How 2017's Youthquake Started
The march on Millbank in 2010 was the warning shot of a generational shift.
All photos by Henry Langston
The 2010 student revolt was the most radical in British history, making the student movement of 1968 look tame in comparison. Demonstrations, occupations and the sacking of the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank fractured long-held assumptions about youth apathy. Ultimately, though, the movement was defeated in a hail of police truncheons, horse charges and pitched battles on the steps of Parliament.
As the years have passed, memories have faded – those starting university this year were 11 during the protests – yet the movement's afterlives are real and tangible.
The 2010 student generation were the first group to rebel against austerity at a time when all parties took cuts for granted. Not any more. Those shaped by the movement have gone on to play important roles in British politics, but this is not the real significance of 2010. The student revolt was the first warning shot of the growing generational cleavage that has remade the rules of engagement. This cleavage has called into question the generational compact connecting older and younger generations: young people – of all classes – are now unlikely to achieve the standard of living their parents took for granted. The austerity generation's fractured expectations are driving British politics into new and unprecedented territory. In 2010, young people chose to be the subjects of their political fate by taking to the streets; in 2017, they took to the ballot box, voting in their millions for Jeremy Corbyn.
Since 2010, that spectre of politicised youth has hung over British politics; for future historians of 21st century Britain, the question will not be why this is happening, but why it didn't happen sooner.
There is no better example of how this divide has shaped British politics than the shattering of the consensus on university tuition fees. There are few historical examples of such a swift and radical break with an established consensus. During the 2010 student movement, all political parties accepted tuition fees as inevitable and just. Interviewed for Student Revolt, Vince Cable and David Willetts were proud of their fees policy and took the increases for granted. Since June of 2017, the tables have turned. Andrew Adonis, one of the architects of the New Labour fees regime, is now for free education.
Leading Conservative ministers like Dominic Green have called for a review of Tory policy, and Chancellor Philip Hammond has called for a renewed focus on dealing with the intergenerational gap, indicating tuition fees may be reduced to £7,500 a year. This is an extraordinary move, given the government pushed through a bill raising university tuition to £9,250 just weeks before the June, 2017 general election.
Why this about-face? The answers can be found in the aftermath of the 2010 student revolt. The 2010 generation found that when they demonstrated and occupied, the political establishment took little notice. Only when the seats of Conservative MPs were called into question by young people's agency at the ballot box at this year's general election was their influence felt. "One thing which is just worth having in mind," Lord Heseltine said, is that "2 percent of the older part of the electorate die every year – they are 70 percent Conservative." Ours is a political class used to "ruling the void", listening only when their own jobs are on the line. For young people, their agency through the ballot box is what the ruling class really fears.
If Tory strategists believe that stopping this process will involve tinkering with tuition fees, setting up a "Tory Momentum" or a Conservative version of Glastonbury, then they don't really understand what is driving young people to vote for Corbyn and join Labour. There are two main reasons. The first is a history of callous disregard. As Home Secretary during the 2010 protests, Theresa May refused to criticise the behaviour of the police or acknowledge the numerous injuries and trauma to students. Ed Balls – then Shadow Home Secretary – chose to admonish May for the cuts to police numbers, not the government's tripling of fees or the repressive tactics of the police. On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were present on the protests, attended the university occupations and spoke up for the students in Parliament. With this history, it's no surprise students trust Corbyn and not the Conservatives, nor his critics inside the Labour Party.
Yet the most important reason for the 2017 "youthquake" is more fundamental: economics. Austerity and neoliberal capitalism have made life for young people more and more difficult. Their effects have been hard-wired into the life experiences of the people who've grown up since the 2008 financial crisis. Since 2010, things have become worse, not better. Average house prices are 7.6 times the average salary (in London, this is up to 14 times), with the median house price rising 259 percent between 1997 and 2016, while earnings rose only 68 percent. As if the thought of never owning a home or spending up to half of your income on rent isn't enough, students are now saddled with at least £57,000 worth of debt on an interest rate (from September, 2017) of 6.1 percent. To put this into perspective, personal loans from high-street stores can be as low as 2.8 percent, and mortgages start from 1.29 percent.
Combine this with a jobs market saturated with precarious service work, unpaid internships and stagnating or falling wage levels, and you have a combustible mix. This uneven experience between generations is what's pushing young people to make the wager on Corbyn. It is economics, not political gimmicks. For a political class used to taking the basic premises of neoliberal capitalism for granted, this must be a wholly bewildering experience. If politics doesn't change rapidly, young people's experiences will continue to provide fertile ground for expanding and deepening a Corbyn-style politics.
The 2010 student movement was the first indication of a profound generational crisis. It started a process that is still unfolding. The most extraordinary statistic from the 2017 general election result was how heavily British political allegiances are conditioned by age. Labour won majorities of all those under the age of 44, and lost heavily over that age. This year's electoral data indicates older voters with a greater stake in the existing system – even those of more traditional sectors of the working class – tend to vote Conservative. Red-baiting and culturally-imbued rhetoric proclaiming that Corbyn will "take us back to the 1970s" may cut with older generations, but it doesn't with young people born after Thatcher's premiership.
It is unsurprising that those with little economic stake in the system are reticent when called on to defend it. From housing to work to debt, young people of all class backgrounds are finding in Corbyn's Labour a potential solution to their problems. While the 2010 movement failed to break the deadlock in the streets, young people today are not wrong to try their luck through Parliament. This has not been an inevitable process. In the recent French general elections, some polls suggested up to half of young people voted for Marine Le Pen and the far-right Front National. In Britain, on the other hand, Corbyn has channeled young people's grievances and nurtured their hopes in a progressive rather than regressive political project.
The rules of British politics have changed, though the old political establishment has yet to realise how or why. The 2010 student movement is where this process began.
Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation will be published by Pluto, next month.