Tag Archives: youth

Intergenerational equity and the perils of groupthink

As the implications of what it appears that the coalition is about to do in the upcoming budget sinks in, I have to admit to growing increasingly concerned. No-one – outside of the Labour leadership contest anyway – denies that the structural deficit needs to be tackled or that we don’t face some unpleasant spending cuts over the next few years. But I’m mystified by the economic strategy behind what the government apparently has planned.

If the government does have a game plan, thus far it has not been spelled out. Nick Clegg’s speech on Monday was remarkably void of much of an argument, resting as it did on two points:

1. There is no alternative: “to do anything else would not only be irresponsible, it would be a betrayal of our progressive values”.

2. It is a matter of intergenerational equity: “There is nothing progressive about condemning ourselves and our children to decades of debt, higher interest rates, fewer jobs.”

Nick Clegg and company keep emphasising how shocked they were by the state of the country’s finances, but thus far – despite all the welcome transparency – they have offered nothing to explain why they were quite as shocked as they were. The report of the Office of Budget Responsibility was mixed: it suggested that the structural deficit was worse than we’d thought but that public spending was actually under better control. Clegg himself keeps talking about this meeting he had with Mervyn King and how it made him see the light; it is almost as if he has come back from Mount Sinai carrying tablets of stone. But Mervyn King is just one man, and not one whose prognostications in the past have proven to be infallible. What is King saying in private that he can’t tell us in public? Why wasn’t it being said before the election? And how has it shattered Clegg’s and Cable’s own views of economic policy so irrevocably? I always knew that both of them were fiscally conservative, but this is radical neo-liberalism. It is the most spectacular policy volte-face I’ve ever seen.

More to the point, why does no-one else in the world appear to be pursuing a similar strategy. The UK is not in the mess that Greece is in, yet the coalition government is behaving as if it is. We know why the Tories want to do this: they’re Tories. I’ve yet to hear a single, coherent Liberal Democrat argument for why we should be going along with this.

The thing is, we do have choices here; lots of them. The government have made two fundamental choices which, on the face of it, contradict the advice of a very large number of economists and thus urgently need to be explained. Firstly, they are seeking to tackle the whole structural deficit within five years (something which the Lib Dems denounced during the election). Secondly, they are seeking to do this overwhelmingly by cutting rather than taxing (something which, to be brutally frank, the Lib Dems fudged during the election). I can see nothing in the OBR figures which suggest that such a strategy would be madness; quite the opposite. If the structural deficit is larger than we imagined, then surely there is a case for tackling it over the longer period of time, and an even greater scope for tax increases? To do otherwise would just risk damaging the economy, surely?

It is one thing to cut £6 billion this year: frankly I was pretty unfazed by that. But the numbers the government has started talking about really will risk – if not guarantee – a double dip recession. Withdraw the amount of money from the economy that we are talking about, and it is hard to see how the outcome will be anything other than negative growth. It actually looks as if, despite all the reassurances a few weeks ago, the government’s agenda is to actually engineer a new recession, seeing it as a necessary bit of pain with a view to long term benefits.

The last time that was done was the early 80s, under Thatcher. The result? In some parts of the country a whole generation was left on the scrapheap. Far from tackling the structural deficit, we’re still paying for it. That shocking welfare bill that Frank Field and Iain Duncan Smith have been given the task of slashing? A large proportion of it is due to the government plonking a large proportion of ex-miners onto incapacity benefit. The price has not just been financial; lives were shorn of value overnight; communities were destroyed; the following generation grew up with no hope and no aspiration. Social mobility fell. This is what shock doctrine economics does to a country and even the Tories pledged we would never return to it.

This brings into question the claims that such a hard and fast approach is progressive from an intergenerational perspective, and also causes us to consider some other worrying trends emerging from the government. Leaving aside David Willetts’ extraordinary views that higher education is an intolerable burden on the taxpayer, we have the fact that one of the main things the government has slashed over the past month has been youth employment schemes. Clegg’s argument that it is progressive to cut now to ensure that future generations don’t end up paying for our mistakes are only actually convincing if the future of those generations are not being curtailed by the same economic policies. Deny a graduate or teenager a chance of either employment or training now, and it won’t matter to them how high taxes are in the future because their own earning potential will go through the floor.

All of this flatly contradicts Clegg’s emphasis on social mobility, or does it? Because when he talks about social mobility, as he did on Thursday, Clegg’s emphasis is all on children. We can all agree that the most effective time in a person’s life to invest in is their early years, but this truism appears to have fallen victim to doctrinal reductionism. Simply put, it makes no sense whatsoever to invest in early years and schools while having nothing to offer people once they hit 16. What is the value in the government creating the most aspirational dole queue in history?

All of this adds up to an emerging picture of futures of the current crop of teenagers and young adults being sacrificed in the name of their younger and older generations. You’ve got to ask what they’ve done to deserve it? Equally, you’ve got to wonder if Clegg and Cameron would be quite as ready to do this if Antonio, Alberto, Miguel, Nancy and Arthur were a little older.

No-one else seems to be taking as much of a hit. Wealth taxes have been almost entirely ruled out, despite the fact that taxes on property values (or, better yet, land values) would have the least negative economic impact. And yet, far from being an economic burden, it is the 14-22 generation that we will largely depend on to make our economic recovery over the next decade a swift one. I am completely mystified; it makes no sense to me whatsoever. It seems to have been concocted by a bunch of people more concerned with sounding tough and being seen to make grown up decisions than actually steering the country down a fair and economically sustainable path. In short, it screams of groupthink; I pray that I’m wrong.

Late last week I spoke to someone on the “inside” and painted them a rosy picture. I speculated that all this doom and gloom that had been coming out of the Treasury and Downing Street over the past fortnight was a shadow play designed to placate the Tory headbangers and that what would emerge would be something surprisingly progressive and far-sighted; people like me all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

I still like to think that is a distinct possibility, but my source didn’t seem to find my theory anything more than charmingly off the ball. If they would at least offer us an actual economic argument, it would be something. Instead we just get echoes of Thatcher’s There Is No Alternative.

Has Labour got two Balls?

Is it me or is there a disconnect between Ed Balls, the stalwart defender of playgrounds and opponent of compo culture, who two months ago was saying this:

“If you don’t want to do something a bit risky, too often people say ‘we can’t do that because of health and safety’.

“It is the risk aversion in some cases which stops things happening which I want to tackle head on,” he said.

The Government’s consultation paper says: “We need to work together as a society to create popular attitudes that embrace children in public space and challenge inappropriate ‘No Ball Games’ cultures.

“This means adults being willing to share public space with children and understand that play can, at times, test boundaries.”

And the killjoy who today was saying this:

“Tougher enforcement powers are needed to tackle under-age binge drinking, but enforcement measures alone are not the solution. We need a culture change, with everyone – from parents, the alcohol industry and young people – all taking more responsibility.”

You could argue I’m being unfair and comparing apples with oranges, but I do wonder. We’ve had ten years of this approach, providing people with more advice while making the law even more draconian at the same time. It doesn’t appear to have helped. It does appear to have gone hand in hand with a rise in anxiety about this issue.

Why do we need screeds of new health advice about safe alcohol limits? It isn’t as if young people are unaware that if they get drunk they lose the full use of their faculties; that’s kind of why they do it in the first place. And parents will either be the relatively responsible type who teach their kids how to drink socially, or the type who aren’t going to be interested in a leaflet giving them advice in the first place. What next? Parenting lessons?

It seems to me that youth binge drinking isn’t a problem in and of itself, it is a symptom. On the one hand you have a lack of facilities, meaning that kids have literally nothing else to do. On the other hand, increased hysteria about youth drinking has meant that instead of experimenting with alcohol in the relative safety of their local, they are doing their experimenting in either vast impersonal drinking halls (if they can afford it) or, more likely, downing Diamond White while sitting around in those playgrounds that Balls is so keen on.

The fact is, those sneaky night time park binges are as much a part of childhood as falling off climbing frames. The same anxiety that leads councils to closing down playgrounds is behind the current anxiety about youths drinking. Even if we had the best youth service in the world, generations of young people will go through that period in their lives. To use Balls’ own language, it is all about “testing boundaries”. Along with all other kinds of so-called anti-social behaviour, the main impact of turning naughtiness into a criminal offence has been to allow adults to excuse themselves of any responsibility for it. The result has been, young people are testing boundaries only to discover those boundaries growing ever larger.

Labour can’t really afford to have both Balls at the same time. To be fair on the man, he has previously expressed scepticism about the whole Blairite approach to anti-social behaviour in the past. His announcement today though just sounds like more of the same.

Swinsongate: why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Credit where it’s due, when it comes to getting lies repeated as fact, Omar Salem is clearly a latter day Joseph Goebbels. Perhaps he’s been getting advice from his erstwhile colleague Miranda Grell. Andrew Grice at the Independent has regurgitated his press release all-but verbatim over on his blog, incredibly even painting this as “Clegg’s first rebellion.”

What’s interesting is that Grice has filed his article 24 hours after Salem put out his press release and has subsequently visited this website where all the facts have been corrected for him in easily digestible, bite-size chunks. Yet for some reason that hasn’t stopped him from blundering in. Modern news values, eh?

Down with the youth! (UPDATE)

I fear my post on Thursday about Clegg’s reshuffle has roused the Labour Blogosphere into a frenzy of mock outrage at Jo Swinson being demoted from her post as youth spokesperson. Both Rupa Huq and Omar Salem are working themselves into a lather, with Omar singling out LDYS for failing to mention her demotion in their press release despite her being a former Chair of the organisation.

There are just two slight flaws with this analysis. Firstly, Jo has never been Chair of LDYS (although to be fair, she is a former Vice Chair). Secondly, and a little more significantly, she was not and has never been the Lib Dem youth spokes for the Lib Dems. That role, now performed by Lynne Featherstone, was until recently the responsibility of Tim Farron (current Hon President of LDYS, natch).

If I were a youngish MP I would be very wary of taking on the youth brief. It’s a poisoned chalice and one that can set back careers. Sorry Dawn, but look at the meteoric (as in, crashing to earth at great speed) career of Lembit Öpik for an indication at how it can set you back. Jo, as the youngest MP in the House, has I understand always been very wary of taking it on as a direct result. Being pigeonholed can be catastrophic for a politician.

If Labour bloggers want to feel bad for her, lament the treatment she received at the hands of Ming five months ago when she went from Shadow Scottish Secretary to a non-frontbench role on equalities, despite doing a perfectly good job under the circumstances (and bearing in mind the limitations of that post when the Lib Dems had not just a leader in the Scottish Parliament to contend with but at the time the Deputy First Minister as well), while the aforementioned Öpik got a promotion for presiding over the implosion of the Welsh party. Where were Jo’s newfound Labour friends then?

In any case, a little bird tells me that Jo’s demotion is not quite the step back as it first appeared. Watch this space.

UPDATE: It emerges that London Young Labour have press released this. What a bunch of buffoons.

UPDATE 2: Still no correction from Salem, but he’s decided that he’s Jenny Willott’s new best friend now. As it happens, he’s right here, as Jenny Willott does indeed appear to have been the party’s youth affairs spokesperson (shows what I know). But just to add to the confusion, I wasn’t wrong about Tim Farron either.

In praise of the nation’s youth

Not only did they organise together to get the Blue Peter cat to be named “Cookie” but after the BBC’s censorship had been exposed, they got their way anyway. A quick visit to the Urban Dictionary reveals their plan. The BBC producer who tried to stop them from getting their way has not only been over-ruled but may end up getting sacked over the affair. Sheer genius.

After finding my hit count rocket up when I used the phrase “Konnie Huq modelling the latest in tweenie fetish wear” it has been made quite clear to me that there is a subculture out there which is desperate to catch Konnie stroking Cookie live on air.

Who says the young are apathetic?

Rage Over Age Rates

The answer to my earlier question “Will the Lib Dems finally get serious about taxation this morning?” was sadly no. With housing now more of an issue than it was in 2005, expect local income tax, which seemed to do us almost as much harm as good, to start actively damaging us as Labour and the Tories start writing to first time buyers about how the Lib Dems will both make their first home even more unaffordable. I’m sure these people, who claim to be having more visits to their website at the moment than ever, will be most receptive.

Meanwhile, we are to have another debate this afternoon on poverty. One of the main topics of debate will be whether or not to drop the Lib Dems’ longstanding commitment to have a single minimum wage rate regardless of age. I spent much of this morning handing out flyers, and had an odd sense of deja vu: 9 years ago I was standing in the same spot handing out remarkably similar flyers. The difference is, back then I was doing it for LDYS; oddly LDYS don’t appear to give two hoots about this issue any more.

The argument being used for differential age rates is that we should be encouraging younger people to stay in education and training. Apparently, the siren call of £5.35 an hour will tempt them to abandon personal development in favour of making a quick buck. Perhaps if the education and training that we offer them were rather better, they would be less tempted; either way my recollection of being that age was that the actual hourly rate was rather less attractive than the prospect of getting paid. So I was happy to do a Saturday job in the early nineties for a couple of pounds an hour, and when I took a year off (fully intending to go on to HE) I didn’t particularly mind being paid £3.50 an hour full time when I was 18.

Either way, I’m not convinced this is economically sound. If you give companies providing low skilled jobs a clear profit motive to employ 16 year olds, they will employ 16 year olds. Supply has a habit of following demand. On the other hand, if you only had a single hourly rate, companies would surely favour older, more mature applicants.

The bottom line is, this is exploitation pure and simple. That may not bother the Labour Party, but it should bother us. On the same basis you could argue that we should deny minimum wage to immigrants (and then wonder why they continued to come). You could argue that differential age rates should apply to black people on the basis that we want to encourage them to continue with training and education because they face discrimination in the workplace. If that sounds bogus, it’s because it is bogus. What is so magical about age?

I repeat: if you want to encourage young people to continue with training and education, make that training and education mean something. At a time when female politics graduates actually earn less than if they’d started work after their A-levels, I’m not sure you can say we’re doing that.

(I wanted to add this funky public information film here, but annoyingly the archive doesn’t include an embedding facility and I don’t have time to plonk it on YouTube).

E X C L U S I V E (ish): Mingmeet – where’s the meat?

Sort of an exclusive here as I think I may be the first to write up my account of the interview with Ming that the finalists for the Blog of the Year held on Sunday morning. Jonathan Calder actually beat me to it by about 12 hours but at the time of writing hadn’t given his full account. Either way it’s another opportunity to shamelessly use “EXCLUSIVE” in another blog title and we all know how much you crazy kids love your exclusives.

Okay. By dint of where I had seated myself, I found myself asking Ming the first question, which was about what the party’s narrative is. He both avoided answering my question and accidentally answering my question at the same time. Let me explain.

He failed to answer my question in that his pat answer was that it is being developed by the manifesto team and that Steve Webb is developing it. He went on to list a number of policy areas – particularly the environment – that we would be developing thematically. I have to say that my heard sank at this point. If we are to have a narrative – and I hear no-one suggesting that we shouldn’t – then we should have had it nailed down 12 months ago. As it stands, Ming seemed to be suggesting it would be unveiled along with the manifesto a few short weeks before the election (whenever that is).

But then, almost in spite of himself, he began to answer the question – at least partially. Throughout the interview he kept talking about how it is now “one-against-two” to contrast with the last few general elections which were “two-against-one”. What he went on to explain was that in the past, the Lib Dems and Labour teamed up against the Conservatives; now the Lib Dems are fighting against the “conservative consensus” of Labour and the Conservatives. This is partly because that Labour has become more conservative, but it is also because of the expected tightness of the next election which means that the Lib Dems are now being attacked in both directions.

The fact is, this is a narrative. It isn’t one that I think particularly resonates with the general public, but it does hit the right notes as far as activists are concerned. It makes it quite clear that we are sticking with equidistance. I expect to hear more of this in the speech.

It’s also – I think – possible to tweak to make it more appealing from a voter perspective. The fact is, in many cases we are the only serious alternative to a conservative consensus. We are the only party which is serious about decentralisation and giving away power and meaty policy which spells out how. For the Tories and Labour localism and renewing democracy remain little more than stock phrases. For such a message to resonate however, we need to have a much less managerialist approach to policy during the next election. If we end up with just another long list of policy bites which promise a change in spending here, the scrapping of a policy there, we’ll be stuck with the same sort of dispiriting campaign that we had in 2005.

(As an aside, sadly the feedback I’ve had from the “secret” candidate training sessions on Saturday was that this is not only precisely what the party mandarins have planned but that they’ve been conducting expensive polling that “proves” this is the case. A lot of internal polling I’ve seen in the past has been concerned with proving a point rather than genuine research – polls that prove that no-one is interested in electoral reform compared with crime, health and education for example as opposed to exploratory polls to see how we might better make the case for electoral reform. I have no doubt that a policy bite approach is useful for shoring up support in marginal seats, but it does nothing to reach out to our larger potential supporter base. It leaves us vulnerable to attack if the opposition parties run an effective air war against us if we aren’t taking to the skies at the same time. And you can’t run an effective air war if your “ammo” is ten disparate policy commitments).

Interestingly, Ming pointed out that the then-elections chief Lord Razzall was in constant talks with Labour regarding our targeting strategy and how we might both target the Conservatives. Although I’m not surprised, I have to say it is the first I’ve heard of this. It feels a little uncomfortable to learn that we were in strategic discussions with the war-mongers, but then the Tories were wannabe war-mongers and were running under the most rightwing manifesto in recent memory (written by David Cameron, lest we forget). Either way, if our strategy was to work with Labour to maximise the marginal Lib-Con seats that we won, it was a pretty poor one. Most of our significant gains were against Labour. I’m sure Labour supporters in places such as, say, Manchester Withington, will be delighted to learn that their defeat was pre-arranged with their own party).

Richard Flowers, demonstrating sub-Victorian parental values, kept the Millennium Elephant in a bag throughout the interview (I can EXCLUSIVELY reveal!). While the nominee himself was left to sulk, Daddy Richard asked Ming what we can do to engage with the 40% of the electorate that now doesn’t vote. This was an issue that Ming warmed to, pointing out that there are now more people on the internet in the UK than UK voters, and that the next election could be decided by as few as 800,000 – 1,000,000 voters (I have news for Ming – if the Tories got exactly the right votes in exactly the right places they’d need much less to swing it). I did sense a degree of hypocrisy though in a Lib Dem leader attacking the other parties for focussing on swing voters in marginal seats at the expense of everyone else: what have we been doing for the past decade-and-a-half if not that?

Accepted, our standard response to this is that we would change the electoral system that forces us into this position, but we should at least acknowledge that we are contributing to this disconnect ourselves. If we don’t, then it’s just words.

The two mediums Ming highlighted as tools for reengaging with the disenfranchised I don’t think are that effective. Political blogs like this for example tend to be read by other political bloggers, journalists and political obsessives. My extreme tracking site meter suggests that just 941 unique visitors read this blog on an average month and I could probably list at least 10% of them by name. I’m under no illusions about this blog’s power to engage with the disconnected. I’m rather more impressed by the potential of Facebook and MySpace in this respect.

His other example is literary festivals, which are growing in popularity and at which political meetings tend to be filled to the rafters. This is positive, but it doesn’t get us even close to the NEETs.

One thing the party might want to look at is to start going to places on the internet where there is a lot of activity. We probably won’t get very far by getting Ming on Britney Spears’ discussion forums, but there are issue-based campaigns out there which seem to genuinely reach out beyond the relatively well connected. As I’ve written before, one of those areas is first time buyers, who appear to be virtually fetching the torches and pitchforks as I type. But what have we as a party to say to them? At the moment, the only thing we seem to be saying is that under a Liberal Democrat government we guarantee to raise house prices by another £15,000.

Paul Walter would not, I’m sure, have trouble with my description of him as the loyalest of the shortlisted Lib Dem bloggers, so it is to his credit that he asked what Ming believes he has done wrong in his 18 months as leader. His answer is that he failed to recognise the extent to which the party leader gets engaged with the administration of the party, something which he is now planning to take a step backward from. Sensibly, I feel, he is appointing the manifesto chief Steve Webb to chair the Federal Policy Committee in his stead. I would demur somewhat with his insistence that the party’s press operation is the best its ever been (it might be, but that didn’t stop us from disappearing over the summer from the headlines during which time we launched 5 policy papers).

Alex Wilcock asked why Ming thought it was that despite the fact that internally the party is broadly with the direction he’s taking it doesn’t seem to be coming across to the public, and what he plans to do about it. Ming’s response was to make the very fair point that if you look at Ashdown and Kennedy at the same point in their respective leaderships, both of them we performing as poorly as he is currently in the opinion polls. The problem for Ming is that, since it is now one-against-two, he doesn’t have the luxury that they had to simply give it time. He went on to say that he wanted to avoided the situation under Kennedy and Ashdown whereby the party came across as a one-man-band and so he is keen to share the spotlight with our young “bright and sassy” intake. Much as I agree with him that we have a talented group of MPs these days, I’m not sure this is wise – or even practical. Stephen Tall’s chart of “media tarts” shows that according to Nexis Lexis, Nick Clegg is our next highest profile frontbencher after Ming with around a quarter of the leader’s press. After Nick, our next highest profile “bright young thing” is Sarah Teather with around a tenth of his coverage. So if there is a deliberate strategy to get them to share the spotlight, it isn’t working. And what have we to show for it?

This also rather conflicts with his later claim that if there were more people of his age sitting around the cabinet table, we would have been less likely to go into war. Not if they were all called John Prescott they wouldn’t. I’m not convinced that supineness is linked to age, but if it is, surely he ought to be kicking these young whippersnappers out of his front bench (in one case of course, he has, while the ability of Lembit Opik to demonstrate his maturity earned him a promotion).

Sensing a kill, Alex used this talk about sharing the limelight to ask Ming why he chose to announce policy on an EU referendum a week before conference instead of waiting for conference itself to take a considered view. Jonathan Calder followed this up by asking what point there is on having a referendum on membership of the EU when it was so ineffective in 1975.

I feel the need here to defend Ming, to some extent, on both counts. I’ve always been on the view that the party’s internal democracy (which I strongly defend) should not mean that the party leader should make Trappist vows of silence on topical issues of importance. Politics simply does not work like that; you have to trust – to some extent – the “guys in the room”. Furthermore, while I also disagree with Ming that a referendum on the treaty would be wholly sui generis to a referendum on EU membership, I disagree with Jonathan’s views here also.

My follow up to this – if he had not at this point ran out of time – would have been to observe that Ming appears to get it broadly right in terms of handling the feral beast of the media on the second attempt. I’d have liked to ask him why it is he feels that we have had these blunders – specifically the wobble over Ming’s speech at Harrogate, the delay in informing Gordon Brown that the party would not allow Lib Dem MPs to enter government and this latest EU debacle – and what will he be doing in future to avoid these. Instead, that question will have to hang (unless Ming – who admitted in the interview that his office pays close attention to these blogs – cares to answer it in the space below).

Overall this was a positive event, albeit one that was over before it got started. Ming expressed an interest in doing it more often and I feel we should take him at his word. A few months ago I suggested a similar meeting with his most outspoken critics such as Laurence Boyce and Nich Starling and I would repeat that suggestion here. Overall, Ming came across well as listening, engaged with the issues and generous in spirit. The more people we can convince of this over the next few months the better.