Originally published in Shout Out UK.
The much-anticipated LSE report commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Brexit group has arrived, chaired by Labour MP for Aberavon, Steve Kinnock. Famously a Remainer with a passion for democratic youth engagement, the report is decked-out with recommendations that will ensure a ‘youth-led’ Brexit — or, at least a Brexit where young people are consulted and not patronised.
Titled ‘Building Bridges: A Youth Vision for a Common Future after Brexit’, the London School of Economics report has arrived amid a hectic few weeks of Brexit developments. Commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Better Brexit for Young People, this latest instalment in the Brexit saga explores youth perceptions of the EU withdrawal process amongst both EU and UK nationals. Its conclusions are unequivocal, although hardly revelatory: young people across Britain and the EU ‘urgently desire a new kind of politics’ — one that ‘can build bridges over the many divides’ that Brexit has wrought across the country.
Current chair of the APPG is Labour MP, and outspoken Remainer, Stephen Kinnock. Speaking ahead of the report’s launch at the Common Futures Forum on November 20th, Mr Kinnock lamented Brexit negotiations that ‘have failed to take account of the views of young people both in Britain and Europe’. ‘Young people’, he argues, ‘are tired of the acrimonious political debates that have dominated over the past two years and desire a future that is built on cooperation and consensus’.
Looking solely at the report’s findings, Mr Kinnock has a point. The proportion of young people that felt their generation’s views over Brexit had been taken into account is worryingly low — a meagre 36 per cent — while testimonies from focus group participants explicitly label Westminster politicians and EU leaders as out-of-touch ‘elites’ that disregard youth welfare. It is a vision of the youth disillusioned with the ruling parties’ undying preoccupation with aggressive political debate, inflammatory rhetorical exchanges, and the exclusive concerns of an older generation of voters. This popular sentiment, as Kinnock argues, comes on the back of Conservative policy developments that attack young people specifically: the tripling of university tuition fees, cuts to the state education sector, the capping of child benefits. Not to mention the impenetrable housing market and Brexit-related job insecurity.
Yet, the closer you look, the less the report lives up to its billing as a ‘kick-start’ to building a better Britain. Mr Kinnock’s call for ‘a European Economic Area-based Brexit’ smacks of Remain — and Labour — inclinations and desires. The report’s conclusions are bleak, but familiar — and in many ways risk exacerbating Britain’s divides, rather than helping close them up. Its touting of a Brexit ‘Generation Gap’ risks quantifying generational resentment already prevalent in politics, and vilifies an older generation apparently besotted with EU immigration, Brussels bureaucracy and loss of British ‘national sovereignty’.
The caricature of the older voter is genuine to some extent, and the report specifies that young people are worried that this image of Britain — a regressive, bitter nation ready to denigrate the EU institution at ease — will be the one that is remembered on the continent for years to come. This could potentially imbue all future EU-UK relations with animosity and suspicion, which is not something that British or European youths will be thankful for. Perhaps the report’s most radical suggestion of all — a renewed call for freedom of movement — raises concerns about whether, in the turmoil of the last two years, the APPG has forgotten the origins of Brexit altogether. They are offering the ‘young people’ a set of suggestions based on impracticality and quite frankly, infeasibility.
Further questions about the report’s methodology will ensure that few heads in Cabinet take its findings seriously. The report admits that in its search for respondents, its staff ‘specifically sought out young people who are likely to be most immediately affected by the new relationship’ — a sincere effort at objectivity that is outstandingly blind to its categorical one-sidedness. Likewise, surveying a mere 1000 people (double the number of its focus group), the report’s sweeping generalisations lack legitimacy. Throw in its penchant for metropolitan opinion, alongside a swollen interest in Scotland, Ireland and Wales (all were pro-EU), and you begin to wonder whether these findings are quite as democratised as Mr Kinnock would have us believe.
A notable positive is that the report’s long-term recommendations are more fruitful, offering a radically re-conceived vision of a future Britain. They target early years interventionism, providing political literacy and civic education, and envisage methods for reconnecting urban and rural communities. However, these ideals of tomorrow do little to allay the immediate concerns of today. The report makes no attempt to discern the nuance in British ‘youth’, failing to address how issues such as state benefits and university attendance might influence one’s political outlook. Consequently, far from giving Britain’s youth a voice, its conclusions fall foul of homogenising their views.
Mr Kinnock is insistent that the report represents ‘a more productive commitment to listen, understand, engage, and find the common ground’. That may yet prove the case, though he will have to be more thoughtful about whom he is listening to, and — hard thought it may be — less impulsive in his politics. Only then might we begin to forge a common future after Brexit.