... really, really close, but in the Assembly election Plaid come second. So I have been getting a lot of support like yourself who are going to lend me their vote to keep Boris out.”
“If we get Tory rule for the next four years, I don’t know what’s going to happen to this country,” says Parry.
The rain is heavier now. Everyone gathers again around Ray Wood and his clipboard. “This is sunny for north Wales,” says one canvasser looking at the blackening sky. “It’s worth it,” says Jessica Adams firmly.
Cathy Sheehan Brade is a retired counsellor and lifelong socialist from Macroom who never canvassed for the Labour party before Corbyn. “Labour hadn’t been socialist for many years.”
How has her morning been? “Apathy. People who won’t vote. Sometimes they’re Tories. There are men who frankly don’t know very much but talk enthusiastically, and women who say, far too humbly, ‘Oh, I don’t understand it. I don’t vote because I don’t understand it.’ ”
I hear Owen Jones getting an earful from an angry Tory voter. I can hear her complain about Labour encouraging “scroungers” with public spending and about Jeremy Corbyn “with his placards”. “He’s the wrong man. I don’t like him.” Jones addresses her point for point, but there’s no convincing her.
I follow Emily Owen to the doorway of Kerry-born nurse Pat Keegan, who has lived in the UK for 33 years. She sounds despairing as she talks about the state of the NHS. “Waiting lists are extending. People can’t get to see their GPs … I just feel for the younger generation now starting off.”
Would she vote Labour? “I have reached the stage now where I don’t believe anybody any more.” She talks about how bad things are in the hospitals and Owen listens. She tells her about Labour’s plans and asks her to think about voting for her but she also commiserates. “I know you’re really fed up with it,” she says.
So far, this canvass seems to have been a mixed bag of unopened doors, thumbs-up from Labour supporters, polite Tory refusals and exasperated “Don’t knows”.
The Tory Party does not have a movement like Momentum. In the George Farha Cafe in the University College London, I meet Patrick O’Connor (20) and Luke Stewart (21), who are members of a nationwide Conservative Party youth organisation called Blue Beyond. Both identify as relatively centrist “one nation” Conservatives (Stewart characterises himself as a Disraelian paternalist). O’Connor supported Remain in the referendum. Stewart supported Leave.
O'Connor was once a Labour-supporting centrist but he was radicalised by the election of Jeremy Corbyn. Stewart had no interest in politics before studying it in school. He’s now the deputy chairman of the Barnett Young Conservatives, general secretary of the Kings College London Conservatives and he recently ran for council.
“I believe in freedom of the individual, and I believe very much in meritocracy. I believe in small government … But as someone with a learning difficulty [he later explains that he is on the autism spectrum], I also believe in providing support for people who are disadvantaged.”
Is it unusual to be Tory supporters at their age? “There’s a conception that young people are inherently left-wing, and I don’t agree with that,” says O’Connor. “[The Tory Party] is the party of aspiration. Young people want to get on and get a home and a job. They want to do better than the last generation ... But I totally understand why so many young people feel hard done by, because they have been left behind by their politicians.”
Both of them admit that Boris Johnson has issues with credibility (they each favoured different leadership candidates) but they also believe he’s the Tories’ best chance of winning the election.
“Some people say, ‘I’m a Conservative voter but I’m never voting for Boris Johnson,’ ” says O’Connor. “But more say, ‘I’m voting for Boris.’ They’re not voting for the Conservatives, they’re voting for Boris.”
Does it feel isolating to be a young Conservative? “I think if Blue Beyond didn’t exist and there wasn’t that platform where young Conservatives could come together, it would be a bit isolating,” says O’Connor. “With [Blue Beyond], if someone has had abuse online there’s a whole group of people there to cheer you up. I got awful abuse a few weeks ago. The business secretary Andrea Leadsom retweeted a video with lots of Young Conservatives saying why they were voting Conservative … My video went out and I got about 150 abusive messages within the first two hours from Labour and Lib Dem people.”
They talk about the general coarsening of political discourse. “Both sides should tone it down,” says O’Connor.
What do they think about Momentum? O’Connor thinks that Momentum supporters can often be “intimidating” and that they make excuses for anti-Semitism in the party, “but activism and engagement is important whether you’re Conservative or Labour”.
“Even if we disagree politically, it’s clear that they care,” says Stewart. “Their beliefs might be different but they care about what happens to this country.”
Issues with Corbyn
Back at the Llandudno Junction & District Labour & Social Club, people are drinking hot drinks and eating chips before returning to the canvass. Karolina Taylor thinks she and her dog Kevin “swayed a few people today”.
One man had issues with Corbyn. “I said, ‘With all due respect, you won’t be voting for him, you’ll be voting for her, Emily.” They also met an undecided voter called Kevin. “Human Kevin and dog Kevin seemed to bond a little and [now] he’s on the turn.”
Liam McGuinness thinks he convinced one lifelong Labour voter who was sceptical about Corbyn. They had a long conversation about Michael Foot. His mother, Dawn, met a Tory voter who was convinced to vote for Labour when he heard where the Tory candidate was from. “I said, ‘He’s from Suffolk.’ There was a pregnant pause. ‘Say that again.’ I said, ‘He’s registered to vote in Suffolk.’ He went, ‘Emily has my vote’.”
Nearby sit Carina Mundle Lewis Whelan and Matthew Anderson. They’re in their 20s and only became party political with the rise of Corbyn. “I sort of grew up thinking that all of the main parties, they’re all the same,” says Mundle. “And Jeremy Corbyn came along [and] it seemed like, why wouldn’t I get involved when maybe there’s a chance we could be offered one of these things we were told for my whole life we couldn’t have, like social justice.”
“And not having tuition fees,” says Anderson.
“And fair wages and education and healthcare,” says Mundle.
Were they political before? “Before 2015 I would have been much more interested in getting involved in protest politics,” says Mundle.
“I was in a pub with my friend watching the election [in 2015],” says Whelan, “and I remember us both discussing how we weren’t that fussed and it wouldn’t make a difference who won the election.”
Two young men arrive later than everyone else. They became detached from their group after being detained by a swing voter. “I was worried about you,” says local organiser and retired “banker with a conscience” Jim Hoey.
The latecomers are James Frost, a student, and his friend Oscar Williams, a labourer, who usually votes Green. “Corbyn was a political awakening for me,” says Frost. “I realised things can be different and I joined Momentum.”
So how were the doors? They laugh. “We had a few bad ones,” says Frost. “A few people told us to eff off. ‘Eff off, we’d never vote for Corbyn.’ Some aren’t voting at all.”
“There’s huge anti-Corbyn sentiment in the older generation,” says Williams. “My grandfather is almost tribal in his support for Labour but he’s voting Conservative because he hates Jeremy Corbyn, because all the papers depict him as a communist anti-Semite.”
Zacchaeus Haywood is 17 and too young to vote. He’s been canvassing with his friend Christian Fuller, who is wearing sunglasses despite the rain. Fuller comes from a family of trade unionists but Haywood comes from a Tory-voting family. “I flipped really around 2017. It was those six little words: For the many, not the few.”
Are they in Momentum? “I’m just common-or-garden Labour Party,” says Haywood. “Most people here are Momentum. [Some people think] it’s a scary reanimation of Militant from the 1980s, but you talk to a Momentum member, they’re not going to scream at you and demand you vote Labour or we’ll take your kneecaps. They’re just going to say, ‘Hello, it’s nice to meet you, would you like a cup of tea?’ ”