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UK Elections

The UK Election Was a Victory for Young Voters Everywhere

The old aeon in politics is over.

Drew Brown

Drew Brown

Labour supporters react to Paul Sweeney victory as the MP for Glasgow North East | EPA/ROBERT PERRY

My wife and I were standing beneath Big Ben, outside the sharp spires of the mother of all parliaments, when the hour struck 10 and all the polls in Britain closed.

It had been a strangely quiet day in London, which was odd for what struck me as a pretty significant day. I had noticed a lot of older people glaring condescendingly at us as we traipsed around the capital, but I wasn't sure if that was because we were visibly tourists or because we looked like socialist trash. It was probably a bit of both.

As a Canadian politics writer, I was cautiously pessimistic. Since the Brexit vote last summer (and longer, if we're being honest), Britain has been something of a bellwether for international reaction. The race between Labour and the Tories had tightened but no one seemed sure how much anyone could trust the polls. I had no idea how this would actually play out.

Would it be Corbynism or barbarism? We were our way to The Lexington, seemingly one of the few gars in London actually open after midnight, to find out.

I had no WiFi, so for the 30 minutes between leaving Westminster and getting to the pub, I had no way of either informing the friend we were meeting that we would be late or of checking any results. Fortunately we met up at the end of a long queue stretching nearly down the block. A band was playing a show at the pub so it wouldn't be until nearly midnight that we'd get inside.

Despite the long, static lineup in the rain, however, the mood was jubilant. Exit polls were showing a hung parliament. The street was absolutely buzzing. A host from the Indian restaurant next door was milling about the crowd, offering big bottles of Kingfisher and fresh naan to revelers and almost everyone outside the shop took advantage. (The crowning achievement of English civilization is undoubtedly being able to drink outside in the curb.)

The election had started amid expectations of a Tory supermajority and Labour's doom, so the news that Jeremy Corbyn had fought them to a draw by getting young people out to vote—despite two years of bitter opposition from his own party and the entire British media apparatus—was to those here nothing short of a miracle.

Youth turnout was a massive reason for Labour's late surge denying Theresa May her majority, with early estimates suggesting 72% of 18-to-24 year-olds voted, having learned their lesson from letting grandma decide Brexit.

When we finally did get into the bar, the place was packed to the rafters. It was absolutely blocked. As far as I could tell, The Lexington had no overt partisan identity—I don't think, anyway, and there were a number of Tories there including one young man in a dress shirt and tie wearing a "Don't Tread On Me" flag as a cape who looked to be having the worst night of his life—but there was scarcely anyone inside above the age of 35, which made it basically a Labour bar. The room went up in cheers whenever Labour held or gained a seat and vicious boos whenever anything else happened. The BBC at one point opted to interview Nigel fucking Farage and the entire time his wobbling face was on the screen the whole place was just one sustained wall of jeering and I have never felt more energized. The Two Minutes Hate is real and it feels fucking fantastic. A few people told me they had been in this same bar watching the Brexit results last year and the catharsis tonight as the wave turned against Theresa May and her bullshit, utterly craven election campaign was palpable.

But it was only partly catharsis. This was a room buzzing on the knowledge that something world-historical was happening; that the ground was shifting beneath their feet; that they had finally mattered in politics. I was moved and intensely jealous. Not being an American living in 2008, I had never been part of an election that captured that feeling as my entire political life has been defined by a series of iron laws that held this sort of thing was supposed to be impossible. That young people don't vote, that market jitters are a political straightjacket, that the best you can ever hope for from a "real" political party is a marginally larger share of crumbs from the table while the boys in the backroom set to work dismantling the machinery of the welfare state that our grandparents and great-grandparents sweat and bled and fought and died for.

But here it was, sort of happening anyway. As it turns out, you can get the young and the downtrodden and the alienated out to vote if you actually give them something to vote for—or against. The formula of the old aeon of politics, that we can never expect or demand better than a garbage incremental appeasement with late capitalism, is over. The space is opening for something new and better and hopeful and different and I am glad I was at ground zero last night to feel the shockwave.

The meaning of whatever happened last night is still unfolding, and after America 2008 and Alberta 2015 I perpetually expect bitter disappointment by politicians preying on the desperate optimism of the young. (Don't even get me started on the Trudeau Liberals.) It was a tighter race than expected but the Tories won a plurality and will apparently form a government with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party amid the wreckage, which promises to both be chaotic and delightfully ironic (given how much shit they hurled at Corbyn for his "ties" to the IRA).

God knows where the Brexit negotiations will go now or how much direct impact the Labour caucus will wield on it. But Corbyn didn't need to sweep into office to register a victory in this election. Consider where he started, and all the forces arrayed against him, and where he finished. The roiling euphoria I saw last night was proof of something bigger in the works. The seachange is yet to come.

We left the bar just after four in the morning. The taps were off but the party was still going; the place was still jammed with young men and women. It was their night and they wanted to carry it on into the newly breaking dawn. The day belongs to them now too.

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