If the coalition wants to reduce NEETs, it should bring back EMA

Since the Education Maintenance Allowance was abolished, full-time attendance for 16-18-year-olds has fallen by 3.8 per cent.

"It should not be forgotten", wrote William Hazlitt in his classic essay On the Ignorance of the Learned, "that the least respectable character among modern politicians was the cleverest boy at Eton." This will never seem truer than from the discussion over the government’s plans to take benefits away from young people, only a week after an old Etonian proclaimed permanent austerity, and days after another says the super rich are a "put-on minority".

It seems perverse that when the number of NEETs in our country is larger than a city the size of Birmingham, the way to solve this problem is to further undermine them, while at the same time further enriching those whp benefit most from government policy.

What this represents is another crude right-wing attack on social security, portraying benefits not as part of a safety net to protect people, regardless of age, from market forces beyond their control, but as social stigma, handed down from on high to those deemed victims of their own fecklessness.

This unbalance in priorities is building up future costs. According to the government, the estimated cost across the lifetime of each 16-18 year old NEET equates to a £56,000 loss to the taxpayer, and a further £104,000 loss to the economy; and when combined and added up, the aggregate cost of all those classed as NEET is over £100bn.

Instead of talking tough on young people, the damage being done to them should be reconsidered. Evidence is slowly rising that austerity policies, such as the abolition Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), were a grave mistake by this government. From the Department for Education’s own data, for the second year since the EMA was abolished at the end of 2010, full-time attendance for 16-18-year-olds has fallen by 3.8 per cent. This equates to over 52,100 fewer students lost from the education system, with a potential cost of £8.3bn added to the taxpayer and the economy if they go on to be NEET.

This is the equivalent of filling the House of Commons Chamber more than 80 times over. It is bigger than the student body of both Oxford and Cambridge combined. And if it was assembled in one straight line, it would reach from Nick Clegg’s house in Putney to the door of No. 10 Downing Street, and almost back again.

Of course, it is too soon to prove with certainty that this is due to the scrapping of EMA alone. But it does suggest that the government has dangerously undermined an entire age group through policies such as this. And it provides fertile ground for the proposals by IPPR to fix "the broken school-to-work transition" with a 'youth allowance' and 'youth guarantee'.

But the way in which the reforms are presented risks chastising young people for problems they did not create and letting the super rich off the hook. For example, one chilling suggestion in the IPPR report is the withdrawal of Employment and Support Allowance from disabled young people, forcing them to take a near 40% cut in their incomes by instead claiming the 'youth allowance'. This is done chiefly to save money. It could prove penny wise, but pound foolish, if it makes recipients hostile to the scheme. 

As for Cameron and Osborne, in the week we found NEETs remain a city-sized problem, they must show young people in the Autumn Statement that they are respectable characters - and not just clever boys from Eton.

James Mills is a Labour researcher and led the Save EMA campaign

Protesting students carry a cardboard skip opposite Downing Street on March 16, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition