SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 152 - October 2011

A perfect storm for youth

SEVENTY-FIVE years ago, 200 unemployed workers marched from Jarrow in the north-east of England to London. They demanded that the government take action to alleviate high levels of unemployment and the terrible living conditions they faced. Youth Fight for Jobs is retracing their steps. Recent events have shown that, in the years since 1935, capitalism has failed to provide a solution to those problems.

Last month, a tidal wave of discontent swept across Britain. Initially sparked by the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London, rioting broke out across the country. As the politicians and media scrapped around for explanations, Youth Fight for Jobs knew exactly where the blame lay: with the ruling class and its brutal austerity agenda. The shooting of Mark Duggan was the boiling point for tensions that had been simmering away under the surface for years.

While rioting cannot be condoned, and is not a way forward, we have to recognise that the situation facing young people has been combustible for a long time. In February 2008, at the onset of recession, youth unemployment stood at 500,000. By February 2009, it had reached 900,000. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 973,000 16-to-24 year-olds are now out of work. The figure for 16-17 year-olds is particularly striking, with 347,000 unemployed – one in three – who are not eligible for benefits.

On top of this, the Con-Dem government is taking its axe to over 700,000 public-sector jobs, with a knock-on effect in the private sector. Many companies are losing contracts with the public sector. And with fewer people having less disposable income there has been a bloodbath on the high streets. Five thousand high-street jobs disappeared in June as major chains closed their doors. Many predict that the worst is yet to come.

The only other route out from the dole queue has also been cut off for young people. The rise in tuition fees and scrapping of education maintenance allowance (EMA) mean that, what once provided an opportunity for a decent job and a career, has been turned into little more than an expensive detour to the job centre. This year over 200,000 students leaving further education will not make it to university due to fee hikes and cuts to university courses.

The only choice now for many young people is to sign on. This is likely to mean placement on the government’s Work Programme, which is little more than a naked attempt to use the unemployed as cheap labour. David Cameron was crying crocodile tears back in February when he said that youth unemployment was a "matter of deep regret". For his big-business mates, large numbers of unemployed is an opportunity. The Work Programme will see unemployed people taken on for up to three months at a time. They will still receive dole money, with employers paying optional expenses, such as for travel. The employer will then be able to decide whether or not they keep them on. The bosses must be rubbing their hands at the prospect of getting work done for free.

At the same time, services that are supposed to help unemployed youth get back into work have been cut to the bare bones by local councils. In the London borough of Lewisham, an area of very high youth unemployment, we have recently seen services to unemployed youth like Connexions and Opening Doors close because the council has pulled funding. There are countless other examples up and down the country.

It is no coincidence that areas hit by cuts to youth funding saw some of the worst rioting. For example, in Haringey, the borough that includes Tottenham, the Labour council closed eight out of 13 youth clubs. It was a toxic combination of factors that led to the riots. We have harsh attacks on the rights and living standards of young people. The heavy-handed use of stop-and-search has been used by police to harass youth in general, black and Asian people in particular. And we are coming out of a period where most young people have never experienced trade unionism and have no faith at all in politics. The anger, as Youth Fight for Jobs has warned since we launched in 2009, was always in danger of being expressed in the form of riots.

Clearly, the Con-Dem government has aimed for young people because it believes that they are a soft target. When the Con-Dems unveiled their attacks on education last year, this assessment was proven to be very wrong. The demonstration on 10 November led to a wave of strikes, occupations and protests that spread like wildfire across the country. While the movement did show the positive role young people can play in the battle against the cuts, the pusillanimity of the NUS leadership and the mistaken methods of others on the left of the movement mean that it has suffered temporary defeats. EMA has been abolished and tuition fees are set to rise dramatically next year.

Youth Fight for Jobs proposed at the time that, in order for students to win, they had to link up with the wider working class as part of a mass movement to defeat all cuts. The campaign has always driven to link up unemployed youth and students with the best fighting layers of the working class.

The struggle of youth for a decent future is not just confined to Britain. Spain and Greece saw massive movements of indignant youths this summer. In Spain, youth unemployment stands at 45%. Since 15 May Spain has been rocked by demonstrations and protests. It is estimated that 6.5 to eight million young people have taken part in the protests. The movement has held a series of ‘Jarrow-style’ marches. On 25 July, young people marched from all over Spain to the capital to demonstrate against the government’s proposed austerity budget.

The rising tide of youth rebellion has also seen tyrants fall. It was young people in Tunisia and Egypt who triggered the revolutionary tidal waves that swept away the regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak respectively. Egypt in particular shows the potential when the struggle of youth is connected to the struggle of the working class as a whole. Tahrir Square had been occupied for two months before the Egyptian workers threatened a general strike on 30 February. A day later, Mubarak was gone.

The Jarrow March for Jobs could provide a rallying point for the anti-cuts movement in Britain. We want to bring this renewed spirit of youth rebellion to the streets of Britain. The march has the backing of the RMT, PCS, FBU, UCU, Unite, Bectu and TSSA trade unions. As we go down the country in October we are linking up with union branches and anti-cuts organisations.

We will kick-off in Jarrow with a demonstration on 1 October. At each stage of the march we will link up with other people against the cuts to hold rallies, demonstrations and protests. In Sheffield, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s constituency, we are linking up with the anti-cuts alliance to hold a demo at the town hall. In Coventry, we will hold a demonstration and gig alongside other campaigners. The march will culminate in London with a national demonstration in Trafalgar Square on 5 November.

Young people face the biggest attacks on the right to a decent future seen in generations. Today’s young people are the first in decades to face the prospect of being worse off than their parents or even grandparents, with attacks on the right to an education, no jobs out there and more and more people thrown on the scrapheap. We are also seeing the safety net of the welfare state being pulled out from underneath. Many young people feel they have nowhere to turn and get involved in petty crime and gang culture. We cannot rule out more outpourings of raw anger such as we saw in August. But these will prove to be counter-productive dead-ends.

The perfect storm is brewing. Public-sector workers are set to take the biggest strike action since 1926 in defence of pensions. Now is the right time to bring young people into the workers’ movement and combine their creativity and dynamism with the economic might of the working class. The Jarrow March for Jobs is a great opportunity to do just that.

Paul Callanan, Youth Fight for Jobs

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