Radio 4 broadcast a very insightful documentary on 16th June 2014 called Generation Right which took the view that young people today have become very right wing and (as was suggested by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown) very selfish.
I felt that the programme did very well in describing how young people felt about a number of issues including the welfare state. However, it did less well in describing the new political orientation.
It stated that young people had become right wing about economic issues but paradoxically, very left wing about social issues. They were extremely liberal about rights of gay people and relaxed about immigration but at the same time holding more traditional views about economics and welfare. The fact that this is seen as paradoxical is illustrative of the limitations in British political discourse and the fact that our existing main political parties are laden down with traditions which make it difficult for them to respond to changes in attitudes. That is why there is seemingly apathy about young people in elections. They feel that none of the main political phiosoiphies really connect with them and they want to do, in the words of one of the young people in the programme, is mix and match different viewpoints on different issues. The sort of Parliamentary democracy which we have now is simply not flexible enough to allow young peoople to express their views on important issues and the political parties are past their sell by date. Young people who are used to structuring their own relationship with media and social networks find this form of politics to be leaden and impenetrable.
Part of the inadequacy of our political discourse is shown by the fact that the programme tried to place the young people onto left or right dimension of the political spectrum. If you go to the website Political Compass you will find that politics can be more accurately charted on two dimensions. One dimension is the right v left positions. The other dimension is authoritarian v libertarian. It is possible to be libertarian and at the the same time be either left wing oir right wing. Libertarianism is often characterized by very liberal social views and free market views on economics. The constant is a belief in free choice and being against state coercion- either of individuals or other societies or countries. One recent historical event, not discussed in the programme which may have swung the pendulum towards a more libertarian position was the Iraq war. This war was a very clear defeat for the idea that the state is all powerful and always able to improve people's lives using its strength. Not even the full might of the U.S. and U.K. military forces have been able to reshape a whole country and bring a new peace and democracy. In fact, state intervention in Iraq has, in many people's opinion made things markedly worse for these people. It is a very strong indication that state meddling does not nhecessarliy make things better and it is also a significant blow toi the moral authority of Governments.
Traditionally in the U.K. our political parties on the right and left have been authoritarian in nature. They have tried to shape the country through cultural mechanisms such as the BBC (which was about culturally enriching the nation), subsequently through lots of regulation and health and safety legislation, and more recently through Nudge (which is a sort of psychological form of soft coercion). The idea that individuals and communities can make up their own minds and make good choices themselves has never really taken hold with our politicians.
The young people of today, however, are shaping their own social and cultural worlds through the internet and new technologoes. Ideas can take shape and take hold quickly and spontaneously. Young peoople want freedom to make decisions about how they see things through their own individual cultural and social lens. They make common cause with one group or issue at one moment and with other people and issues at other times. This is not necessarily driven by a traditional political perspectyive or a coherent phiulosophy. In an age of remixing and sampling- Why should it be?
The lessons from these changes for U.K. politics are in my opinioin quite profound.
Firstly young people are much more libertarian. Rather than just seeing this is negative or a rejection of collectivism- politicians on the liberal spectrum should be celebrating the fact that they have very liberal and tolerant views on minorities and support the rights of different groups in societies to live their lives the way they want. In terms of promoting the need to help people who are economically disadvantaged - this might be better sold to young people on the basis of helping everyone in society to make a contribution rather than the traditional view of this as welfare.
Young people are not becoming Conservatives. Conservatism is associated with old fashioned values which they do not relate to.This means that people on the left who are concerned about social issues may be better off appealing to a bleeding heart libertarianism rather than a traditional left wing perspective. For those on the political right, they are only going to get young votes by advocating for a less controlling and judgmental society and developing more liberal policies in issues such as legislation of recreational drugs.
What all this means for right and left is that it means listening to young people first and foremost rather than castigating them or labeling them as selfish.
It means offering new political perspectives which incorporate a more libertaian outlook -and no that does not equate to selfishness- whatever John Monboit thinks. It also means a more pragmatic and atheoretical politics.
It also means we need to rethink how our democratic processes work. Young people are dissatisfied with having to just elect one party into Government for 5 years. It requires us to give citizens a chance to involve themselves in decisions about how the country is run on a more regular basis. This ought to be possible with the fantastic technology which we now have. The internet offers us the chance to collect the views and opinions of the whole wired community almost instantaneously. There is no excuse for Government not being connected to the public. In the days of instant messaging, young people are probably not prepared to wait 5 years to influence Government policy.
We need real change in how politics work and also in the menu of political choices offered to yoiun g people if we are going to engage them in politics again.
First stage is going to be listening to them in a non-judgemental way. The Radio 4 Programme was a good start.