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Jeremy Corbyn the trend or Jeremy Corbyn the politician: Thoughts on the General Election

AvrilKeating19 July 2017

A guest blog from Rosie Beacon, the Centre for Global Youth intern

As a politically engaged university student, I have mixed feelings about the general election. In crude terms, the youth voted Labour, the older generations voted Tory. Why? It would be unwise to reduce the exceptional voter turnout to the tuition fees extravaganza. What else could it have been? It is slightly more likely that the youth were more inclined to voting Labour, but what was it that actually pushed them to get up and go to the polling station this time?

Party preferences in the 2017 UK general election by age

Party preferences in the 2017 UK general election by age

It is no secret that social media has become a political campaigning vehicle in its own right. The growth of micro-targeting in electoral campaigns is unprecedented; Labour, in particular, invested heavily in this through ‘Promote’, their own social media micro-targeting wing. Momentum also perfected social outreach through contemporary platforms such as Facebook.

While this was certainly effective, an immense tool which no political party can attempt to control but only to influence, is ‘organic’ social media activity. By organic social media activity, I mean the ways in which people share political material on social media because they are interested in or entertained by the material, not because they have been asked or paid to do so. The term ‘political material’ is now increasingly flexible due to the way that social media has casualised politics, so that ‘organic sharing’ now includes a plethora of political news – it can be funny, it can be informative, it can be incredibly opinionated, or a combination of all of the above.

From my personal experience, it wasn’t the micro-targeting revolution that helped Labour capture the attention of the youth. It was memes, videos, photos, Facebook statuses, and tweets. Jeremy Corbyn was presented on social media as a trend, not a politician. I personally didn’t vote Labour, but I can certainly see why its enticing. Jeremy Corbyn seems like a cool guy and has a cat who features in his Snapchat stories. How likely is it that I know this from reading The Guardian? The fact that he managed to transcend politics and present himself as a person that just happened to be a politician (with ‘hopeful’ policies) is what made him so appealing – a persona he determined for himself and with the help of spin doctors no doubt, but a persona that captured the beady eyes of the social media generation who thrived off it.

The Social Media Generation

Thus the 2017 general election – and the EU referendum for that matter – symbolise a far more endemic trend in the future of youth politics; the social media generation. The formative years of this generation have been characterised by myspace, Bebo, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat – sources of socialising but also immediate sources of information.

Would being part of this ‘information generation’ necessarily affect political literacy? Not completely, but social media has certainly provided an innovative platform for those who were already engaged with politics, and it also allows for those that were not necessarily interested to follow it to varying degrees. Whether you want to follow it or not, especially during the general election, it’s highly likely you saw something to do with politics on your timeline once a day. Its mere appearance on our news feeds equates politics and current affairs with off-the-cuff events happening among your friends, not only making it seem casual but this subtly and incrementally builds up an awareness of what’s going on in the seemingly distant world of politics.

But then, on the other hand, couldn’t you just ignore political news if it appears on your timeline? Not everyone follows the Independent and the Times? Crucially, social media has not only created a contemporary platform for politics, but it has fundamentally altered the face of it. It has turned politics into something you wouldn’t necessarily want to scroll past. Politics on social media can be incredibly personal but it can also be lighthearted, humorous and very witty. This could mean anything from reading your friend’s Facebook status debate disputing how corporation tax should be managed or more likely, one of your other friends sharing a video compilation of Joe Biden telling Barack Obama how much he adores him.

Two political memes that have gone viral in the US and the UK

Biden memeTheresa May meme

The latter demonstrates how social media has made politics casual and easily digestible, and has exacerbated the trend for ‘personality politics’, which, based on my peer group, Jeremy Corbyn hugely benefitted from. Particularly in the context of the 2017 general election, this is evident in the unforgettable wheat fields trend with Theresa May, heightening her representation as the ‘Maybot’, and further alienating younger voters from someone who looks like just another right wing politician who doesn’t quite ‘get’ the youth. This trend in particular shouldn’t be underestimated – it was massive because ultimately it’s funny and easy to find funny, meaning new audiences could engage with this trend, and thus politics, in a simple way. Social media also allowed for nostalgic photos to be shared of Jeremy Corbyn protesting in the 80s and for videos with Stormzy to become viral, furthering his persona as a man who doesn’t just know the people, he’s another one of the people.

Moreover, it is not just viral videos and memes that build up a political awareness among young people. As we start to make progress with our careers, we are starting to recognise our dependence on political decisions. Now, when young people appreciate how politics affects their adult lives, there is a platform in which they can voice their opinions through status updates and comments on others’ status – a new mechanism of debating and reasoning with other political views that hasn’t always existed. All of these trends are also inevitably heightened against a background of drastic political upheavals, such as Brexit and Trump’s election, which saw young people turning to social media sites as a way of voicing their opinions on these dramatic events.

Is social media a political opportunity or political danger?  

In many ways, the general election 2017 crystallized the relationship between social media and politics that has been building for some time. Social media is ultimately invasive (which is why we love it) but this means political personalities are now more important than ever. This is why Corbyn was so successful. Snapchat stories of his cat might not seem like much, but politics has a tendency to dehumanize politicians and he managed to fight against this with the social media generation massively on his side, encouraging a huge and powerful demographic to go out and vote for a man that seemed like he was an actual human being.

However, this social media facet to politics isn’t always a blessing. Social media is a source of misinformation just as much as it is actual information. With such a poor system of compulsory political education in the UK, social media can make voters vulnerable to persuasive views that they’re not well equipped to challenge, particularly when it’s their friends or family sharing them as opposed to a newspaper – people they actively trust. Moreover, the downside to personality politics is that it fails to take into account the whole picture, such as their party platform and their general aptitude as a politician, negotiator and leader. Social media is an innovative new outlet that exposes people to myriad of political news and opinions which they may not have noticed or spoken about before, which is good. However, just like with a newspaper, not everything you read on social media will be true nor impartial. While social media may be the future for politics and political campaigning, we should also be treating it with caution.

 

Politics, economics, children and young people

Dr LailaKadiwal14 June 2017

A guest post from Prof.  Priscilla Alderson, Professor Emerita of Childhood Studies, Social Science Research Unit, University College London Institute of Education

The ‘youthquake’ in the June 2017 UK election promises two important developments. One is young people’s new interest in voting, debating politics, and attending political meetings. This was partly encouraged by Labour’s promotion of social media contacts, rallies and gigs where star musicians were very keen to perform. The second development we can hope for is that governments will have to take young people’s needs and interests far more seriously in all their policy making.

However, to date children and young people under-18 tend to be excluded from politics and economics in two main ways. The mainstream researchers, policy makers and journalists tend to ignore young people, while those who research, discuss and write about people aged under-18 tend to avoid politics and economics. They concentrate instead on services and amenities for young people, their relationships and daily experiences, the personal rather than the political.

Yet policies affect the youngest generations most of all. Brexit, for instance, will shape many decades of their lives, but few decades for older people. Taking the legal definition of childhood to include everyone aged under-18, my book The Politics of Childhoods Real and Imagined examines how they are central to mainstream society and policy.

politics priscila book

In the book, I review three main areas: climate change, the breaking up of the welfare state especially the NHS, and neoliberal economics. Academics are supposed to stay inside their very small area of expertise, not to risk showing their ignorance if they venture beyond it. And yet childhood and youth can only be understood within their broad, complex social and political contexts, not apart from them. And each context, such as climate change, can only be understood in relation to the others, to global politics and economics, trade, conflict and inequality.

So I have risked exploring large areas at the level of the informed citizen, to search for the missing children and young people in the policy debates and reports, and to fill in some of the missing analysis of how they are so greatly affected by policies and events. I’ve aimed to summarise knowledge and debates on topics from climate change to neo-liberalism in ways that will interest general readers and not offend experts.

I hope everyone concerned with children and young people will look at the book, so that they can further the book’s aims: to see how deeply current affairs affect young people, and to urge everyone to recognise this and take the youngest generations far more seriously when they think about and work for ‘society’.

To take the NHS and the rapid privatising, for example (see here),  children are among the highest users of healthcare, which can give lifelong benefit by preventing and healing problems or at least reducing them. When the NHS opened in 1948, for the first time, most children in Britain began to have access to healthcare, and therefore the numbers of paediatric staff and researchers quickly grew. By the 1960s-1970s, new services for premature babies and for children’s heart surgery were beginning to save many lives. Children’s heart services depend on swift referral and close contact between local and regional centres, while young people with diabetes need care from a wide range of specialities, which the National Health Service is uniquely able to coordinate.

For 70 years, older people have enjoyed the welfare state, relative peace and a fairly stable climate. But great changes and losses are now starting to affect everyone, and most of all those who may live into the 22nd century. My book ends with a chapter on how to work for utopian change towards more just and peaceful societies with and for young people as well as adults.

The Politics of Childhoods Real and Imagined: Practical Application of Critical Realism and Childhood Studies, Volume 2 (2016 Routledge).

Understanding youth turnout in GenElec2017: some comments, cautions and caveats

AvrilKeating11 June 2017

Posted by Dr. Avril Keating, Director of the Centre for Global Youth.

Youth turnout in the British general election has once again been the focus of much media attention and social media comment, with some calling this election a “youthquake”. In this blog, I provide some contextual information for these stories, and some words of caution for interpreting the data that is currently available.

1. It is widely being claimed that 72% of young people turned out to vote in the General Election. This is an early estimate, and likely to be contradicted. After the EU referendum in 2016, the headlines focused on initial claims that only 36% of young people aged 18-24 voted, however subsequent polls estimated that turnout among this age group was closer to 60%.
2. The best sources to look for are the How Britain Voted series (published by Ipsos-MORI, usually a few weeks after the election) and the British Election Study (which will release its figures in the Autumn).
3. Even these two sources are likely to contradict each other. In 2015, Ipsos-MORI data suggested that turnout among the 18-24s was 43%, while BES data put turnout at 57%. The Ipsos-MORI data tends to be more widely cited, but the BES data has important methodological advantages and allows us to look at turnout trends as far back as the 1960s.

Screenshot 2017-06-11 16.39.52

4. All of these figures are estimates. The Electoral Commission does not collect data on the demographic characteristics of voters. Instead, we have to rely on surveys that ask people if they voted after the fact, and studies have regularly shown that some people claim that they voted when they have not, as they are embarrassed to admit that they did not vote. This is known as social desirability bias, and studies such as the BES are devising methods to estimate the level of over-claiming so that we can take this into account. Interestingly, their methods suggest that young people are even more likely than other age groups to say that they voted when they have not.
5. Despite their differences (and their flaws), both show that turnout fell among all age groups between 1992 and 2010, and has been increasing across all age groups (including the 18-24s) since 2010.
6. For this reason, it is also important to look at the change in the inter-generational gap, and not just the change in proportions over time. By doing this, we can see that the inter-generational gap has existed since the 1960s, increased in the late 1990s and over the course of the 2000s, but seems to be closing again since 2010.

Screenshot 2017-06-11 16.37.45

7. We also need to look at trends among the slightly less, ahem, ‘young’ voters (the 25s-44s), and not just the 18-24s. Although the level of support varies, it appears that a majority of all voters under 44 voted for Labour in 2017 and against Brexit in 2016. In addition, youth turnout first began to decline when the current cohort of 35-44 year olds were 18-24 (i.e. in the 1990s). The generational dividing line may therefore be between the under-45s versus the over 45s.
8. Is Brexit the reason for the apparent increase in young people voting in the 2017 election?
Brexit is likely to be one reason (at least for some), but far from the only one. When analysing these patterns in the next weeks, months, and years, we will need to take into account other factors including: campaign effects (including how good Corbyn’s campaign was and how poor the Conservative’s campaign was); the appeal of the Labour Party’s policy proposals (e.g. NHS spending and the abolition of tuition fees); the upwards trend in youth voting (see point 5); the impact of 7 years of Conservative government and anti-austerity policies that hit young people and youth services particularly hard; the continued rise in house prices and rents at a time when real pay for young people is falling; and generational differences in cultural values. All of these factors (and more) are likely to have galvanised younger voters.

9. Finally, if, as we expect, there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of young people voting, the next question we need to be asking is how can we sustain this and more importantly, broaden the range of young people voting? Among the 18-24s, the rise in turnout is likely to be among young people that are studying for degrees, or are on their way to getting one. The debate is currently focused on the inter-generational gap, but we should also start paying more attention to the intra-generational gap, so that we don’t overlook that the most excluded young people are still not voting. Let’s find out why not, and try to address this also.