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. Last week, the Conservatives launched an unprecedented assault on the living standards and prospects of Britain's under-25s, almost one million of whom are unemployed.
Who would be young today? £9000-a-year fees (in England), no jobs, zero-hours contracts, unaffordable mortgages, ruinous rents ... and now you lose your benefits if you lose your job. Think about it. If you left school, got an apprenticeship, worked for five years then were made redundant, you would lose housing benefits and Jobseeker's Allowance for the crime of being under 25.
This is so manifestly unfair, I could hardly believe David Cameron was serious about it in his conference speech. But this will be a major plank of the Conservative election platform in 18 months' time. They are already committed to cutting housing benefit for jobless under-25s; now they plan to take away Jobseeker's Allowance too, which at £51 a week is already too little to live on.
I'm not 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, not children. I feel genuinely sorry for the under-25s, setting out on a lifetime of debt, their aspirations crushed by a generation of politicians who enjoyed advantages they can only dream about.
When I was that age, I had no debts whatever as 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 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.
Many graduates don't get jobs at all. Years of study and training are dismissed as 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 at the bottom. All very well for a product of Eton who wasn't part of generation debt.
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 contracts, allowing firms to resort to sweated labour rather than invest in new techniques.
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 their own children 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. They will intensify 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? One reason is the experience of unemployment is seared into the national consciousness. Last week, 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 and 1980s.
Most middle-class Scots aren't so detached from the rest of society that they believe the slanders about the jobless. Lacking shares and expensive housing assets, they are only a redundancy away from hardship themselves. This is another indication of the social gulf between Scotland and the south-east of England, where most of the UK national wealth is concentrated.
We are told repeatedly welfare is "out of control" in Britain and we cannot afford benefits for under-25s. But the vast majority of the £155 billion benefits bill goes on old age pensions and disability benefits. Jobseeker's Allowance accounts for only £5bn, and the young unemployed account for less than £1bn of this. The 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 UK 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". Thirty per cent of the labour force change jobs each year, and firms can make employees redundant at short notice, without prejudice. Workers accept it as they know they will be supported while they find another, generally better job. Changing jobs and retraining is a way of life in Denmark - it is often cited by the World Bank as the best country to set up a business.
Europe is recovering, but Britain is returning to the dark ages, with a 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 Education Secretary Michael Gove put it so inelegantly last week. Cameron repeats the slander that people might "opt for a life on benefits". But at £51 a week, no-one in their right mind 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.
Shelling out £17bn a year in housing benefit - mostly into the pockets of buy-to-let landlords - is a gross misuse of public money. But the problem is not the unemployed: it's the dysfunctional housing market, which has allowed house prices and rents to lose touch with reality. It is a direct consequence of the council house sales policy and successive governments' failure to build social housing - or indeed any housing.
A young family struggling with rent and bills can only look in amazement at a government which uses public money to underwrite the deposits for people buying £600,000 houses. The Help to Buy scheme enables the few to acquire a valuable asset thanks to up to £90,000 interest-free to help pay the deposit and cushion any losses. This is a political giveaway to the middle classes of south-east England. Forget Scottish independence: it's the Home Counties that are making a Unilateral Declaration of Independence.
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