The political class is finally waking up to the youth unemployment crisis

All the main parties now recognise that what is needed is not just an emergency response, but a more fundamental reconfiguration of the education to work transition.

It's not news that youth unemployment is one of the biggest problems the UK faces. Wednesday's labour market statistics showed that, while wages and living standards continue to stagnant, at the very least employment is holding up. The same is not true for the young; the youth unemployment rate edged up by 0.1 per cent, and shows no sign of starting to decline. But recent announcements from all political parties, and yesterday's publication of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s report, show a welcome appetite for the kind of wide-ranging reform needed.

Up to now the post-crisis response to this issue has been just that; a series of temporary measures, including 160,000 wage incentives for firms to hire youth, and three years of funding for work experience places. While apprenticeship numbers have increased, most of the new places have gone to the over 25s. But politicians of all stripes now recognise that what is needed is not just an emergency crisis response, but a more fundamental reconfiguration of the education to work transition. The coalition recently embarked on a wide ranging review of youth spending, Labour has announced a youth guarantee of work or training, and the Conservatives an obligation on young people to be either 'earning or learning'. While there is still a debate to be had on the specifics of each policy, broadly speaking the Labour and Conservative announcements at least recognise the fact that many young people are too far from the labour market to be expected to find work through the usual Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme offer, and need a more certain back-stop providing up-skilling and real, paid work experience.

Yesterday's report from Alan Milburn puts some much needed flesh on the bones of this reform agenda, sketching out some practical steps we could take to increase the employment chances of youth, picking up on many of the arguments and ideas suggested by my colleagues at IPPR. Firstly, it recognises that young people are not all alike. For those young people without prior work experience, the report suggests that the state should offer a 'participation payment' for those engaging in high quality work placements with training. This would improve the current traineeships policy, which provide a similar offer but with no compensation for the work-based element. For those with some experience of work, it advocates the adoption of a job guarantee to prevent young people staying on out of work benefits.

In addition, it recognises that too many young people leave school and simply drop off the map. A significant proportion of the UK’s NEETs are not claiming any out of work benefits and are therefore difficult to find and reengage. The Milburn report proposes two initial solutions: better monitoring of who is currently NEET and at risk of NEET-hood at a local level will certainly help, as will the introduction of a system similar to UCAS but aimed at those not going to university, in order to better signpost and link young people up with the work and training opportunities available to them.

The youth unemployment problem is still not solved. Much more work needs to be done to ensure that the training options mentioned above are of sufficient quality, and don’t just function as a warehouse for disadvantaged young people. Milburn’s target for half of all firms to be offering apprenticeships and work experience does not solve the currently poor targeting of apprenticeships on young people, and looks very ambitious given our low levels of firm involvement in youth training. But nonetheless we should welcome the fact that youth unemployment is very much still on the agenda, and that there is appetite for the kind of ambitious and wide-ranging reform needed. The current situation, with the labour market starting to recover in earnest but the young very much left behind, is simply not good enough.

"Too many young people leave school and simply drop off the map." Photograph: Getty Images.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.