In this slow-motion car crash of a General Election campaign, there have been few sights more tragic than that of grizzled, greying Labour people pleading with the young to vote for them. Even Diane Abbott’s dumbfounded face on every political show on the box and Tim Farron’s wobbly expression every time a member of the public asks him why he hates Brexit have been no match for these political versions of sad old uncles in skinny jeans creepily cosying up to yoof.
How I’ve winced. They’ve all been at it. There was Armando Iannucci, funnyman turned another boring Tory-fearer, who got a gazillion retweets when he said he was getting down on his ‘gnarled and brittle knees’ to beg 18-to-24-year-olds to vote.
There was Paul Mason (poor Paul, reduced to donning a leather jacket to try to disguise how establishment he’s become). He made a video addressing the youth of the nation. Your voice will be ‘decisive’, he told them. It will help save Britain from fogey Tories and their nasty, hard Brexit. It was like a hostage video, desperate and pleading, those wide eyes secretly saying: ‘Britain is being held captive by old farts who refuse to vote Labour. SAVE US.’
There’s Emily Thornberry, who sent an email out yesterday begging the young to get out and vote. It is only the young who can ‘stop a Tory victory’, she said. It was a shocking insight into how reliant Labour has become on the young. The party of the working-class is now the party of students and twentysomething urbanites whose only experience of labour is that time they invited their friends round to help them assemble an Ikea shelf.
And there’s Owen Jones, who isn’t grizzled or grey but he is in his thirties, which isn’t young. He used to make fairly sensible criticisms of generational politics, of the ‘generational jihad’ of recent years that has pitted apparently right-on, nice young people against that evil blue-rinse brigade who want it to be 1952 forever. But he’s now so desperate for Jezza to do well that he’s started to play the awful, divisive game of imploring youth to save us from dodgy, Tory-loving oldsters.
He’s also encouraging them to ‘Call your grand folks’ and tell them to vote Labour. I hope these people’s grans and granddads give them a bloody good talking-to. In the 11 months since Brexit, youthful, leftish EU-lovers have been droning on about how ‘angry old people’ have ruined the country and killed their dreams. Some even flirted with the idea of taking the vote away from these wrinkly wreckers of the political order. And now they’re phoning to ask them for their vote? A firm ‘bugger off’ is in order.
This turn to the young, this bending of gnarled and brittle knees at the altar of the youth vote, is both revealing and disturbing. It’s revealing because it confirms Labour and the left more broadly have largely given up on older people. Which means — no offence, young people — it has given up on wiser and more experienced people, on those who are harder to convince because they’ve been round the block and know a thing or two about life and politics.
How much easier it is to win over the 22-year-old tweeter who thinks in binary terms of Evil Tory and Saint Jezza than to convince the 58-year-old bloke who’s worked for decades, raised kids, built a home, seen politicians’ promises melt into air. The former can be energised with a snappy slogan; the latter requires rather more. Labour’s crawling to the young is really an admission of defeat — defeat of its entire historic purpose, which was not to appeal to any specific generation but to represent those who labour for a living, who are working-class. The left’s new politics of youth represents a stunning and quite craven abandonment of its old politics of class.
And the turn to the young is disturbing because it promises to store up deep divisions for the years ahead. It plays off an emerging generational divide on political matters — especially Brexit, which older voters love and younger voters loathe — and it threatens to intensify it too.
Consider the utter contempt with which old people are talked about these days. The media sneering at ‘angry old men’; the casual assertion that they plunged Britain into mayhem by voting Brexit; Ian McEwan’s repugnant fantasising about a second EU referendum in a few years’ time when 1.5m of that ‘gang of angry old men’ who voted Brexit will be ‘freshly in their graves’… it’s hard to remember a time when hatred for the old was so public, and so visceral. And Labour’s call on the youth to save us from the Tories and Brexit, which means from the old, will make this worse. This is how desperate they are to do well on Thursday: they’re happy to risk deepening the gravest social tension of our time in order to get a few more seats. Shame on them.