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

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.