A roundtable discussion
Sarah E. Baker, Clare Coatman, David Floyd, Ben Little and Shiv Malik discuss generational politics.
David Floyd Why generational politics?
Clare There's always been tensions between generations and their different views on society. They've got different deals from society as policy has changed. But recently I think there has been a crunch point between our generation and the generations before us around what we can expect, particularly in terms of access to education, university, housing and the jobs market. Our outlook is a lot gloomier than that of the baby-boomers. And this is an international trend. Youth unemployment is 50 per cent in Spain. Here it is significantly higher than for under-25s than for other demographics. The pressure that this causes highlights intergenerational politics as a frame with which to look at equality in society.
Shiv I'd tum the question on its head. Why not always intergenerational politics? Isn't politics built on the idea that we look into the future, and hopefully we can decide and plan what that future will be like. At the moment I'd say the economic model that we have doesn't allow us even to look into the future - let alone plan ahead. This is why a younger generation has become more vocal and asked how the system is working for us - because in many respects things seem so insecure, unattainable and delayed. All politics should be generational, looking to the future, promising something better.
Sarah I agree, but I also think an intergenerational frame works in a context where there is much less identification with class and gender. A generational politics can find the kind of language with which a wider cohort of people can engage.
Ben This is particularly a crisis for the left. The ways in which politics was passed down within communities, particularly socialist politics, has almost gone completely. Institutions that once enabled this to happen - working-men's clubs for example, and a working-class culture - have gone, along with industrialisation. We have lost that sense of communal patrimony, of passing down a kind of politics, and approach to politics, from one generation to the next. Something is missing from former working-class communities. How does a politics get carried from one generation to the next? Something the generational frame is doing is picking up where former ways of engaging young people in organised politics have fallen off.
David Labour came to power in 1997 with its theme tune, 'Things can only get better'. To what extent has generational politics emerged because of the failure of this promise?
Shiv There was a weird set of platitudes in 1997, with the pledge card and its five promises. They were all disjunctive from one another - one on waiting lists, one on crime, and so on. They didn't have a holistic message. There was no plan. New Labour took on the economics of the market and adopted it as its own. It had won out, and it what was they would operate on. At that point the game is lost - for the left certainly, but also for the future, because neoliberal economics has no mechanism for planning anything, no mechanism for securing more housing or more jobs. If you're not going to tackle the market you're not going to get those outcomes. That's why young people have lost out ever since, and why voting rates amongst the young have fallen off a cliff. There is nothing to offer them.
Clare I think there is an issue about the political representation of young people and their interests. It's not just voting rates that have fallen off a cliff, so has the membership of political parties. Young people are much less likely to be in a trade union or part of a faith group. When young people can't find representation, and can't use the levers of power within existing institutions that previous generations have been able to use to get what they needed or wanted, they have to find an alternative mechanism to do that. …