Can the UK Solve Its Political Divide Over Coffee?
ENGLISH COFFEEHOUSES IN THE 17TH CENTURY were hubs for political discussion; places where people gathered to drink coffee, learn the news of the day, and chat about issues of mutual concern.
Now, Britain is seeing the tradition return. Except this time, the country’s youth are at the heart of it—and, contrary to the old days, it’s not just white, middle-class men who are invited to the discussion.
“We want to remove barriers that prevent young people from engaging in politics,” says Mete Coban. “The café works really well because you don’t feel like you have to wear a suit or have a preset of knowledge to talk about politics.”
Mete, 25, is the founder of My Life My Say (MLMS), a youth-led charity making young people’s voices heard in politics. He realized that while his peers were passionate about matters such as housing, living standards and jobs, they didn’t see traditional politics as a vehicle to address their concerns. That’s when MLMS introduced “Democracy Cafés,” bringing together 30-40 young people in coffee shops and providing them with the space to discuss issues they care about without being judged.
“There was a massive information deficit that needed to be addressed,” explains Mete. “Our education system doesn’t teach you how democracy works. You don’t have to be a politician to have knowledge about politics. The Democracy Cafés allow young people to talk about politics without feeling like the whole room is watching or feeling the need to attach themselves to a specific political party.”
Engaging underrepresented backgrounds
MLMS has run almost a hundred Democracy Cafés, with more than 80% taking place outside London. Their priority is to engage with young people from underrepresented backgrounds.
“The more diversity you have in the room, the more diverse thoughts it brings out,” Mete says. “Everyone brings a different life experience to the table and that’s extremely important.”
This is becoming increasingly relevant in Britain, where gang violence has consistently dominated headlines relating to young people. Recent Home Office figures indicate that the number of young people killed by knives rose by 50% in 2018. However, appearing on The Guardian’s “Week in Focus” podcast in March 2019, young people from some of London’s most deprived areas spoke out against the government’s lack of understanding about the root causes of knife crime, as well as their frustration at not having their voices heard on the matter. Initiatives like the Democracy Cafés can start to bridge the gap between out-of-touch decision makers and an alienated youth.
In 2018, MLMS’s Democracy Cafés were recognized by the UK Government at the National Democracy Awards with the “Changemaker of the Year” award, which goes to an organization that is making democracy more accessible to underrepresented communities.
“Yes, all young people are underrepresented,” says Mete. “However, you are even less represented if you’re a young person who is a woman, LGBT, from an ethnic minority, living in a deprived community, or disabled. Young people aren't this one, big homogenous group.”
Putting words into action
It’s important to MLMS that young people’s voices are genuinely taken into consideration, and not just used as a token to complete a tick box. This became increasingly important after the Brexit referendum.
“In terms of whether Brexit should happen, not happen, whether there should be a referendum, whether there should be Article 50 extension, that’s not something that we are involved in,” says Mete. “Our role is about providing a platform and amplifying youth demands.”
The six-person team has created a strong presence at the heart of British Parliament through their “All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on a Better Brexit for Young People,” which is made up of 42 MPs from across the political spectrum. They frequently work with leading parliamentarians, including Alistair Campbell, best known for being Tony Blair’s spokesperson, and Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
Mete sees this engagement with decision makers as crucial to MLMS’s success. “What we’re able to bring to the table is not just creating talking shops for young people to just talk and talk, but translating that into decision making processes,” he says. Young people attending Democracy Cafés are often engaging with politics for the first time, and if they feel as though their voices aren’t being heard by the right people, MLMS could run the risk of further disengaging them.
In March 2018, the focus of their APPG was changed to better reflect the current political climate; it now goes by the name of “Reuniting Britain Post-Brexit.”
“The country is becoming more divided between young and old, and between urban and rural,” explains Mete. “Irrespective of what happens with Brexit, we can't avoid those divisions. They’ve been exposed since the referendum and we need to start thinking about youth-led solutions.”
Through the APPG, MLMS hopes to continue championing young voices to the UK Government, the European Commission, the Mayor of London, the Scottish Government, and every other stakeholder in between.
Brexit and beyond
“Young people are definitely more likely to become involved in politics since Brexit,” Mete acknowledges. “It has started to politicize a generation in the UK. I don’t think many people know what Brexit is about—even the Government doesn’t really know what Brexit is about—but it’s enabled young people to think about their futures more.”
This isn’t specific to Britain. Recognizing that Brexit will impact young people across Europe, MLMS has hosted Democracy Cafés throughout the continent.
“We wanted to make sure that young Europeans’ voices are fed into the Brexit negotiations. Those who live across the continent will also be affected by what happens,” he continues.
Working in collaboration with the London School of Economics, they have since produced two reports outlining what young people, both in the UK and the EU, wanted from the Brexit negotiations.
Although MLMS sees Brexit as a unique opportunity to capitalize on people’s engagement with politics, Mete is clear that their work didn’t start and doesn’t end there. “Today it’s about Brexit, tomorrow it could be about how you rebalance Britain’s economy to make sure there’s jobs for young people. We’ll continue to be guided by what young people tell us to do.”
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue