Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.
There are still a few spots left to fill so get in touch!
When historians in the year 2117 contemplate what to call the generation of voters currently aged between 18 and 35, I strongly suspect “The Netflix Generation” will be a strong candidate.
The oldest of this generation were the first to discover the delights of the DVD boxset; they remember their university days for watching an entire series of 24 in twenty-four literal hours, rather than the twenty-four weeks those watching the broadcast version had to suffer. They may have gone the long way, via DVD and Lovefilm, but now the delights of instant, on-demand boxsets are available to all of this generation. Whether your tastes are The West Wing, Game of Thrones, or The Crown, there is nothing to stop you consuming your favourite television as quickly as your schedule permits.
So what has this to do with politics more generally, and the Northern Irish elections in particular? Quite simply, that the youngest generation of voters are used to rapid reaction and demand. Yes, your funny YouTube video will probably only get a hundred views, but it could be less than one hour from going viral. You don’t need to wait almost a year to see how the end of season cliff-hanger is resolved (as I discovered to my cost when reaching the end of Series One of The West Wing at two in the morning …) We live in an era of instant reaction and instant gratification, making the prospect of longer term change deeply unattractive.
When studying my Masters degree in Politics, a recurring theme was that voters want their vote to count for something; to feel that it made a difference to the outcome. The net result is that individuals don’t necessarily vote for their most preferred candidate. The constituency of Belfast East, where I grew up, is a case in point: a reasonable number of voters wouldn’t have put Gavin Robinson or Naomi Long as their first choice in the 2015 General Election, but they knew it was a contest between those two. As it is, I was deeply gratified that my party colleague Neil Wilson still managed to persuade 1,121 people to vote Conservative!
This effect of making one’s vote count permeates much wider than this. UUP and SDLP supporters face an uphill battle to convince voters that they might someday replace the DUP and Sinn Féin as the largest party on their respective sides of the spectrum. Alliance have been trying for decades to woo voters from all parties to their brand of non-tribal politics. I could of course name other parties besides the Northern Ireland Conservatives who are trying to break the current monopoly of power; the Greens and People Before Profit being two parties that actually won seats in 2016. They all face the same problem in the eyes of the youngest generation – the fear that their vote won’t make a difference.
While my wife and I no longer live in Northern Ireland, I can very much sympathise with this plight, running as a Conservative in the deeply left-leaning city of Oxford; a city that has not elected a single Conservative councillor since 2001! Quite often I get asked why I persist as a Conservative when my chances are so poor, and my reply is twofold: because I am running on the values I believe in, and I understand that change doesn’t happen overnight. My encouragement for voters in 2017 therefore, is that you should not lose heart at the potential for patient persistence to pay a long term reward.
Northern Ireland has already seen one example of this. Naomi Long was first elected as an MLA for Belfast East with a mere 2,774 first preference votes. She would increase this to 3,746 votes in 2005, 5,583 votes in 2007, before sensationally winning the seat in 2010 with 12,839 votes. It was certainly a remarkable breakthrough at the time, but it was built on more than seven years of effort.
More broadly there are plenty of examples where long-term persistence paid off eventually. The Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan chided the Scottish Nationalists in 1979 for siding with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives to vote against his government, famously saying “it is the first time the turkeys have voted for an early Christmas.” At the time he was certainly right; the SNP dropped from 11 MPs in 1974 to a mere two in the 1979 election. Who then would have foreseen Alex Salmond becoming First Minister in 2007, nor the SNP Westminster landslide of 2015? We are not even that good with short term predictions; in the review of the 1992 general election, political pundits predicted that Labour could never win a general election again, given their failure to unseat a deeply unpopular Conservative government in the middle of a global economic recession. To those of us reading the text in the light of Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide victory, the pundits seem astonishingly short-sighted!
Perhaps the most unlikely story of change concerns the seat of Gower in Wales. Gower had been held continuously by the Labour Party since 1900, and was just about as safe as a seat can be. In the 2015 General Election, Conservative candidate Byron Davies took the seat with a slender majority of 27 votes, with even the BBC admitting “this simply wasn’t on our radar as a possibility.” His success however, like all of the other successes, was not instant. It was built upon years of patient, and doubtless unthanked and unseen hard work. It was built upon people patiently voting for change, even though they feared it might never come.
So to all of us who are the Netflix generation, I leave you with this analogy for your vote: don’t feel you have to choose a TV series you dislike simply because you don’t have to wait for the next episode. Choose something that will delight and inspire you, and don’t be downhearted if you have to wait a while for the next series!
Daniel Stafford grew up in East Belfast and now lives Oxford. He is Deputy Chairman of Oxford East Conservative Party and works in the charitable sector.
Follow him on Twitter and find him on his personal website.