This week, the election got underway with much fanfare about the ‘most closely ever’ contested campaign, and both David Cameron & Ed Miliband warning dramatically from the campaign trail that a ‘stark choice’ and ‘two futures’ lie ahead for the electorate. There’s onegroup of voters, however, for whom this portrait of a vibrant democracy at work could not be further from the truth.
Over the past few months Barnardo’s has been asking the vulnerable young people that it works with how they feel about the forthcoming election.
“Politics is for richer, older people”, is one comment we’ve heard repeatedly, along with ‘they’re all the same’, and followed depressingly by “why should I even vote?”. The sad reality is that for this group of voters, who are young, largely on welfare and facing difficulties finding work, there has been very, very little announced so far in the way of political offering that would be likely to change their minds.
They are, for example, exactly the group who’ll be ignored by Labour’s pledge today of 80,000 ‘youth apprenticeships’ – but only for those academically privileged enough to have two A Levels. Similarly, they are the voters who’ll be hit hardest by the Conservative Party’s recent proposals to make unemployed 18-21 year olds ‘do community service’ or lose benefits.
The idea that all school leavers face a stark choice between fecklessness & employment, punishment and reward, is an enduring political theme. It’s a simple moral narrative that’s changed little since the 1982 call to get ‘On Yer Bike’, and has re-surfaced in the run-up to this election in the welter of proposals from across the political spectrum which aim to restrict the young from claiming benefits.
Yet, for most young people, this notion is hopelessly outdated and untrue.
Over the past twenty years the labour market has undergone a fundamental shift. At the bottom end of the market, a proliferation of part time & zero-hours contracts have left job insecurity increasingly the new norm for the lowest paid. At the top end high level positions are also on the increase, whilst jobs are fast disappearing at mid-level.
Young people have been particularly disadvantaged by the new ‘hour glass economy’. Lacking skills and experience, they are twice as likely as older people to be in part-time or zero-hours work. They bore the brunt of the last recession, carrying double the burden of unemployment than their proportion in the labour force. Even now, worklessness remains stubbornly high.
For the disadvantaged people Barnardo’s works with, it’s a struggle to even get a foot on the bottom rung of the career ladder. One young woman told us that she had applied for ‘about 100’ jobs in the space of a week without a single call back, because she didn’t have the qualifications or experience.
Whilst youth unemployment hasn’t gone under the radar of the political establishment, the solutions on offer often simply don’t work for the most marginalised.
Apprenticeships, for example, have been offered as a panacea by successive Governments, spurring a 77% rise in placements in just three years (2009 – 2012). Yet whilst the number of older people on apprenticeships trebled in this time, amongst 16-18 year olds it has fallen.
There’s a commonly held idea that apprenticeships offer a leg up for a young person who isn’t academic. The reality is that young people cannot even get on an apprenticeship unless they have achieved good (A-Cgrade)GCSEs. Placements are often offered to people who are already in work.
It’s sadly unsurprising then that young people from our London service only knew one person who’d managed to get on a good apprenticeship. A young man who’d left school with two GCSEs explained that “we apply for apprentice ships all the time, but just don’t have the qualifications”.
Meanwhile those who try to gain crucial qualifications through college or university, often tell us that they simply can’t afford it.
One young care leaver told us that she had started a graphic design course, but had to drop it after she was told she couldn’t claim benefits and study. Without parents to fall back on for accommodation, she told us, she had no other choice.
Following the abolition of the old ‘Education Maintenance Allowance’ hardship grants – and its replacement with a ‘Bursary Fund’ a third of the size – many students tell us they struggle even to pay the day-to cost of study such as food and bus fare.
These issues have been well documented by organisations like Barnardo’s. Despite this, neither of the two largest political parties has committed to providing either adequate financial support to allow the most disadvantaged to study, or appropriate routes into work.
I would like to see the next Government introduce a ‘Skills suitcase’, that will help every young person to fulfil their potential. This includes increasing education hardship funding for the poorest, so that lack of money is no longer a barrier to study.
They also need to completely overhaul vocational training in this country to ensure that places go to the people who most need them. They can start by reclaiming apprenticeships as something primarily for the under 25s.
To impose punitive sanctions on young people without taking these measures is to throw them out of a plane without a parachute. A Government that does this, sends young people the life-long message that the political system works against them, giving them no reason to take part.
To borrow a phrase from David Cameron, democracy is a two way street. The political establishment now needs to prove it is willing to get ‘on its bike’ and represent young people. Or, they will walk away from the election booth entirely, and that will punish us all.