The General Election on May 6th is undoubtedly the most significant election since New Labour came to power in 1997. For many of today’s youth, this election will be the first in which they can vote. Significantly, this generation of young people will also be the first voters who were born after the reign of Margaret Thatcher. The upcoming General Election, therefore, will be partially decided by “Thatcher’s children”.
Although we may not have been alive during Thatcher’s years as prime minister, we have definitely suffered the consequences of her policies. Amongst these infamous policies include: the selling-off of council housing (the “Right to Buy” scheme), which resulted in many of the inner-city ghetto areas that we still see across the UK today; the ideological drive to privatise public services and nationalised industry, which has led to increasing prices across the board; and the deregulation of the financial sector, which has encouraged the casino-style gambling of the bankers and stock brokers in The City.
Blair, Brown, and the other New Labour architects were all too keen to carry the baton that Thatcher (and John Major) handed them. All of these policies (along with the anti-union legislation) were continued by Blair; the NHS and schools have been stealthily privatised under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and academies programme respectively, whilst Brown did everything he could as chancellor to appease the financial sector. These policies, initially implemented by Thatcher, and carried on by Blair, helped precipitate the current crisis. Access to cheap money quickly dried up in the infamous “credit crunch” of 2008, businesses started firing workers, and banks were bailed out, all of which has left the country with a large debt. Only a few years ago, however, Brown (as chancellor) claimed that he had “abolished boom-and bust”!
The current crisis has hit young people hardest. Unemployment for 16-24 year-olds currently stands at nearly 1million, whilst the unemployment rate for this age group (at nearly one-in-five) is higher than any other age band and is also the highest youth unemployment rate in Europe. Meanwhile, the number of 16-18 year-olds who are considered “Neets” (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) has risen to approximately 233,000 – approximately 1 in 10.
As a result of these dramatic figures, the media has begun to mention the definite possibility of a “lost generation”, with reference to previous (smaller) recessions, after which many thousands of young people were left in unemployment for years. David Blanchflower, a labour market expert, points out, however, that, “unlike the many thousands of manufacturing lay-offs during the 1980s recessions, a wide swathe of social groups will be hit this time, from working-class school leavers to middle-class students”.
Across the board, prospects for today’s youth have been dealt a heavy blow. Young school-leavers are finding themselves in competition with more experienced workers who have lost their jobs in the recession. Those who do find work are likely to find it in low-paid sectors where job security is minimal. Meanwhile, many are turning to training jobs or internships in order to gain experience for the future. In many cases, young people are expected to work for free in these jobs, whilst the minimum wage does not apply to those who are under twenty-two or who are undertaking training. Paid apprenticeships, like all other jobs, have dried up as a result of the recession, thus further limiting the options available to young people who want to work.
In the absence of any job prospects, many young people are instead choosing to go on into higher education (HE). However, the current crisis has resulted in a number of contradictions regarding the HE system. On the one hand, the government is keen to get more people into university, and thus delay dealing with the problem of youth unemployment for a few years. On the other hand, all the three major parties are promising to reduce Britain’s budget deficit, and HE funding is a prime candidate in many politicians’ eyes for drastic cuts. As a result of this, for the 600,000 school leavers applying for university this year, it is estimated that over 200,000 may be turned away.
The government’s solution to this is to pass the bill onto the students. Next year’s HE funding has been cut by £573million, with many more cuts destined to follow in coming years. Meanwhile, the current review of higher education funding is likely to recommend a rise in tuition fees from the current cap of £3,200 per year to £5000, or possibly even more. Some university Vice-Chancellors (managers) have even called for removing the cap on fees altogether! We should not forget at this time, that when New Labour first came to power in 1997, tuition fees did not exist at all – in fact students received a grant to cover their living expenses. All of this has quickly changed, and students are now expected to take out a loan to cover all their costs, burdening them with debt for many years after their studies have finished.
At the end of the day, those who do graduate are finding that nobody is recruiting. Without any policies to create more jobs, the expansion of higher education has merely resulted in a very well educated generation of unemployed youth. All around us we can see similar paradoxes like this: construction workers are left without jobs, whilst houses are desperately needed for the 5million people on housing waiting lists; the unemployment rate is at 8%, whilst many workers toil for 50-60 hours a week to make ends meet; bankers pay themselves billions in bonuses, whilst public services face the axe. Workers and youth across the world are beginning to question these contradictions, and in many cases are questioning the capitalist system itself. We must unite the struggles of workers and youth, and provide a socialist alternative, so that we do not become another lost generation.