This blog post has been written in connection with the Newbattle Conversations Event that will be held on the 31st of May, 2018. Hugh Cullen is aTQFE Student Tutor at Newbattle Abbey College and you can get in contact with him by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Young People and Politics in 2018 by Hugh Cullen
As a political activist and a young person, I stand out as a bit of an odd-ball among my peers in modern day Scotland. For most, conversations in pubs and public transport dare not turn to politics for risk of putting everyone to sleep, or worse- sparking a heated argument.
As a student-teacher of politics in the further education (FE) sector, I have encountered a deflating mix of apathy and distain from the majority of students. Few of whom have come to the college to study politics, and instead find themselves sitting in a politics class to make up the required credits.
“Just lettin’ you know, I’m gunna hate this”, has become a far too familiar opening line of politics classes. When I dig beneath the surface, it more often than not stems from an aversion of politicians, who are described as “liars”, “cheats” and “out of touch”. For students in FE, many of whom have suffered at the sharp end of cuts to services from Holyrood and Westminster, this is an understandable position. MPs’ pay, expenses scandals and their close relationship with the bosses of multinational corporations don’t help the image problem.
But why is politics only associated with politicians? It’s a symptom of a waning political system that tells us ‘political engagement’ is simply showing up to a polling station every 5 years. Apart from that we should leave it to the people for whom this is a full-time job. After all, we’ve got plenty to get on worrying about in our own lives- many young people find themselves working multiple jobs on zero-hour contracts during the worst real-terms decline in wages since records began 80 years ago.
If you’re working 50-60 hours a week in retail, hospitality, care or a call centre then there’s little time for politics after your shift. Certainly not if you want to chill out and watch some TV when you get home from work- dreading the next shift in 12 hours time. In the 19th century, Karl Marx described “religion as the opium of the masses”. In the 21st, the precarious nature of employment in our service-based economy leaves ‘Netflix as the opium of the masses’. For that’s the escapism from our mundane workplaces and poverty paychecks that leave little left after rent and bills.
This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. Certainly not in an age when we can reach into our pockets and communicate with people across the world in a heartbeat. When we can access humanity’s collective knowledge at our fingertips. Yet this giant technological leap forward in the human journey has been coupled with casualization and alienation in the workplace, removing the appetite for engagement and leaving its potential unfulfilled.
Clearly an abstract opportunity to learn and participate in politics is not enough. A person’s circumstances and experiences must show them the value of choosing this path. The detachment of politics from most people’s lives and perceived irrelevance is a far cry from the, perhaps romanticised, stories I hear of an active trade union movement in the age of industry in Britain. When politics was about organising in your workplace to better your conditions. The inspiring force of collective action has largely been lost, and along with it the structures of education that might have fostered the necessary spark to capitalise on the opportunities for action that the modern world provides. Indeed, the lost link with trade union education in the history of Newbattle Abbey College is a testament to this.
My experiences of University echo this decline. A majority of students have no desire to give up a minute of partying, pulling or playing sport to attend a political meeting or run a stall. What’s the point? For many University isn’t necessarily about bettering yourself anymore, not when you’re likely to end up in a job at Starbucks that you could have got straight out of school anyway. Instead of education as a process to emancipate your mind, it’s a free 4 years to put-off being an adult. Might as well enjoy it.
What does remain of student politics is dominated by ‘identity politics’. A liberal belief that as long as you can be whoever you want to be, you can achieve anything. These circles are a far cry from the vanguard of the LGBT, feminist and ant-racist movements of the 20th century that took on the tide of popular opinion head first to create the more tolerant and inclusive Scotland that we live in today. While more work needs to be done to create an equal Scotland, this politics fails to speak to the defining inequality in people’s lives- economic circumstance. After all, your job defines your life- it’s often how you introduce yourself and pay your way- and can be the source of fulfilment or despair that extends to everything else you do. I’ve seen young peoples’ budding interests in politics be buried by identity politics; when they see that the exploiters in our economy and corrupted politicians can be any race, gender or sexual orientation.
This is a recent realisation on my part- I was politicized during the Independence Referendum Campaign in 2012. The next two years led me to naïvely believe that society, and especially young people, were engaged and inspired by a conversation about what kind of country we wanted to live in. What I’ve learned in the sharp decline in engagement since is that the conversation alone isn’t enough, concrete opportunities to shape the tangible world around us are needed to inspire action. The ballot on the 18th of September 2014 was one such opportunity. If we are to see prolonged increased engagement from young people then the power to make change must be extended to people’s day to day lives instead of being reserved in elite parliaments and boardrooms.
One thing that the Scottish Independence Referendum, Brexit, Donald Trump, Jeremey Corbyn, Emmanuel Macron in France and Syriza in Greece show in recent years is that there is an appetite for something radically different. Although what has been demanded has not been delivered. Therefore I believe the question for us is, how do we empower people to make that change happen for themselves?
Credit to Newbattle Abbey College for hosting this pertinent conversation. Danielle Rowley MP is not only a young person, but also a product of the pro-Corbyn movement that has proved more effective at engaging young people than anything England has seen in decades. I’m looking forward to hearing what her experiences of an exciting grassroots movement in Momentum contrasted with a stale establishment at Westminster tell us about the nature of the challenge facing us. I have found that Newbattle students have a diverse wealth of life experience that is valuable in understanding this crisis of apathy. Yet the first challenge could prove to be the greatest, getting young people to come to events like this in the first place.