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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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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