“Walk Right Back” – The labour movement and young people

In the Labour Movement we are all glass-half-full sort of people.  We need to be and usually our optimism is justified.  But what if we are just being too naive too often?

Because  although  we can point to  a succession of positive steps in the  efforts to  re-energise and rejuvenate both  wings of our movement – from 16 and 17  year old voters in the Indyref,  to  hundreds of thousands of  new supporters engaged by  the leadership election – these exist in the bleakest of contexts. The ongoing reactionary revolution makes my generation pine for the benign blight of Thatcherism.

I would argue that the party and trade unions have yet to find the right approach  to engaging with the concerns of  new workers in  our new  SME-dominated, small state economy.

Sorry to  put a downer on proceedings,  but look at the facts: As Hendy and Ewing(1) reported  coverage  of collective bargaining – surely the driver and barometer of union  strength – now stands at  around 25%,  down  from  82%  in  scarcely a generation. Private sector union density is now below 25%. Union membership is concentrated in older workers on full time contracts, whereas younger members have less secure employment, work fewer hours and pay less in subscriptions.

Union density in SMEs and in the hospitality and related services sector is really low, yet that is where a disproportionate number of young people will be working (2).

TUC research showed  that there were enough politically  disengaged young voters to determine the  General Election  result in almost every  constituency (3) – but the party’s policies on  jobs and training,  or on  macro- economic and foreign policy,  clearly didn’t  motivate  very large numbers of younger  voters  to  support us. Nor did the truly impressive efforts of Bite the Ballot deliver the decisive turnout in young people that was hoped and needed (4). In fact turnout amongst the young was lower in 2015 than five years previously.

So what do we do?  Not give up. Not emigrate.  But not by just doing the same thing and hope that the political pendulum will swing back to us.

I think we start with the objective of creating a bedrock of collectivist ideas on which to base policies that offer the promise of individual economic fulfilment. (And just so we are all clear, individual economic fulfilment is, in my view, impossible, without a surrounding framework of progressive economic and social policies)

So easy to say – but what does it mean in practice?  Amongst ourselves, I suggest that we need clarity and consistency around not just what we mean but how we think. How do we create this collectivism?

The role of the National Curriculum is, I think often overlooked.  Employers have told me that they do not find teenagers “work ready”. Yet we now have compulsory schooling until 18. These two extra years seem to me to  represent a huge opportunity to address the concerns of employers  but in a way that  supports  key  collective ideas –  like  respect,  tolerance, diversity, equality, fairness, reasonableness,  rationality,  rights and responsibilities.

These are all the things needed for a successful economy.  They’re also a part of personal fulfilment.  But for us, crucially, they are the key values of the labour movement.  The pieces of this jig-saw are already in place.  We need a recharged Citizenship Foundation (5) to put the pieces together.

But are we now in a position where we can have this necessary debate like never before? Given the preoccupation with  such matters – from the “English Votes”  debate (7)  to DevoManc (8),  constitutional  reform  is  now a major  issue and  opportunity  for us to engage and  energise young people. Do the Scottish Constitutional convention (8) and other constitutional conventions that followed it (9) show us a way to engage key young stakeholders?

And what should “individual economic fulfilment” consist of?

Building a narrative on individual economic fulfilment is, I believe, an essential ingredient to the hope that characterises successful youth engagement strategies. We need to recognise and embrace ambition, but key into what young people are saying about housing, health and employment. Listen – really listen – to what young people are saying.

The housing crisis – and it is a crisis – offers a hopeful illustration of how young people can become engaged, and how politicians need to outbid each other to offer the most positive and popular policy.  This is surely the key issue for the London Mayoral election next year, so it is an opportunity to see if the levels of engagement and activity are maintained.

Given the importance attached to  housing   by all of Labour’s  large affiliates, all of whose policies  have been driven  by  motions  from  youth structures  within those unions (10), this issue  also shows that  campaigning  on the “right”  issue  not only brings  the  two wings of the movement  together,  but  provides the rejuvenation essential for organisations to  survive.

But all of this must feed through to something deliverable – engagement must translate to a real shift in policy, and that policy must be one that is actioned. Get this right and we create a virtuous cycle of hope, trust and innovation.  Get it wrong and it becomes a vicious cycle of just the opposite.

So the key criteria in all this is how any does any given action, policy or decision either increase capacity or influence or both.  How will this bring us together? If it doesn’t do any of these things, then my advice is simply to stop.(11)

To paraphrase a deservedly acclaimed speech – young people haven’t left the organised labour movement,  perhaps we have left them (12). Even if following the Labour leadership election, some of them have started to return, the achievable challenge now is to bring the next generation close to our heart.

An edited version of this article appears in the September 2015 edition of the Young Fabians’ magazine Anticipations www.youngfabians.org.uk

  1. Hendy and Ewing: Reconstruction after the crisis: a manifesto for collective bargaining,  IER 2013
  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/trade-union-statistics-2014
  3. http://www.readyrentals.co.uk/news/article/1137/four-million-missing-votes-from-younger-generation-could-decide-election-tuc
  4. https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3575/How-Britain-voted-in-2015.aspx?view=wide
  5. http://www.citizenshipfoundation.org.uk/index.php
  6. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/02/english-votes-english-laws-what-are-tories-proposing
  7. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/devolution-to-the-greater-manchester-combined-authority-and-transition-to-a-directly-elected-mayor
  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Constitutional_Convention
  9. http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/constitutional-convention
  10. For example see http://www.cwuyouth.org/unscrupulous-landlords-amp-the-housing-crisis.html, http://www.gmbyounglondon.org/howl-for-housing/,
  11. Weil , A Strategic Choice Framework for Union decision making, Working-USA; Journal of Labor and Society, 2005
  12. http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2015-07-14b.754.0&s=speaker%3A25269#g774.0

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