Words and Photographs by Neil Harrison
The iDebate, Manchester Town Hall, 11th March: ‘A Generation of Young People Is Right To Give Up On Westminster Politics’?
Arguably, the most striking element of this week’s iDebate was the prevalent consensus. Each of the Independent journalists and columnists on the debating panel acknowledged the fact that the current model of British democracy must change in order for young people to have a greater involvement in British politics. The actual source of debate, therefore, focussed upon whether this change should be achieved from within parliamentary politics, or from without. In other words, by participation in the Westminster based system, or by abstention from it.
Immediately dispensed with, however, was the notion that contemporary students are a largely disassociated, apolitical mass, as around 420 of them packed Manchester Town Hall, all eager to debate the motion. Intelligent and politically savvy, the students gathered to raise questions covering topics such as compulsory politics lessons in schools, the ‘first past the post’ voting system and lowering the voting age to 16.
Chairing the panel, i Editor Oliver Duff introduced his colleagues – columnist Owen Jones, critic Ellen E. Jones, news editor Fran Yeoman and editor of The Independent, Amol Rajan. Mr Duff began by explaining the reasoning behind the “deliberately provocative“ motion and why it was of particular importance to Manchester.
“Lots of our readers are students and people under 30. So, what we are trying to do with these debates is … provide a platform for young people, for their views to be aired. We don’t think young people are being represented well in Westminster, so we want to give an airing to some of those issues that aren’t being heard.
“It’s a good place to come for this particular motion. Manchester has been setting records, Manchester Central had the lowest turnout at the last general election – shockingly low – 44% of people in the ward turned out to vote, compared to a national average of 65%.
“[Yet] just down the road from here, in 1819, St Peter’s Field was the site of the Peterloo Massacre, where soldiers shot dead 18 people and terribly injured 400 others [following protests for political enfranchisement].”
Arguing in the affirmative of the night’s motion were the ever-candid Amol Rajan and Ellen E. Jones. Together, they poured scorn on Westminster–centred politics. They argued for a continuation of the ground level democratic change engendered by social media and organisations such as Change.org. Addressing the audience Mr Rajan said,
“Westminster has given up on you. There is no group in British politics who has been more shafted, to put it mildly, over the last three and a half years of coalition government than people in their late teens and twenties. In the current circumstances, for you guys to vote would be like cavorting with your ex after she has dumped you and started shagging your Dad.”
Their opposite numbers, Owen Jones and Fran Yeoman stressed, however, that if politics is to change for the better – for young people particularly – then interaction with the existing establishment is essential, as Ms Yeoman countered,
“It’s alright to say that Westminster has given up on young people and therefore they shouldn’t vote, but that’s totally self-defeating. Less than half of young people voted [at the last election] compared to three quarters of pensioners. There’s a ‘chicken and egg’ situation going on. We have to wonder whether the cuts would have hit young people quite so hard if politicians thought they were going to get punished for it at the ballot box next time around.”
Owen Jones also praised grassroots political movements, singling out Uk Uncut in particular, but he stressed that a participation with mainstream politics was essential in order to “force people who are above to concede.”
The debate ended with students declaring, in an overwhelming majority, that they would choose to vote in the next election. Given the evident dissatisfaction with UK politics throughout the room, however, the traditional Westminster establishment should, perhaps, be wary of taking this result as an indication that they may rest easily.
Overall, the evening was a heartening event for anyone who values the core tenets of democracy, as well as young peoples’ involvement in it. It was also an invaluable experience for the students in attendance. Not only were they (for once) given a serious and high-profile platform from which to have their voices heard, but they also had the opportunity to speak with the journalists from the panel in an informal setting following the debate, which many took up with relish.
All of which begs the question, therefore, – if a newspaper can unearth such a rich vein of lively political discussion among a supposedly disassociated generation, then why can’t a political party? If politicians are truly concerned about apathy among students and young people, it should be they who are instigating debates such as these in town halls, and perhaps even university campuses, across the country. Over to you, Westminster.
Neil Harrison is contributing editor at Humanity Hallows. He is a socialist and an awful guitar player. Follow him on Twitter @looseriver