Corbyn’s youth support is about economics, not idealism
Irish parties have yet to realise that millennials have rejected a market-led system
British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn at the Glastonbury festival. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Millennials are often written off as entitled, social-media obsessed, work-shy snowflakes.But this cohort of people in their 20s and 30s was one of the driving factors behind Jeremy Corbyn’s impressive British general election performance as Labour leader in June.
The 68-year-old socialist was also written off an outdated, unelectable dead weight that would drag the British Labour Party down into electoral oblivion. But the political commentators in the United Kingdom and onlookers in Ireland were proved dead wrong, because in part they underestimated the millennial generation and their support for Corbyn.
Political cliques and media circles have been unable to grasp why on Earth any 25-year-old would identify with Corbyn, a dinosaur of left-wing politics who sports granddad-beige suits.
Corbyn’s intense following among young people is not down to some idealistic naivety, but stems from a growing lack of faith in the traditional political and economic system. Those currently in their 20s or 30s came of age during one of the worst global recessions in recent history. A period of widespread economic downturn and despair has left a generation of young people feeling like the ladder in life had been pulled up out of their reach.
That’s not to say older generations were insulated from the effects of the economic crash, far from it, but it was young people that experienced a higher rate of unemployment, the inequality of the two-tier public-sector pay deals and the normalising of an unpaid internship culture.The Groundhog Day cycle of unanswered, unsuccessful job applications became a disheartening routine for many young graduates or school-leavers.
Against this backdrop you had a generational exodus of friends, cousins, siblings and classmates emigrating on one-way flights in search of work and the prospect of a life they felt they could not build at home.
For many millennials this formative period eroded many people’s faith in the political and economic system. Even now as the economy picks up those in their 30s find it near impossible to afford to buy a home.
In 1991, some 60 per cent Irish young households with principals aged between 25 and 34 had a mortgage. In 2016, just 25 per cent of that age bracket could say the same, according to a recent Nevin Economic Research Institute study.
It’s easy to see how people begin to think “the market” has failed to deliver for them, and how they would start to abandon traditional politicians who represent that market-reliant economic system.
In contrast, Corbyn and, in the United States, Bernie Sanders come across as intensely genuine, having spent their political lives avoiding the game of ministerial snakes and ladders, and frequently opposing the political architects of what became an unchecked global market which by 2007 had gone mad.
Young people’s support for figures such as Corbyn springs therefore not from blind idealism but from a clarity about the shortcomings of the current economic system, which were seen at first hand during the recession and its aftermath.
In Ireland those shortcomings have been reinforced by the number ofchildren growing up in hotel rooms and in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
Until the political centre ground and media commentators begin to recognise the growing lack of faith of number of young people in the current economic system, they will continue to underestimate the popularity of figures such as Corbyn and will continue to be surprised election after election as the political landscape changes beneath their feet.
Corbyn’s popularity among the younger generation stems from his simple message that the state should lead and not be led by the market, which is not to be confused with those on the Irish far left who claim to disavow the market entirely.
The same political angst lay behind the support of white working-class communities for Brexit in the UK, and for Donald Trump in the US. Those twin political earthquakes revealed deep disillusionment with an economic rising tide the young felt had left their boats behind.
Similarly, the rise in support for the Solidarity and People Before Profit parties has been down to their successful mining of this resentment in Irish working-class communities, rather than any great generational movement of young people.
The new 38-year old Taoiseach Leo Varadkar might dream of energising a sea of young supporters behind pretensions of himself as the Irish Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau, but his rigid faith in an economic mantra young people feel actively works against them will paint him as old as Enda Kenny in many of their eyes.
The largest left-leaning bloc, Sinn Féin, has also struggled to galvanise any kind of huge popular enthusiasm among the disenfranchised millennial generation, perhaps held back in part by their older republican baggage.
When the political vending machine offers the familiar faces of Varadkar, Micheál Martin, Gerry Adams or Brendan Howlin it should be no surprise young people in Ireland have not surged behind a popular figurehead to date.
But that’s not to say the generation of young people who have lost faith in the old political and economic status quo are not ready to vote for a new one.
Jack Power is an Irish Times journalist