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Millennials are berated for avocados and lattes – but I suspect they’d rather have houses

How can we really heal the rift between young and old?

Of all the lessons the Conservatives should take from the 2017 election, one is stark: don’t piss off the pensioners. The number of voters aged 25-40 rose compared to 2015, while more of the Tory-leaning over-65s stayed at home. To put it crudely, Theresa May suppressed the grey vote with her dementia tax disaster; Jeremy Corbyn enthused social liberals, Remainers and people who can’t remember the 1970s. The result: a lost Tory majority.

There’s a similar story in the latest polling figures, which show the two main parties neck-and-neck overall. Opinium’s fieldwork from 14 November had a Labour lead of 25 points among 18-34-year-olds, 22 points among 35-44s, and 13 points among 45-54s. The counterweight to these is a Tory lead of 33 points among the over-65s.

What’s driving this dynamic? Earlier this year, the NS published a series of essays on the “new divides” in British politics that are sweeping aside the old class loyalties: open v closed, big cities v the rest, graduate v non-graduate, white v non-white, home-owners v renters. All of these intersect with the topic I wrote about: old v young. Older voters are more likely to be socially conservative, more likely to live outside cities, more likely to own their own homes and more likely to be white. They also come from generations with much lower rates of university attendance than today’s students.

All of that points to a widening chasm in British politics – not helped by George Osborne’s cynical decision to shield the Tory base, of which pensioners are a key part, from the truly sharp end of his austerity programme. Their incomes were protected with the triple lock, even as salaries stagnated and inflation slowly ate away at workers’ pay packets. Nearly three-quarters of over-65s own their homes, so low interest rates (or a paid-off mortgage) insulated them from some of the economic chill.

Among wonkish types, there is little argument that it’s time to rebalance government assistance away from pensioners and towards workers. In February this year, the Resolution Foundation found that after housing costs, a typical pensioner household is £20 a week better off than a typical working household.

The triple lock is a prime culprit of unfairness between generations, and also within them. A sobering report by the Work and Pensions select committee in February suggested that the only way to make it sustainable was to raise the pension age. This wasn’t just unfair to younger people, the committee suggested, but to those in areas with lower life expectancy who might never get to claim. (In the centre of Blackpool, the average man lives to 67.5; in affluent Westminster, to 92.9.) Undoubtedly, it was economically and ethically justifiable for the Conservatives to include ditching the lock in their 2017 manifesto; however, their lost majority is a strong incentive not to attempt anything so “brave” again.

To tackle intergenerational fairness, there are only two options: give more money to younger people, or take it away from older people. One of the reasons Labour did so well in 2017 is that Corbyn’s team did not present abolishing tuition fees as half of a zero-sum game. Instead, the necessary £11bn would come from policies such as higher corporation tax, increases in income tax for those earning over £80,000 and VAT on private school fees. Labour would not take from the old to give to the young.

Paul Johnson of the independent Institute of Fiscal Studies, who writes regularly about these issues, says that it’s important to stress that “nobody who happens to do well out of a house or a pension has done anything wrong, they’ve done the right thing and they’ve got lucky”. But he points out: “As a result of a series of accidents, you’ve got a world in which wealth has been concentrated in one generation.” Quantitative easing has benefited asset-owners; generous occupational pensions were designed based on life expectancy estimates that turned out to be hopelessly pessimistic; and the housing market dumped capital into the laps of those who bought at the right time. (Millennials are regularly berated for enjoying avocados and lattes, but I suspect they’d rather have houses.) This accumulation of capital squelches social mobility; the richest among the older generations can, in turn, smooth the lives of their children.

If the economics of this divide are clear, then the politics of solving it aren’t. Johnson notes that “there is much more inequality within generations than between them”, which makes fiddling with policy fraught with unintended consequences. Adam Drummond of pollsters Opinium says that there is strong support for keeping the triple lock among those aged 65+, while among 18-24-year-olds, the most common response is neutral or “don’t know”. In other words, by scrapping the lock, a party creates many new enemies but few new friends. “People personalise it,” he adds. “They think, my gran isn’t doing brilliantly.”

Housing is part of the solution – and not just in the way many people might think. Alex Smith, who runs community networks in Manchester and London, says that it’s important to look at how segregated our neighbourhoods have become, as the housing crisis drives old and young apart. “Where I feel the generations have become estranged from one another is in the lack of sharing time, laughter, experiences, relationships, everyday interaction,” he says. “That reduction of interaction – and therefore dialogue – occurs because of a shortage of mixed housing, lack of public squares, businesses that undervalue both youth and later-life experience, and a national culture and debate that stereotypes millennials and baby boomers as diametrically opposed.”

So there’s a free slogan for Jeremy Corbyn. Britain doesn’t just need socialism – it needs more socialising. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

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Thatcher’s long shadow: has the “miserablist” left exaggerated her legacy?

A new book argues that Britain is far from the “neoliberal nightmare” decried by Corbynites.

In the archives of Newsweek magazine is a 2,000-word article credited to Margaret Thatcher, published in April 1992, and headlined “Don’t undo my work”. It is an amazing thing: a vulgar rendering of the basic argument of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, mixed with the pain of a once-powerful politician who now had precious little to do with her time, and outrage at the European Union’s Treaty of Maastricht. “I set out to destroy socialism because I felt it was at odds with the character of the people,” she wrote. “We were the first country in the world to roll back the frontiers of socialism, then roll forward the frontiers of freedom. We reclaimed our heritage.” In its final flourish, she refers to herself in the third person: “Thatcherism will live. It will live long after Thatcher has died, because we had the courage to restore the great principles and put them into practice, in keeping with the character of the people and the place of this country in the world.”

Up – or down – in the hereafter, what must she make of the strange point reached by the country she once ruled? Britain’s exit from the EU is an essentially Thatcherite project, which may yet result in the kind of laissez-faire dystopia she and her followers always wanted. But at the same time, we have seen something they thought they had ruled out for ever: the revival of an unapologetically socialist Labour Party, which is seemingly backed by a convincing majority of people under 40, and is possibly on the verge of taking power. Meanwhile, no end of wider developments – from the crises of such outsourcing giants as Carillion and Capita to mounting public unease about corporate tax avoidance – suggest that a sea-change is coming. Perhaps, in the midst of Brexit’s mess, we might be starting to wake up from what some people see as the 40-year nightmare of neoliberalism.

But what if Britain was never that neo-liberal, and there was not much of a nightmare in the first place? This is the argument attempted by Andrew Hindmoor, a professor of politics at Sheffield University. He wants to discredit an oft-told story: that “Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 marked the start of a still-continuing fall from political grace”, manifested in “dizzying levels of inequality, social decay [and]  rampant individualism”, and the surrender to free-market ideology of the Blair-Brown governments.

His contention is that “neoliberalism has had a surprisingly limited impact on our collective understandings of the world around us” – and that the realities of inequality, privatisation, and the shrinking of the state have not turned out to be as awful as some people think. He wants to nudge Corbynite readers away from the idea that the New Labour era represented a long period of political drought. Britain, in his reading, has obvious problems but is hardly the scene of a disaster – and the people he maligns as left-wing “miserablists” ought to recognise it.

At a time when polarised argument on social media has obscured the fact that politics is usually cast in shades of grey, his nuanced case ought to be welcome. Indeed, as a trigger for thinking deeply about what has happened in and to this country – particularly since the mid-1990s – the book just about does its job. Part of its argument is based on a familiar script, and a list of (mostly) undeniable New Labour achievements: “significant public expenditure increases, the introduction of tax credits, a minimum wage, devolution, and freedom of information”.

Hindmoor also eloquently sets out evidence that public opinion, in so far as it is measured by pollsters and academic researchers, is now more socially liberal than it has ever been, and also full of the kind of left-of-centre thinking (redistribution of wealth, nationalised utilities) that Thatcher thought she had expunged. From time to time, all this skirts close to the blindingly obvious, but it’s at least built on solid facts about the country’s recent history. Hindmoor’s problem comes when he pushes his arguments into much more contentious areas, and everything threatens to unravel.

Whether his points are always sincere or sometimes part of an academic thought experiment is unclear. Among his other arguments, he underplays the severity of post-2010 austerity by citing both slight increases in real terms in overall public spending, and the Conservatives’ failure to convincingly cut the deficit. But neither detracts from millions of people’s experience of cuts, whether through the NHS crisis or the savaging of services provided by local councils – something he half-acknowledges before dropping a real clanger. “The costs of austerity have not been loaded on to the poorest and most vulnerable,” he writes, which is most of the way to being absurd.

Elsewhere, Hindmoor claims that in education policy, “academisation [sic] is not a form of privatisation”, on the basis that schools run by independent trusts are funded by government and subject to Ofsted inspections. He apparently refuses to entertain the idea that if schools are snatched away from elected local authorities and put in the unaccountable hands of often questionable organisations (some of which are now in grave financial difficulties), something significant has happened. In an equally flimsy treatment of the health service, he says that there should be an argument “whether the contracting out of NHS services to private companies is… tantamount to privatisation”, which is some logical somersault to attempt. And he has almost nothing to say about what has happened to the benefits system, in which a once collectivist, benign set of institutions and arrangements has been replaced by a machine that represents individualism – or, if you prefer, neoliberalism – at its nastiest.

A section about inequality is stuffed with graphs and desiccated numbers that ought to strengthen his case, but end up adding to its weakness. “The UK is a country in which a significant redistribution of income still occurs,” Hindmoor says, which is true, but still leaves open the question of whether “significant” equates to “enough”. His evidence for an upbeat verdict largely rests on a rather laboured concept – also used by the Office for National Statistics – which includes basic public services in its definition of “final income”. The problem there is that you end up trying to make a positive case for the state of the country based on the continuing availability of free roads, schools and hospitals, which strikes me as an argument built on somewhat lowly aspirations.

His reliance on macroeconomic statistics, moreover, cuts him adrift from reality. Inequality is not just about numbers but people’s sense of opportunity, having a stake in the future and connection to the rest of the country. In the end, even Hindmoor does not seem convinced. “Inequality did rise significantly in the 1980s,” he writes. “Wealth inequality is growing. Social mobility is poor.” The abiding impression is of someone needlessly tying themselves in knots.

Does believing that Britain has been repeatedly pushed in the wrong direction over the last three decades make you a “miserablist”? Not at all. Like many others I think Thatcherism wrought damage that has never been healed, and that New Labour swallowed far too much of its legacy and set precedents for subsequent Conservative politicians. The invasion of Iraq was probably the single biggest policy disaster in post-war history, and compared to the hallowed Labour government of 1945-51, the Blair administrations’ institutional legacy – beyond Sure Start centres, which are now being closed at speed – was pitiful. At the same time, I well know that Blair and his colleagues improved the country in lots of ways, and it would perhaps be nice to go back to the halcyon period of 1997-2003. But that is now impossible, thanks to a range of watershed developments that point to the need for something very different.

Hindmoor’s text only briefly touches on them, but in case anyone hasn’t noticed: wages have been stagnating for more than a decade, near-zero interest rates have not triggered any surge in investment, unsecured private debt is at its highest level since the 2008 crash, and the idea that profit-making corporations are the answer to the modernisation of the state looks increasingly threadbare. Put another way, an era that began in the early 1980s may well be in its death throes, a realisation etched on to the upbeat faces of the people who now crowd into Jeremy Corbyn rallies, and rarely look like “miserablists”.

For many reasons, their politics is not really my thing, but I can see why their movement fits its time, in a way that this book’s glossing-over of deep political and economic failures does not. Its author should maybe bear in mind the closing lines of Thatcher’s Newsweek piece: “You always have people who take the soft option. The apparently easy way out is the way that gets you into deepest trouble. The lesson is, you don’t soften fundamental principles. You positively push them forward into the future.” 

John Harris writes for the Guardian

What’s Left Now? The History and Future of Social Democracy
Andrew Hindmoor
Oxford University Press, 285pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist