The last few days of December have passed away in an impenetrable blur of wind, rain and alcohol and, as I sit here to discuss the events of the past few months, I cannot help but ask the question: Where did 2013 go? Flicking back through my monthly reviews, it seems only a momentary relapse ago that I was talking in anticipation about the year ahead, enthusing about the prospect of another twelve months riding the shifting sand-dunes of politics with you all. Maybe that is a reflection of how busy the year has been, or perhaps how sparse my contributions have been over the past few months. Either way, 2013 was an absorbing, enthralling, and at times challenging year, and I cannot wait for the next one. I also hope that our political leaders have ensured a necessary amount of recuperation and recovery over the past few weeks, because one suspects that with the passing of 2013 and the onrushing imminence of the 2015 general election, that much sleep will be lost from now until May next year.
I will start my review with news from the past couple of days, news that sheds a shocking light on the past year, and indeed the past few years in general. I am referring to the report carried out by the Prince’s Trust charity, which has revealed that almost a third of the young, long-term unemployed people who they surveyed had contemplated taking their own lives. The report also found that around 40% of jobless young people had faced symptoms of mental illness, including suicidal thoughts, feelings of self-loathing, and panic attacks, as a direct result of unemployment. This while youth unemployment is still close to one-million; the highest total ever on record.
At the Conservative Party Conference in October, David Cameron threatened to take away the housing benefit and jobseekers allowance of so-called ‘NEETS’, expressing that young people should not be able to “choose” a life on the dole. This sort of statement is a reflection of the decaying innards of our win-or-die political system. The overwhelmingly vast amount of young people would never choose a life on the dole. As is shown by the Prince’s Trust report, a life on the dole breeds uncertainty, worthlessness, and shame; it is not a prized chalice that young people aspire towards. Cameron knows of the current angst within the population regarding supposed benefit ‘cheats’ and those scamming the system, and has lumped young people in with this ‘scrounger’ rhetoric. This may be an effective election tactic; but it is not reality. What young people need, what would really genuinely help them- and, incidentally, what may conquer their despondency with politics and politicians- is a thorough, unpretentious economic plan to get them back to work. Young people need opportunities, opportunities that can inspire them, opportunities that can help them to change the world. Because, at the minute, I would rather give them that chance than any of our political leaders.
Indeed, the 2015 election race seems to have manifested into a competition for incompetency (or even more so than it previously was). Over the past few months, the Labour Party has grasped the nettle and, to their credit, has attempted to change the terms of the economic debate by focusing on the so-called ‘cost of living crisis’, drawing attention away from more positive economic indicators. However, now that they have acquired this rhetoric, they don’t seem to know what to do with it, or how to frame it within a wider economic strategy. The worry for Labour is that if the economy recovers as is currently forecast, it is likely that the living standards of most people will be rising by 2015, even if they are not above their 2010 level. Consequently, Labour will have to present an effective response to the perpetual question: “why should we trust Labour?” Surely the watering down of Miliband’s critique from ‘Tory economic catastrophe!’ to ‘yes, living standards may be rising, but they are lower than five years ago’ will not go unnoticed or unidentified. If Labour’s economic criticism was a beer, at this rate it would hardly get you drunk by 2015. In previous articles I have called for Labour to reframe the political debate on their own terms, and with the cost of living crisis they are doing just that, which is to be applauded, but it’s a rhetoric that may become unsustainable by 2015. Indeed, a cost of living ‘crisis’ is much less of a crisis when the cost of living is rising. To gain a majority in the only opinion poll that matters, Labour needs to not only reshape the political debate but show some foresight, not just expediency. Being one step ahead of the game could swing the election in their favour. At the minute, they seem satisfied to continue floundering with the latest fish to swim into their political net.
Along with Ed and Ed, the not so funny Chuckle Brothers of One Nation Labour, we can also rely on Boris Johnson to say something completely nonsensical however, and that is just what he did when delivering the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies in November. The blonde blancmange of the Tory party stated that “it is surely relevant to have a conversation about equality” when 16% “of our species” have an IQ below 85, whereas 2% have an IQ above 130. Insinuating that more should be done to help those naturally endowed with intellectual ability, Boris demonstrated a form of altruism rare among modern politicians- failing three IQ questions on live radio the following day and thus evidencing why he wouldn’t benefit from such help. Even despite this embarrassment however, the absurdity of Boris’ remarks were patently evident. Indeed, he seemed to be pledging to the Francis Galton side of the nature-nurture debate, flippantly wafting away the influence of education, environment and family occupational background on intelligence. Boris is still a Bully Boy who believes in the innate superiority of the few, and he does little to hide it.
However, despite much political frustration over the past couple of months, it would be wrong to focus solely on the lamentable mistakes of domestic politics. For, on December 5th one of the shining lights of hope and freedom across the globe left us forever, and it is only right to pay tribute to his legacy. Nelson Mandela led South Africa through the torture of apartheid with resolution and strength, he never gave in and he never abandoned hope. His courage and bravery in ending one of the curses of modern civilisation will never be forgotten, and his humility and compassion once it had been defeated should act as an example to all men and women. We will never know his pain or suffering; most of us have never had to endure the trials of the oppressed South African people; but as a civilisation we all mourn for the loss of one of humanity’s great warriors of peace and equality, and we will ensure his message will endure.
Finally, I must move onto the Backbench Article of the Month award for December, or else Robert Walmsley will moan at me again for these pieces being too long, as he did at the UKYP House of Commons event (shocking I know). I have decided to give the award to Alex Shilling and his considered piece, “Feminism doesn’t need a rebrand, it just needs to be taught earlier”. This article was a thoughtful, lucid analysis on the future of feminism, and how it can shake off its current stigma. It argued persuasively why feminism should be attached to subjects such as English and History in order for it to be taught in schools, as well as making a jibe at Michael Gove- something which is always welcome. A fantastic piece and one that will go into the hat for our Article of the Year award along with all the other monthly winners, to be announced on 5th January.
Finally finally (honest, Robert), I just want to explain the purpose of my 13 favourite articles of 2013 summary. It was intended to highlight particular pieces which hadn’t been identified by our article of the month system, or possessed something which really stood out in my mind. And although there were many more than thirteen articles that stood out, I wanted to be clever and make it correspond to the year. Unfortunately there weren’t 2013 articles published on Backbench during 2013 so we couldn’t feature that many! Basically, if an article was not on the list, it doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it.
As always, I look forward to the following twelve months editing Backbench, and I hope you will continue to support the project; we have some exciting plans that will, with luck, push us forward to the next level.
Hope you all have had a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.