No hope: youth unemployment is at crisis levels. Photo: Getty
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Owen Jones on The Condition of Britain: where is the left’s transformative programme?

The authors of IPPR’s The Condition of Britain offer a coherent plan and one that will be influential if the Labour Party triumphs in May.

The Condition of Britain: Strategies for Social Renewal
Kayte Lawton, Graeme Cooke, Nick Pearce
IPPR, 270pp, free download

What would Thatcherism have been without its think tanks and intellectual outriders? The policies and vision of the transformative Conservative governments of the 1980s did not come out of nowhere: they were decades in the making. After the founding fathers of neoliberalism met in the Swiss village of Mont Pèlerin in 1947 to have a grump about the collapse of laissez-faire economics, Tories spent decades plotting and formulating a fightback. In this country, the Institute of Economic Affairs was founded in 1955; the Centre for Policy Studies in 1974; the Adam Smith Institute in 1977. They not only laid the ideological foundations for privatisation, the stripping of trade union power and the slashing of taxes on the rich and corporate interests, but helped shift the terms of political debate. The left has been on the defensive and in intellectual retreat ever since.

It’s difficult not to look at the left’s grand new contributions to the debate through this prism. To be fair, The Condition of Britain, published by the centre-left think tank IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research), does not pretend to mirror the early neoliberals. It calls itself an “ambitious but pragmatic agenda for social renewal” and has two major inspirations: IPPR’s Commission on Social Justice, which laid the ground in 1994 for New Labour’s social policy, and the proposals of the Centre for Social Justice (no relation), which underpinned the Cameron-led Conservatives’ narrative on “broken Britain” and “the big society”. When elected Labour leader, Ed Miliband offered a blank sheet of paper. He has since doodled over much of it, but here is an attempt to paint a coherent picture. Has Milibandism finally been defined?

Sadly for the authors, their fully costed report has become best known for being tied to cutting benefits for young people. It’s not a fair description but the proposal that Miliband’s advisers seized on – and spun in a misplaced attempt to outflank the Tories on social security – was to replace Jobseeker’s Allowance with a means-tested youth allowance dependent on looking for work or training.

The authors are right that youth unemployment is a scourge. Being unemployed at a young age makes people more likely to stay unemployed or on lower wages for the rest of their lives. It fuels anxiety and depression and is a waste of talent and life. However, although The Condition of Britain is a document dealing with social rather than economic policy, this proposal strikes me as missing the point. Youth unemployment has doubled since I finished my A-levels in 2002. Nearly half of new university graduates now do non-graduate jobs, and the proportion of new engineering graduates taking unskilled work is roughly a quarter. 

The national crises of unemployment and underemployment – for young, older and disabled people alike – have everything to do with the stripping away of secure, middle-income jobs under both the Conservatives and New Labour, which has left us with an hourglass economy of middle-class professional jobs at the top and low-pay, low-skill jobs at the bottom. The authors know this but will point out that it lies outside the purview of a report on “social renewal”. Such a goal, though, is possible only if we deal with the economics. Separating the two is implausible and focusing on, say, having to train or lose benefits risks fuelling the narrative that individual behaviour – rather than a lack of secure jobs – is the problem.

Much of The Condition of Britain is a critique of Brownism, with its top-down approach, targets, redistribution through cash benefits, pulling levers, and so on. It is correct to argue that, despite the promise of rolling back the state, neoliberalism has gone hand in hand with a new form of statism. The failure to build homes has resulted in 95 per cent of the government’s housing budget being spent on rent subsidies, rather than construction. The proposal to lift the borrowing cap on local councils so that they can build – bringing down the social housing waiting list of five million, creating jobs, reducing housing benefit in the long term – is particularly welcome.

A shift in power to local authorities is also a positive approach. The report points out that Labour has little faith in councils – Hazel Blears once told me the party didn’t trust them to “wash the pots”. The proliferation of low wages has left workers dependent on the state through in-work benefits and not only has the government’s use of benefit sanctions driven the rise of food banks, but it is counterproductive if the aim is finding people lasting employment.

The report wants to expand free childcare – a crucial goal, given that, on average, roughly a quarter of British parents’ salary goes on childcare, unlike in Sweden, where it is capped at 3 per cent. But it suggests paying for this partly by making real-terms cuts (or a “cash freeze”) to child benefit: this is a key part of a proposed shift from cash benefits to services. Surely it would drive families into hardship, which is why Labour is rightly resisting it.

Many of the recommendations are welcome but – because The Condition of Britain is based on a premise of accepting austerity which some, like myself, reject – they are often funded by cuts elsewhere. The authors offer a coherent plan and one that will be influential if Miliband’s Labour Party triumphs in May. Yet I can’t help but look back with envy to the disciples of Mont Pèlerin: none of us on the left has yet offered the intellectual foundations for a transformative programme on the same scale. It is, I believe, sorely needed.

Owen Jones’s “The Establishment: and How They Get Away With It” will be published by Allen Lane in September (£16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era