The scandal of the lost generation

Why are so many young people unable to get a job or a place at university?

A friend of mine has been rejected by the university of her choice, despite last week having achieved three As at A-level. What's going on?

In my Sunday Mirror column today, I write about this and about how there are nearly one million unemployed young people in Britain aged between 16 and 24, at least 100,000 of whom are graduates. We are grappling with the consequences of a demographic spike: a mini-baby boom at the end of the 1980s means that there are many more young people in Britain aged 20 than there are those aged ten or 30.

Because of high unemployment, especially among the young, and because of Labour's misguided top-down prescriptions and stipulations on student numbers, university applications are rising. But there aren't enough places to meet the demand. The result is that we are creating a "lost generation" of young people who cannot get a job or a place at university.

In addition, of course, many graduates are burdened by debt in the form of student loans -- read my estimable colleague Laurie Penny on this. It's as if we have set up a committee with the sole purpose of creating an education system that deliberately discriminates against the least well-off.

Why even aspire to go to university when you know you will leave in debt and then struggle to find a job afterwards? It's all right if you have rich parents to support you through your student years and then on through the restlessness and uncertainty that can follow. But only the fortunate few can say that.

Our system of educational apartheid, in which the richest 10 per cent or so buy themselves out of the state sector, is already the most unfair in Europe. The abolition of the grammar schools merely contributed to the unfairness, as the admirable Conservative MP Graham Brady understands. If you've got money, you can buy a good education in Britain and all the advantages that follow. If you haven't, good luck.

The move to create the new A-level grade of A* will further privilege the rich and discriminate against state schools. As Peter Wilby writes in this week's issue of the New Statesman magazine: "The proportion of exam candidates from fee-paying schools awarded an A* is at least three times higher than the proportion from state schools."

It is scandalous that, in its 13 years of power, New Labour did not abolish the charitable status of public schools. These schools are businesses, many of them with extensive landowning interests, and they should be taxed as such.

Now, against the backdrop of the great recession and because of the coming spending cuts, universities are sure to contract. Signs saying "We're full up" are being pinned to campus gates all over the country.

Pity the lost generation.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.