Corbyn’s ‘youthquake’: Labour’s frontrunner energises young voters, but can he win?


As the UK’s Labour party leadership contest comes down to the wire, veteran left-wing member of parliament (MP) and surprise frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn has mobilised thousands of young people in support of his campaign. If he doesn’t make it to 10 Downing Street, his straight-talking anti-austerity approach has at least renewed youthful involvement in UK politics.

While those on the right of the Labour party warn that Corbyn could never win a general election, an opinion poll conducted in London by YouGov shows he is the most popular candidate among the wider electorate, with young people most likely to select him as their favourite choice for Labour leader.

That could bring a sea-change in the next national vote. Turnout for 18 to 24-year-olds has been consistently below the UK average, with nearly half (42 per cent) failing to vote in the last general elections in May 2015.

George Aylett, an organiser for Corbyn’s campaign, tells Equal Times that Corbyn’s popularity among teens and twentysomethings – even though he’s sixtysomething (66) – is the result of tapping into a widespread feeling of alienation from mainstream politics.

“The problem in politics is that so many young people have been put off by it, politicians aren’t offering policies to benefit them. In response they choose not to vote, therefore politicians will not offer policies to benefit young people because they are not perceived to hold the balance of power,” says Aylett. “What Corbyn is doing is offering hope, actually saying that young people matter and offering policies to directly benefit them,” he says.

Campaigners argue that the UK government’s austerity policies – which include scrapping the education maintenance allowance and implementing cuts to mental health services – have had a disproportionate effect on the young.

And with the latest figures published in August showing youth unemployment has risen to 16 per cent, many young people feel they are being listened to by a leading politician for the first time in their lives.

Corbyn’s clawback resonates

Last month Corbyn launched his Better Future for Young People at one of a number of packed events he has been hosting across the country. The document was written following a consultation with young supporters and outlines a number of policies, including scrapping university tuition fees, restoring student grants and reducing the voting age to 16.

“Before Jeremy Corbyn announced his candidacy I had despaired at the contenders, says Umaar Kazmi, an 18-year-old student and one of 15,000 volunteers to have signed up to Corbyn’s campaign. “To be frank, I did not feel connected to any of them; their policies and their priorities were not right.

“The fact that Jeremy wants to scrap tuition fees, neither slumping graduates with colossal amounts of debt nor a ‘graduate tax’, is brave in an era where debt is normalised. His decision to take on that fight on our behalf is worthy of supporting.”

Jess Green, a 26-year-old self-employed writer and performer says Corbyn talks with youth, not at them. “He comes across as being honest and normal and just ’one of us’. I think people trust him. You don’t get the sense that he’s always trying to worm his way out of answering something or hide something from you.

“The most important policies to me are reducing voting age to 16 because I think it’s patronising that we don’t give 16 year-olds the vote and I think that’s one of the main reasons a lot of young people feel disengaged from politics.”

Euro youthquake

Corbyn’s rapid rise and popular appeal to young people echoes similar movements around Europe, including Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

In August, leader of Podemos Pablo Iglesias expressed his support for Corbyn and said his campaign’s success “shows how much things are changing across Europe.” Corbyn has also won the support of Britain’s two largest unions UNISON and UNITE.

Anthony Curley, National Youth Co-ordinator of Unite told Equal Times Corbyn represents hope for the young:

“The Jeremey Corbyn campaign has politically inspired tens of thousands of young people who are desperately seeking an alternative to austerity and want to be active in the fight for social justice,” says Curley.

“Such a positive and enthusiastic campaign hasn’t been witnessed in my generation’s lifetime. At a time of unrelenting government attacks which has provided a bleak future for young people, Jeremy’s campaign has fought to challenge this relenting narrative which my generation has responded to.”