The kids are alright. Photo: OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images
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Generation why: Georgia Gould's Wasted shows an alternative view of Britain's youth

Young people are characterised as apathetic and wasteful; but the young drink less and commit less crime. Wasted: How Misunderstanding Young Britain Threatens Our Future reveals the truth.

Wasted: How Misunderstanding Young Britain Threatens Our Future
Georgia Gould
Little, Brown, 416pp, £14.99

When Britain’s young are portrayed at all, it is rarely in a positive or accurate way: an apathetic blob only interested in voting when it’s The X Factor; an über-consumerist cohort of self-interested brats; a rabble of Asbo thugs in need of ever-tighter social control; or a homogeneous tribe screwed over by Baby Boomers. Any attempt to puncture such corrosive stereotypes has to be welcomed and the workaholic politico Georgia Gould rails persuasively against the persistent attempts to scapegoat Generation Y for the ills of society. Wasted is the product of detailed research and interviews with an impressive variety of young people and policy wonks. A shame, then, that it retreats into the mushy centrism and, on occasion, technocratic babble of High New Labour.

Gould is open about the influence of her father, who died of cancer in 2011. Philip Gould pioneered New Labour’s much-satirised reliance on focus groups. The defence was that such a practice was instrumental in broadening Labour’s limited electoral appeal, forcing the party to understand neglected “Middle England” voices. But it was all part of Blairism’s rejection of the transformative approach offered by Attleeism and Thatcherism, one that contrasted sharply with Thatcher’s aims in the aftermath of her historic 1979 triumph: “We have to move this country in a new direction, to change the way we look at things, to create a wholly new attitude of mind.”

It is difficult to avoid regarding this book as something of a reinvention. In 2009, Georgia Gould was a 22-year-old Blairite running in the divisive race to become Labour’s candidate for Erith and Thamesmead. But after allegations that the party hierarchy had attempted to manipulate the election in her favour, she was defeated. It’s the sort of politics you would, frankly, expect to feed young people’s cynicism.

Gould is commendably honest about her privileges. A leading London Labour councillor, she says she stood on the steps of Downing Street as a child. Yet she uses her level of engagement – from trade union membership to being a school governor – to make a point. I am the freak, the exception, she is saying. In our post-Thatcherite, atomised society, young people have retreated from traditional organisational forms.

There is no discussion of the likes of UK Uncut, a national movement dominated by young people who occupied businesses and successfully forced tax avoidance on to the agenda. The student protests and occupations of dozens of universities that followed the coalition’s assumption of power were among the greatest mobilisations of young people in a generation. And the independence referendum in Scotland politicised many young Scots, demonstrating that Generation Y can become organised if a meaningful choice were on offer. These examples are uncomfortable for someone of Gould’s centrist persuasion but they are ample evidence of the potential for grass-roots politics among Britain’s young.

The best material comes from Gould’s interviews with figures such as the 21-year-old Franklyn Addo, who grew up on the Pembury Estate in Hackney and attracted media attention when he turned down a place at Cambridge. When it comes to social problems among young people, Addo says, there is “a mixture of structural factors and individual responsibility, but I come down on the side of structure”. Gould finds “some of the greatest passion, anger and desire for change” among the working-class young. She slays media myths, pointing out that today’s young people drink less, take less drugs, commit less crime and are less likely to have children as teenagers. She notes declining support for redistribution but rightly points out, “This generation has never heard mainstream politicians advocate redistribution or champion the welfare state,” suggesting Labour did achieve much redistribution but it “didn’t shout about it”.

Gould is right that trade union membership among young people is at dire levels but she offers a technocratic future: working “with employers to provide opportunities for training, networking, representation and empowerment, creating a more skilled and motivated workforce”. Meet-and-greets plus skilling up, in other words. Yes, trade unions desperately need a new organising model that takes into account the precarious nature of employment in the next generation. But as a result of the weakness of unions, wages were falling before Lehman Brothers came crashing down, even as corporate profits boomed, increasing dependence on benefits and personal debt. For all our sakes, we need unions to confront employers on behalf of underpaid workers, not become their servile adjuncts.

Some of Gould’s proposals are welcome, particularly in dealing with a housing crisis caused by the state’s abdication of responsibility to a failed market: giving local authorities the power to borrow to build, for example. But too much of the book reads like a cross between policy wonkery and a marketing pitch. I can imagine a sharp-suited management consultant declaring, “Individuals are increasingly used to a tailored experience and expect this in more and more spheres of life.” This begs the question: who is this written for? For young people? I suspect not.

There are those of us who believe that a society in which the richest 1,000 can double their wealth while a million people are driven to food banks is fundamentally bankrupt. A return to New Labourism – whose modest social achievements were all too easily undermined or swept away altogether – simply will not do.

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 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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Sadiq Khan likely to be most popular Labour leader, YouGov finds

The Mayor of London was unusual in being both well-known, and not hated. 

Sadiq Khan is the Labour politician most likely to be popular as a party leader, a YouGov survey has suggested.

The pollsters looked at prominent Labour politicians and asked the public about two factors - their awareness of the individual, and how much they liked them. 

For most Labour politicians, being well-known also correlated with being disliked. A full 94 per cent of respondents had heard of Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour leader. But when those who liked him were balanced out against those who did, his net likeability rating was -40, the lowest of any of the Labour cohort. 

By contast, the Labour backbencher and former army man Dan Jarvis was the most popular, with a net likeability rating of -1. But he also was one of the least well-known.

Just four politicians managed to straddle the sweet spot of being less disliked and more well-known. These included former Labour leadership contestants Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, and Hilary Benn. 

But the man who beat them all was Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of Lodon. 

YouGov's Chris Curtis said that in terms of likeability Khan "outstrips almost everyone else". But since Khan only took up his post last year, he is unlikely to be able to run in an imminent Labour contest.

For this reason, Curtis suggested that party members unhappy with the status quo would be better rallying around one of the lesser known MPs, such as Lisa Nandy, Jarvis or the shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer. 

He said: "Being largely unknown may also give them the opportunity to shape their own image and give them more space to rejuvenate the Labour brand."

Another lesser-known MP hovering just behind this cohort in the likeability scores is Clive Lewis, a former journalist and army reservist, who served in Afghanistan. 

Lewis, along with Nandy, has supported the idea of a progressive alliance between Labour and other opposition parties, but alienated Labour's more Eurosceptic wing when he quit the frontbench over the Article 50 vote.

There is nevertheless space for a wildcard. The YouGov rating system rewards those who manage to achieve the greatest support and least antagonism, rather than divisive politicians who might nevertheless command deep support.

Chuku Umunna, for example, is liked by a larger share of respondents than Jarvis, but is also disliked by a significant group of respondents. 

However, any aspiring Labour leader should heed this warning - after Corbyn, the most unpopular Labour politician was the former leader, Ed Miliband. 

Who are YouGov's future Labour leaders?

Dan Jarvis

Jarvis, a former paratrooper who lost his wife to cancer, is a Westminster favourite but less known to the wider world. As MP for Barnsley Central he has been warning about the threat of Ukip for some time, and called Labour's ambiguous immigration policy "toxic". 

Lisa Nandy

Nandy, the MP for Wigan, has been whispered as a possible successor, but did not stand in the 2015 Labour leadership election. (She did joke to the New Statesman "see if I pull out a secret plan in a few years' time"). Like Lewis, Nandy has written in favour of a progressive alliance. On immigration, she has stressed the solidarity between different groups on low wages, a position that might placate the pro-immigration membership. 

Keir Starmer

As shadow Brexit minister and a former director of public prosecutions, Starmer is a widely-respected policy heavyweight. He joined the mass resignation after Brexit, but rejoined the shadow cabinet and has been praised for his clarity of thought. As the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, though, he must fight charges of being a "metropolitan elite". 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.