The Sunday review on Friday: The Young Fabians’ jobs summit

by Jonathan Todd

Earlier this week on Tuesday, the Young Fabians demonstrated their capacity to work for solutions to the most pressing of problems by holding their jobs summit in the week in which the ONS announced youth unemployment has topped 1.4 million – the highest since records began.

The discussion roved from the big, macro picture to very particular concerns. The willingness and capacity of young people to turn up on time for work and put a shift in was amongst the latter.

Punctuality isn’t just a challenge on the shop floor, though. The summit didn’t start on time. The star turn, David Miliband, we were informed by the chair of proceedings, Rayhan Haque, “had to do a bit of a vote”. The best laid plans and the NHS bill. Whether the lost time features on the risk register of the bill may never be known but the Young Fabians had become the latest to suffer from Andrew Lansley’s ill-considered reforms.

Manfully Will Hutton and his friend Sony Kapoor stepped into the breach created by Miliband’s absence. Many speakers at political events like to kick off with a joke. Hutton, in contrast, sobered proceedings by reminding us that we are living through the longest and deepest recession since the 1870s.

Comparisons with the 1930s are so 2008. We are now beyond them, with GDP still 3 per cent below where it was 4 years ago. Nobody living has ever lived through a recession as pronounced as this. Getting through this, Hutton insisted, is “the social democratic challenge of your lives”.

Helpfully he had come armed with suggestions for how this might be done: extending the kinds of business models that the ownership commission reported upon the day after the jobs summit; ecosystem policy, rather than industrial policy; a twenty-first century social contract, which would allow individuals to mitigate the risk in their lives; and a state-backed infrastructure bank. Some of these remained ideas thrown out to the room, unpacked and unpicked. Kapoor did, though, latch on to the infrastructure bank suggestion, pointing out that we are already serviced by one in the form of the European Investment Bank.

This was consistent with the strongly European flavour of Kapoor’s remarks. He provided a passionate and meaty articulation of the case that Europe, including the UK, now stands together or falls together. We shouldn’t be defensively building firewalls. We should be going on the offensive and taking advantage of the rock-bottom long-term interest rates across much of northern Europe to create an infrastructure boom.

It is a deficit of demand which lies at the heart of Europe’s problems and which this approach is designed to correct. Instead, as opposed to a co-ordinated effort to drive up demand, we are set for a deepening round of collective and self-defeating austerity. Greece and Ireland are the only EU countries to have implemented the majority of the cuts that they plan. Everywhere else in Europe most of the cuts are still to come.

At this bleak juncture David Miliband appeared, full of contrition and apology for his lateness. While the ex-foreign secretary later departed to speak to CNN about Afghanistan, his contribution was much more anglo-saxon in focus than that of previous speakers. But just as hard-hitting. The timing and the weight of welfare state interventions is too little, too late. We spend half as much as other OECD countries on active welfare policies. Neither the quality nor clarity of options for the non-university bound population are what they should be. The university-bound have the UCAS system to help them navigate their path, while regional websites advertising apprenticeships are conspicuously absent.

Questions from the floor tended to pick up on the more micro and domestic focus of Miliband and less on the European perspective of Kapoor or the grand macro cataclysm of Hutton. Themes included: the lack of support for young people who want to start businesses; the importance of devolving power and budgets away from Whitehall; the positive contribution of co-operative schools; and the unwillingness of firms to invest in young people.

The last point struck Hutton as particularly important who observed that while there are around 7 applications for every place at Oxford University, there are more than 70 applications for every Centrica apprenticeship. Big business isn’t convinced that it will be around on the same scale 5 years from now. They don’t believe in the future. So, they are reluctant to hire the young to whom the future should belong.

Undoubtedly, whether the future is best built through a series of micro interventions, grand macro restructuring, or a judicious mix of the two, it requires a popular belief that tomorrow can be better than today. Without this, customers won’t spend and businesses won’t invest. And down we will go together in a paradox of thrift, as the talents and ambitions of a blameless generation are squandered. We can’t expect, nor do we need, our animal spirits to run wild as they in the decade to 2008.

We do, though, need to recover some confidence in the future. The Young Fabians have this. George Osborne’s task is to give the same to the country. After two years of needlessly apoplectic talk this may already be beyond him, however.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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One Response to “The Sunday review on Friday: The Young Fabians’ jobs summit”

  1. swatantra says:

    ‘giiv us a job’ could well become the catch phrase of the twentyteens.

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