Leader: Chronic joblessness has become the new normal across Europe

At home and across the continent, governments are failing to address the causes of youth unemployment.

The greatest achievement of the Keynesian governments that ruled postwar Europe was to banish the spectre of mass unemployment from a continent haunted by the memory of the 1930s. Any return to pre-war austerity was viewed as both politically and economically unthinkable. But today, chronic joblessness has become the new normal across Europe. Five years since the present crisis began, EU unemployment stands at 10.9 per cent (26.4 million) and youth unemployment at 23.2 per cent (5.5 million). As Danny Dorling writes on page 22, “Even where the youth unemployment rate is lowest, in Germany, unemployment accounts for one young adult in every 13; in Austria it is one in 11 and in the Netherlands one in nine. What we now call low youth unemployment rates were once the highest we had ever seen.”
 
In the UK, while a modest economic recovery is finally under way after three years of stagnation, youth joblessness rose by 15,000 in the most recent quarter to a dismal 973,000 (21.4 per cent). Of this total, 274,000 have been unemployed for over a year. The cost to the economy in higher benefit payments, lost tax revenues and wasted capacity runs into billions. For the individuals affected, the consequences are no less grave. History shows that those who suffer joblessness early in their lives are often permanently scarred, with the long-term unemployed working two months a year less, on average, and earning between £1,800 and £3,300 a year less after the age of 25.
 
While in opposition, the Conservatives rightly rebuked Labour for its failure significantly to reduce youth joblessness, which, even in the boom years, never fell below 12 per cent and began to rise as early as 2004. Yet in government they have made a bad problem worse. Upon entering office, the coalition cancelled the Future Jobs Fund (only for a subsequent Department for Work and Pensions study to show that it had been an unequivocal success, with a net benefit to the economy of £7,750 per participant) and abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance, which had ensured that thousands who might otherwise have joined the dole queue remained in full-time education. After youth unemployment rose to a record high of more than a million, the government responded by introducing the £1bn Youth Contract, promising employers wage subsidies worth £2,275 to take on 160,000 18-to-24- year-olds over the next three years. Since the programme was launched in June 2012, just 4,690 jobs have been created.
 
In the short term, a compulsory jobs guarantee – such as that promised by Labour –would help address the cyclical crisis, but in the long term more ambitious structural reform is required. This should not mean, as some on the right suggest, stricter curbs on immigration and cuts to pay and benefits for young people. A study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research found that, between 2004 and 2010, youth unemployment among domestic workers rose fastest in areas with low numbers of migrants, and economists have consistently failed to find any evidence that the minimum wage deters employers from taking on the young.
 
Instead, the coalition needs to focus on improving the range and quality of apprenticeships available to the 50 per cent of teenagers who do not go to university, a group that was woefully neglected by the Blair and Brown governments. At present, just one in three large companies and one in ten small companies offer apprenticeships. Despite evidence that investment in skills is the greatest inoculation against unemployment, the number of youth apprenticeships fell last year. To reverse this trend, the government, with its fondness for outsourcing, could begin by making the offer of apprenticeships a condition of receiving public-sector contracts.
 
As the economy stutters back into life, prompting hyperbolic talk of “boom Britain”, the greatest danger is that those left behind by the recovery will be forgotten. If the country is ever to return to something close to prosperity, we cannot afford to continue to waste the potential of so many of our young.
Unemployed young people on the streets of Athens. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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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.