In search of the lost generation

Voting Lib Dem, burning effigies, being systematically ignored.

As a journalistically trained former claimant of the dole, I’ve been dispatched to certain vantage points in austerity Britain to reflect on the extent to which the young are being clobbered. Statistically, it’s a mauling. One in five young people are out of work. A quarter of graduates left university last year with no job to go to, despite being told that university was the key to a brighter future. Education Maintenance Allowance has been scrapped, university tuition fees trebled. Forty per cent cuts to housing benefit are removing steps from a ladder that enables young people from poorer backgrounds to compete for internships and jobs in the arts and charities sectors. Since coming to power, the coalition government has redrawn the relationship between rich and poor, old and young. On the 70th anniversary of William Beveridge’s landmark report, which outlined a whole raft of social security measures we’ve since come to accept as the basis of a just and fair society, universal benefits are being tightened or withdrawn while new obligations like mandatory work are reintroducing the spirit of the Victorian workhouse.

With claims that we’d be the first generation since the war to be poorer than our parents, and terms like “lost generation” being bandied around, as I set off on my assignment it feels as though I’ll be painting a picture of almost pornographic misery. But I’ve been getting to know some of the folks Iain Duncan Smith calls “these people” – as though sentencing a gang who violated his mother – when referring to the young unemployed, and some other people staring down the barrel. And the picture, while no St. Elmo’s Fire, offers some sad, infuriating and heartening pictures of young people doing what they’ve always done: trying to make it in conditions set by their parents’ generation.

When I go to Leicester, I hit Charles Street, the city’s gauntlet of economic decay. Derelict shopfronts scrape up against high-interest loan saloons. Careers centres are literally next door to temporary-work agencies. One building contains the offices of two sub-contractors of the government’s Work Programme, while another sub-contractor just down the way sends its staff out front to intimidate a journalist. And then, of course, down at the end of the boulevard of broken dreams, there’s the vomit-green beacon of the Jobcentre. You can stand in one place and see the young, the poor and the desperate bounce back and forth between these places like pinballs, as though some force larger than themselves is propelling them.

Here I meet Jamie Dollan, a 28-year-old stalwart of the welfare state, and Bilal Gill, 24, also unemployed. They are at music studio HQ Recording on work experience agreed by the Jobcentre. Before he found HQ, Gill was ordered to do mandatory work (for which he only received £56 a week Jobseeker’s Allowance) at the British Heart Foundation. “I’d go in for a shift from nine to five and all I did was cleaning,” he says. “It was boring. I didn’t do anything.” A band of youngsters have already tried to have mandatory-work schemes banned in the courts on human-rights grounds. But they lost. So the government carries on making people work for their dole money; what is often called workfare, or welfare-towork. The Jobcentre can make people work 30 hours a week for a month. But providers of the government’s Work Programme for the long-term unemployed can demand that people work for up to six months unpaid.

The official justification for this new form of workhouse is that the stubbornly unemployed have spent so much time watching daytime TV and making babies with people who are not their legal spouses that they don’t actually know what 9am looks like, so they need to spend a month familiarising themselves with harsher realities. These schemes are to be vastly expanded, with 70,000 people a year already on the Jobcentre’s Mandatory Work Activity scheme alone, despite the Department of Work and Pensions’ own statistics showing that workfare doesn’t help people into long-term employment. The real reason, then, is to do with a kind of patronising moralism that runs through the heart of government.

Cheered by the tabloids, and with public opinion on their side, our authoritarian leaders take great pride in kicking people out of bed for the sake of it. But Dollan broadly agrees with the concept. “I’d like them to chuck all the dossers off for a start. All the people that actually doss, you can tell. If I was in a situation where I had no income and was screwed, if I don’t pay my rent I’m out on the street, any job I’d be happy with. If they found a sausage-filling job or a shelf-stacking job they’d take it regardless because they need the money, so you can tell if they’re dossing or not.” True to his word, until his music career works out, Dollan, aka Jazz E Man, has secured himself a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. A lot of people would say a man from his background, who left school at 16, shouldn’t expect any better. His producer Chaser, referred to by his mother and Jobcentre advisers as Jamie Tarbert, is at least showing that there’s a middle ground between totally making it in a field like music and doing a menial job.

He describes himself as “a self-employed photographer, producer, videographer – I do everything.” He has his own web portal, justdoin’me.TV, which showcases local rap talent, and from which he hopes to be making money through hits and advertising. He explains: “I don’t think the Jobcentre actually understands this. Like, I’ve never mentioned anything to the Jobcentre about my music. If you say to them, ‘I’m a music producer, I make music videos,’ they’re not going to look at you realistically. They want you to go out and get a 40-hour-aweek job that’s going to pay you minimum wage. If I went in there today and said, ‘I’m starting my own company, I do music videos, it’s all on YouTube,’ they’re not going to take me serious, They need to be more knowledgeable about things people actually want to do, instead of just trying to force people to do what they want them to.” Ten minutes away, in the bar at De Montfort University, a journalism student and a history student are pondering their futures over £1.50 pints of Grolsch. The latter, 20-year-old Stephen Smith, from a working-class family in York, cuts a figure of resigned pessimism. “I will without question move back in with my parents when I finish uni. Just three more years where I can avoid working. I have no problem with saying that was my number-one intention for coming to uni. And then see if, from a very general degree like history, something jobwise comes out of it. It hasn’t as yet, and I don’t see it coming either, to be honest.” Smith seems to have sunk into a state of despondency. “I just feel like I have little to no ambition because I don’t see the point in it. I don’t care any more, really. I want to do well in my degree so that I know more when I come out of it. I’m not thinking about a job because there won’t be one.”

I ask Stephen if it’s a bad thing that so many people go to university – if people such as himself ought to not bother wasting their time. “Definitely,” he says. “I would have done something else if they’d told me this was going to happen.” When I speak to 22-year-old Lauren Gamble from Coventry, a graduate looking for work as an illustrator, she communicates as though filling out job applications has become so deeply embedded into her psyche that she is now an extension of her CV. “I feel quite confident that I will do well at finding a job within the creative industry,” she says. “However, I think that there will be a lot of ‘working my way up’ before I reach a point where I feel comfortable and completely happy. But I am fine with this, as I consider that I still have a lot to learn about my field. In fact, because the creative industry is constantly developing and evolving, there’s always something new to learn.” Gamble is currently living with her parents and working as a waitress. She doesn’t want to claim benefits, which is admirable. But she seems to have internalised her identity as a jobseeker, making her a list of qualifications and “skills”.

In north London, I visit the home of some graduates trying to make the leap from unpaid work to paid work. It’s the kind of house that is so smothered with damp that the toilet paper is soggy. The ceilings have been known to collapse. The ten people who live here get a lot of chest problems, and one of them has had bronchitis, probably as a result of the damp. There’s asbestos in the basement, but they’re afraid of reporting their landlady to the council in case she terminates the contract, because they can’t afford to move. Rose Leifer, 23, is on the dole and claims housing benefit. She’s been unemployed since September after finishing her MA in Human Rights, and is currently volunteering at a refugee centre, even though she currently lives in conditions not too dissimilar from that of a refugee. “I want to get a job but I don’t want to go back to bar work, waitressing,” she says. “I want to actually get a job that I want. But for that to happen, I need experience, so that’s why I’m doing the volunteering.

“Basically, I’m not a scrounger. I’m someone that has worked before, is going to work in the future. Jobseeker’s (Allowance) is for people that are looking for work that they want to do. I’m not like someone that’s going to be on Jobseeker’s for their whole life. Anyone could become unemployed at any moment, and they will go on to Jobseeker’s. It doesn’t change who they are. That’s what it’s there for. It’s for people that have paid tax and are going to pay tax in the future.”

That part about the dole being for people looking for work they want to do isn’t true. While the Jobcentre allows people to look for work in their specialist area for a while, it then tells you to “broaden your job goals”, which means applying for monkey work. Leifer is lucky to have an adviser who lets her get away with this, but maybe not so lucky that she can’t afford to move from a house that is making her ill. It’s sad and frustrating. While George Osborne says young people ought to live with their parents instead of claiming benefits, he doesn’t understand how different life is for people who would have to do that. As much as he likes to portray it this way, housing benefit isn’t a means for people to live it up – in most cases, like Leifer, they’re barely surviving. His plan to scrap housing benefit for under-25s is grossly unfair: it ignores the fact that not every young person has parents willing or able to let them occupy a bedroom, and disadvantages people who, like Leifer, will in all likelihood pay back what they receive in taxes if they’re given the opportunity to get their foot on the ladder.

For people like Leifer, and myself, it’s been a lifeline. And yet, while the political parties tear themselves to pieces over the withdrawal of universal benefits for themselves – child tax-credit and winter fuel allowance – plans to withdraw this universal benefit for the young and needy are cheered in conference halls and opinion pages, just like mandatory-work schemes. As I near the end of my journey, it’s ironic that I find one of the more plausible answers to my questions in a book written by a Tory politician. In 2010 David Willetts, now the universities minister, published The Pinch, subtitled How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – and Why They Should Give It Back. He argues that his generation reaped the rewards of globalisation by taking advantage of cheap foreign labour, filling up pension pots and buying up large swathes of available housing, and then left their children to fight it out in the cracks of a crumbling empire. It’s one of the most infuriating analyses of the current situation, not because it’s packed full of lies and misrepresentations like a lot of government literature, but because it’s true. Of course, it’s based on a selective memory of recent history. Willetts should, for instance, have mentioned something about getting a free university education himself, then becoming the universities minister and trebling fees to £9,000 a year. Talk about hoisting the ladder up after you’ve climbed it.

When I started writing about unemployment for Dazed Digital under the pseudonym Emus Clod, I wanted to give people subjected to this kind of intergenerational bullying a say. And I wanted them to stop blaming themselves. Because as much as the Tories like to point and laugh at our sorry excuse for an opposition party when they bring up crazy ideas like social justice in parliament – like cartoon bullies – it’s no laughing matter. It’s rewriting the social contract without giving us a place at the negotiating table. For so many young people, the nearest thing to having a say was voting Liberal Democrat in 2010; then burning effigies of Nick Clegg when he turned out to be full of shit; and then rioting for reasons we’re told have nothing to do with being systematically ignored. As I see it, the fact that the Jobcentres are busier than a few years ago isn’t the biggest problem here. Our youth unemployment is mild compared with places like Spain and Greece. It’s the fact that the whole system, from the government down to Jobcentre advisers, treats a large section of the population as an attitude to be changed. They’re a blight to be cured, or if they really do continue to resist, a voice to be ignored. The people in charge would just love it if everybody caved in and consented to mandatory work, got themselves a job they hated and became good little taxpayers to help funnel money into the banks’ bailout fund. Let’s not give them the satisfaction of seeing us do it.

This article first appeared in Dazed and Confused.

Photograph: Getty Images

Lewis G. Parker writes regularly for Dazed & Confused

Photo: Getty
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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.