Disenchanted youth turn politics into a free-for-all

This story, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, begins simply, with a house. The house is something few young or youngish Britons or Americans can afford, despite doing everything their wealthier elders told them to: studying hard, going to university, working hard, not doing drugs, delaying parenthood.

Their parents, by contrast, have houses. From time to time those houseless young and youngish people are forced to call on their parents to stabilise their own financial position. They do so because real incomes for British residents 60 and older grew 11 per cent between 2007 and 2014, while those 30 and younger suffered a 7 per cent loss. In the US, the share of young Americans earning more than their parents did by age 30 has plunged from nine in 10 for those born in the 1940s to barely half for those born in the 80s.

Deprived of a place in a housing market almost as bonkers as Sydney’s, the young have started voting for free stuff — particularly promises of free university tuition — by way of recompense.

Last week, homeowners voted Conservative by 53 to 32. Renters voted Labour by 51 to 31. British politics, if not in a nutshell, at least in a house — or the lack of one.

They have voted this way in two countries, in support of two candidates: Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who campaigned for free tertiary education. If you break down last year’s US Democratic primary and this year’s British general election by income, occupation and constituency, you discover it was often young profes­sionals who should be in their first home who supported both men.

Ah, I hear you saying, young people quite like charming older chaps who promise them free stuff. Sanders and Corbyn are avuncular, left, more principled and honest than the average politician.

Leaving aside the fact Sanders isn’t really a socialist — despite protestations to the contrary, there is simply too much America and too many Americans for a socialist to do anything other than be crushed in a presidential election, taking the Democrats down with him — Corbyn at least must now be counted a potential future prime minister.

If we have another election here in Britain, momentum will be with Labour.

These young and youngish are not the truly poor. At least, not yet. They have jobs. They have hope. Nonetheless, arguments that free university tuition is really just a cash grab by the middle class — a means by which the poor and uneducated pay for the exam-passing classes to go to university — cut no ice. They feel they have not been compensated for their efforts, for their long period of student poverty, for their ability to delay gratification. They point out — as credentialism has grown and secure full-time work shrunk — that the economists’ argument that higher education fees reflect higher private returns to graduates is now much less persuasive.

Worse, Tony Blair’s desire to see 50 per cent of the 18-30 cohort attend university pretended anyone, given enough education, could become “above average”.

However, all the below average get is student debt, several unwaged years out of the labour force and then (maybe) a “bullshit job”. Having glimpsed a leisured life of the mind they can never attain, they find there’s no house to be had either.

And there are a lot of them: not just the fabled 18 to 24-year-olds who turned out in their droves last week and flipped Britain’s university towns from blue to red. In electoral terms, age is a new dividing line in Anglophone politics.

For every 10 years older a voter gets, the chance of voting Tory increases by about nine points. The tipping point — the age at which a voter is likelier to vote Conservative than Labour — is now 47.

Never mind “don’t trust anyone over 30”. The new creed is “don’t trust anyone over 47”.

These people do not feel like winners in the game of life. Corbyn and Sanders, however, argued that they could be winners and, more to the point, that their interests should be coeval with those of their moneyed elders. The politically engaged among those under-47s know how to campaign, too, and how to negate the effect of Britain’s famous Tory tabloids and the US centre-left “legacy press”.

Along with Donald Trump’s internet shock troops, the alt-right, Sanders’s Bernie Bros and Corbyn’s Momentum fight their political battles on social media.

Australians have become used to advisers telling politicians to ignore Twitter and Snapchat. If there is to be a social media focus, it’s on Facebook. The Tories did this, and I’ve run similar campaigns myself. Yet Twitter and Snapchat predicted the surge in Labour support — and Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity with the Democratic base in crucial states — more accurately than any pollster. Corbyn on Snapchat — where he presents as a kindly, train-obsessed, tea-loving eccentric — enjoyed tremendous online traction.

The trade-off is simple, like the house where I began. Until we make it possible to buy one, young and youngish people in Britain, the US and Australia are going to vote for free stuff.

Free stuff is an eternal in politics. People such as Sanders and Corbyn mobilise their base by minting victim chips and draw others in by promising cash. I have long disdained “democracy and elections as potlatch” on the basis that potlatch is what countries have instead of an economy. But the young and youngish really have been walled out, and there are enough of them to reconfigure our politics.

This article was originally published in The Australian.

Helen Dale became the youngest winner of Australia’s premier literary award, the Miles Franklin, for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked Book I – Rules, was released in October 2017, and Book II will be published in May 2018 (pre-order now). She read law at Oxford (where she was at Brasenose), and was Senior Adviser to Australian classical liberal Senator David Leyonhjelm.

Helen Dale

Helen Dale

Helen Dale became the youngest winner of Australia’s premier literary award, the Miles Franklin, for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked Book I - Rules, was released in October 2017, and Book II will be published in May 2018 (pre-order now). She read law at Oxford (where she was at Brasenose), and was Senior Adviser to Australian classical liberal Senator David Leyonhjelm.
Helen Dale

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