Aside from the owls, I found little to be happy about in yesterday’s ‘big’ speech by Ed Miliband, and the IPPR report that it accompanied, ‘The Condition of Britain’. A great deal has already been said and written about it – I don’t want to go over old ground, just to write about two specific aspects that bother me, both for what they say immediately and directly and for what they imply about the underlying thoughts both of the IPPR and of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. The first is the attitude to young people – specifically 18-21 year olds – and the second is what looks as though it’s supposed to be Ed’s ‘big idea’, the revival of the ‘contributory principle’. To me, both are fundamentally misconceived, and betray an acceptance of the false and damaging Tory ‘striver/scrounger’ dichotomy. What’s more, this is both in the overall message – a message which some of the people behind the report have insisted has been twisted and missed by the reactions of people on twitter and in the media – and in the detail. As instructed, I’ve downloaded and read the report, and I’ve read Ed Miliband’s speech. I’m not reassured. Not one bit.
Doing it for the kids?
Perhaps the most noted part of the report is how it deals with young people. The headline recommendation reads as follows:
“For 18–21-year-olds, existing out-of-work benefits should be
replaced by a youth allowance that provides financial support
conditional on looking for work or completing education,
targeted at those from low-income families”
That’s been taken a number of ways in the media – Job Seekers Allowance for young people being removed is perhaps the most common reactions. That is not, of course, entirely true. It hasn’t been removed, but replaced by something different. The devil, however, is in the detail. There are two key words in the recommendation: ‘conditional’ and ‘targeted’. The first is the compulsion part – effectively, unless the young people take up one of the work programmes or sign up for one of the training schemes, they won’t get the youth allowance. Aside from the complications around the way young people’s lives actually work (see for example this excellent blog post by Kate Belgrave) and the deep reservations many people have about training schemes (will they be run by such estimable organisations as A4e, G4S, Serco etc?) and whether any of this would be any different from the hated coalition workfare programmes, the whole idea of compulsion betrays a belief that, fundamentally, young people are scroungers and layabouts at heart. If we didn’t force them into things, they’d spend all day in bed, watching daytime TV or taking drugs. Sadly, however, that seems to be the general approach of all mainstream political parties these days.
However, when the report is examined in more detail, it gets worse – particularly when the second key word, ‘targeting’ is considered. This is from the section on young people:
“To pay for this expansion of support for young people
in education and training, we propose targeting the youth
allowance on those from lower-income families through
a parental means test. This would involve a presumption
that 18–21-year-olds who are not in employment would be
supported by their parents where this is possible…”
First of all, even bringing in a parental means test is (or rather should be) contentious. It has a number of effects. First of all, it adds bureaucracy and stress to an already stressful situation. Secondly, it is a reminder that many young people will be excluded from the allowance. ‘Targeting’ is a nice word – but when you target, you also exclude. Will the ‘right’ young people be excluded? It doesn’t just depend on wealth, it depends on ability to work the system, to fill in the forms and find a route through the often impenetrable language. Thirdly, and most importantly, it makes young people even more dependent than ever on their parents. Want an allowance? You have to put your parents through a humiliating procedure. Add to the equation the presumption that 18-21 year-olds will be supported by their parents, and the reality begins to hit home. This is a policy conceived by people who assume that young people have good and supportive relationships with their parents. Some do. I’m sure those behind the report do. But many don’t. Indeed, difficult relationships between young people and their parents can contribute to problems with getting jobs. For some, the best possible thing is to be able to leave their home at 18, to be independent. Forcing young people to stay in the family home, to be even more of a burden, to get their parents to be means-tested, could well be a recipe for disaster. It’s also patronising and demeaning for the young people – when you’re 20, do you want to be treated as though you’re 12?
Making a contribution…
The other aspect of the report is, for me, even more worrying: the emphasis on the ‘revival of the contributory principle’. The idea is peppered throughout the report, and emphasised in Ed Miliband’s speech. The idea, essentially, appears to be that those who make a contribution deserve to get more out of the system. The deserve more ‘protection’. Section 8.2 of the report is headlined ” STRONGER INCOME PROTECTIONS FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO THE SYSTEM.” The question that immediately arises is what does it mean to contribute to the system? When I look back at my life so far, three periods immediately spring to mind. The first is in my first ‘career’, as an accountant, auditing big financial organisations in the City of London. The second is the year I took off, to be a full-time father after my daughter was born. The third is my time as a ‘mature’ PhD student, researching into internet privacy. In which of those three did I make the best contribution to society? Working as an accountant, being a father, or doing what was then pretty pioneering research into a subject of huge current interest?
In the terms of this report, only the work as an accountant would ‘count’ – though in my mind, with hindsight, it was the period in which I made the least contribution to society. In the report’s terms, ‘contribution’ means contributing to National Insurance. Nothing more. We’re defined as economic units in GB plc. Other contributions – from child-rearing to caring for ill or disabled relatives, from studying to volunteering to many, many other things – are not considered at all. They may be paid a little lip-service here and there, but they’re not rewarded. And it must be remembered that for every reward, in these cash-strapped times, someone else goes without. What’s more, there are a great many people who can’t make a contribution on these terms, through no fault of their own. People with disabilities, people living in areas where there is no work, people trying to keep dysfunctional families together and so forth. Young people, in particular, having already been slammed directly and slammed still further – how can you have made a ‘contribution’ when you’re only just entering the workforce?
The message here is simple and direct: ‘workers’ are valued (and only for their work), anyone else isn’t. It drives home the damaging and false ‘striver vs scrounger’ agenda. If you ‘strive’ you’re good, and will be rewarded. If you don’t, you won’t.
A sad consensus
What makes me saddest is that this isn’t just Labour. Indeed, despite everything I’ve said, Labour are still probably not quite as bad as the Lib Dems or the Tories. There’s a consensus here that seems almost unstoppable. I can’t see how it can be changed – either for the Labour Party or for the country. The consequences are painful and divisive, and likely to get worse. Ah well. At least we get owls. A shame we don’t seem to have their wisdom.