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One Nation Labour and the next generation

The Government’s austerity programme has hit young people hard, EMA has been scrapped, tuition fees have trebled and youth unemployment has stood at around the 1 million mark for most of the past two years. Unfortunately looking to the future the prospects for the next generation are even bleaker.

Low pay is rife, employment rights are being slashed, housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable (to rent let alone buy) and final salary pension schemes have been almost completely replaced by the substantially lower defined contribution schemes. The result is that for many, the best that can be looked forward to is a lifetime of struggle. The gravity of the situation has not been lost on Ed Miliband who, in 2011, spoke of the danger that the ‘British Promise’ that children will have more opportunities than their parents was being put at risk. Identifying the problem is only the first step however.

If Ed Miliband is serious about the renewal of the Labour Party his ‘One Nation’ vision must represent a radical departure from what has gone before and provide the next generation with the offer of a long-term future worth fighting for.

While important to highlight the lasting damage this Government’s actions are having to the life chances of young people in many ways they are simply accelerating processes which have been ongoing for the past 30-35 years as a result of the neo-liberal economic model pursued by successive Governments.

The New Labour response to the deterioration of opportunities, hard-won by previous generations, was to see it as an inevitable by-product of an increasingly globalised world – something which it was neither possible nor desirable to challenge. Instead, in place of what had previously been established as rights, the Labour Governments of the 90s and 00s sought to empower people through choice, in theory allowing people a greater say over increasing aspects of their lives. Although a laudable sentiment in policy terms this simply became a justification for the marketisation of public sector and an excuse to do nothing to curb private sector excesses, most notably in the financial and banking industries. This approach came crashing down around them with the financial crisis of 2008 and has left the party directionless in the aftermath. Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation Labour’ speech was an attempt to fill this void and signalled a move from a profit driven to a values driven politics. The key now is the policies which the party adopts under this new banner.

The efforts of New Labour to turn citizens into consumers suffered from one basic flaw. By simply accepting decisions said to be determined by market forces unquestioned the big choices which had an impact upon society had already been taken behind closed boardroom doors. Those left to be taken by individual “consumers” were of minimal impact. A One Nation Labour Party cannot let power remain concentrated in so few hands. Every member of the next generation should grow up genuinely participating in the key decisions that will affect their lives. At its most simple this could be done by re-emphasising the party’s commitment to giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote but real empowerment means much more than voting every four or five years.

In an increasingly globalised world decisions taken by corporations often have more of an impact on the direction of a nation and life of an individual than decisions taken by Government. These are too important to be left to a small, unaccountable minority.

In debates around banking Labour has been advocating an employee representative on remuneration boards. This is step in the right direction but far too modest in ambition. If it wants to give the next generation a meaningful say over their futures Labour should be advocating elected employee representatives in all UK boardrooms, not just one as a token presence, but enough to give the workforce a real influence in how a company is run.

At a community level too power needs to be devolved from markets to local populations. Giving community councils and local authorities the power of veto over the establishment of businesses and activities, such as pay-day loan companies and betting shops, which they feel will harm their communities would be one simple step which would help re-dress the balance. Another key consequence of letting market forces take their course is that in a number of key areas, including those essential in people’s daily lives, the market began to act in the interests of the minority taking decisions rather than the interests of the public. In too many areas young people are now having to make decisions between two equally unappealing choices.

A One Nation Labour Government should not be afraid of using the state to rectify this state of affairs and directly create opportunities for the next generation. To take housing as one of the most pressing examples, an ideological opposition to the building of council housing led to young people pre-2008 having to make a decision on a taking out risky mortgage (Northern Rock’s 120% being possibly the most extreme example) or go down the poorly regulated private rented sector route. Post-financial crisis with banks less inclined to take risks that choice has been narrowed to either the private rented sector, to which landlords have responded by putting rents up, or remaining at home with parents. Few can dispute the market has failed young people but only co-ordinated Government action can fix this broken system.

Only deliberate policy measures such as resourcing local authorities to build a new generation of council homes, mandating developers to ensure that a certain percentage of all new build housing is affordable and capping private sector rents will ensure that in One Nation Britain everyone within that nation will have the right to a decent home. So far while Ed Miliband has identified areas, such as the Living Wage, where intervention would guarantee a fundamental right for the next generation he has yet to commit a future Labour Government to legislating to secure this right. In areas such as energy, transport and pensions if this timidity is not abandoned the opportunity for a break from the past will be missed.

The challenges a radical one nation agenda would face should not be underestimated. Within the Labour Party recent articles from David Miliband and Douglas Alexander show that there continue to be some who cling to the failed New Labour path. Should poll ratings fall, the knives will undoubtedly come out. Even more daunting however will be the pressure from vested interests should Ed Miliband look to intervene in the free-market. In opposition his record in challenging these has not been bad at all so far. Under his leadership the Labour Party has taken tough stances towards the railway companies and energy suppliers albeit without producing policy proposals challenging their long-term interests. Most notably he was prepared to publicly challenge Rupert Murdoch over phone-hacking the BSkyB deal and support Lord Leveson’s call for a media regulator with statutory powers.

Talking tough in opposition is only half the battle however and Labour’s record in standing up to powerful interests while in office is far from impressive. From Ramsey MacDonald’s capitulation to the financial sector in 1929, through the Wilson and Callaghan Governments deferring to the judgement of civil service, IMF and security services to the New Labour courtship of the City should Labour win the 2015 election it will have to confront its own history head on. Nevertheless the time has never been more opportune for a departure from the past. The electorate of 2015 will have lived through the financial crisis and be all too aware of excess and irresponsibility of the narrow interests at the top.The life chances of the next generation are far from promising. The cuts agenda of the coalition Government is accelerating the pace at which the life chances of young people growing up in the United Kingdom are being eroded.

If Ed Miliband is serious about creating a One Nation Society in which the promise to Britain’s next generation is maintained then he needs to embark upon a radical departure from what has gone before. Instead of embracing the free market and offering fake choices he needs to look to devolve real power to individuals and communities and intervene in the market to put the interests of the people and the nation ahead of those of the vested interests. The challenges are great but the next generation, having seen the neo-liberal model fail, is ready not only to support decisions taken in the public interest but to take those decisions themselves.

This article first appeared at Next Generation Labour

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