Young people’s voices are desperately needed in politics. For too long, we’ve had young people ignored and left out of the picture, with people in power failing to connect with them and take their views seriously. This needs to change. 

We sat down with the Labour Party MP Cat Smith, who is the Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement to find out why young people feel so disenfranchised with traditional politics, what the impact on Coronavirus will be on young people and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Most importantly, how are the Labour Party going to be making sure they listen to young people, and include them in their vision for the future? 

Hi Cat! We’ve seen over the last few decades fewer and fewer young people voting and engaging in traditional politics. Do you think young people are interested in politics?  

Young people are not apathetic about politics. The young people I meet are interested in politics and incredibly well informed. The disconnect is more to do with party politics. There’s been a long term decline in membership of political parties,  although the Labour Party’s been a bit of an outlier in this respect as we saw a major increase in membership under Jeremy Corbyn. 

It always frustrates me when you hear people say young people aren’t interested in politics. The issues they are interested in are very political, you can see it by looking at those who have been protesting at the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this month. I find that so encouraging and inspiring that young people believe that protesting can be a way of bringing about societal change. That gives me huge hope for the future. 

I think young people are interested in many political issues, but for too long I think we’ve seen them get the short end of the stick. With youth services we’ve seen massive budget cuts, youth centres have closed and there’s been escalating debt and persistently high levels of poor mental health. This is combined with the fact that young people have been denied many of the opportunities their parents enjoyed. 

Coronavirus is going to exacerbate this even further. Young people have every reason to be interested in politics; but the political leaders in our country need to hear the concerns of young people and act in a way that meets the needs of this generation that are likely to be disproportionately hit 

Is there anything the Labour Party will be doing to consult young people, so that young people are involved in what policies the Labour Party will support?

Our policy making process has spaces specifically reserved for young people. We have a national policy forum that has youth representation from regions across the country. You’ve got young people’s voices right across Britain. In addition this summer I’m going to be working with the leader of the Labour party, specifically listening to young people who aren’t labour party members. I’m really keen to hear from voters in lots of different areas of the country, those  who didn’t vote Labour at the last election or didn’t vote at all- perhaps they thought there was no point voting or that none of the political parties reflected their views. 

There is a risk in assuming all young people are the same, as it means you create policy from a predominately white, well educated middle class perspective. If the Labour Party is about anything, it’s about ensuring we listen to all young people. I recognise that different young people will have different views. With Brexit for example, we assume all young people voted remain and that’s not true. A majority will have voted remain but not all, so we must recognise that not all young people will think the same way.

Keir has also been engaging directly with young people left behind during this crisis, and he held a question time last week with young people from across the UK, in which he called for the return of the Future Jobs Fund, to support young people in getting a job in the fallout of this crisis. It is crucial that we see support in place, given the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 will have upon young people entering the job market. The Labour Party want to see the Government introducing a jobs guarantee for young people

Young people have been outlined as one of the demographics most likely to be hard hit in terms of their mental health, work and education as a result of Coronavirus. Do you think this government has done enough to address these issues and protect young people? 

No, not at all. Past experience tells us that any recession or economic downturn will disproportionately impact young people.  The government’s slow response to coronavirus is failing young people particularly, the economic downturn it’s likely to be even worse than the one in 2008. 

The Resolution Foundation did a report that showed that 1 million young people are facing unemployment as a result of coronavirus and that 18-24 years earn less now than before the outbreak. But despite this the government has done nothing specifically for young people. I’m particularly worried about young graduates who are set to face the longest and significant impact. The 2008 crash hit young graduates much harder, so we can assume it will be similar this time round. This crisis has also kicked down the foundations of the youth job market, such as hospitality and retail. It’s not clear how well those sectors are likely to recover. 

Coronavirus is having a huge impact on young people’s mental health. Young people are spending large amounts of time in environments that are potentially unsafe, perhaps in abusive families or relationships, and finding it difficult to get support. Coupled with the report by Young Minds which found that 1 in 4 children with mental health problems are no longer receiving support as a direct result of coronavirus. 

We knew prior to lockdown that levels of anxiety and depression are extremely high amongst young people. There’s been a sharp rise since and I don’t think the government is doing anything to put anything in place to support young people’s mental health. 

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I think young people feel like they’ve been robbed a bit as well; after you’ve done your exams you’ll normally have time to celebrate with friends, socialise and take part in graduation ceremonies. Now, much of that’s not been able to happen. 

We’ve also seen ten years of cuts in spending to Local Authority budgets; 73% of spending specifically on youth services has been cut. That has led to a generation of young people who’ve had their opportunities taken away from them and there are a growing number of people who have nowhere to go, nothing to do and no one to speak to about their lives. I am passionate about youth work and youth services, they are trained professionals that young people can build real relationships with. Youth services will be vital in helping young people get through this crisis and the government should be moving fast to support youth workers and services so they can step up to that challenge.   

What have you made of the Black Lives Matter protests? There have been calls for changes to our curriculum to better reflect the history of racism in Britain and it’s former empire. What are you making of all this? 

I was speaking to my neighbours whose kids are primary school age and the stuff they are learning now about our history; it’s still similar to what I was learning in the nineties when I was at school. It’s shocking that so little of the curriculum has changed. 

Initially there was a lot of dialogue around BLM of how different Britain is as a country from the USA. Obviously there are differences, but there are many similarities too. I don’t think people feel well informed about our history. For instance there are many people I know who were surprised to find out that when slavery was abolished in the British Empire, that it was the slave owners who were compensated by the government of the time for their loss of property, not the slaves themselves. In today’s money it adds up to millions of pounds, which were only paid off in full as of 2015. 

image via Unsplash

A lot of people think that William Wilberforce single-handedly abolished slavery when actually there were many black people who were slaves and challenged the system, who started rebellions. All this is missing from our history textbooks. Until we tell the whole story of these issues, rather than just dead white men being held up as the only people integral to our history then we’re not teaching history to our young people properly. 

I think this ties into the argument around statues as well, there are so many statues of white men as though they had a monopoly on being historically influential. If all our statues only reflect dead white men, that is excluding an awful lot of people who did influence history and were integral to bringing about social change.  If we were better informed about our history then the public debate we’re having would be much better. 

What are your thoughts on how the government has approached these issues around racism and anti-blackness? 

It’s remarkable that the Home Secretary was so quick to condemn the removal of the statue of Edward Colston. We’re still waiting for her to condemn Donald Trump’s tweets that incited racial violence and hatred. The reason that Donald Trump is doing what he’s doing is because he wants to win the next presidential election, he wants to fire up his base to get himself re-elected. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for the British government to call out racist tweets by the president of the United States.  Even Twitter has flagged it as a racist tweet. 

It should not be controversial to say “Black Lives Matter”. We’ve had systemic racism for generations and it’s perfectly right to remind people that black lives do matter and that as a society we should be showing it. 

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Last Update: April 29, 2024