Summer has finally arrived in London. Beer gardens are packed, Lime bikes whizz through disgruntled traffic. There is a quiet optimism: the election is soon. For the first time that we can remember, we might not have a Tory government. Great, right? But for Gen Z, it isn’t that simple.

“Starmer’s a Left-leaning Tory in a red tie,” a 23-year-old medical student tells me. She’ll vote Labour, but only so that “the real Left will come in time”. One lad working in sales, celebrating his 24th birthday on the Bermondsey beer mile, takes it further: “Starmer has demonstrated authoritarian tendencies,” he insists (presumably I missed the speech where he advocated Führerprinzip). Another young woman, boozily reminiscing about Corbyn, remarks that the former Labour leader’s flirtation with Hezbollah was admissible as “the IRA were terrorists and we like them!” Later, she anxiously corrects the record, saying her concerns were that Starmer’s policies were “super Tony Blair New Labour”. “Also Palestine,” she adds.

Although Starmer is predicted to win a sizeable majority by battling for the centre ground, it seems that for Gen Z the choice to vote Labour, our age group’s electoral home, is shot through with guilt about relinquishing ideological purity. In 2019, 56% of 18 to 24-year-olds voted for Corbyn; Starmer is looking at a similarly strong 54% — but how many of these are holding their noses? In what will be the first general election in which many of this new generation vote, Starmer looms large as a symbol of Instagram idealism colliding with voter-friendly pragmatism. I suspect that it is precisely because progressives are a whisker away from power that the mainstream Left seems so, well, unfashionable.

What are young voters’ concerns? Many cannot forgive Starmer for refusing to take a hard line on Israel, or neglecting to adopt radical positions on gender. For me, the dropping of the £28 billion-a-year green pledge was among the greatest blows. There is no doubt that these concerns are both legitimate and personal.

My politics are not what they were when I was 18, throwing up on my brothel creepers at a Corbyn rally. But I do not resent my generation for having ambitious ideals, or even for staking our country’s political future on them. Starmer’s pointed silence on Gaza, for example, has come up again and again with young voters I question; passivity on this issue has undoubtedly been a bad look for a Labour Party which still relies heavily on the youth vote and surely trusts the electorate to be mature enough to distinguish between opposing Netanyahu and antisemitism.

During a panel event in February, Alastair Campbell told an audience member who was hesitant about voting for Starmer over his refusal to condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza: “Get off your high horse and vote Labour… There’s no such thing as a perfect candidate.” He observed that Starmer was probably considering his “political capital” with Joe Biden. But such realpolitik is unacceptable for many Gen Zs. Instead, we get statements like this: “It is in your self-interest to emotionally divest from the Labour Party,” which a friend posts on Instagram.

We should be deeply suspicious of a culture which throws up phrases such as this, imagining the slack-jawed doom scroller as a one-man institution with a spiritual investment portfolio. Labour will, I’m sure, be quaking in their boots at the likely ripples of political change resulting from “emotional divestment” (translation: smirking at the mention of Rachel Reeves in an Old Street smoking area). But the impotence of this protest is precisely the point: it is better to be pure and passive than sully your image with a party that contains a diversity of views on complex issues. This is the natural result of a culture of binary thinking (me woke, you Nazi!) which disingenuously sorts policy questions into “Tory” and “good”. For Gen Z, voting is another element of tribal identity-building which, as my friend’s story made unintentionally clear, is rooted in self-interest.

“Labour will, I’m sure, be quaking in their boots at the likely ripples of political change resulting from ’emotional divestment’”

If you’re young and on Instagram, I can guarantee that you have been bombarded with cutesy mock-ups with slogans such as Keir Starmer is Tory scum (courtesy of the account “Colourful Activist”) — set in a story-friendly border of spring flowers. As newspaper readers tank, these posts are what is truly pushing Gen Z pencils at the polling station: an Ofcom study in March found 71% of 16 to 24-year-olds got their news from social media, with the most common site — 44% — being Instagram. This is the realm of saintly slacktivists who have “done the work” in educating themselves through infographics. Calling a lifelong Labour member Tory scum works because it makes you feel good: it’s as if you see a truth that the lamestream are blind to; it makes you feel clever, and doesn’t require any further reading to inspire a ripple of knowing nods among your friends. But in reality it makes you little better than the Boomers who bleat: “They’re all idiots, the lot of them.” It’s a way of disengaging, neglecting responsibility and scurrying away from complexity with a smug grin.

Under Corbyn, Labour gained more votes than usual in safe seats. By moving to the centre, the party is hedging its bets and wooing more of the country. But moderation is not without risk: one problem with seeming like a “safe pair of hands” is that you must be willing to flirt with unsavoury international partners. For the shadow foreign secretary, this meant posting a cosy congratulations tweet on Wednesday to Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, following his re-election. David Lammy’s followers were less than enamoured by his fawning over the Hindu nationalist’s “historic third term”.

It is difficult to imagine a Corbyn administration producing such a tweet. Indeed, one of the big reasons why Labour lost in 2019 was that they weren’t trusted on national security. But for many young voters, to co-operate with — or be complicit in — a problematic foreign power is yet more proof of what others cannot see: that this Labour administration must be, in a word, scum.

The gender debate inspires a similar display of moral perfectionism. Labour’s refusal to condemn the Cass Report as a foaming piece of transphobic hatred is, in some circles, enough to turn off progressive voters who would rather leave the Tories and Reform to gobble up a Labour majority. It seems that to accommodate the intricacies of modern identity politics, Gen Z would require a party to perfectly align with every one of its obsessions instead of simply embracing pluralism. In such a climate, the concept of a broad church withers on the vine at the exact time when unity, rather than division, is sorely needed. The Fabian economist G.D.H. Cole advocated for a “broad human movement on behalf of the bottom dog”; such broadness seems totally incompatible with the brittle, sneering inflexibility of modern youth movements.

Many Gen Zs feel they cannot take the risk of engaging with a moderate reality rather than an ideologically pure fantasy, preferring to cling on to the what-could-have-been of Momentum, which spoiled before making a single difference. It may be the result of a fear of cancellation, of looking lame or fascist, but this ironically drives its proponents into a savage and inflexible political morality which is entirely intolerant of diverse views and the wisdom of realpolitik.

Starmer has sensibly steered clear of these psychodramas — and is instead conquering the statesmanlike centre ground. His PR victory over Sunak on Friday, after the Prime Minister left a D-Day event in Normandy early for an interview with ITV, crystallised this battle: “Rishi Sunak will have to answer for his choice,” he said. “For me, there was only one choice.” Starmer understands that the public’s yearning for conservatism is all about steadfastness and symbolism, and winning these skirmishes — though a million miles away from the issues rocking Gen Z — will matter most among undecided middle-aged voters.

Yet having suffered through the unelectable, incorrigible Corbyn years, it should be clear to progressives that a Labour which does not cling to “extreme” positions is the best, and only, way forward. Many friends, put off by Starmer’s moderation, intend to vote Green or for an independent to “send a message”. But to choose smaller parties in non-tactical “protest” is to insist on pointless perfectionism: such votes work best with proportional representation; we have first-past-the-post and, as a result, to vote independent out of spite is to piss in the wind.

Sticking your neck out for a party which is not perfect is a risk, and if and when the first scandal hits a future Labour government, those who shunned them can remain smugly unblemished. But do this at your peril: those lost votes may just be enough to dampen or squander the greatest opportunity a progressive party has had in years. The greatest problem for Gen Zs surveying their electoral options on 4 July will be that our old-school two-party system cannot keep up with the 1,000 online causes that buffet them each day. If politics has become swept up in identity-building, used as a mirror for our cherished individualism, then how can we expect young people to throw their weight behind something as messy and plural as a party?

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