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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Zac Goldsmith has bitten off more than he can chew

In standing as an independent, Goldsmith may face the worst of both worlds. 

After just 48 years, we can announce the very late arrival of the third runway at Heathrow. Assuming, that is, that it makes its way past the legal challenge from five local councils and Greenpeace, the consultation with local residents, and the financial worries of the big airlines. And that's not counting the political struggles...

While the Times leads with the logistical headaches - "Heathrow runway may be built over motorway" is their splash, the political hurdles dominate most of this morning’s papers

"Tory rebels let fly on Heathrow" says the i's frontpage, while the FT goes for "Prominent Tories lead challenge to May on Heathrow expansion". Although Justine Greening, a May loyalist to her fingertips, has limited herself to a critical blogpost, Boris Johnson has said the project is "undeliverable" and will lead to London becoming "a city of planes". 

But May’s real headache is Zac Goldsmith, who has quit, triggering a by-election in his seat of Richmond Park, in which he will stand as an anti-Heathrow candidate.  "Heathrow forces May into Brexit by-election" is the Telegraph's splash. 

CCHQ has decided to duck out of the contest entirely, leaving Goldsmith running as the Conservative candidate in all but name, against the Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney. 

What are Goldsmith's chances? To win the seat, the Liberal Democrats would need a 19.3 per cent swing from the Conservatives - and in Witney, they got exactly that.

They will also find it easier to squeeze the third-placed Labour vote than they did in Witney, where they started the race in fourth place. They will find that task all the easier if the calls for Labour to stand aside are heeded by the party leadership. In any case, that Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds have all declared that they should will be a boost for Olney even if she does face a Labour candidate.  

The Liberal Democrats are fond of leaflets warning that their rivals “cannot win here” and thanks to Witney they have one ready made.  

Goldsmith risks having the worst of all worlds. I'm waiting to hear whether or not the Conservatives will make their resources freely available to Goldsmith, but it is hard to see how, without taking an axe to data protection laws, he can make use of Conservative VoterID or information gathered in his doomed mayoral campaign. 

But in any case, the Liberal Democrats will still be able to paint him as the Brexit candidate and the preferred choice of the pro-Heathrow Prime Minister, as he is. I think Goldsmith will find he has bitten more than he can chew this time.

This article originally appeared in today's Morning Call, your essential email covering everything you need to know about British politics and today's news. You can subscribe for free here.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.