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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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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