Students protesting against higher tuition fees in 2010. Photo: Getty
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Leader: We need a progressive contract, not conflict between the generations

The creation of such a generational war is precisely the intention of Conservative policy, but it is a dividing line that progressives should be wary of embracing.

One does not need to study Conservative policy for long to identify the group the party is most concerned with attracting. The year began with David Cameron promising to maintain the “triple lock” on the state pension, so that it rises in line with whichever is highest – inflation, earnings or 2.5 per cent – for the entirety of the next parliament.

Then, with a Lawsonian flourish, George Osborne used the Budget to announce the end of all restrictions to accessing private pension pots and the introduction of new high-interest state bonds for the retired. Finally, at an event hosted by Saga magazine on 24 March, Mr Cameron suggested that the Tories would repeat their past pledge to raise the inheritance-tax threshold to £1m at the next general election (so far unfulfilled this parliament) and came close to ruling out the means-testing of universal benefits for the wealthy elderly.

Whatever the merits and demerits of these proposals, they all derive from cold electoral logic: pensioners are more inclined to vote. At the 2010 general election, 76 per cent of those over 65 voted, more than any other age group. Conversely, just 44 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds did, a smaller percentage than any other age group.

In the case of the young, the cap on tuition fees has been tripled to £9,000, the Education Maintenance Allowance has been abolished and the Future Jobs Fund has been scrapped. In the case of the old, the state pension has been increased, universal benefits have been ring-fenced and NHS funding has been protected. Even as they pledged to shield the elderly from austerity in the next parliament, the Tories have vowed to extend it for the young. Mr Osborne has signalled his intention to abolish housing benefit for the under-25s and the universities minister, David Willetts, has hinted at another rise in tuition fees.

Faced with this inequality, many respond by urging not more generous treatment of the young but less generous treatment of the old. Benefits, they argue, should be restricted to all but the most needy and the state pension should no longer be protected. The creation of such a generational war is precisely the intention of Conservative policy. It allows the Tories to frame themselves as the party of responsible pensioners, in contrast to Labour, the party of the feckless young.

It is a dividing line that progressives should be wary of embracing. Contrary to works such as Mr Willetts’s The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Stole Their Children’s Future and Why They Should Give It Back (a rift ironically encouraged by his higher education policies), the divisions within generations remain more significant than those between them. As a study published in February called Intergenerational and Intragenerational Equity by the economist Jonathan Portes concluded: “The circumstances of your birth and early life (who your parents are, education, gender, ability, effort and just plain luck) still matter far more – indeed, more so than before – than when you were born.”

Rather than a battle between young and old, the age of austerity is defined by a battle between rich and poor. Under the last Labour government, 900,000 pensioners were lifted out of poverty but 17 per cent of over-65s still fall below the line; the UK ranks 23rd out of 27 European countries. Having fallen by 800,000 between 1997 and 2010, child poverty is forecast to rise by 600,000 by 2015. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned, “Despite the impact of universal credit, the overall impact of reforms introduced since April 2010 is to increase the level of income poverty in each and every year from 2010 to 2020.”

To combat these ills, rather than a race to the bottom between the young and the old we need a progressive contract between the generations. This would include the introduction of universal childcare to allow more parents to return to work and to improve early-years outcomes, the integration of health and social care to end the so-called warehousing of the elderly, and the introduction of a mansion tax and land value tax to ensure that all those, young and old, benefiting from rising property prices contribute in return. In addition, the deracinated plutocrats who are buying up swaths of London must be brought into taxation through wealth and asset taxes. As politicians seek to divide them, here is an agenda all generations can unite around.

The NS debate at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 5 April will see Shiv Malik, Laurie Penny, Simon Heffer, Kwasi Kwarteng, Mansoor Hamayun and Allison Pearson discuss the motion "this house believes that baby boomers left society worse than they found it". For more details and tickets visit cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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