Why I don’t want to become part of the lost generation

Youth unemployment is scarring a whole cohort of young people.

My name is Ava Patel, I’m 23 and I have a degree in Journalism from Nottingham Trent University. After I graduated I spent over a year looking for jobs and I finally got one manning the phones in a call centre. I’ve not just been rejected for journalism jobs but for manual work too, including shelf-stacking at a well-known supermarket, despite being qualified and making all the effort to get the job. The most common reply I’d get to an email or an application form I’d spent about 45 minutes completing was “Due to the high number of applications your application has not been successful on this occasion. We cannot provide any feedback.” I read the same message so many times that when I finally got the call centre job, I was over the moon. I’d often get advisors at the Job Centre whilst I was claiming Job Seekers Allowance asking me why I was even there, to which I’d simply reply, “can’t get a job.”

Countless rejections without feedback started to chip away at my confidence but when I found out other graduates were struggling to find employment too, I realised it was less to do with me and more to do with the fact that there simply aren’t enough jobs for young people. We are becoming the lost generation, there are over a million of us searching for work. We do have qualifications, work experience and drive, but we do not have the jobs to apply them to.

I finally got a position to work to raise awareness of youth unemployment as part of this year’s Channel 4’s Battlefront Campaign to tackle youth unemployment. I’ve had the opportunity to attend the Lib Dem Conference and the recent Channel 4 News Class of 2012 event hosted by Jon Snow, with contributions across the political spectrum, from MPs Damian Collins, Stella Creasy, David Milliband and Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King. While the debate was heated and passionate, not enough solutions were put forward. The Youth Contract only goes so far and all the goodwill behind work experience, training and apprenticeships schemes does not lead to job creation. We can have all the work experience in the world, but it won’t help us if there isn’t a paid, full time job at the end of it. We as young people need long term job creation, not more initiatives that provide short term solutions.

When I got the job to be a Battlefront campaigner it felt like my hard work and persistence had paid off. It almost felt surreal to think someone out there wanted to employ me, wanted to see all I had to offer. Part of Channel 4’s education output, this year Battlefront is focussing on the single most important issue facing young people today – the fact that over one million 18- to 24-year-olds in the UK today, according to the Office of National Statistics, are without a job. Youth unemployment is no longer a problem, but a disaster. And this is exactly what I said in the interview process. Along with three other campaigners we’re raising awareness of the issue on camera and online and my aim is to get young peoples’ voices heard. For too long employers and politicians have been calling young people job shy and lazy but for the vast majority of us this simply isn’t true. My ultimate aim is to speak to politicians about how they can provide solutions to make the labour market more accessible to young people. The current government’s answers to youth unemployment via the Work Programme and Youth Contract do not guarantee jobs and do not offer a sustainable long term solution. We lose £5bn per year in taxes and the economy loses £10bn per year in economic output because young people aren’t working [pdf], a crisis our country cannot afford, especially in the current economic climate.

In the past year alone youth unemployment has risen by 41 per cent (pdf) and it rose again this month. Young people like me, my friends and other Battlefront campaigners are suffering scarring effects of long-term unemployment and planning ahead for a life where we will never earn as much as previous generations. It’s no longer enough to give token gestures as we slowly lose our self-esteem, that’s not the tag line we want for the class of 2012.

Ava Patel is a Channel 4 Battlefront campaigner

A woman walks past a jobs board in Liverpool. Photograph: Getty Images
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Celebrate Labour's electoral success - but don't forget the working class

The shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face. 

In the moment when the exit poll was released on 8 June, after seven weeks of slogging up and down the streets of Britain, dealing with scepticism, doubt and sometimes downright hostility, we felt a combination of relief, optimism, even euphoria.
 
This election broke wide open some assumptions that have constrained us on the left for too long; that the young won’t vote, that any one individual or political party is “unelectable”, that perceptions of both individuals, parties and even policies cannot change suddenly and dramatically. It reminded us that courage, ambition and hope are what’s needed and what have been missing from our politics, too often, for too long.
 
We have learnt to tread carefully and wear our values lightly. But in recent weeks we have remembered that our convictions can, as Jonathan Freedland once wrote, “bring hope flickering back to life” and meet the growing appetite for a politics that doesn’t simply rail against what is but aspires to build a world that is better.
 
In this election at least, it seems the final, anticipated fracture of Labour from its working-class base after Brexit did not materialise. Shortly before the snap election was called I wrote that while Brexit appeared to be Labour’s greatest weakness, it could just be our biggest strength, because: “consider what remain voting Tottenham and leave voting Wigan have in common: Labour… We will succeed if we seek the common ground shared by the decent, sensible majority, and more importantly, so will Britain.”
 
But consider this too. The Tories ran a terrible campaign. It was, without any doubt,the most inept, counter-productive campaign I’ve ever seen in British politics. The day their manifesto hit the headlines, even in our toughest neighbourhoods, we could feel change in the air. Arrogance is never rewarded by the British people and Theresa May has paid a price for it. Yet, despite a Tory manifesto that was a full, square attack on older people, the majority of over 65s still came out for the Tories.
 
And despite the growing relevance of freedom, internationalism and tolerance in an era characterised by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Liberal Democrats managed to become bystanders in the political debate. They stood on a platform that aimed to capture the support of those remain voters for whom Brexit is the major question, but neglected the rest. And they quite spectacularly failed to foresee that those who were intensely angered by May’s conversion to a little England, hard Brexit stance would vote tactically against the Tories. Over those seven weeks, they all but disappeared as a political force.
 
As Bob Dylan once said, "the times, they are a-changin" – and they will change again. The recent past has moved at extraordinary speed. The Brexit Referendum, the rise and retreat of nationalism, the election of Trump and his crushing unpopularity just a few months later, the reversal in fortunes for May and Jeremy Corbyn, the astonishing phenomenon of Emmanuel Macron and pro-European centrism, and the dramatic rise and sudden collapse of Ukip. Politics, as John Harris wrote last week, is now more fluid than ever. So now is the time, for hope yes, and for conviction too, but not for jubilation. We need some serious thinking. 
 
We should be cautious to rush to judgment. It is only two weeks since the exit poll sent shockwaves across the country. There is no comprehensive explanation for the multitude of motivations that delivered this election result and will not be for some time. But there are some early indictors that must make us think. 
 
After seven years of austerity, as John Curtice observes, the Tories made some of their biggest gains in some of the poorest areas of Britain. It is something I felt in all of the eight constituencies I campaigned in during the election. While the Labour vote rose significantly in towns like Wigan, so too did the Tory vote, despite little or no campaigning activity on the ground. As Rob Ford puts it, “Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales… Britain’s class politics has been turned completely upside down in 2017”.
 
To acknowledge the growing, longstanding scepticism of many working-class men, and women, towards Labour in towns across England is not to take away from the hard work and drive of the activists, advisers and politicians that helped to fuel such a dramatic turnaround for Labour during the short campaign. To have won considerable gains in wealthier suburbs is no small achievement. 
 
But if the future of Labour lies in a coalition between middle-class young professionals and the working class, what is the glue that binds? While there is shared agreement about investment in public services, how are those interests to be squared on areas like national security and immigration? I believe it can and must be done, but – as I said to conference when I was first elected seven years ago - it will demand that we begin with the difficult questions, not the easy ones.  
 
Just a few days before the election, statistics were released that pointed to a collapse in trade union membership. What does the decline of an organised Labour movement mean for who we are and what we can achieve? These are not new questions. They were posed by Eric Hobsbawm in his brilliant lecture, "The Forward March of Labour Halted" in 1979 - a challenge laid down in the year I was born. Now, 37 years on, we are no further down the road to answering it. 
 
The most dramatic finding from this election was the support Corbyn’s Labour party appears to have won from middle-class, young professionals. They said he couldn’t do it and quite stunningly it seems they were wrong. But a ComRes poll last week caught my eye – by a large margin those 30-44 year olds would favour a new centre-ground political party over the current political settlement. In an election where we returned strongly to two-party politics, it appears they moved to us. But what would a dynamic and renewed Liberal Democrat Party, or a British En Marche do to our support base?
 
After a hellish two years we have learnt in Labour, I hope, that unity matters. The public and private anger directed towards each other, whether the Labour leadership, the parliamentary Labour party or elected councillors, is desperately damaging and its (relative) absence in the campaign was important.
 
But unity is not the same as uniformity, and while two weeks ago I felt there was a real danger of historic fracture, now I believe the shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face, and must avoid. No one person, faction or party has ever had the monopoly on wisdom. The breadth of the Labour movement was and remains our greatest strength. 
 
Consider the Labour manifesto, which drew on every tradition across our movement and demanded that every part of the party had to compromise. Those broad traditions still matter and are still relevant because they hear and are attuned to different parts of Britain. Our country is changing and politics must catch up. The future will be negotiated, not imposed.
 
As we witness the age of "strong man" politics across the world, here in Britain our political culture has become angrier and more illiberal than at any time I can remember. The Brexit debate was characterised by rage, misinformation and a macho political culture that demanded that we abandon nuance and complexity, an understanding of one another and tolerance of different points of view.
 
But this is not where the future of Britain lies: it lies in pluralism. It lies in a politics that is nimbler, more fleet of foot, less constrained; a return to the great tradition of debate, evidence, experience and argument as a way to build broad coalitions and convince people; not shouting one another down, nor believing any of us are always right; an arena in which we listen as much as we speak; a political culture in which we are capable of forming alliances within and across party lines to achieve real, lasting change.
 
And ultimately that’s the prize: not just seek power but, to paraphrase a philosopher whose work inspired millions, in the end “the point is to change it”. We could sit tight in Labour and hope to see the current government fall apart. We might even inherit power, we could temporarily reverse some of the worst of the last seven years, but what then? If we have learnt anything from 13 years of Labour government it should be this: that to build lasting change is the hardest political task of all, and it requires now that we do not turn to the political culture, the tools or even the ideas of the past, but that we think hard about where the future of our movement and our country really lies. Now is not the time to sit back and celebrate. Now is the time to think.

 

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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