Young Labour, Old Labour and the stubborn ignorance of reality from the right

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Next weekend is Young Labour’s annual conference. I’m no longer eligible to attend – and it’s with some relief that I’ve taken my place among the ranks of Old Labour (as national conference is returning to Manchester this year I shall be using my local knowledge to plan a fringe event involving cups of tea and a nice place to sit down) – but I still find myself thinking about what the political future holds for younger generations.

As part of his Reith Lectures series, economic historian and academic troll Niall Ferguson has been whining that ‘the young should welcome austerity‘. It’s a misleading piece which not only seeks at one point to conflate individual borrowing with national debt – ‘We bay for tougher regulation, though not of ourselves’, he says, to end an article which is exclusively about government borrowing – but insists that austerity is the only way to maintain the social contract between one generation and the next.

It’s disappointing to Ferguson that all these future taxpayers aren’t embracing their governments’ cuts – but he knows where to lay the blame. Like Dan Hannan, who once told the American media that the reason it’s politically difficult to cut the NHS is that so many British people are employed in it, Ferguson insists that ‘politicians who argue for cutting expenditures nearly always run into the well-organised opposition of one or both of two groups: recipients of public sector pay and recipients of government benefits.’ It’s Cristina Odone and the disability bullies all over again, and it’s just as stubbornly ignorant of the reality, which is this government and many abroad riding roughshod over the protests of millions. ‘Why aren’t we allowed to talk about cuts?’ has become the right’s new ‘Why aren’t we allowed to talk about immigration?’

I’m interested in the idea of a society as a partnership between generations. But the idea that our greatest betrayal of future generations is the legacy of government debt – or of government spending, as Ferguson seems to imply – only works if you believe that the greatest concern of future generations is how much tax they pay.

What is happening to the youngest people in societies where austerity policies are being enacted? In the UK, the removal of EMA and the Future Jobs Fund horrified us at the time, but now seems more like a warning shot. The lack of available housing and jobs, and the erosion of the welfare safety net, is affecting both school-leavers and young children. While Iain Duncan Smith asserts that child poverty is no longer about such narrow definitions as ‘having enough money to survive’, the last year has seen a 61% rise in the number of families with children forced to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Meanwhile in Greece, increasing numbers of families cannot afford to keep their children at all. Never mind the amount of tax they’ll pay when they’re older: the biggest concerns of the youngest people in Europe are how their families and homes will survive until then.

Over the weekend we got encouraging signs that Labour will seize the opportunity to start addressing those concerns, and to lay out an alternative vision for economic policy – both in the UK, with Jon Cruddas’ ambition to make Labour as bold and radical now as we were in 1945, and internationally, with the Holliband plan for ‘a conference of European centre-left leaders which will seek to release the “grip of centre-right austerity” and herald a new order of growth’.

Cruddas’ call for Britain to be rebuilt – not just in the fourth-sector-pathfinders meaning of the word but also literally, with actual bricks – offers more to young voters (and pre-voters) than the ‘cut pensions today for lower taxes tomorrow’ promise of austerity; and both he and Ed M are right to be optimistic about the party’s prospects.

That’s what I think, anyway – but it’s getting to the point where younger voters than me are the ones who will count. This evening Young Labour at their committee meeting will be narrowing down their campaign priorities from a variety of ideas submitted through their website, and are likely to take the issues of job creation and homelessness forward to be discussed at their conference this weekend.

The Labour Party has a number of opportunities to take advantage of. The international crisis is one; the Tories’ omnishambles of PR disasters is another, but more important is their failure to grasp the realities of life for the majority of the people their policies affect.

And Young Labour represent another opportunity – to bring those realities home to the Party, and to get out our message of an alternative to austerity not only to the voters on doorsteps but the voters (and future voters) on Facebook too. Or whatever they’re using instead of Facebook now. Don’t ask me, I’m far too old.

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