Many graduates are stuck in low-skilled jobs Photo: Dan Kitwood
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The young are losing the battle of the generations – and it could get even worse

An ageing population is bad news for the young.

It’s fashionable to talk about young people’s great power to influence the general election. But the real story is how easy young people are to ignore - and the lack of impact they will have on May 7.

The last five years have remorselessly proved one thing: people who vote get stuff; non-voters don't get much. According to Ipsos-Mori, under-25s were 32% less likely than over-65s to vote in 2010. Young people have been paying a brutal price for this discrepancy ever since.

Contrary to the myth, this Parliament has not witnessed a ramping up in income inequality. But what has escalated is intergenerational inequality: the state is cossetting grandparents like never before while squeezing the young.

Almost every major spending decision of the last five years has followed this trend. What David Willletts observed five years ago – “The baby-boomers have concentrated wealth in the hands of their own generation” – is truer than ever today.

Working age social security has been cut. Investment in capital projects and infrastructure that would benefit young people has been slashed. All the while, over-65s have enjoyed unprecedented largesse: Sir Alan Sugar still gets his free bus pass and winter fuel allowance. Most extravagant of all is the triple lock – guaranteeing that pension will rise by whichever is highest out of inflation, average earnings or an annual rise of 2.5%. No other state benefit is treated so generously.

OAPs have been recession-proof, and left the entire burden of recession and public spending cuts for the working age population. After tax and benefits, the average pensioner household is 9.4% better off than in 2007-08 – but the average working-age household is 4.6% worse off.

Young people today are the most educated generation in history. But it doesn't matter: the notion that each generation will do better than the last has been shattered. Youth unemployment, though still greater than for other ages, is falling – but mainly because many graduates are doing jobs that do not require degrees. Over the last five years, real median earnings for 22-29-year-olds have fallen 12.7%. Hourly pay for 22-29 year-olds is now lower than at any time since 1998.

Perhaps nothing highlights intergenerational injustice quite like housing. We are used to hearing about the housing “crisis” – but a crisis is meant to have a decisive end-point, not drag interminably on. House prices rising inexorably are not inevitable: they are the result of successive governments failing to build enough houses. By driving up the value of homes, this suits the asset-rich old; for the young, the inertia on housing is a disaster. The “solution” offered this Parliament – the help-to-buy scheme that loads young people with more debt – is nothing of the sort, and the Conservative manifesto promise to ramp up right-to-buy threatens (as John Elledge brilliantly explained) to further depress supply and thereby make the housing crisis much worse. 

The Labour Party is making a great play of its offer to the young, especially its pledge to reduce tuition fees, funded by reducing tax relief on pensions for high earners. But the truth is that it is still shamelessly indulging the grey vote: while it would means-test the winter fuel allowance, saving a measly £100 million a year, it is committed to maintaining TV licenses, free bus passes and the triple lock for all pensioners. That means that, like the Conservatives, the only way it could cut is at the expense of the young. “Both main parties' commitments to ring-fence universal benefits for the over-65s while other generations are likely to suffer scythe-like cuts undermines any claims they may make about improving the lot of young people,” is the depressing verdict of Ashley Seager, the co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation.

It is alluring to think that the young just need to vote for this generational injustice to end. If only it were that simple: as Age UK showed by booing the Prime Minister last month, pensioners amount to a formidable political pressure group. And an ageing population means their voices are becoming ever more powerful: by 2020 over half of the electorate will be over 50 years of age. The only certainty for young people is that not voting will make it even worse. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser