If you can’t dance, why join the revolution?

OurKingdom Ourkingdom
14 August 2009

Noel Hatch, Chair of Compass Youth, responds to Jeremy Gilbert.

In his search for an "open and pluralistic network promoting progressive democratic politics", Jeremy Gilbert explores the different spaces for young people to develop a new politics, from the SWP to Young Labour, via London Citizens, Climate Camp...and Compass Youth, the organisation I'm involved in.

I got involved with Compass Youth to make real change happen with others where we live, where we study and where we work.

I didn't get involved in campaigning to choose which sides to take in the political football games going on in Westminster village. I certainly didn't get involved to put my energy into the "cycle of tokenist politics, empty rhetoric, meaningless factionalism" that is as likely to take place in SW1 as it is in the SWP.

We all see how politicians are using taxpayers' money to build houses for ducks rather than homes for people and a government preferring to attack each other than attack the recession. With Big Brother back on our screens, it's like going from one reality show to another.

Getting hit the hardest

But that's what goes on inside the Westminster bubble. In the real world, people are getting sacked, evicted and left on the scrapheap of the recession. And young people are getting hit the hardest - unemployment, debt and mental health. And it's partly why they suffer the most from consumerism and its consequences - addicted to appearance, medicating their misery, mobbed for their mobiles.

Like other under-represented groups in the places of power, young people are marginalised. In politics, they are too often restricted to "youth issues". In the economy, they are treated as ideal bait for consumption.

In society they are asked to wait their turn, they are the "next generation", but next never means now.

You can argue this has been the case since Socrates said the young were just a bunch of delinquents, but it's only now that those in power don't just ignore young people, they boldly pretend to speak on their behalf.

It's not our future

It's partly why they are least likely to take part in the structures defined by the generation that preceded them.

Of course that includes political parties, but it also includes other hierarchical structures, like trade unions. As Gilbert argues, unions have suffered from a perfect storm - the weakening of their bargaining power, their incapacity to run campaigns which don't depend on Labour and the decline of deference.

This has created a gap which grows the conditions for more radical self-organising activism to thrive, like Climate Camp, London Citizens and World Social Forum

Ironically, this itself has inspired unions themselves to develop broad based campaigns which mobilise people as much to democratise public services as saving them from privatisation. That's why we worked as much with TUC Young Members as Toynbee Hall to launch a weekend to fight back the recession.

Let's take back society

There's this amazing tension between young people's feeling of powerlessness towards a society they have had no say in shaping and their energy to want to take back society and reshape it into something far different.

With the crisis we face, people are crying out for a new way of doing politics. It's not that young people aren't interested in politics, it's that they see no way of being able to make change happen.

They might not be interested in debating internal party politics. For them, that's like driving a car from the back seat with a stick. But they do care when they can make real change to their lives of their families, friends and their neighbours.

We ask young people all the time to tell us what matters most and they never disappoint. Whether at workshops or by video, their ideas range from mentoring young people for green jobs to microfinancing creative activity, from cross border collective bargaining to equal parenting leave.

But we shouldn't just be here to agonise about these realities, we need to organise too. Because if you give people an inch, they'll give you a mile.

Fighting for what they believe in

And young people are already campaigning to fight for what they believe in.

Surprised? Our generation gets stereotyped as always wanting instant gratification, pessimistic that everything's wrong with the world and apathetic that they can't change it because those in power won't listen to them anyway.

But there are so many everyday heroes off the radar of opinion leaders who work in the shadows trying to creating change, maybe even where you live or work.

I can tell you about a friend who set up an online group because they were getting ripped off. Another who invited people to a campaign session so people can live better off, another who got people to write to their MP to support the campaign they care about the most and another who pitched up their tent to prevent the world turning to toast.

There are also young people who've stayed at a shelter to help the homeless, who've gone down the beach to clean up the mess. Some have even taken part in a flashmob to show people how exploitation of young people at work just isn't right, while others have marched through the streets to reclaim the night.

Some have been a street captain spreading hope not hate, others have interviewed the wild and wonderful to instigate debate, some have even got into a bath of baked beans to raise money for comic relief, but I know most may have not get involved with any of these.

So, yes we need that "open and pluralistic network promoting progressive politics". But this shouldn't be limited to one "default point of political identification for idealistic youth", just look at what happened to the big tent approach of Make Poverty History. Neither should it be fragmented into rivalling factions of smaller tents by the campsites.

We need a Glastopolitics, where groups can work together where they feel most comfortable, whether that's on the fringes or on the main stage. That's why at Compass Youth, we're keen to work with groups as diverse as the radical activism of Climate Camp as the community organising of London Citizens.

Because I want to get together those people so they can find out how others are organising and create the spaces where activists with different skills involved in groups can affect change together.

Empty rhetoric? Watch this film and you can judge for yourself...

So go where the people are - adapt the messengers, not the message. Don't take them for granted, value them as people you can't do without. Expect to be surprised by them, they're the people you've been waiting for. Share your success and they will commit even more. Embrace the mess, you need rules for radicals not robots. Don't just make it blood, sweat & tears, give them leadership and a smile.

Don't just get people on your dancefloor, get them to run the show and they'll join your revolution.

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