Sarah Champion MP’s researcher, Jake Shepherd, explains why it’s important we bridge the generational gap that currently exists in British politics.
Rather than a 49-year-old MP talking about why it’s important we bridge the generation gap in politics, it seems more appropriate I give over my space to Jake Shepherd, 21, who is working with me in Parliament one day a week:
Prior to twisting my parents’ arms at the 2010 General Election they rarely voted. They never told me why they gave up on the democratic process; it just goes to show that bridging the generational gap in politics can work both ways. I was thirteen at the time and the spotlight placed on university tuition fees led me to incessantly plead with my parents to vote Lib-Dem after hearing Nick Clegg’s pledge. I was asking them to vote for my future, at the centre of which was my hope of becoming the first in my family to go to university. Ultimately, hope will spur the next generation of voters into action, and the role of political parties will be to illustrate how politics is made up of more than one policy (of course, keeping the pledges you make to those voters helps too).
Free from parental pressure over who to vote for, the process of finding my political feet as a teenager resembled something of a rollercoaster. I joined the Green Party in the immediate aftermath of the Coalition; hope and radical change inspiring a working-class boy from Essex to actively engage with politics. Some might say that I was naïve or that I blindly followed, but if politics is not about achieving change than what hope is there for political parties reaching out to future generations?
The impact of Conservative-led Coalition’s policies soon became apparent, notably the ‘Bedroom Tax’, which forced me and my mum to move council properties half-way through Year 12. Similarly, the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which would have relieved us of the stress of scrambling money together for monthly bus tickets.
I found that my party allegiance should be based on more than my own hopes of free university tuition because politics had the power to either realise our collective hopes as a society or as I experienced first hand, distance people from their dreams through cold and dystopic austerity.
By the time of the 2015 General Election I was campaigning every weekend for a Labour Party that had engaged me through down-to-earth conversations with other members and Councillors. My local party made me feel part of their team and invested in what we were aiming to achieve together. The following year I was nominated as a local council candidate for the safest Conservative seat in Harlow: Church Langley. Whilst I was unsurprisingly defeated, I still threw myself at the task, and I loved it – partly because I felt it was a break from my final year of A-levels. Campaigning and politics wasn’t detrimental to my A-levels. Students and young people shouldn’t be put off standing or campaigning by threats that it is – I achieved my dream that same year by becoming the first in my family to go to university.
Over the next two years, I was nominated by my local party’s Youth Delegate to Party Conference in Brighton and gave Church Langley a second shot as Labour’s candidate. The same Parliament that passed those austerity policies which seemed set on snatching my dreams away from me also saw a Labour MP fight for the futures of the next generation in her Rotherham constituency. So young people can’t forsake politics or its processes, for me and the friends I grew up with we simply couldn’t afford to and as Sarah has brought attention to, neither can many other young people within our own communities and beyond.
Before this becomes a fairy-tale for youth engagement in politics, I should say some honest words about the relative privileges I have and why my perception of politics is often so different from my friends’. I know that having the right ‘connections’ or nepotism played no role in me having received these fantastic opportunities – but I must acknowledge that being white, able, heterosexual and male are sadly fitting substitutes. I have never been told ‘I cannot’ or asked to reflect on whether ‘I should’. No one has ever warned me against being ‘too loud’ or ‘shout-y’ and I have never had to think twice about going door-knocking or leafleting a block of flats. I mention these barriers because they are just as potent as nepotism, although both are waning. Therefore, the question shouldn’t be how political parties can engage young people, but rather which young people are political parties engaging and who is excluded from political activities and opportunity.