Youth, empathy and placards

Yesterday’s unemployment figures are a serious indictment of the failure of the Government’s economic policy. Although parliament was in recess as youth unemployment crashed through the one million mark, the media gave the story a fair wind. Chris Grayling, the DWP’s Minister for Bad News, toured Westminster’s Millbank studios blaming the Eurozone crisis for spiralling unemployment. It’s a fresher ‘line to take’ than blaming the snow or the Royal Wedding, but it crumbled to dust under the lightest of scrutiny.

Matthew Oakeshott, the former Labour special adviser, Kenyan government economist and now Lib Dem peer, suggested that Grayling needed a crash course in economics:

“All economists know it [unemployment] is a lagging indicator so this is the result of what has been happening in our economy over the past year.”

Oakeshott studied PPE at Oxford; Grayling studied history at Cambridge. Who you gonna believe?

A million young people on the dole is more than a terrible symbol. Research by Paul Gregg at Bristol University demonstrates a causal link between being unemployed when young, and earning less, being more likely to be unemployed again, and being ill in later life. This link takes into account other factors such as region, education and family background. Being unemployed when you’re young doesn’t merely ruin the best years of your life, when life has the most to offer; it often ruins the rest of your life as well.

As Liam Byrne was swift to point out yesterday on Huffington Post, the leap in youth unemployment since January is a direct result of ministers’ policy decisions: to abolish education maintenance allowance (EMA), to scrap the future jobs fund (FJF) and to skew apprenticeships towards older workers.

In “The Slump” by John Stevenson and Chris Cook, the historians ask the question why there was so little serious public disorder and bloody revolt against mass unemployment in the 1930s. They suggest one reason was that the unemployed

“could see no appropriate action to take in the face of a crisis which seemed almost beyond human control and for which no-one seemed to have an obvious answer.”

In the Great Depression, long-term unemployment was highly localised, on specific towns and sub-regions. Read Ellen Wilkinson’s “The Town that Was Murdered” to see how a town such as Jarrow could be crushed by unemployment. Yet most of the country was doing okay, and some places such as Slough or Dagenham were booming with new industries and factories.

Yesterday’s figures suggest youth unemployment is up everywhere, in every community. It is not caused by forces beyond our control, nor is it localised on places where historic industries such as ship-building have collapsed. Therefore we should be angry because spiralling youth unemployment is being spurred by government policies, and in the absence of a U-turn, is just going to get worse. Towards the end of next year, it is probable unemployment reaches three million, with perhaps half of that figure being people aged 16-24.

Labour came into office in 1997 with a pledge to tackle youth unemployment: ‘We will get 250,000 young unemployed off benefit and into work.’ The programme of work, training and education was funded by a windfall tax on the bloated profits of the privatised gas, water and electricity companies. Who says New Labour wasn’t radical? Youth unemployment fell after 1997, and only rose again after the collapse of Lehman Bros in 2008. It was falling again when the Conservatives came back into office in 2010.

A decade of work to reduce youth unemployment has been undone in a few months. It’s a salutary reminder about why Labour governments are better than Tory ones, if you care about the fabric of society. It’s a powerful answer to those that suggest the political parties are all the same. But it also teaches us an important lesson about the nature of social change. A century ago the Fabians talked about the ‘inevitability of gradualness’. The 1974 Labour manifesto promised to ‘bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families.’ But the rise in youth unemployment shows there is nothing inevitable about social progress, and nothing irreversible about the gains made after 1997. Each painful step towards a fairer, more egalitarian society can be reversed in a moment.

A generation of young people is learning the hard way that high unemployment is the hallmark of a Conservative government. The real tragedy is that until the Labour Party can get its act together to win an election, we will have little to offer them apart from empathy and placards.

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