Ashoka UK’s Meera Patel caught up with Labour MP Stephen Kinnock to discuss building a constructive politics in the wake of the vote to leave the EU.
Meera Patel (MP): What are the implications of Brexit for young people?
Stephen Kinnock (SK): It poses a fundamental question about our future as a country. Whilst there are some incredibly important decisions to be made around our future trading relationship with the EU and the future of the movement of people and labour around the EU, I think it also poses a major question about the gap between generations. This is most evident in the fact that young people voted very strongly to remain in the EU and people of the older generation voted to leave, there is a great question over the intergenerational question that Brexit revealed. I don’t think it caused a gap I think it revealed something that was already there, a very different set of perceptions and thoughts about Britain’s place in the world and how much you as a young person want to engage with the rest of the world.
I’ve got two young daughters, 20 and 17, and when I talk with them about their global vision it’s incredibly different to the older generation in terms of how interconnected my daughters feel with the rest of the world. I also think there’s a huge difference between them and young people in communities such as the one that I represent such as the one in Aberavon, communities that have felt that this process of globalisation has happened but it seems to have happened without them. They don’t see a broader global community around them, they see their own communities, their immediate surroundings and their own networks. This approach has strengths too, on the one hand there’s a really tight knit, strong sense of identity and community within my constituency, but I think that there’s also a sense of less opportunities being available to young people in that sort of area. I think it’s about marrying together all of these different concerns, intergenerational concerns, what Brexit means in communities like Aberavon compare to people in a more urban and metropolitan community. How do we ensure that Brexit doesn’t end up with us pulling up the drawbridge and floating off into the mid-Atlantic. I think for young people, some of the questions that are going to be answered over the next months and years are going to shape their whole lives.
MP: How would you respond to concerns that whilst some young voted passionately, the number of young people voting is significantly less than other demographics. Why centralise the concerns of young people?
SK: I think that young people feel that politics and political institutions are not facilitating change. Young people want to see change, they want to see progress on climate change, they want to see progress on opportunities in terms of jobs and their future in the 21st century. Young people see how much the world has changed in terms of technology and yet they don’t really see political institutions catching up with that reality or speaking to them in a language that they understand. We shouldn’t therefore be surprised that young people feel disconnected from political discourse and the political mainstream. Until we speak that language, a language that’s clearly connected too what’s happening right now, in the 21st century, we will really struggle to make that connection with young people and get them interested in politics. There are however fantastic projects such as Bite the Ballot, lead by the Ashoka Fellow Michael Sani, which I think have a really new take on what is required for young people to get involved. It’s evidently not just about the voting process, it’s about understanding the role of the media, understanding the role of different institutions, understanding the role of the trade union movement, it’s a much richer dialogue than counting how many people are voting and how many won’t. This is a bottom up approach about getting people engaged in civic activities, getting people volunteering, working together and understanding that they can be the agents of change, not just the objects of change. Young people will not invest their time and energy, in something that will not lead to any kind of change, but if you can demonstrate that you understand the reality in which they live, you understand what needs to change and you will find that way of making a change – and I think that’s often at community and at grassroots level.
MP: In the context of this disconnect, what could
SK:I think that the politics of the 21st century, particularly for left of centre politicians such as myself, is no longer about the machine, or having conversations inside this Westminster village, it’s much more about reaching out reuniting our country and reuniting our community. I think the United Kingdom is probably more divided than it has ever been, since the civil war, because we’ve got to a situation where London and the South-East is drifting away from the rest of the country. I go to communities and just feel like I’m in a different world, then you’ve got this growing divide between the younger generation and the rest, we’ve even got growing examples of conflict between ethnic communities, so a lot of this is about reuniting and that must be done at a grass roots level. It’s up to politicians to provide some leadership in that sense and find some opportunities to work practically and in tangible way. Rather than simply going back and saying ‘there’s nothing we can do about that because we’re not in government,’ or ‘there’s nothing we can do about that, it’s not my responsibility,’ it’s about us going in and taking some responsibility and showing some leadership. As I said before, it’s about supporting communities to be agents of change, rather than objects of change.
This interview has been condensed and edited. Photo credit David B Young, via Flikr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/david0287/)