What am I going to do next? The Challenge of Youth Unemployment. Part 2

Dave Gardner

In the last issue of Labour Affairs I looked at youth unemployment as a blight that needed to be tackled now through a programme of job creation. I pointed to the difficulties involved in mobilising resources to deal with an immediate problem that has long-term bad consequences if not addressed at once. Providing jobs now though, is not  a solution to the long-term problem of ending large-scale youth unemployment. The long-term issue should also be a huge concern for Labour and it should be bending all its efforts to providing solutions and showing its working class electorate that it is addressing their concerns. 

It cannot be stated often enough that money is not the problem. Identifying the problem, breaking it into manageable pieces and mobilising resources to deal with it is the daunting policy challenge. There is no one problem of youth unemployment. There are problems with transport, industrial policy, vocational education, university education and even primary schooling. All need to be tackled in a co-ordinated way if the disaster of youth unemployment is to be removed.

The first issue to face is that there are not enough good jobs in the right places. It is assumed that if someone has not got a job then they have not looked hard enough, that they are too ‘picky’ about what they will take or that they are not willing to move from where they live to where the job is. Let’s take a further look at this. In 1981 Norman Tebbit popularised the idea of ‘getting on your bike’ to look for work when he described his father’s job-searching activities during the economic depression of the 1930s. How far should a bike ride to work be? For most people, a ten mile radius from your home would be the limit. 

But the implication of Tebbit’s sneer at the feckless working class was that they should sell up and go and live where the jobs are. For most working people, even if they wanted to leave their communities, this is not feasible. It means renting or buying a new home, uprooting one’s family and making new friends and connections. For many years, the Tories seemed happy with this approach and Labour under Blair did little if anything to challenge it. The market would allocate jobs and working people should move to where the jobs are, irrespective of the roots that they have in a locality. 

Later the Tories, sensing an electoral opportunity in areas that Labour had for decades taken for granted, changed their tune. From 2015, via Theresa May, Nick Timothy and David Goodhart, they now tell us that the world is divided into ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’. ‘Somewheres’ identify with place, community and traditional values. ‘Anywheres’ don’t have any such identifications, have a cosmopolitan mentality and little or no sympathy with the attitudes of ‘Somewheres’. We are given to understand by the current Tory party that we should favour the ‘Somewheres’ over the ‘Anywheres’. They are thus able to set up a ‘culture war’ between the metropolitan elite and working class communities, identifying themselves as the champions of the working class. This is their version of ‘identity politics’ and it threatens to be effective.

There is absolutely no reason why those who choose to remain in their own communities should not have their concerns taken seriously. It is a measure of the Tories’ ability to change the political weather according to their liking that they can move seamlessly from ‘on your bike’ to ‘Somewheres versus Anywheres’ without anyone pointing out the inconsistency. But if Labour is to regain influence with working people it will need to take account of the fact that many people will want to live in, work in and raise families in or near the communities in which they grew up.


The first problem that they encounter is the lack of jobs or at least good jobs where they live or in reasonably commuting distance from where they live. The same goes for apprenticeships or college courses. This is particularly true of those living in towns or rural areas, that is, a huge proportion of the population. Young people do not usually have very much money, very often they have to contribute to the household budget or they have caring responsibilities for members of their family, often parents or siblings. Constraints of time and money mean that they cannot travel very far for work, an apprenticeship or to study for a qualification. This puts huge limits on their opportunities and ambitions. Generally speaking, people are prepared to travel relatively short distances for low paying jobs and further for those that are better paid. So if you want a decent job or a useful qualification and would like to, or need to stay in your community, you will need good and cheap transport to stand a chance of getting what you want. One of the problems in Britain is that the rundown of public transport over the last 60 years, and in particular the decline of bus services over the last 10 years, has left many communities without decent public transport, and where it is exists it is often very expensive. 

What Employers Want

Generally speaking, employers looking for new sites to invest in will take into account the facilities in an area. They will generally not wish to locate to rundown areas with high rates of crime, drug abuse, poor transport, public facilities and educational opportunities and achievement. Where there are inadequate health and social care facilities to relieve these problems, a locality becomes even less attractive. Run-down and unattractive environments will provide little incentive for more senior staff to relocate to support any new investment. Providing these is not an employer’s responsibility; it is the responsibility of the government. 

A government serious about bringing good jobs to an area will be serious about providing these facilities. So the first point about providing good jobs for young people in the many towns and rural communities that lack them is to reverse the austerity that has, over the last 10 years, blighted communities, many of which have not recovered properly from the de-industrialisation of the 1980s and 1990s. Think for example of  South Wales, the North East and North West of England or some of our coastal towns. Eamon Dyas in last month’s and the current issue of ‘Labour Affairs’ has drawn attention to the state of industry in the North West and Yorkshire in 1919. Whatever their problems, these were communities with established and thriving manufacturing and mining industries, which were organised around their local economies. The picture, one hundred years later, has changed utterly.


The problem is that many things need to be done to bring good jobs to communities. They cannot always be done jointly and many of them take a long time to bring about. Some transport links can be restored quite quickly, others, like re-opened railway lines, take longer. Restoring facilities for young people can also be done relatively quickly, as can the provision of advice and guidance. Rebuilding the College Sector so that it supports the introduction and retention of good jobs will take longer and needs to be done in conjunction with employers thinking of investing in a locality or region. Here again, the government can make a start, working with local authorities and local enterprise boards by directly investing in promising local firms, very often converting government loans into equity and co-ordinating the provision of training, transport and other infrastructure to support clusters of companies and to develop a local or regional occupational labour market in those industries that local as well as central  government wishes to support. Where the government prefers to loan money to companies, this can be done with conditions attached about vocational education and commitments to the longer term in the area. A multiplier effect from such investment will encourage further companies to start up or invest to cater to the increased spending power of those employed in these companies.

In December’s ‘Labour Affairs’ I argued that a start could be made immediately on bringing unskilled and semi-skilled jobs to unemployed young people. A short-term measure, it would bring some money and increased hope and confidence to communities. The experience of working and earning money brings with it an understanding of what employment involves and a record of achievement that can go on a CV. While such short-term schemes are running their course, the next set of needs can be dealt with: transport, some local infrastructure, investment in local colleges. While these will not be enough in themselves, they will provide some of the conditions for the development of good quality long term employment in ‘left behind’ communities. During the time that these medium-term issues are being attended to, the next, longer term, issues can be addressed. I will look at some of these in the February issue.


The Tories would like to distract voters from their failure to provide the elements of decent living in many English and Welsh areas by drawing Labour into a ‘culture war’ in order to expose Labour activists’ emotional and cultural distance from the people they claim to represent. The best way for Labour to respond is not by placing yet more emphasis on identity politics, but by addressing the needs of the ‘somewheres’ beloved of Tory ideologues, but actually a large segment of Labour’s traditional support base. Labour really ought to throw the kitchen sink at this issue, showing voters that it is they, not the Tories, who intend to support economically struggling communities, with plans that, if elected, they can put into effect immediately. But the planning has to start now as the obstacles are formidable and will require a degree of  determination and attention in detail that those in the Labour Party responsible for this area of policy have not so far given any evidence of.