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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Unite stewards urge members to back Owen Smith

In a letter to Unite members, the officials have called for a vote for the longshot candidate.

29 Unite officials have broken ranks and thrown their weight behind Owen Smith’s longshot bid for the Labour leadership in an open letter to their members.

The officials serve as stewards, conveners and negotiators in Britain’s aerospace and shipbuilding industries, and are believed in part to be driven by Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding opposition to the nuclear deterrent and defence spending more generally.

In the letter to Unite members, who are believed to have been signed up in large numbers to vote in the Labour leadership race, the stewards highlight Smith’s support for extra funding in the NHS and his vision for an industrial strategy.

Corbyn was endorsed by Unite, Labour's largest affliated union and the largest trades union in the country, following votes by Unite's ruling executive committee and policy conference. 

Although few expect the intervention to have a decisive role in the Labour leadership, regarded as a formality for Corbyn, the opposition of Unite workers in these industries may prove significant in Len McCluskey’s bid to be re-elected as general secretary of Unite.


The full letter is below:

Britain needs a Labour Government to defend jobs, industry and skills and to promote strong trade unions. As convenors and shop stewards in the manufacturing, defence, aerospace and energy sectors we believe that Owen Smith is the best candidate to lead the Labour Party in opposition and in government.

Owen has made clear his support for the industries we work in. He has spelt out his vision for an industrial strategy which supports great British businesses: investing in infrastructure, research and development, skills and training. He has set out ways to back British industry with new procurement rules to protect jobs and contracts from being outsourced to the lowest bidder. He has demanded a seat at the table during the Brexit negotiations to defend trade union and workers’ rights. Defending manufacturing jobs threatened by Brexit must be at the forefront of the negotiations. He has called for the final deal to be put to the British people via a second referendum or at a general election.

But Owen has also talked about the issues which affect our families and our communities. Investing £60 billion extra over 5 years in the NHS funded through new taxes on the wealthiest. Building 300,000 new homes a year over 5 years, half of which should be social housing. Investing in Sure Start schemes by scrapping the charitable status of private schools. That’s why we are backing Owen.

The Labour Party is at a crossroads. We cannot ignore reality – we need to be radical but we also need to be credible – capable of winning the support of the British people. We need an effective Opposition and we need a Labour Government to put policies into practice that will defend our members’ and their families’ interests. That’s why we are backing Owen.

Steve Hibbert, Convenor Rolls Royce, Derby
Howard Turner, Senior Steward, Walter Frank & Sons Limited
Danny Coleman, Branch Secretary, GE Aviation, Wales
Karl Daly, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Nigel Stott, Convenor, BASSA, British Airways
John Brough, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
John Bennett, Site Convenor, Babcock Marine, Devonport, Plymouth
Kevin Langford, Mechanical Convenor, Babcock, Devonport, Plymouth
John McAllister, Convenor, Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services
Garry Andrews, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Sunderland
Steve Froggatt, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Jim McGivern, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Alan Bird, Chairman & Senior Rep, Rolls Royce, Derby
Raymond Duguid, Convenor, Babcock, Rosyth
Steve Duke, Senior Staff Rep, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
Paul Welsh, Works Convenor, Brush Electrical Machines, Loughborough
Bob Holmes, Manual Convenor, BAE Systems, Warton, Lancs
Simon Hemmings, Staff Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Mick Forbes, Works Convenor, GKN, Birmingham
Ian Bestwick, Chief Negotiator, Rolls Royce Submarines, Derby
Mark Barron, Senior Staff Rep, Pallion, Sunderland
Ian Hodgkison, Chief Negotiator, PCO, Rolls Royce
Joe O’Gorman, Convenor, BAE Systems, Maritime Services, Portsmouth
Azza Samms, Manual Workers Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Dave Thompson, Staff Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Tim Griffiths, Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Paul Blake, Convenor, Princess Yachts, Plymouth
Steve Jones, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Bristol
Colin Gosling, Senior Rep, Siemens Traffic Solutions, Poole

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.