Europe’s new parties are rooted in “youth politics”

Syriza and Podemos are only the start: the new parties in Europe have their roots in social movements driven by the young. Niki Seth-Smith, freelance journalist and co-editor of Precarious Europe, reportsIF_Blog_Precarious_Europe

As I write this in Athens, huge crowds of students are marching the streets, with around 7,000 police offers “guarding” the city. It’s 17 November, and Greece is commemorating, as it does every year, the 1973 Polytechnic uprising against the Military Junta. Forty-two years ago, a brutal crackdown left at least 24 dead. That was the response of the dictatorship. In modern-day Athens, the reaction has been to forcibly end a wave of occupations, including in nearly six hundred high schools that were protesting chronic underfunding and new legislation that tightens government control over the curriculum. This evening, riot police are attacking demonstrators without provocation, with stun grenades and tear gas.

That such events are not considered particularly surprising or “newsworthy” in Greece tells us a lot about the country today. It also says something about how “young people’s politics” is framed across Europe, with the term “student” often used to dismiss and belittle political action. The main spokesperson for Syriza criticised the crackdown on the protestors in parliament, saying: “This autocratic stance is a provocation towards our youth, the anti-dictatorial struggles and democracy.” Yet a recurrent motif from the mouths of the ruling party New Democracy, and from many of the schools’ headmasters, is that the occupying students just wanted trouble, or to enjoy a few days off their studies.

It is not a coincidence that the party to stand up for these students – if only in words, not actions – is the one that will likely take power in Greece in March of next year, or before if snap elections are called. Syriza, established a decade ago as a coalition of the radical left, incorporating eleven different political parties and groups, was a minority party up until the 2012 general elections. Their supportive stance towards the Syntagma Square demonstrations the previous year, against austerity and the brutal EU Stability Pact, helped propel them into the mainstream as they won the respect of young protesters and gained an influx of 18–25 year old voters. The party has since swung increasingly to the centre, absorbing much of the support base of the withered centre-left party PASOK. Yet its roots are very much entangled in “young people’s politics”, and it cannot be seen to abandon Generation Z and Y entirely if it is to beat the incumbent New Democracy and its loyal battalion of pensioner voters.

The Greek crystal ball

In September of this year, I joined with two colleagues, Jamie Mackay and Yiannis Baboulias, to create a new media project: Precarious Europe. Through our multimedia documentary work authored by young journalists from across Europe, we aim to help to join some of the dots between “youth” politics – so often reported with condescension, or uncritically from within – and a new brand of party politics that is emerging in Europe and looks set to alter, if not define, the course of the European project.

Ever since Greece’s economy was disproportionately hit by the EU’s austerity settlement, the country has been something of a crystal ball for the rest of Europe. While Spain and Portugal are contenders, under-35s in Greece warrant best that most traumatic of labels: a “lost generation”. This demographic has helped build a political force on which many are now pinning their hopes of shaking up the balance of power in Brussels. Syriza-mania may be naïve, and one party can only achieve so much, yet a wave of new political parties across Europe is following a similar pattern: building on social movements driven by the young, and securing a broader voter base around policies promising social justice including, crucially, more generational equality.

Tapping into the reserve

Across Europe, the “street” and “youth” politics of yesterday are transitioning into the politics of tomorrow. Last weekend, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras met 36-year-old Pablo Iglesias, the day after his election as leader of Podemos, a Spanish party founded in January of this year and already polling at 28%. The party has been vocal in drawing comparisons with Syriza. Drawing on the legacy of the 2011 indignados movement, Podemos has attracted young voters who believe that the party can deliver a better future for their generation.

United Left in Slovenia and Livre in Portugal (founded respectively in March and January), seek to emulate the successes of these two forerunners. While politicians’ promises to “support young people” are two-a-penny, it’s easy to assuage the conscience of an older, loyal voter. These newly founded parties know that they must tap directly into the huge reserve of non-voting young people if they are to break down the doors of the mainstream.

At Precarious Europe, we’re exploring this trend, and the experiences and perspectives of young people that lie behind it. We are delighted to work with the Intergenerational Foundation, whose research provides an urgently needed picture of generational justice in the UK. It’s already apparent that the Scottish independence movement is translating into party politics, with a huge boost to the Scottish National Party, the Scottish Greens’ membership more than tripling, and a possible new parliamentary force, Common Weal, on the cards. Again, it was a broad-based social movement, led by civil society, that re-connected young people with politics in Scotland, fostering new alliances and groups.

Young people in England and Wales have no such prospect on the immediate horizon, but given high levels of under- and unemployment, insecurity at work and in housing and an uncertain future for many, it wouldn’t be rash to say it is only a matter of time before the under-35s find their political voice.

When the social movements of 2011-12 faded away, and the Occupiers and indignados  left the central squares, a collective sigh of relief could be heard from the European establishment. The rebellious youth, brandishing their iPhones, had vented some anger, and caught the imagination of the masses for a moment. They never had the institutional staying power to be a genuine threat. Well, here come the institutions. We’ll see if they survive the long road to electoral success, and how far their commitment to the next generation will get them in the halls of European power.