Orphan Jack has grown up knowing only the strict but kindly guardianship of Father Anthony, the devout head of the Westminster County Home for Lost Boys. By careful budgeting, Jack’s dour Uncle Gordon has managed to pay for Jack’s care during the eight years since his father disappeared. But now Jack is coming of age and confides in his friend Steve that the ways of the increasingly authoritarian priest are becoming to much for him. Jack and Steve have broken Brother David’s curfew at the home to go drinking at Kennedy’s, the local bar, run by jovial, ginger Charlie K. This time they ignore the mysterious stranger they meet on the way who wants them to follow him to Old Woman Thatcher’s house, where it’s said that at night you can hear her sherry decanter and glass clink as she wanders the corridors like a wraith, but by the last reel you know something very nasty indeed is going to happen to our protagonists…
If someone asked me to play Peter York or Douglas Coupland and do a street caricature of Jack’s cohort, I’d probably come up with something like this:
They were born between ’85 and ’95. They take a completely unembarrassed delight in everything about that decade that makes us, Generation X, wince: the music, the mullets, the celebrities, and—even more puzzlingly—the celebridee charidee. But there was something about the tape-cutting, bullshit-squishing energy of Live Aid that was bigger than the hair, the stars, and the gestures; big enough to cast a shadow over those too young to have experienced it directly. Bob is their spiritual father. Peaches is their fantasy bolshie little sister. They are Generation Geldof.
They take no delight at all in politics, but their experiences have pumped up their opinions. They are gap-year internationalists, broken-family social conservatives, single-issue sulks. Their instinctive (or inherited) dislike of Margaret Thatcher is strong, even as they un-self-consciously recite the slogans of her reign, even as they take Thatcher’s agenda for granted. When they bother to vote at all, they mostly vote Liberal Democrat.
In a democracy (especially this post-Thatcherite one) the answer that explains most powerfully happens to be the simplest: self-interest. The LibDems offer them free post-18 “uni” education. It’s an effective bribe, and one that will never cost the LibDems or their voters a penny. They know we couldn’t afford it. Even at 90s levels of participation, returning grants to a reasonable subsistence level would cost more than the UK health and defence budgets combined. This would be a disgustingly huge subsidy to the middle-classes. When they demand their cut, the middle-classes pretend they’re standing up for the poor. When you point out the consequences, they stick their fingers in their ears and chant “Access! Access!”—even as our broken educational system makes it ever harder for the disadvantaged to “access” their own intellectual heritage—never mind the government handouts the BMW-driving classes fetishize.
Despite its general unwillingness to engage with party politics, Generation G still fancies itself idealistic. Sadly, other middle-class cynics, bitter Old Leftists, want to twist the punk-pragmatic idealism of the children of Live Aid into the misread-Marx idealism of the footstamping infant. A teenager carrying a “Blood For Oil” banner on behalf of a Socialist Worker front organisation thinks she has seen the puppetmasters for what they really are, when she is, in fact, a puppet of people who have been playing posture politics since before she was born.
These are the people the Labour Party will need to persuade to vote for them, stuff envelopes for them, devise policies for them, become MPs for them.
I live in a seat where one of Blair’s “comrades” fell. Like Manchester Withington and Cardiff Central it’s a seat in a constituency with a swing-wielding body of students and academics. Such seats can’t be dismissed as demographic niches; their populations are the future. Soon, everyone will be a student. That doesn’t, of course, mean everyone will be clever. We are talking about people who identify with rather than pity Bridget Jones, Homer Simpson, and Beavis and Butthead. Some dream of World peace; I dream of a world where it’s uncool to be an idiot.
That‘s the challenge. How do you explain to someone who thinks Diana Spencer was a great humanitarian of our time that their “peace” means the dead quiet outside a sound-proofed slaughterhouse? How do you explain that overseas aid is what their African classmate’s father siphons off to pay her international-rate student tuition fees? How do you explain why their grandparents lived in an England where a poor bright boy had a better chance of escaping poverty by his own efforts than he does now?
If someone can do that then the next Conservative government will be but a blip before another age of Labour dominance.