I do not think my latest interviewee, Gemma Shanahan, at just 17, will mind me pointing out that she is at the younger end of the our new intake. That is self-evident. But evidence too that an older Labour Party leader is attracting the youngest members.
Loony Left Snowflake and Proud!
The fact that we have managed to meet at all is something of a minor miracle. Prior to meeting, I send Gemma a message to ask her to suggest a venue – to which the reply is ‘Umm Coffee # 1 in town’. I have trouble finding the place on Fore Street until I realise that ‘Umm’ is not in fact part of the name…
Here, in the upstairs, on a Monday morning, before the start of the educational day at Bridgwater College, other refugees from the outside world are sipping lattes and chatting amiably.
I ask Gemma what’s she studying, which turns out to be first year ‘A’ Level, Politics, Maths, and Biology. She joined the party ‘Just after the 2017 election’.
A True Millenial
So, born in 2000, a true millennial, this brings me to my first question. ‘What does Gemma think about the voting age?’
It is a matter she is very clear about. ‘We can pay taxes, get married, go into the army and serve our country; we can campaign for a party and yet not vote for it!’
To what does she attribute the resistance to change? (After all, the Referendum on Scottish Independence involved 16 year olds.) Is it we 60 years olds (speaking for myself), I ask, that are holding the young back?
‘People need to give us (the young) more credit’, is her reply. It is our future, why shouldn’t we get to vote for it?’
What would she say, then, to the argument that not all young people might be in possession of enough of the facts, they might have no political or historical knowledge and could be coerced or seduced by a demagogue?
Her answer is equally forthright – ‘There are plenty of 40 and 50 years olds’ who are not informed either’.
Bridging the Generations
Are 60 year olds, like me, just letting her generation down? ‘Not all of us’, apparently, is the answer – but, then again, I am buying the coffee.
Changing tack, I ask her if she thinks Labour’s spending promises are too utopian to be implemented in Government?
What she thinks is that some who voted for the Conservatives in 2010 are still prejudiced against Labour because of the Blair years and can’t see how different Labour is under Jeremy Corbyn. But she believes that some Conservatives, with the greatest respect, are simply prejudiced. To every Labour initiative the cry from the other side is always – ‘but where will the money come from?’ ‘It seems that when the Conservatives shake the money tree’, Gemma says, ‘it is OK. ‘Theresa May seems to have found the magic money tree when she paid off the DUP, didn’t she?’
Gemma’s is not a deeply political household but her parents support her activism. Mum is a Primary School Teacher and Dad, after managing a shop, developed ME. She joined Labour, she says, partly as a result of having watched her Dad’s struggles for disability benefit. (I encourage her to see ‘I Daniel Blake’ a film about this issue made by film maker, Ken Loach, even older and angrier than me.) She sees the ‘We’re all in it together’ Conservative austerity as a dis-ingenuous excuse for a policy in which the reality is that the greater burden of hardship is taken by those who can least defend themselves.
Her Mum, she says, who has lived in Bridgwater all her life has seen its decline. The place in which they live in Eastover has many HMOs (Houses of Multiple Occupancy) bringing a kettling of problems resulting in low morale, increased crime, litter, and parking chaos as the roads are cluttered by over-population in buildings not designed for multiple occupancy. ‘If you are going to allow HMOs into an area, you need to make provision. This is not London where you can get away without a car.’
Gemma is not afraid to articulate her opinions, but when she did so recently, on her Facebook page, on the subject of the voting age there were 452 replies and 899 likes and she came face to face with the brutal world of social media. This included one commentator describing her as a ‘Looney Left Snowflake’ and a series of patronising comments that I will not give the oxygen of repeating. What was interesting about the whole exercise was that Gemma’s initial email was polite, rational and positive and yet some of the replies were vitriolic.
Moving on, I ask her who are her political heroes. There are two. Miss Johnson – her school citizenship teacher at Haygrove School and of course Jeremy Corbyn – ‘because he does not treat people as if they know nothing, he is respectful and he espouses genuine socialism’.
But what is ‘genuine socialism’ I ask?
In the wood panelled rooms of Gentleman’s Clubs in London, genuine socialism is equated with gulags, Stalin, or its incarnations in the Venezuela and Cuba; and these same gentlemen want any socialist to defend the accusation that the adoption of ‘socialism’ will result in autocracy.
Her reply is as direct as it is simple – ‘The UK has never had socialism, therefore we do not know what it will look like’. So, just as you could argue that socialism brought out attributes in the Russian character that were perhaps already there, Gemma’s view of the implementation of socialism in the UK is that it will bring about the common good and fairness that so many of us yearn for.
And as for other heroes, apparently stand-up comedian Jonathan Pie is one, who described Tony Blair as a ‘Tory in disguise’, or a ‘Tory tribute act’, and who said of the last election that ‘Theresa May won an election while simultaneously losing it, and Jeremy Corbyn lost an election while simultaneously winning it.’
I could easily talk to Gemma for much longer but our hour is almost up – so I ask her about the recent meeting of the CLP (Constituency Labout Party) and what do her generation think of the way in which politics at grass roots meetings level is conducted. She is too polite to overstate the case but the impression I am left with is that there is work to be done here to make meetings more snappy and relevant to the young. I am including this in the interview because we olduns need to take heed and make our meetings a bit more user-friendly for the young. If we are not sure how this is to be done, I have one suggestion – ‘Let’s ask them!’.
Gemma has bounced back from her Facebook battle and now describes herself as a ‘Looney Left Snowflake – and proud!’ One thing is for sure – I’ll buy the T-shirt.
Anthony Lipmann 14.11.17