Labour, young people, and welfare.

By Bernadette Meaden
June 19, 2014

I often speak to people in their seventies and eighties about what life was like when they were young. These are working-class men and women, from a Northern industrial town, who all left school when they were 14 or 15, with very basic qualifications. They had no opportunity to take their education further, though many would have liked to.

What happened when they left school sounds almost unbelievable now. Every single one of them got a job immediately. And they did not just get any job, they got a job they liked and enjoyed. As one elderly woman told me, "If you didn’t like a job, you just left and got another. You could leave on Friday and start a new job on Monday. They were practically dragging you in off the street."

Of course these weren’t glamorous high-flying careers, they were jobs in factories and shops, in chemical plants, foundries and tanneries. But they were secure, decently paid, and for many there was the chance to "work their way up." Training was mostly on the job, and the luckier ones got an apprenticeship for a trade which would "set them up for life."

The pay wasn’t high, but it was enough to allow most of them to set up a home and start a family in their early twenties. Homes were mostly rented, but some went on to buy a house, and as the nation grew more prosperous they got telephones, cars, even holidays abroad. Most got a small occupational pension.

Compare that with the situation facing young people today. Even graduates can find it difficult to get a job, and many have taken jobs which in the past a school leaver with few qualifications would have taken. How many ‘baristas’ have a degree? Those who leave school with few qualifications, as their grandparents and great-grandparents did, are now treated as a social problem, and exploited for profit by companies with no sense of social responsibility. I wrote about one such young man, David, here.

Now, the Labour Party is saying that it will make life even more difficult for young people like David, by excluding them from Jobseekers Allowance. This move ‘would affect seven out of 10 of the 18-to-21-year-olds currently claiming JSA, and initially save £65m.’

The emphasis on training in this measure is welcome, but again, it seems that the victims of an unfair and dysfunctional economy are being punished. And of course, like all welfare ‘reforms’, the prosperous will be unaffected. Young people from affluent families will continue to go on their gap years, or get unpaid internships in Westminster or the media whilst their parents support them.

If this plan was simply about ensuring that young adults got good training it would be laudable. But, as seems inevitable these days, it is designed to ‘send a message’ that Labour will end the ‘something for nothing’ culture. It is designed to appease those people who believe that benefit fraud is a national scourge, and that those living on benefits are living in the lap of luxury. This is a failure of leadership from Labour.

Research shows that most people have a completely false picture of the generosity of the benefits system, and that support for cuts to welfare relies on such ignorance. Labour must know this, but instead of meeting rhetoric and propaganda with the truth, they are pandering to the public’s ignorance.

Rachel Reeves says that young people without good qualifications will be in and out of work, on zero-hours contracts and low pay. Of course she is right, but that is an indictment of an exploitative and unfair economy, where employers are allowed to treat those young people like disposable raw materials. It is an indication of the weakness of the trade union and labour movement, which can no longer obtain fair pay and conditions for working class people. It is not the fault of those young people who, had they been born in another generation, would have been able to make a very decent life for themselves.

© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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