Young Nation: Labour should not be afraid to champion future generations if it wants to win in 2015

9 Jul 2014

* July Article of the Month *
 

With just ten months to go until the general election, Labour has been allowing the jitters to surface, helped in large part by the media's obsession with the mostly irrelevant personal quirks and gaffes of its leader, Ed Miliband. Last month the head of Labour's policy review, Jon Cruddas, was overheard suggesting policy is being hampered by conservative forces in the shadow Cabinet, and criticised recent moves to penalise young people. Cruddas' comments are unhelpfully timed, but do reflect a wider yearning among Labour supporters - active and lapsed - for something more authentic and proactive.

 

Labour would be in a far stronger position in the wake of UKIP-mania and a deeply unpopular government if it offered a bold and specific programme for government which focused on the next generation. Although touched upon several times by politicians and academics (including Tory Higher Education Minister David Willetts in his book The Pinch) one of the few agreed-upon themes of the moment is the likely inheritance by succeeding generations of a more unstable economic and political settlement than the one received by the 'Baby Boom' generation. This realisation has not been matched by actions. The Labour Party should be seizing this as an opportunity to promote concrete, detailed policies for the next generation, confident that this will not in fact alienate the people who currently engage the most in politics - 'the grey vote'. Unsurprisingly, given this opportunity, a brave Labour policy direction should not therefore involve scrapping benefits for those aged under 21.

Various polls have shown that despite some misconceptions about the behaviour of young people among older voters, clear majorities of this age cohort do nevertheless believe that young people should not, for example, have important help like housing benefit removed from them, simply because of their age. Common sense would show that as older people often experience stereotyping and blanket policies themselves based on their age, they appreciate that this is bad policymaking for other age brackets too - this is borne out in debates and by polling data. In an Equality and Human Rights Commission poll in Wales, two thirds of adults and 61 percent of over 65s agreed that young people's views are not listened to enough.

Policies on both sides of the political divide in Britain have been influenced by the "median voter" theory of voting patterns for over 20 years, arguably ever since Tony Blair decided that Labour would only ever regain power by stealing much of the Tories' turf. The median voter theory, posited by political scientists like Downs, is based on the premise that parties are successful only when they court the centre ground. This rather cynical view of the electorate has also led to suggestions that parties only need solicit the support of older voters to gain power in the current climate, given that turnout is so much higher among this age group. Yet this doesn't account for the fact that older voters are increasingly preoccupied with the perceived lot of their children and grandchildren, be it their likelihood of securing stable employment, or the financial burdens they are suffering by acquiring commonplace qualifications. Older people don't just care about 'their' issues, such as the 'triple-lock' and bus passes, fuel allowances and house prices, they also care passionately about the next generation. 

By outlining an optimistic programme for government based on future generations, rather than an outdated shopping-list of policies and slogans from over a century ago such as 'One Nation', Labour can win against the forces of self-interest and preservation that the Coalition represents to so many people. Housing and employment should be at the forefront of such a programme, with a Keynesian dose of capital spending on house-building mutually solving the two problems. Keynes was a passionate believer in market economics, subject to corrections when the market fails, chiming with one of the core themes of the emerging Miliband message. Tackling the housing crisis would erode the amount of angst harboured over immigration, while a message about tapping into the potential and talent of a record number of young graduates and apprentices, for example in addressing the energy time-bomb, would be an example of election-winning can-do spirit worthy of an American Presidential hopeful (but let's not get carried away with meaningless promises for "change").

With a manifesto concentrating on the next generation, Labour could convincingly make the argument for the contributory principle of the welfare state, but contradicting the Tories by saying that you can contribute after as well as before using public services. The same principle for a graduate tax should apply to young people who rely on housing benefit or Jobseekers' Allowance - your need is greater now, but we expect you to cover the costs to the state later. This position can even be reconciled with the need to demonstrate a commitment to 'fiscal responsibility', the euphemism for balancing the books.

Let's have another Clause IV moment for Labour, this time a positive one where a clause is put into the party's constitution - a commitment towards young people receiving a decent and better settlement from their parents' generation than they themselves acquired. This can include enshrining fair and accessible public services, decent housing and secure employment; but also a balanced fiscal budget - challenging the Tories to stand for something other than austerity and a smaller state.

Ed Miliband and the Shadow Cabinet need to trust their instincts and go radical. There is nothing to be gained from trying to be 'Tory-lite', as has been done so often. Indeed, voters who want that sort of politics will just vote for the Conservatives - or potentially UKIP - anyway. With voter participation among 18-25s plumbing new depths - not to be confused with political engagement via other means - now is a unique moment to capture the attention and hopes of young people once more, as the Liberal Democrats did to some extent in 2010. According to YouGov, only 5% of young people think politicians pay most attention to them, compared to 59% who think they listen mostly to big business; meanwhile Labour has a fantastic 19-percent poll lead. Never mind calculations and formulae-like Mosaic - bring out the young vote in May 2015 and Labour is over the line.

The Opposition should spend less time thinking of politics as a shopping list of cynical policies, and think more about an overall vision which relates to people, who see debates about capitalism as too abstract and almost beside the point.

The "cost of living crisis" sound bite may be true for millions, but it is tired and overly negative - Labour needs a positive message about investing in the future, trusting younger generations to grow the economy out of the financial black hole that an over-reliance on casino economics induced. This will be seen as a still credible antidote to damaging Tory cuts and Labour-crashed-the-car rhetoric.

Labour won a landslide in 1945 because of the message of a "new Jerusalem" in austere economic times. It persuaded the public in 1964 because of the "White Heat" notion of a scientific and technological revolution and a new economy (regardless of whether that was actually achieved in government). Even New Labour won in 1997 (despite a policy-light manifesto which should not be repeated in far more disillusioned times today) because of the talk of a new Britain to be passed on to our children. 

I expect the Chancellor to unveil a tax cut in the 2015 Budget, when he will be in the position to argue that the economic recovery is under way and "hard-working families" should be rewarded for their sacrifices over the last five years. The mood music will be about consolidation and returning money to people's pockets. This would potentially fatally damage Labour's hopes of election victory, if all they are relying on is the "cost of living crisis" mantra finally hitting home - why vote for a change of government when the Coalition is claiming they will take less money away from family finances? However, the discerning and savvy electorate will recognise such a cynical manoeuvre for what it is, only if Labour can offer a positive, detailed (but not too broad as to risk being contradictory) alternative course, which doesn't come across as a pic 'n' mix of inconsistent headline-grabbing tax and giveaway policies.

It seems blindingly obvious that we're heading for a hung Parliament or a small Tory majority, unless Labour champions young people and looks forward to a positive future, through housing, secure jobs and decent wages. Now is not the time for jitters, but a time for trusting the electorate to respond to a confident election manifesto, which addresses these real concerns that are felt by all generations.

By Luke Jones

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