Breaking the first rule of generation Y

Young people in Britain are becoming party members again, rejecting the rule to ‘not join anything’. Why now?

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An extract from a new collection of essays on generational politics in Britain: Resist! Against a Precarious Future, edited by Ray Filar. The compete book can be downloaded here.

In 2010, the combined membership of the Green Parties in the UK was around 10,000. Now, it sits at more than 63,000. This is an astonishing level of growth, for three reasons.

Firstly, conventional wisdom teaches that Greens do badly when Labour are in opposition. Secondly, political party membership in general is in decline. Thirdly, a vast proportion of this membership is under the age of thirty. Specifically, between January 2014 and December 2014, the number of signed up Young Greens multiplied by more than five.

Thousands of people broke the first rule of generation Y: don’t join anything.

It’s not just the Greens. After the referendum in Scotland, the Scottish National Party saw a huge rise in its membership. It now stands at more than 92,000. Given that the average age of the 134,000 UK Conservative members is said to be sixty-eight, and considering how many young people got involved in the Yes campaign in Scotland, it seems likely that the Scottish National Party now has more members under thirty than the UK Conservative Party does. Membership of Plaid Cymru is also up and, by all accounts, their youth membership is from the radical left of the party.

None of this surprises me as much as one simple moment. On the last day of the Occupy Democracy protests in Parliament Square, I was asked to speak. In the question and answer session afterwards, I posed a problem: if someone wants to get involved in radical politics in their area, where do they go? What do they do? How do they find other people to organise with? And I suggested a solution: people should join the Green Party. I assumed this would be hugely controversial. I expected to be shouted down. Instead, this heresy was greeted with jazz hands of agreement from a good number of people.

All of this comes as something of a shock. Just a few years ago – a few months ago – the story of British politics was that parties were dead. Young people in particular, we were told, would never join; the future belonged to 38 Degrees, Avaaz and disparate, fleeting, horizontalist groups set up around specific actions and events. But then, the way that we organise has been transforming rapidly in recent years, and perhaps this is the logical conclusion of that process. Or, at least, the next step.

To explain, let’s go back to the year I was born. On 3 March 1985, the miners’ strike ended and, symbolically at least, the power of trade unions in Britain was broken. On 10 July that same year, Greenpeace’s ship ‘Rainbow Warrior’ was sunk by the French secret service in New Zealand, capturing global headlines and generating a flood of members for the organisation. I’ve sometimes thought that that summer marked the symbolic hand over from one form of radical politics to another.

Greenpeace was founded in the 1960s – as were a string of other organisations, including Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, the World Development Movement (well, 1970), and Third World First (now People & Planet). Together, these groups represent a particular cross-section of civil society – asking radical questions about specific global issues, building mass membership databases nationally and internationally, and encouraging people to organise not for their own rights, but for those of others. They are long term organisations rather than specific, short term protests. In a sense, these were legacy institutions of the environmental, peace, equalities and human rights social movements that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.

There is an argument that the growth in these NGOs was a product of technological development – with changes in banks allowing standing orders to be set up more easily, and reforms in postal systems making it simpler to send out mass mailings. But there’s another way to see their rise: these groups provided organising platforms and a voice for the generation of baby boomers who had gone through the 1960s expansion of higher education. They offered an outlet for progressive politics for people who identified beyond class struggle (or who saw themselves as newly middle class), who benefitted from the stability of the welfare state and who were interested in campaigning on issues beyond their own or their immediate community’s material circumstances.

If, like me, you were born that summer, between the miners’ strike ending, and the Rainbow Warrior sinking, then Baghdad was bombed in your last few months of sixth form. For pretty much everyone who was politically active in my time at university, this was what first got them involved. And, afterwards, there was plenty to keep us active. In 2005, the G8 came to the UK – with its following carnival of anarchic resistance. This was still (just) the era of the summit-hopping anti-globalisation movement, and thousands from across the UK came to Edinburgh to protest against this gathering of the world’s most powerful men.

Many left with a sense that the big NGO ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign had sold them out when it declared flimsy proposals announced at the summit to be a victory, and much of the activist left of my generation moved towards anarchism. Hot on the heels of the G8, climate change took centre stage. Thousands mobilised for a string of annual protests, for community action, for widespread civil disobedience. People demanded carbon reduction targets, questioned the role of banks in driving the crisis, got naked, and glued themselves to the icons of the capitalist system they held responsible – both to shut them down and to get on the front pages.

But one of the things that is notable about my generation, the Iraq War generation, is how few of us became active in the NGOs our parents had built, despite the fact that they were often the groups who had educated us on these issues in the first place. Of scores of environmental activists I know of about my age, I can only think of one who became a long-term Friends of the Earth group member. Instead, people set up their own, new organisations. For environmentalists, there was The Camp for Climate Action, and, now, Reclaim the Power. For those – ever more after the banks collapsed in 2008 – campaigning around the global economy, very few seem to go to regular local Global Justice Now (the renamed World Development Movement) meetings. These seem largely to have remained the preserve of the generation who founded them.

Some of this is about the sorts of activism in vogue: it’s very difficult for an organisation with staff to support campaigners to do anything illegal. Even Greenpeace only allow very limited numbers, in very controlled circumstances, to break the law. Some of it is about our changed economy: it’s difficult to go to a consistent Wednesday night meeting if you do shift work in a cafe, or have to move house and area every few months. Organisational models designed for the stability of mid-twentieth-century social democracy don’t necessarily function for twenty-first-century precarity.

Part of it is about the internet. One function of a central office used to be to disseminate carefully researched briefings nationally, by sending letters to local organisers to be read out at their next meeting. I can now do the same thing in two seconds by posting a link to a Wikipedia page on the wall of a Facebook group. Partly, it’s about the right tool for the right job – sometimes, it probably does make sense to build a temporary organisation for a specific task, rather than joining something longer term. But I can’t help but feel that the general refusal of Thatcher’s children to join anything more permanent is about something else too: a reflection of an individualised and throw-away culture, of people too atomised to be willing to sign up to any group.

The main reason I’ve been given by people who basically share the politics of the Green Party for not joining it is that they value their independence. They don’t want to be tied into something. They don’t want to lose their sense of autonomy. There’s another way of putting this: they are too much of an individualist to join a collective. They don’t want to be associated with someone else, and to have to take some of the blame when that other person does or says something stupid. Deep down, my suspicion is that that psychology is part of the reason we don’t go to our local Global Justice Now meetings either. Thatcher once said that her object was to change our souls. She did.

In a sense, there’s something ironic in all of this. These explanations of the refusal to join anything often come with a hint of the rhetoric of anarchist moral authority. But in practice, lots of anarchists are willing to join groups and organise as long-term collectives. Some even have their own organisations somewhat akin to political parties – notably SolFed and AFed.

Likewise, I can’t help thinking that this refusal of my generation to join anything is a huge problem. Because I’ve still never had a better answer to my question: if someone wants to get involved in radical politics in your area, where do they go? Instead, much of the activist left lives and takes political action in small cliques. New comrades are largely only attracted through occasional mass protest camps or as refugees from groups like the Socialist Workers’ Party, whose ruthless centralised structure allows them to organise frequent recruitment drives but has also festered a culture of grotesque rape-apologism and cynical undermining of other left groups.

Almost as significantly, all-too-often fictitious non-hierarchy, in practice, just means that the media appoints spokespeople. And all too often, the people chosen by the press aren’t those the movements would have voted for, and are those who fit neatly into the conventional mould of ‘leader’ in a sexist, classist, racist society. Contrast this with the nine leaders, co-leaders or deputies of the Green Parties of the four nations of the UK – only two of whom are straight, white men.

Perhaps the main reason people haven’t joined anything, is that every institution our forebears left for us has failed or is failing. The Labour party has utterly capitulated to global capital. Since the foundation of the NGOs of the 1960s, neoliberalism has taken over the world, the environmental crisis has become entrenched, global inequality has soared and war and human rights abuses have continued. Modern unions have presided over an historic erosion of wages and workers’ rights and the Green Party has, so far, delivered only one MP. It’s no wonder we have so little faith in organisations.

Or we did. Because the mass influx of members to the Greens and to the SNP implies that something has changed. And the fact that, in part, this was a product of the Scottish referendum is in itself telling. After the vote, English radicals would often ask the question: what can we learn from the Yes movement in Scotland? An obvious response to that was: ‘what did the Yes movement itself learn?’ One answer is that tens of thousands went through the most engaging political debate in Britain in a generation, and came to the conclusion that something as old fashioned as a political party can be relevant in the modern world after all.

I think this tells us a few things about what some might call ‘the youth of today’. The first is that single issue campaigns are no longer enough. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we don’t live in a world where things are basically fine, except for needing the odd tweak. Instead we live in a world that’s utterly fucked, and people are starting to see that the problem is not a shopping list of isolated issues, but an interconnected system which is failing the vast majority of people. That means we need organisations which will allow us to join with others and take action on one issue today, and another tomorrow, without having to pretend that there is no connection between them.

Secondly, the fact that our generation is used to speaking for ourselves does not seem to preclude having someone else speaking for us too – at least to some extent. People are willing to build a bigger platform together and give a spokesperson a leg up onto it. Usually, our social movements have spokespeople appointed for them by the press, and activists spend a lot of time criticising whoever the appointed one happens to be this week. But because the Green Party elects its leaders and representatives, people seem more content to allow them to get on with it.

Thirdly, in an era of social media, there is still some value in long term organisations. There is a simple way to put this: the Green Party of England and Wales has 150,000 Facebook followers. It takes time to build up that following just as it did in the past to build up a mailing list. Facebook groups, in which members discuss news stories, debate policy and create memes have become institutions in the party, but they too took time to build.

Finally, there are lots on the left who have retreated from electoralism in the past. I think it’s important not to fetishise a cross in a box every few years, but I also think it’s vital not to ignore it as one tactic among many.

There is, perhaps, another way to see all this. I came into politics at the tail end of the anti-globalisation movement. As a young Green member in the early and mid 2000s, I was a bit weird. As my thirtieth birthday looms into sight, there seems now to be a younger generation, who were mobilised by the 2010 anti-austerity protests. They have very different attitudes to politics than people my age did when we were their age, and their experiences have taught them different lessons. I confess, I find their approach to organising gives me much more hope.

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