Remain need some better tunes – and memes

PUBLISHED: 13:00 23 March 2018

Pro-EU protesters taking part in a March for Europe rally against Brexit in Parliament Square, central London. Picture date: Saturday 25 March, 2017. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/ EMPICS Entertainment.

Pro-EU protesters taking part in a March for Europe rally against Brexit in Parliament Square, central London. Picture date: Saturday 25 March, 2017. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/ EMPICS Entertainment.

Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

The young stand to lose the most from Brexit. But, ahead of a series of anti-Brexit events this weekend, 16-year-old activist LEO BUCKLEY offers a rallying cry

I have just turned 16, and I’ll be marching again this Saturday. But why am I the only young person I know who cares? And what can be done to motivate the rest?

You don’t need anyone to tell you about the awful ramifications of Brexit, let alone a 16-year-old.

It’s been nearly a year since I stood on Parliament Green, probably with many of you, to protest the triggering of Article 50. That year has offered nothing to suggest that leaving the European Union will result in anything but catastrophic self-harm. And for a young person, whose generation will be left struggling with the consequences of this orgy of imperialist nostalgia, the taste is especially bitter.

The prospects of a second referendum seem to be growing – a bit. But the Remain movement must ensure it doesn’t take young people for granted the way it did in 2016. And despite the stark future we face, I see among my peers no burning determination to support change – even though most of them say they oppose Brexit.

The indifference stems, I think, from two major problems. The first is youth apathy, not a new issue, and it won’t change substantially any time soon. The second is a major, unpalatable fact that we must urgently face: the right has better rhetoric.

You don’t want to be the technocrat droning on about Euro-economics – you want to be the cool guy yelling, “Independence Day!”

The young like Europe. They like fellowship, cooperation, optimism. So what is the narrative that will lift their hearts, will make them angry, determined Remainers? How can Remain get the kind of wind in its sails that Momentum has so successfully achieved with Labour?

Momentum is, I believe, the clue: they are masters of social media. And when it comes to wining the youth vote, the side with the savviest memes wins. The sheer exposure to social media in my generation is staggering – 96pc of 16-24 year-old own a smart phone. It’s a given that we don’t read newspapers (I read this one – the exception that proves the rule), but even television is kind of Stone Age to the young. Social media and YouTube swallow up our days. Look at how online exposure made Seven Nation Army Jeremy Corbyn’s anthem within days: vast numbers of Momentum-affiliated kids Tweeted it 24/7 – and it stuck.

But while Momentum is a great example of youth motivation, the right and alt right still have the best tunes – by which I mean, the best memes.

A meme is most commonly a funny image, often a cultural or political reference, which evolves to gain new meanings though repeated posting. On the political right, some successful memes have proved insidious, and cumulative. They start with jokes, often attacking political correctness (those whiney old liberals!) or just generally poking fun. They lead, by series of attractive-seeming, apparently open-minded propositions, towards that strange zone where libertarianism meets intolerance. They worm themselves into the group consciousness. They change attitudes. They affect voting intentions.

Memes can’t do it all on their own, but across huge swathes of social media there’s almost no alternative. The right own the debate. Their ability to present their arguments in succinct, seemingly logical, coherent soundbites perfectly fits internet dissemination and consumption. The demagoguery and jokey politically incorrect coolness of much of the right is lapped up by a generation who like arguments that draw blood. Being constantly on attack. The stab of the verbal stiletto. The anti-EU, ant-immigration factoid. The immediate collapse of the enemy – before anything resembling reasoned debate is in danger of occurring. Truth, tragically, is increasingly irrelevant; perception matters more – and the left is perceived as the loser.

In the run-up to Trump’s election, groups on websites like 4-chan churned out memes that became millions of re-posts. It may seem absurd to suggest that moments of internet comedy could have such wide-reaching effect, but in practice, they are insidious and effective.

The point is this: the good guys – Remain – need some quality rhetoric of our own. This isn’t stooping into the gutter, it’s playing hard-ball, serious politics. It’s about raising consciousness with genuine arguments, not cynical dross. It might mean getting closer to the soundbite than the technocratic know-it-all. But we have the facts on our side. Let’s convert them into messages that are cool, intelligent, snappy, and funny. Lines that will win the conversation at the water cooler, the Starbucks and, yes – the playground.

If we do this, if we engage the young, then stopping Brexit will be easier – to the tune of hundreds of thousands of new Remain-voters every year.

• Leo Buckley represents Hampshire in the UK Youth Parliament.

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