By Rowan Sylva
Those of us who support progressive politics in NZ have a sinking feeling (given the mainstream polls) that despite Whalegate, despite Orivida, despite all the evidence that National is brazenly corrupt, we may be facing another three years of National government – and with it will come more assaults on our environment, education, more debt, more income inequality and a lower standard of living. We will have to live with the shame that we knowingly elected a government that is unscrupulous and corrupt. And will be forced to watch on as our beautiful natural areas are torn up. How could this happen? How can National constantly poll so high? Perhaps as Bomber Bradbury argues the polls are deceptive, but this can only be part of the picture. Another part of the picture, and the one that is the focus of this article poses a very, very worrying problem for progressive politics not just in New Zealand, but globally. It is a problem that is not going to go away, and it is a problem that has not been noted by the main stream media. So what is the problem: growing conservatism among youth. This is a frightening prospect for progressive politics because historically, youth can be counted upon to support the progressive side of politics, and while that may still be true, I would tentatively suggest that it is changing.
I was unable to find any hard statistical data of youth voting trends, other than increasing apathy, (itself a potential indicator of growing conservatism). But there are detailed studies of youth attitudes in the UK. Consider some of these trends – the UK tory party more than tripled its share of the youth vote between 2005 and 2013, moving from 10 percent to as high 31. Another UK study (2013) showed that 48 percent of 18-25 year-olds believed that people received welfare payments because they were lazy rather than unlucky, while only 25 percent of over 65 year-olds believed the same thing. Another interesting stat from another UK study shows that only 20 percent of under 30s believe that more money should spent on welfare even if it means higher taxes. 70 percent of people born before war believed that it should. Last year’s elections for the European parliament showed an unprecedented swing to the far right of politics, particularly in France and Britain, where Frontnationale and UKIP swept to the elections; they were not voted in by old Pétanque playing frenchmen suddenly changing their vote, but by the young, educated and increasingly vile right. British youth atitudes are succinctly summed up by a writer for the Guardian, John Harris, “when it comes to questions about the welfare state, work and the like, the younger you are, the more rightwing you’re likely to be.” The UK is of course not New Zealand but in the absence of hard data, the UK is a pretty good proxy. And looking at the similar way that Cameron and Key have run their campaigns it is fair to assume that National have increased its share of the youth vote by similar, if not greater, proportions.
There is also anecdotal evidence to support the notion that National’s high polling is supported by youth conservatism. I was reading a comments section of the Herald the other day, an uplifting exercise as the 90 percent of the comments support the left side of politics – suggesting the Herald’s tone is out of line with its readership. I came across a comment that got me thinking and led to writing this article. The comment was from an old time Labour supporter bemoaning the fact that his son was a nat voter, and that he would at least cancel out his son’s vote. I then read an article in which ordinary people were being interviewed on their political views, a young woman said she would vote for John Key “because there was nobody else to vote for.” I then watched a clip where Campbell Live went on the road to interview people about their views on the dirty politics debacle; many young people (Wellington excepted) were apathetic about the allegations, or worse supportive of the National Government. This put me in mind of conversations I had with a friend of mine, who had an important position in the New Zealand Students Association – student unions were becoming more conservative, the Waikato Student Association, for example had been taken over by the Young Nats and they were trying to destroy the whole structure of student unions from the inside. The Young Nats’ facebook page has 12,906 likes; the Young Labour page has 5,679 likes – less than half, while the Young Greens have a measly 1,534. None of this amounts to iron clad evidence but when taken together it paints a picture that should give progressives pause for thought.
Now consider National’s electoral campaign: John Key swans around the country taking selfies of himself with smiling young people, while spouting nifty but meaningless catch phrases. Consider some of Key’s media stunts over the past term in office – selfies at the Big Gay Out. Key playing beer pong with young bogans. Contrast this with Labour, where Cunnliffe seems to spend more time in retirement villages than universities, and it seems likely that Labour’s woes have less to do with their tax policy and more to do with their increasingly ageing support base. National is aggressively, and possibly successfully, targeting young voters. The irony is that National party policies will harm youth, with decreased spending into education and neoliberal economic policies that tend to keep young people out of employment. the National party is also resistant to raising youth wages and its environmental policies destroy the basis for a good future for the younger generation. It would appear that the age old adage that, he who is not communist at twenty has no heart, and he who is not a conservative at 40 has no head, is no longer the case. If ever the left has taken the youth vote for granted that attitude needs to change, now. As a committed Green voter, and myself a member of generation Y, I am saddened by the apparent trend toward conservative politics within my generation. It is not something which can be easily changed, and my suspicion is that the move comes from living in an increasingly uncertain world and an increasingly atomised society.
But sadness should never lead to apathy. We need to stand by the values we hold to be true, stand up to corporate interests and save New Zealand from a corrupt government. Youth conservatism may be growing but it is not yet dominant. And I will finish this post with a quote form George Monbiot, “[hope] can transform what appears to be a fixed polity, a fixed outcome, into something entirely different. It can summon up passion and purpose we never knew we possessed”