Neil Kinnock made a speech before the 1983 general election in which he said: “I warn you not to be old. I warn you not to get sick. I warn you not to lose your job…” Today, he might have added a warning not to be young. This week an unprecedented assault was launched by the Conservatives on the living standards and prospects of Britain’s under 25 year olds, a million of whom are unemployed.
Who would be young today? £9,000 a year fees (in |England at least) no jobs, zero hours contracts, unaffordable mortgages, ruinous rents and now you lose your benefits if you happen to lose your job. Think about it. If you are someone who left school, got an apprenticeship, worked for five years and then were made redundant, you would lose housing benefits and job seekers allowance for the crime of being under 25.
This is so manifestly unfair, I could hardly believe that David Cameron was serious about it in his conference speech. But this is going to be a major plank of their Tory election platform in 18 months. They are already committed to cutting housing benefits for jobless under 25s, and now they plan to take away jobseekers allowance too, which at £51 is already too little to live on.
I’m not entirely sure this is even legal. If I were a single parent, or a soldier back from Afghanistan, or a hospital worker axed in the cuts, I would be inclined to raise a court action for discrimination on grounds of age. These are adults were are talking about, not children. I feel genuinely sorry for the under 25s, setting out on lifetime of debt, their aspirations crushed by an generation of politicians who enjoyed advantages they can only dream about.
When I was that age, starting a career and buying my first flat, I had no debts whatever, because a grant had seen me through university. I even qualified for social security during university vacations. My first house cost £17,000 ,which was cheap even in the 1980s, and we received grants for structural improvements like new windows and roof repairs. I cannot recall experiencing any financial insecurity, when I entered what was even then a very insecure occupation – broadcast journalism – during an economic recession. But then I had the confidence to persevere through short term contracts because I had low overheads.
It might seem hard to justify these privileges today, but they actually added value to the emerging knowledge economy. I didn’t have to take up the first job that came along to service student debts or pay for exorbitant rents or lost benefits. OK, political journalists may not be the most valuable members of society, but at least my years of education studying politics didn’t go entirely to waste. If I had ended up selling coffee, working in telesales or doing an internship in some PR company, they would have.
Look at graduates today. Many don’t get jobs at all – for years. They find that their years of study and training are dismissed because they didn’t go to the right university or college or get the right degree. They are told that in the “global race” as David Cameron calls it, they are still at the bottom. All very well for him as a product of Eton and Bullingdon – like me, he wasn’t part of generation debt.
And this doesn’t just apply to graduates. The same is true for vocational workers and apprentices. What is the point of spending time and money acquiring skills if you have to take the first job that comes along to avoid destitution? No wonder British industrial productivity is going into reverse. We are creating a pool of financially desperate young people who will accept low pay and zero hours, allowing firms to resort to sweated labour rather than investment in new techniques.
I think the Conservatives have gone too far here. They think because their benefits cap was popular that people are prepared to victimise the workless, but they have underestimated the British public, who can see for themselves that their own children, 979,000 of them, are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis. In Scotland the bedroom tax has generated widespread resistance and calls for welfare to be devolved, and these benefit cuts will be resisted too. It will intensify the demands for welfare to be devolved to Holyrood whatever the result of the referendum.
Why do Scots seem to be more sympathetic to the workless? Well, one reason is that the experience of unemployment is seared into the national consciousness, especially in the West of Scotland. Last week, the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, Harry Burns, confirmed that Scotland’s health problems do not stem from bad diet and alcohol abuse, but from the psychological damage caused by unemployment and the destruction of the industrial communities of West Central Scotland during the recessions of the 1970s and1980s. The idea that former shipyard and engineering workers “chose” the dole is patently ludicrous.
In England, especially in the south, these recessions had a very different impact, as skills and capital fled south to the new consumer industries based in the home counties. Most middle class Scots are not so detached from the rest of society that they believe the slanders about the unemployed. Lacking shares and expensive housing assets, most Scots are only a redundancy away from economic hardship themselves. This is another indication of the social gulf between Scotland and the South East of England, where most of our national wealth is concentrated.
We are told repeatedly that welfare is ‘out of control” in Britain and that we simply cannot afford benefits for people under 25. But the vast majority of the £155bn benefits bill goes on old age pensions and disability benefits. Jobseekers allowance accounts for only £5bn in total, and the young unemployed account for less than a billion of this. Jobseekers allowance is already the lowest unemployment benefit in any comparable developed country.
In Germany and Denmark, people can expect to receive three or four times the British rate when they lose their jobs.. They regard young people as a valuable investment and the idea of forcing them into shelf-stacking or nonsense internships is seen as a waste of human capital. In Denmark they call it “flexicurity”. 30% of the labour force change jobs every year, and firms can make employees redundant at short notice and without prejudice. Workers accept this because they know they will be supported while they find another, generally better job. Indeed, changing jobs and retraining is a way of life in Denmark, which is why it is often cited by the World Bank as the best country in the world to set up a business.
Europe is recovering, but Britain is returning to the dark ages, with an essentially punitive approach to social security and a disregard for training. Unemployed people are demeaned as “skivers” who need to be forced to work – given a “dunt” as the education secretary Michael Gove put it so inelegantly last week. David Cameron repeats the slander that people “choose” a life on benefits. But at £51 a week no one in their right minds would choose to live on benefits. The problem is lack of jobs, not lack of the will to work. Which is confirmed by the millions of working people who are accepting poverty pay.
There is a specific problem with housing benefits. It is a grotesque misuse of public money shelling out £17bn a year, most of which goes straight into the pockets of buy-to-let landlords. But the problem here is not the unemployed, but the dysfunctional housing market, which has allowed house prices and rents to lose touch with reality. Housing benefit is a national scandal, but it is a direct consequence of the policy of council house sales and the failure of successive governments to build social housing – or any housing.
An young family, struggling with rent and fuel bills, can only look in blank amazement at a government which uses public money to underwrite the deposits for people buying £600,000 houses. The Help to Buy scheme helps the few to acquire an immensely valuable asset thanks to up to £90,000 interest free from the state to help pay the deposit and cushion any losses. This is a blatantly political giveaway to the middle classes of the South East of England. Ask yourself: how many first time buyers do you know who are in the market for a £600,000 flat? Forget Scottish independence: it’s the Home Counties that are declaring UDI.