The Lib Dems must make tackling long-term youth unemployment their mission

It is a moral duty as well as an economic necessity to do all we can to ensure that all young people are the best educated and well resourced in the world.

Liberal Democrats can be rightly proud of a number of things we’ve achieved in government, from taking millions of low-paid workers out of income tax and re-linking pensions to earnings, to helping children from low-income families via the Pupil Premium and introducing Equal Marriage. But it’s also true that some of our former voters have lost faith with us over some of the other things we’ve signed up to and we need to regain their trust.

We need to do that by setting out a clear vision of a Liberal Democrat Britain and what we would seek to do if given a further period of office. I believe the next great mission for the Liberal Democrats is clear. To give hope and the prospects of a brighter future to all of our young people.

Last week’s report by the Prince’s Trust, talking about the effects of long-term unemployment on young people, made for devastating reading. For those of us with a special interest in youth policy, it provides a salutary reminder- if one were needed - that the faltering economic recovery we are now starting to see has yet to be felt in many areas and by many people. The talents, enthusiasm and abilities of our young people are the best resource we have in our country. The country we’re building today- both its opportunities and its problems -will be inherited by them. It is, therefore, a moral duty as well as an economic necessity, to do all we can to ensure that all young people -whatever their background or current circumstances - are the best educated and well resourced in the world.

For its annual Youth Index, the Princes Trust interviewed 2,000 young people and their findings need not only to make national headlines - as they did last week- but also to ring alarm bells at the highest levels of both local and national government. They should be seen as a national emergency. The report states that almost a million young people are struggling to find a job across the UK, and that 40% of jobless young people have faced symptoms of mental illness as a result of being out of work.

It quotes a young lady, called Afsana, who says "I was unemployed for nearly three years. Being out of work stripped away my self-worth and I became severely depressed." It finds that one in three long-term unemployed young people have contemplated suicide and more than a quarter have experienced panic attacks. So providing new and better opportunities for young people is not only important for our country’s economic future but also for the wellbeing of the next generation.

Of course long-term youth unemployment is, tragically, nothing new. It has been steadily rising under successive governments but none have successfully, in a sustained way, addressed the problem. It has to be said, when it comes to the present coalition, that’s not for the want of trying. Thanks to Lib Dems being in government, the Youth Contract was introduced. Launched in April 2012, it will provide nearly half-a-million new opportunities for 18-to-24-year-olds, including apprenticeships and voluntary work experience placements. The scheme also marks a substantial increase in the support and help available to young people and offers potential financial incentives to firms that take on young people through JobCentre Plus or other government initiatives.

This is clearly a step in the right direction, but there has been some criticism of the Youth Contract not having had the take-up it should have done by now, so clearly there is work still to do in terms of getting the message out there to those who need to hear it most. Something else this government has done to make it easier for businesses to take on young people is to abolish employer National Insurance contributions for employees under 21 years of age. And, under the coalition, there has been a substantial rise in the number of apprenticeships being offered to young people and moves to make it much simpler for employers to take on apprentices. 

Each of these is a substantial step forward and shouldn’t be underestimated. However, that much more needs to be done is clearly undeniable. Two specific things I, personally, would like to see happen are as follows. Firstly, a return to mandatory face-to-face Careers Advice in schools. Ofsted recently found that around 75% of schools are failing to provide adequate careers advice to students.

Due to changes forced through by Michael Gove, schools themselves are now responsible for arranging careers advice for year 9 to 11 pupils, after the regrettable disbanding of Connexions in 2012, it no longer has to be face-to-face. Ofsted’s report, published in September last year, stated that, "...too few schools are providing careers guidance that meets the needs of all their students." It went on, "Very few of the (sixty) schools visited knew how to provide a service effectively or had the skills and expertise needed to provide a comprehensive service. Few schools had purchased an adequate service from external sources." And, "The information students received about careers was too narrow. Too many students were unaware of the wide range of occupations and careers they might consider."

This clearly needs to change and quickly. We need to make sure that further education, vocational qualifications and apprenticeships are given the same level of priority as potential options for young people as is going to university.

And, secondly, that no young person is just abandoned to their fate. I’ve seen media reports and heard first-hand that - if they break certain rules put in place by the government through the Job Centre- then so-called NEETs (young people not in employment, education or training) are denied Jobseeker's Allowance and end up not being on any government list, not monitored, helped and so on.

Now, of course, we all have to take responsibility for our own behaviour in our lives and if we break rules there are always consequences, but the state should never just turn its back on young people. There must always be a lifeline, a chance for a young person who might have taken the wrong path to make a turning and have a chance of fulfilling their potential and becoming a productive member of society.

Our economy will not properly recover until we’ve got the scourge of youth unemployment not only under control, but put into reverse. Unemployment is never "a price worth paying." For the sake of a whole generation - and ones to come - we need to make tackling long-term youth unemployment a national mission. One that should be led by the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat Borough and Parish Councillor in Leicestershire

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Owen Smith interview: “I’m pretty red”

The Labour leadership challenger is struggling to win over a left suspicious of his past. 

The south Wales valleys embody the history of the labour movement: its victories, its defeats, its heroes, its villains. It was this resonant location that Owen Smith chose for his speech on the morning of 22 August. Labour Party members had that day begun voting on whether the 46-year-old Pontypridd MP should replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.

“Our history, our party was literally hewed from the hillsides around where we sit today,” Smith told a small audience at the Ely Valley Miners Welfare Club in Tonyrefail, a short distance from his home. The Welshman cited the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, which ruled that trade unions could be sued for losses caused by industrial action. It was this decision that spurred on the establishment of a Labour Party in parliament to repeal the law (as it would do in 1906 in alliance with the Liberal government).

Smith spoke later of marching with miners from the Maerdy Colliery as a 14-year-old, on the day they returned to work at the end of the 1984-85 strike. “I saw that they were utterly unbowed,” he recalled. “But they were ultimately defeated.”

Such moments, he concluded, proved the need for Labour to win power and to maintain “a powerful voice in parliament” – something he believes Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of providing. On 28 June, less than a year after Corbyn’s landslide victory, 172 MPs (81 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party) endorsed a no-confidence motion in him. Sixty-five shadow ministers, including Smith (who was then the shadow work and pensions secretary), resigned from the front bench.

Yet though Smith enjoys the overwhelming backing of the PLP, few believe he will prevail among members. He achieved only 53 constituency nominations, against the leader’s 285. On social media, where internal party contests are increasingly decided, Smith’s reach is minuscule compared to that of Corbyn (who has 795,000 Facebook fans to his 14,000).

The day before Smith spoke in south Wales, he won the endorsement of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and Labour’s most senior elected politician. He was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband have trumpeted his cause. Yet Smith-supporting MPs fear that such declarations count for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

Corbyn’s allies and foes alike are already preparing for the aftermath of the leader’s anticipated victory. The former warn that rebel MPs put themselves at risk of deselection by members. In response, some have threatened privately to form a parliamentary breakaway group and bid for the status of the official opposition.

Smith, unsurprisingly, insists that he can win. “I think the CLP [Constituency Labour Party] nominations don’t truly reflect the views in CLPs,” he told me when we spoke after his 20-minute address. The challenger, dressed in his favoured combination of dark suit and open-necked white shirt, welcomed the black coffee proffered by his aide. “They reflect the fact that some of the people who are new members and are supportive of Jeremy were very organised . . .

“Anybody who knows the Labour Party knows that selections are very often won by the sleepers: the people who don’t go to CLP meetings and don’t necessarily shout from the rooftops.” Smith’s hopes rest on those who share Oscar Wilde’s view: “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many spare evenings.”

Cartoon: George Leigh

Smith first publicly revealed his leadership ambitions in an interview with me back in January. “It would be an incredible honour and privilege,” he said. I wrote then of a widespread view among Labour MPs that the next leader “will at least need to be from the party’s soft left to be acceptable to the party membership”. When the rebellion against Corbyn came, it was this consideration that proved decisive. Smith was embraced as a Miliband-esque socialist and a parliamentary “clean skin”, untainted by the New Labour years, having been elected in 2010. By contrast, his initial rival, Angela Eagle, had been an MP since 1992 and voted for the Iraq War.

However, Smith proved to have a more ambiguous past than some of his backers anticipated. Corbyn’s supporters swiftly unearthed a series of interviews from 2006 in which their opponent made a notably centrist pitch. Smith, then a by-election candidate in Blaenau Gwent, south Wales, defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq War), supported private-sector involvement in the National Health Service and praised city academies. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online.

Since then, he has struggled to reconcile these positions with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent.

“To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing’,” Smith told me. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be. My views haven’t really changed at all, I’m someone who has been on the left of the party.

“My dad [the Welsh historian Dai Smith] is someone who’s been on the left of the Labour movement all his life. I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

Yet a former shadow cabinet colleague told me that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings: “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

What Smith believes in most, some say, is himself. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described him as “one of the most ambitious career politicians I’ve met”. Others have dismissed him as a “Big Pharma lobbyist” because of his past as head of policy and government relations for Pfizer.

“I’m not ashamed that I had a life outside politics before I became an MP,” Smith told me. “Yes, I worked for Pfizer and I also worked as a BBC journalist and as an adviser to the last Labour government on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“People don’t want career politicians – they want men and women who have had experience of working in business and in the different sectors that make up our economy. Critics may use it against me, but my time in business has helped me understand what’s wrong with it and how we can make it work better.”

Corbyn’s supporters, however, allege that Smith’s left-wing pledges would not withstand contact with centrist colleagues. The degree to which the challenger has rebutted this charge shows that he recognises its potency.

He has offered to make Corbyn party president or chair if he wins, to allow Corbyn to act as “a guardian of Labour’s values”. In his speech, Smith vowed to increase member influence by making conference votes binding on the leadership.

Throughout the 1980s, another soft-left Welshman, Neil Kinnock, struggled to assert authority as the hard left retained control of vital bodies. Smith’s proposals risk replicating this conflict. But he told me that he would respect Labour’s conference even if it endorsed stances such as Trident abolition (Smith joined CND as a teenager but later renounced unilateralism). “I do think in order to reassure members that, under my leadership, we would listen hard to them and act in accordance with their views, conference does need to become sovereign once more,” he said.

Tony Benn’s dream of internal democracy appeared to be within reach. I asked Smith whether he would support other reforms such as a reduced MP nomination threshold for leadership candidates (Corbyn allies have proposed a cut from 15 per cent to 5 per cent). “All of these things can be debated,” he told me. “I’m not sure it should be 5 per cent: I need to look at it when we get closer to it. But I am convinced that the left needs to be able to put up candidates in this contest, I’ve always felt that.”

Smith’s assertion is contradicted by a colleague who described him as having been “furious”, “apoplectic” when Corbyn made the ballot last year (he supported Andy Burnham’s campaign).

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Smith is less equiovcal over the mandatory reselection of MPs. “That would be a really retrograde step for the party,” he told me. “It would be an uncomradely way for us to do business.” He is critical of the Corbyn-aligned group Momentum, some of whose members are spearheading deselection efforts. “I fear an attitude within Momentum that they are a separate organisation and they shouldn’t be,” he told me. “It’s hard to argue that they’re loyal and supportive if they’re organising a bloomin’ great really in the same town at the same time in competition to the Labour Party” (the group will hold its own four-day conference alongside Labour’s in Liverpool).

Some of those close to Corbyn, such as John McDonnell, have unhesitatingly described themselves as Marxists (in 2006, the shadow chancellor named Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as his “most significant” intellectual influences). I asked Smith whether he believed Labour could encompass such views. “Yes, I think we’ve always been a broad church and there have always been people who’ve come from that tradition,” he replied. “There are two broad traditions: the extra-parliamentary tradition, that has always seen parliament as a compromise and parliamentary socialism as a compromise, from [the trade unionist and theorist] Noah Ablett here in south Wales with The Miners’ Next Step through to Ed Miliband’s dad [Ralph, a Marxist historian] ... and the mainstream social democratic tradition that I came from.”

He added: “We’ve had this battle in the Labour Party over the ages, haven’t we? Except now I think it’s more serious because there is a very real danger, with Labour at such a low ebb and politics fragmented more broadly, and so many more parties and so many options for people and such a lesser tribal attachment to the Labour Party, that we can’t afford those fractures.

"If we splinter, there’s lot of other places for people to put their vote.”

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Though they will not say so publicly, some of Smith’s supporters believe Labour would remain unelectable under his leadership. A former shadow cabinet minister told me that he was offering a “warmed-up Ed Milibandism, which was rejected by the voters”. Smith naturally contests this analysis. “I don’t think that we lost the last election because we were too left-wing,” he said. “The proof is that the Tories have engaged in all sorts of these policies ... Theresa May’s opening speech upon becoming leader was to talk about social injustice, economic insecurity, lack of security in the workplace. Labour values, Labour words in a Tory mouth, evidence that the broad story we’re telling about Britain is right.”

Smith said that, unlike Corbyn, he would resign if he became leader and lost a confidence vote by MPs. “Yes - I would [resign]. We are a party that believes in parliamentary democracy and, as such, it is only right that the leader commands the support of his or her colleagues in the Commons.”

Should Corbyn win the contest, as expected, Smith will not return to the shadow cabinet but act as “a loyal backbencher”.  He pledges to resist any breakaway: “I'm Labour, I've always been Labour and I will never stop being Labour," he said. 

Speaking of his fear that Corbyn would seek to remain leader even if the party lost the next general election, he said: “I’m deeply worried about it. I think he’s determined to hang on come hell or high water. And what does that say about him? ... I think he is more concerned with his version of the Labour Party being sustained and being victorious than he is with the Labour Party being victorious in elections. I think he is actually prepared to sacrifice unity and victory - two great words that have traditionally been emblazoned on Labour banners through the ages - in order to secure control of the party.”

The trouble for Owen Smith is that, for all his combative talk and appeal to the left, he is trapped between his past pragmatism and his present radicalism. 

Tony Benn, Corbyn’s late mentor, divided politicians into “signposts” and “weathercocks”: those who shape opinion and those who are shaped by it. He would have branded Smith a “weathercock”. Even if he wins, Smith risks being remembered not as a politician who resolved his party’s contradictions, but as one who embodied them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser