How Keir Starmer Lost the Youth Vote

The Labour leader soared into office on a wave of goodwill – one that is rapidly declining among young people.

13 April 2021, 12:42pm

Keir Starmer is attempting to secure his authority and political cachet by telling us who he isn’t, as opposed to who he is. The Labour leader led his interview with The Sunday Times this weekend by affirming: “I’m not like Boris Johnson. There’s almost nothing we have in common.” Maybe it’s a relief from the usual “I’m not Jeremy Corbyn” overkill, but it leaves us with a leader who, a year after rebranding the party as “under new management”, still has no discernible ideology or principles – not even vibes can be found here. 

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Starmer’s recent leadership anniversary media tour has done little more to tell us what he stands for. It’s not so much that he’s an adaptable chameleon with the political astuteness to tell different groups what they like to hear (see: Boris Johnson), but that his absence of magnetism or fortitude means that he is easily disciplined into submission by the most reactionary and conservative wing of his party. 

His strategy seems to be focused on consolidating early goodwill with the right-wing press (a month after Starmer took the helm, The Times described him as Labour’s “the biggest upgrade in recent political memory”), but it’s blinded him to what is painfully obvious to the rest of us – that the Commentariat Daddy he’s twirling for is simply laughing at him and seeing how high he will jump. 

It’s understandable – the shock of the 2019 election defeat led to a reflexive focus on the “red wall” and its imagined constituency of socially conservative, anti-woke Tories. But even this strategy isn’t fit for purpose, Novara Media commissioning editor Rivkah Brown argues. “It’s headbangingly frustrating seeing his ‘constructive opposition’ – emphasis on the ‘constructive’ – basically reiterating government policies. I remember him last summer being like ‘children must be back in school in September!’ and the government being like ‘yes? That’s what we want…’”

She adds: “I think he’s tried to emulate a Conservative style of leadership in his response to lockdown, presuming that what the Tories will do in this moment will have broad popular buy-in. But that’s totally not the case – lots of people didn’t want to send their children back to school, and people are actually quite in favour of raising income tax and having the rich pay for the price of lockdown.”

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The question posed is often “what does Keir Starmer stand for?”, but an equally important question is “who does he represent?” It’s certainly not young Labour supporters or Generation Left, a major constituent in the party who were galvanised by Corbyn’s focus on education, housing, healthcare and environment and how he wed these to a hopeful view of Britain’s future.

But amid polls indicating the Labour leader’s faltering popularity – the most recent YouGov approval ratings from April sees 50 percent claiming that he is doing “badly” as leader, a dramatic increase from the 17 percent “bad” rating from May 2020 – there’s an even more interesting story about who exactly it is that retains confidence in Starmer. 

In a recent poll of 2019 Labour voters, 56 percent of 18-24 year olds preferred Corbyn over Starmer. But the group with the strongest confidence in Starmer at 65 percent was 55-64 year olds – a group that cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert describes as “the worst cohort – the older half of Generation X”. 

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“They’re the people who spent their teens, maybe their early 20s, in the 80s, so they don’t really have any political memory of anything before Thatcher,” Gilbert tells VICE. “Their formative experience was the catastrophic defeat of the left in the 80s, the global defeat and the national defeat. For those of that cohort who nonetheless are fairly affluent, they survived Thatcherism, they did well out the New Labour years, they did well out of the property boom and the very specific liberalisation of societal values in the 1990s.” 

Gilbert argues that a key constituent of Starmer’s support base are older, affluent private sector workers who were largely insulated from the disappointments of New Labour, and have little conception of why many became angry with what he describes as New Labour’s “clandestine privatisations and neoliberal discipline”.

The trade-off for securing this approval is that Starmer and Labour currently appear entirely unsympathetic to the material problems of young people who are now feeling the sharpest consequences of the past four decades of neoliberalism. Under-25s have been the worst hit by rising joblessness, representing almost three-fifths of those out of work. Unemployment is even worse for young Black people, with two-fifths without a job. Instead of tackling this, Labour has decided to resurrect one of its most embarrassing relics - the Blairite obsession with the apparent “anti-social behaviour” of young people and children. 

“Anti-social behaviour is ruining people’s lives. We need to get serious about tackling it,” Starmer announced on Twitter on the 8th of April. “Labour would put more police on our streets and support communities with a Victims’ Law.” Two examples of such anti-social behaviour cited in subsequent coverage? “Loud parties” and “teens hanging round on streets”.

It’s a throwback to the days when Blair and his ministers called for children to be “screened” to assess potential criminality, and where those with ASBOs were named and shamed in red top newspapers. Encouraging the nation to hate its youth is a manifestly cruel party line considering the extremes of unemployment and social isolation manufactured by the pandemic. But it’s indicative of a party that is not only out of touch with the desires of young people, but doesn’t think it has to work to secure their votes. Just take a look at the recent appointment of Blairite gargoyle Peter Mandelson to Starmer’s inner circle of advisors – a man whose instincts about the British people are so great that everyone still raves about surfball, his Millenium Dome game (not).

Will Starmer regain the confidence of young people anytime soon? It doesn’t look hopeful. “When he started, he made a clear calculation based on whatever his focus groups were saying that he would gun for what he thinks is the ‘red wall’ voter, and he said the minority groups or the youth can be sacrificed for the sake of broader appeal,” says gal-dem political editor Moya Lothian-Mclean of “Keir Starmer is a wet wipe” fame. “Now he’s realised there’s no broad appeal, but the problem is the trust is broken.”

The past year has felt like a repeated assault on Generation Left politics. In recent weeks, Starmer coughed up a too-late apology for marking Easter Sunday at a church that allegedly practices conversion therapy. Broader discontent with inaction over transphobic remarks from MPs like Rosie Duffield and leaked claims of anti-Black conduct from Labour staffers have encouraged many young supporters, particularly people of colour, to abandon ship. 

Corbynism pinning its hopes on a “youthquake” in 2019 was doomed, but young people are not a demographic who can be disappointed into abstention without consequences. With May local elections looming, pictures of canvassers, once beaming with the hopeful faces of the future, are scantly populated – and the faces present are often older and white. You might hope that the predicted electoral disaster in May means that Starmer learns a hard lesson about neglecting the young now rather than at the next general election, when it matters most. But with right-wing Labour relics blowing him around like a weathervane, it’s likely that the young will remain as irrelevant to Starmer as he is to everyone else.

Tagged:

LABOUR, labour party, keir starmer

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