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Respect our elders? No chance, writes Laurie Penny

The government's new youth strategy is nothing but spin.

The government's new youth strategy is nothing but spin.

It is some testament to the awfulness of Christmas telly this year that I took time out in between the Queen's message, the Archbishop's sermon and one of the most mawkishly pointless episodes of Doctor Who ever broadcast to read the blurb behind the government's new "Positive For Youth" strategy.

After twelve months of devastating cuts to schools, universities and youth services, a million unemployed 18-24 year olds and voiceless, frustrated young people burning and looting in the inner cities, it would be nice to think that someone has finally decided to start taking an interest in the generation currently on the cusp of adulthood.

Unfortunately, there's nothing new about this strategy but the spin. Precisely no additional funding is being allocated for youth services - the plan is just an involved way of making it look as though there is. Meanwhile, fresh research has revealed that schools across the country are being forced to cut frontline services, from extra-curricular activities to arts, music and careers services. Thousands of careers advisors have been laid off, and presumably some of them had not yet reached the stage of rocking, crying and inviting young jobseekers to pray with them over the latest unemployment forecasts. Local councils are also slashing their provisions for young people, from youth clubs to special needs grants.

At every level of government, youth services are the first to go when cuts are imposed, because they have few measurable outcomes - meaning that by the time the damage done can be properly tallied, the political careers of the current administration will be beyond scrutiny.

Instead, the "Positive for Youth" strategy echoes the Queen, the Archbishop and the rest of the Westminster machine in replacing actual ideas with lots of rhetorical flourishes about duty, family and responsibility. There is much talk of "listening to" young people - which is all to the good, as young people in Britain today have some fairly urgent about education and economic policy, some of which have been written on the Treasury wall in spraypaint for the attention of ministers - but no coherent plans to actually take any of their concerns into account. One young participant told me that teenagers who were consulted in drawing up the document had to fight to get phrases like "young people will learn to respect authority and their elders" removed, but the sentiment is still there in the meat of the text.

As we move into 2012, with all the old certainties disintegrating into the scurf of yesterday's consensus, the message to young people is simple: please, just don't kick off anymore. We may not have done anything to deserve your respect, but respect us anyway, or we'll send in the police. Sit down and shut up. Sois jeune et tais-toi.

There is no strategy here for the future, because there doesn't need to be. Nobody votes for the future anymore. For at least thirty years, politicians have played to a lexicon of temporary, individual self-interest and short-term profit. Even today, those who talk of decreasing the deficit through austerity measures have quietly ceased to speak the language of long-term growth. Nobody is investing in young people, in the environment, in infrastructure, in education, in any of the things that might make us - in an addictive little phrase I picked up at Occupy Wall Street - "good ancestors".

Instead, all the current crop of politicians seems to be able to do is beg and bully the young and disenfranchised into giving them respect. The riots were a gift, because they allowed the centre-right to frame social breakdown in terms of delinquency rather than despair. Nonetheless, I can think of few historical moments where respect for our elders has been less appropriate. From government cuts to the Eurozone crisis to the meltdown of the Durban climate talks, the political elite is fairly obviously making a total hash of almost everything they're in charge of.

Respecting them at this point would not only be unfitting - it would be downright foolish.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.