How to start
Providing jobs now is necessary to avoid a long-lasting blight on young people’s lives. But what should happen next? What people want is not difficult to describe:
Reasonably well-paid, secure and interesting jobs
Good training and further education opportunities
A safe, secure and attractive environment
Good leisure amenities
Good public transport
A wealthy civilised country should be able to provide all of these in all its regions. Most people are proud of where they live and a political party that promises to help their area with realistic and practical measures is likely to attract their support. Why is this so difficult for the Labour Party to understand?
One problem is that the Labour Party does not know what to do. It doesn’t know ‘where the money is going to come from’, because it remains frightened of the idea that a state can issue its own currency at will. It has also lost the art of listening to people, investigating the needs of localities and regions and proposing workable solutions. The other problem is that too many people in the Labour Party and sadly, in some trade unions, are just not sufficiently interested in the problems of working people and prefer to indulge in lofty rhetoric or abstruse identity politics campaigns. If this attitude persists then the Labour Party will completely lose its working class constituency.
In this article I am going to assume that the money is available, but the challenge lies in mobilising resources to secure those practical solutions. Any community that wishes to retain its vigour will need to retain its young people. The most enterprising will leave if they cannot see any hope for them in the future in the area where they were brought up. The way to help them stay is to provide training and employment. But to attract good jobs you need to attract and retain employers and to attract them you need a good workforce and a nice place for incoming employees live in. So where do you start?
A region needs an overall plan and a timescale, something that local people find credible. They are not going to expect the Earth, just clear signs of improvement. Employers are looking for something that gives an area the edge against competitors who also want a plant located there. Rotherham for example, a town that Labour just managed to cling onto in the local elections, has a Rotherham Development Agency which has made use of the Towns Fund run by the government to help rundown areas, to build an Advanced Machinery and Productivity Institute that will build on the town’s traditional strengths in manufacturing, to help secure what they already have and to attract new manufacturers. It hopes to generate around 1200 jobs across the region. The jobs in turn will help to revive the town centre and will have a multiplier effect.
But to sustain this kind of effort there will need to be provision for training and vocational education, so a co-ordinated system of colleges and apprenticeships will also be needed. These facilities need to be there, not just to support existing employers but also to serve those that the area wishes to attract. If the offer for local and prospective employers is to be comprehensive then the local and even regional colleges need to co-ordinate to ensure that there is an integrated offer. For young people to access them, there needs to be reliable, safe and cheap public transport. While putting in new tramlines and suburban rail services will take time, taking control of and expanding the bus network can be done relatively quickly. An incoming Labour government can legislate to make it easy for local authorities to run their own buses and can explain how this will benefit local communities, while the local authorities can get into the detail of the new services and make sure that local people know about them. This would be an excellent example of central and local government working together to provide for the needs of local communities. Critical also will be funding to ensure that young people are able to travel free to college and apprenticeships and that fares are kept low to encourage young people to travel more than a few miles to work if they need to.
Employers do not at the moment have a particularly good record in providing apprenticeship and work experience opportunities. For smaller firms in particular, the administrative, pastoral and pedagogic burden might seem to be too much of a diversion from their core business. As I argued last month, government can do much more to support local businesses in providing apprenticeships and good work experience. The levy scheme is not wrong in principle but the devil is in the detail and at the moment it is not working properly and an incoming Labour Government would need to draw up detailed plans to reform it and to ensure that it serves the purpose for which it was originally designed, which was to expand apprenticeships for young people who do not wish to take the university route to the labour market and to ensure that everyone who wants an apprenticeship has access to a good one.
There is another important job that a Labour Government could carry out in conjunction with localities. The Labour Party should pledge the revival of a proper careers service that includes genuinely preparing young people and their parents for what the contemporary world of work involves. As well as proper careers education in school this will include good quality work experience so that young people understand what the contemporary workplace is like. Parents should also be involved. In many post-industrial areas, young people and their parents still live spiritually in a world where heavy industry predominated and they do not regard many of the jobs currently on offer as ‘proper’ jobs. Since these industrial jobs often did not require much in the way of formal education, there was little incentive to gain qualifications and adequate levels of literacy and numeracy. This is still a prevalent attitude in some areas. It is not something that can be changed easily or overnight, but that attitudinal change is important in giving some young people the incentive to reach a sufficient educational level where they have access to good vocational education and employment.
Government and local authorities working together can make a start on providing attractive and cheap housing for rent. Again, an incoming Labour Government would have to legislate and provide funding to make this happen. But the availability of high quality and affordable homes is a powerful way of keeping young people in the area and attracting employers to it.
While the current employment situation for young people is bleak, Brexit also presents opportunities, as do demographic trends. Employers no longer have the ‘free lunch’ of unlimited labour arriving from continental Europe and will have to work harder to attract and retain workers. They will need to redesign jobs and increase training to improve productivity and will need to locate within reasonable commuting distance of the target workforce. Once a start has been made in attracting and retaining good employers, particularly through the provision of support for businesses and good transport, then some of the other desirable things will follow as a community prospers once again.
These are the key points that should be in Labour’s campaigning. Labour can point to some successes in doing this, but these are the result of local and regional initiatives, not of the PLP or the party leadership. If national and local and regional Labour work together to tackle the issue of youth unemployment then they can hope to regain the attention of their working class constituencies.
Part 5 of ‘What am I going to do next?’ can be read here