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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 ...

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.