Parties are forever chasing the youth vote, but it’s during election season when the power of young political supporters is at its height. Branko Marcetic meets the leaders of the parties’ youth wings – and finds them fired up and ready to go.
The various political party youth wings are a little like the small forks you get at fancy restaurants. Everyone knows they exist and serve some purpose, but when pressed, few could tell you exactly what that is.
Most people’s familiarity with the youth wings is fairly slight. They might have seen their leaders debating on Back Benches and at various university campuses around the country. Perhaps they will have seen their booths on campuses with eager young representatives on the prowl for potential converts. And there’s a good chance they’ve seen them in the news from time to time, when the youth wings screw up and create headlines.
This is about where most people’s experience with, and knowledge of, the party youth wings stops. Yet the youth wings serve a significant role in the wider party structure, particularly as the election comes to a head. Chances are, at two months out from the election, you’re going to increasingly be seeing and interacting with members of the youth wings, even if you don’t know it.
Come election season, the youth parties – made up of eager volunteers who typically have more spare time and enthusiasm than the average member – are the footsoldiers on the front lines, doing the unglamourous grunt work that wins elections. Door-knocking, handing out leaflets, cold-calling, attending campaign events and public meetings.
“We’re always probably the biggest boots on the ground in any election,” says Stefan Sunde, president of the Young Nats.
Likewise, when Labour’s candidate for East Coast went door-knocking in Gisborne, says Young Labour President Matt Van Wijk, Young Labour did a road trip down to the city to campaign for her, and stayed at a local marae.
Such campaign work is the most visible role of the youth wings, and probably one they’re most identified with in the public eye. But they also have another, less visible role, influencing party policies and pushing their party to move on certain issues.
This allows for some diversity in terms of age. Sunde, for instance, is 24 and works full time in international tax consulting alongside his presidenting duties with the Young Nats. The Young Greens, meanwhile, have had an actual MP, Gareth Hughes, 35, representing them in parliament since 2014 (though following this election, Hughes will be knocked out of the age range for qualifying as a Young Green).
The youth wings themselves either don’t collect demographic information on their members, or are hesitant to give it out. Still, it’s clear that the bulk of youth wing membership is significantly younger than these two examples.
“Universities are a hot spot for Young Labour, particularly the major five,” says Van Wijk, though adding that Young Labour also has chapters in areas like the Kapiti Coast and Gisborne.
Likewise, Sunde admits his situation is not the norm in the Young Nats. “The vast bulk of our membership, nationally and regionally, are university students,” he says.
This isn’t to mention the even starker age gap between youth wing membership and party caucuses: the majority of MPs are over 50.
This is a key point to keep in mind for the youth wings’ other mission: pushing their parties in a more progressive direction on certain issues.
The youth wings invariably view themselves occupying a two-way street within their respective parties. On the one hand, they’re there sell the parties to young voters. On the other, they’re a conduit for younger voters to make their views known to the wider parties.
Given that youth wings are significantly younger than the rest of the party, it’s no surprise they’re often out ahead on certain key issues. Most recently, the Young Greens, Young Nats, Young Māori Party and Young Labour have all come out in support of Generation Zero’s ‘Zero Carbon Act’, proposed legislation that would mandate a system of legally binding “carbon budgets” to bring carbon emissions to zero by 2050. None of the national parties – not even the Greens – have endorsed the plan, though different parties have come out in favour of certain elements of it.
Generation Zero launched an effort to get the youth wings’ support for the Act, first unsurprisingly winning the support of the Young Greens, before getting the support of others.
“Generation Zero reached out to our national team and did a presentation about it,” says Sunde. The Young Nats, he says, opened the issue up to their membership, split between five regions, and all five were in favour of it to varying degrees.
The cross-party support for the proposal is reminiscent of the similar cross-party push among the youth wings in favour of Louisa Wall’s marriage equality bill in 2012, as well as their teaming up for the Keep It 18 campaign in 2010 and 2006, uniting against the attempt to raise the drinking age.
“We spent an enormous amount of effort lobbying to keep the drinking age 18,” says Sunde. “On a number of key issues, we will put a lot of pressure on MPs.”
“We’ll have to wait and see whether [the Zero Carbon Act] makes it into the manifesto, but we are working hard internally to make sure the party takes that into account,” says Van Wijk.
By their own account, the youth wings are more involved in policy formation than most people would realise. “Young Greens are a centre of vibrant discussion,” says Young Greens co-convenor Elliot Crossan. “Our policies are member-led, so it’s really important for members to get the views of Young Greens.”
The most high-profile way youth wings influence policy is by putting forward remits at the annual party conferences, a process that varies among the parties. For instance, the Young Nats, according to Sunde, have a policy team. After developing a policy, they will try and get as broad support as possible among the Young Nats’ five regions, before going to a nationwide platform. This year, this resulted in a remit to increase the amount of the student living cost allowance passing the conference floor.
But it’s the youth wings’ behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts on certain issues that represent perhaps their most consequential – and invisible – influence on the parties. According to youth wing leaders, MPs regularly consult the youth wings on issues like tertiary policy, and in turn, the youth wings aren’t shy about making their positions known and trying to move the wider party closer toward them.
It seems to work. At the close of July 2012, for instance, Steven Joyce said marriage equality was “not exactly the biggest issue of the day” and that he hadn’t “given it a moment’s thought.” From August onward, however, he ended up voting for the bill in all three of its readings. Sunde also points to the tenancy law changes that necessitated working smoke alarms, which he credits the Young Nats from the central North Island with putting on the table.
Yet there are also a number of issues on which the parties and their youth wings depart.
Intraparty disagreements and squabbles are very rarely aired in the public eye. Nonetheless, some significant fissures have opened up from time to time between the national parties and their generally more progressive youth membership.
Perhaps the most high-profile case was earlier this year, when a Young Labour member wrote an open letter to the party’s ruling council calling for Willie Jackson’s reinstatement to be blocked, citing his on-air treatment of a Roastbusters rape victim, his stated discomfort with homosexuality and his advocacy for charter schools.
Young Labour’s president at the time said the letter came from a sole member and wasn’t endorsed by the rest of the youth wing. Yet the incident mirrored previous schisms. After Young Labour put forward a proposal for publicly funded gender reassignment surgery in 2015, Labour MPs quickly shot it down. Labour leader Andrew Little said he was “quite happy with my gender,” while former Mt Albert MP David Shearer said it wasn’t a “hardcore Labour policy.”
Young Labour is unapologetic about its social progressivism. In the past it’s pushed for unisex toilets at the University of Waikato, called for people to donate pads and tampons to needy women, and pushed for the decrminalisation of abortion as early as 2013, an issue party members supported referring to the Law Commission, but that is still largely languishing today. These bold stances have at times put them odds with the generally older, more conservative party leadership.
The divide over Jackson and gender reassignment reflects the wider split in the party over the extent to which it should champion more progressive social stances. It was only six years ago that Labour MP Damien O’Connor complained the party was being run by “self-serving unionists and a gaggle of gays,” and four years since the party unceremoniously dumped a proposal for gender parity in the party, labelling it a “man ban.”
It’s not just social issues that the youth wing differs with the party leadership on, though. Back in July 2015, Young Labour stated that “the 90-day trial must be repealed.” Yet despite saying much the same prior to 2014, now ex-Labour leader Andrew Little ended up taking a less harsh stance toward the policy once taking charge of the party.
Labour’s not the only party that’s seen divisions. Though it’s largely been kept out of the public eye, the Green party experienced a quiet schism over the party’s right turn on immigration, particularly among its youth wing.
The same day Greens leader James Shaw announced the party’s policy of capping immigration at 1% of population growth, Ricardo Menéndez-March, one of the Young Greens’ co-conveners at the time, re-tweeted a tweet by Spinoff contributor Morgan Godfery: “I only have two immigration reckons: 1. immigration isn’t a problem; 2. the problem is an economy that doesn’t provide enough for everyone,” a subtle signal of disagreement. He would continue to tweet and re-tweet statements against “scapegoating migrants.”
Menéndez-March and Crossan confirm that there was internal disagreement over the policy. “Prominent young members did contribute to policy on immigration review, but also to conversations with members to the point where we got Shaw to backtrack,” says Menéndez-March. “There’s a new generation of migrant, Māori and Pasifika members who led that conversation.”
“I think there’s a really important role in youth wings in holding the party to account, and making sure the party stays progressive and in touch with young people,” says Crossan.
Menéndez-March put it a little differently at a July event hosted by the Young Greens. “When we talk about scapegoating migrants, the only reason the Greens got where we are was because we heard from the public and our members,” he told the crowd of young supporters. “Call us on our shit.”
This makes sense, given that, as Crossan says, Young Greens tend to have “an activist background” and are frequently involved in protests.
“The Green Party more broadly understands that direct action and electionism are completely linked and you can’t have change without pressure from below and ordinary people,” he says.
When Shaw recently apologised and scrapped the policy, the Young Greens and Menéndez-March put up nearly identical Facebook posts celebrating that the Greens’ “own up to our mistakes and come out stronger than ever.” Even so, a difference in approach between the Young Greens and the wider party remains: When MPs Kennedy Graham and David Clendon resigned last week, the Young Greens co-convenor tweeted, “fuck Kennedy and David, tbh,” which Shaw had to condemn as “inappropriate” at a press conference later that day.
National, too, has seen its share of disagreements. Most notably, in 2015, the Young Nats joined a broad chorus of voices calling for the Key government to increase the refugee quota. In 2013, it supported Labour’s Animal Welfare Amendment Bill to ban testing of psychoactive substances on animals, calling the government’s law that allowed such practices “cruel and insane.”
The Young Nats’ shift to social progressivism has largely been beneficial for the organisation. Through the late 90s, the Young Nats were viewed, in the words of The Press, as “young fuddy-duddies.” Its membership was flagging and it was in the midst of an “image crisis,” according to the Waikato Times. Today, its Facebook page is the most popular of the youth wings.
Its current vocal support for socially progressive causes continues an image overhaul that began in 2000, when they got the party to pass remits calling for equal rights for same-sex couples and decriminalisation of soliciting prostitution.
This social progressivism only goes so far, however. When Victoria University’s Salient Magazine asked the youth wings whether abortion should be removed from the Crimes Act, the university’s Labour and Greens organisations simply replied, “Yes.” The Young Nats, by contrast, offered a multi-paragraph explanation of why it was a conscience issue that they had no official position on.
In many ways, the youth wings tend to act as the conscience of their respective parties, pushing them in a more progressive, tolerant direction and, in some cases, helping keep them in line with their core values. While there are always multitudes of factors that go into influencing a party’s direction, it’s clear one can’t write off the influence of its younger members.
As the election unfolds, New Zealanders will likely see and hear from more of the parties’ youth membership in the next several weeks than they will over the next few years. Yet even as they return to the background after this September, they may no longer be seen, but they will most definitely continue to be heard within their respective parties.