Osborne’s Autumn Statement wasn’t just class war. It was age war, too

‘Do you remember when people used to retire?’ I can just imagine our generation’s grandkids asking us that in 50-odd years’ time. Our generation – the 1990s crew – will be working into our 70s. That means that a fair few of you reading this, given the vast inequalities in life expectancy in Britain, will be toiling flat-out and non-stop…till we drop.

The budget did nothing for students or graduates – nearly half of whom are in non-graduate roles, from shelf-stackers to baristas and receptionists. A tenth are unemployed. I’ve lost count of the numbers of old uni friends who’ve recently been on the dole. Where they have found work, many are whiling away their hours gaining ‘work experience’ or what anthropologist David Graeber politely termed ‘bullshit jobs’ – roles which serve no useful purpose. You’ll all know many more. The Autumn Statement announcement of a legislated welfare cap of 1% will push them further into the ground amid rising food costs and energy bills.

Neither will their woes – or just early world-weariness – be made any easier by announcement that the government plans to sell-off of the entire Student Loans Company, part of the coalition’s much-mooted £20bn (doubled from their previous aim) plan to flog-off a whole swathe of public assets – from Eurostar to potentially the Met Office, air traffic control and plenty more. It will make the forestry sell-off a couple of years ago look like a walk in the park. Pardon the pun.

What will it mean to us? Eventually, the terms of our loans will change. Where companies can no longer make a profit off our debt, they will seek to remove or lift the interest rate cap. And with that, we’ll have a de facto rise in tuition fees. Since the loans will be in private hands, we’ll have no say over the matter.

The implications are of course far deeper than this. If not even our student loans are publicly owned any more, our education system certainly won’t be either. Thus Higher Education becomes a commercial enterprise with barely a whisper of democratic discussion.

It’s not just privatisation that we have to contend with. The next few years will see £1bn worth of extra cuts year on year, further limiting demand in the economy and thus jobs growth. The dole queue won’t be going down any time soon. Nearly a million of our generation – five years after the crash – still remain stranded without work.

Already 300,000 public sector jobs have been slashed since the government came to power – on a pledge, cynically, to protect ‘front-line services’ – and the Institute for Fiscal studies reckons the another 900,000 job losses are yet to come by 2017/18. Brace yourselves.

The problem isn’t even lack of GDP growth – although there has been a lot less of it since 2010. The real issue, as Labour have belatedly tacked on to, is that wages are stagnating, with workers £5000 worse off since the crash. Labour shouldn’t take the credit however – wages were stagnating under them, too, with a minimum wage that wasn’t fit for purpose and zero hours contracts rearing their head even before 2008. And Ed Balls’ response to the Statement in the Commons was pretty pathetic, by most accounts.

Nonetheless, we’re still right to ask: recovery? What recovery? If there is one, who’s recovery is it? It certainly isn’t young people’s.

It’s not as if the pain of austerity is worth it even on its own terms – annual borrowing is £111bn, compared with the £60bn that Osborne said we’d get this year.

Thursday’s budget, in an era of leaks, was largely without surprises. But that’s the problem. We’ve grown used to austerity, becoming reluctant masochists. There are hopeful signs though that students are starting to fight back – this week has seen a wave of occupations sweep universities across the country, from Sheffield to Birmingham, Sussex to the University of London. Everywhere, of course, met with a heavy-handed response.

But hey, it’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. I can sense that our generation – faced with the in-your-face affront we saw in the Autumn Statement – might not be pliant for much longer. Because it’s not just class war any longer, it’s age war too.


Conference season – plus ça change…

Party conference season is over, at last.

Monday marked the end of the SNP’s conference in Perth. It was hardly a game-changer. Salmond was policy-light, despite a good speech. Will the speech change politics? Only if the SNP manages to overturn the 2:1 opposition to Scottish independence. Unlikely, then.

But it was Labour and Miliband’s pledge to freeze energy prices for 20 months if elected in 2015 that made the spotlight. Yet the party is hiding from the fact that tinkering around the edges of the market can leave the oligarchs with just as much power – capital flight (or threats of it), vociferous press attacks, ramped up lobbying and anticipatory price increases all point the way to the real need – to renationalise our energy supply. That, of course, wasn’t on the cards, despite mass popular support.

But Miliband’s pledge, however insufficient it may be, has shifted the debate. The main parties been rudely awakened to the fact that 60% back the freeze. And it’s the Daily Mail, including its elusive editor Paul Dacre, that has come off worse in the battle after publishing its now-infamous ‘Man Who Hated Britain’ article. 72% of the public backed Miliband – and 57% of Mail readers thought their paper should apologise.

The Mail did no such thing of course, but the chain of events has solidified the leader’s press-slating reputation. Perhaps more interestingly, many of Ralph’s most famous tracts sold out in the following days. The Mail may have just revived socialism, more than Ed would ever want to himself (see his awkward ‘get-round-the-negotiating-table’ talk regarding recent strike action).

For the left, the Labour conference is unsettling. Many believe Miliband has taken a social democratic turn. He hasn’t. As Labour’s Michael Meacher pointed out, Ed newly reshuffled team shows his true inclinations, the shadow cabinet ‘now composed of 12 Blairites, 4 Brownites, plus 9 centrists, and 6 on the left or left-inclining.’ Out went Dianne Abbott, in went quasi-neoliberals like Tristram Hunt. The New Labour vanguard still comprises a majority. You can forget renationalising the Royal Mail and our crumbling rail system (despite the wishes of delegates and the public).

As for the Tory and Lib Dem conferences, Cameron put out a passionate defence of the boss class with his ‘profit is not a dirty word’ speech, while both Clegg’s ‘million jobs’ gambit, and Cameron’s pledge to remove benefits for under 25s – can only be enacted on after a general election. With the Lib Dems, that probably means never at all.

For Greens, conference season is more inspiring – votes actually count for a start. Did Green Party conference shift politics? Perhaps not monumentally. As a ‘UKIP of the left’ however, we may have forced Labour ever-so-slightly towards us (Caroline Lucas’ billboard ad could be responsible…). If so, there are serious implications for both parties. For the moment however, there remains a large divide between Labour and the Greens – from supporting renationalisation of the utilities to opposition to Trident (and, indeed, nuclear generally).

It may be too soon to call the result of conference season. But this year does feel different, not least with UKIP humiliated themselves, the upcoming Scottish referendum, and Miliband actually laying out some policy (however flawed it may be).

Above all though we must remember – politics is made not in keynote speeches but in action. Party leaders remain much better at the former.

Josiah Mortimer is a writer, activist and Politics student at the University of York.

A different kind of party conference…

[A version of this article was first published by Nouse, the York student newspaper]

It’s become a cliché to say that party conferences are dying these days. Every September rolls along, and the newspaper hacks whip out the same pre-made lines about the dwindling turnouts, and the powerlessness of the (ageing) delegates. So it was refreshing to be at this Autumn’s Green Party conference, where stereotypes about the annual conference season could be shattered.

It was to a Brighton waterfront hotel that hundreds of Green Party of England & Wales members descended upon in mid-September – including around a hundred Young Greens (students and anyone under 30) and a solid sprinkling from our own York society.

And a fitting location it was, too. Brighton, somewhat famously, is bit of a Green Party stronghold, with Greens controlling the council, and with former leader Caroline Lucas as the city’s outspoken MP.

It’s an understandable place for the Greens to be rooted. Wandering around sunny London-on-sea, the vegan restaurants, vintage clothes shops, second-hand stores, and blossoming environmental and charity sectors immediately stood out. Under the scenes, it’s also a place where the council has introduced a Living Wage for all staff, slashed executive pay, prevented services from being privatised and become the world’s first ‘One Planet City’ – i.e. genuinely sustainable in terms of resource consumption. But it wasn’t the location that made the conference different.

Firstly, anyone can turn up. Unlike other party conferences which operate on a ‘delegate’ system, any ordinary member can go to the Green Party’s six-monthly gatherings, which operate on a progressive payment scale. For students and the unwaged, it’s about thirty quid for the whole four days, with a hefty hardship fund for those who can’t afford it. Many of the events are free to the public, with cheap observer passes for those that aren’t.  And the members who do come actually get a say, too.

That’s because all party policy is made by members at the twice-yearly conferences. No out-of-reach bureaucrats or Labour-esque Executive Committees determining what to discuss (or side-line). It’s all done on the conference floor – one member, one vote. You’ll often see leader Natalie Bennett or the ‘People’s Caroline’ herself sticking up their voting cards in front of you. Sometimes they’ll lose, too. Even what makes the agenda is determined by members in an online vote.

Raise your hand and you can make a speech, ‘no confidence’ the Chair or vote for more discussion time. Anyone can submit policy, amend it or propose emergency motions. Hell, they even unanimously passed my one calling for the government to abandon the sell-off of Royal Mail.

And because anyone can turn up and have their say, it’s got a very different feel to the usual ego-festivals that are the mainstream parties’ conferences. Suits are de facto banned. Careerists are essentially unheard of (jokes about why any careerist would join a small party aside, please). Cliques, though a problem in every organisation, are mostly dismantled through open socials and workshops.

No conference is perfect. There are diehards who turn up to every one of them (myself included). Not everyone can spare a whole weekend, especially not a four-day one, to trek to far-flung places. They can be confusing, frustrating and disappointing (especially when you lose a vote). But it’s the democracy, and the unprecedented openness, that makes Green Party conferences different.

Oh, and humour too. A week after the Green Party conference ended, Labour delegates were flocking to the same city for their annual talking shop. Here’s what they were greeted with – a billboard of Caroline Lucas reading: ‘Welcome to Brighton – Home of the true opposition in Parliament. PS. Labour is down the hill on the right’. Win.

Stop the Privatisation of Royal Mail – Emergency Motion to Green Party Conference

Yesterday the government confirmed its plans to sell of Royal Mail within the next few weeks. I’ve drafted the following emergency motion to this weekend’s Autumn Green Party Conference in Brighton condemning the sell-off – please write in the comments box, tweet me (@josiahmortimer), or message me on Facebook with your name and local party if you support it!

Stop the Privatisation of Royal Mail

In light of the government’s announcement on the 12th September that it intends to privatise the Royal Mail ‘in the coming weeks’, Conference notes that:

1. The Royal Mail is a 497-year old institution which serves the public, not the interests of shareholders, and should be protected

2. 70% of the public oppose its privatisation

3. Privatisation of other sectors such as rail, energy, telecoms and water has been an untold disaster, leading to higher prices, greater inequality and worse services. The Royal Mail is likely to be no different

4. In order to sell off the Royal Mail, the government has had to nationalise its debts to ‘sweeten up’ the sale for private-sector profiteers – a classic case of ‘socialism for the rich’

5. If the sell-off goes ahead, rural areas are likely to be cut off, workers’ conditions will be undermined, and the universal service obligation of six-day deliveries is likely to be threatened

Conference instructs the Green Party Executive, and the Green Party’s elected representatives to:

1. Throw the party’s full weight behind the ‘Save Our Royal Mail’ campaign[1]

2. Support the Communication Workers’ Union’s industrial and political fight against the sell-off by all means possible, including backing strike action

3. Write letters to the press and to Vince Cable calling for the government to abandon the privatisation plans

4. Sign the petition demanding Vince Cable ‘Save our Royal Mail’[2]

5. Send a message of solidarity to the CWU and the Save Our Royal Mail campaign

6. Attend and support any protests which take place against the privatisation, and to help organise urgent demonstrations where possible

Conference also urges all Green Party members to likewise take the aforementioned actions.

If this motion is passed, conference instructs the Press Office to issue a press release about Conference’s decision and the party’s wholehearted opposition to the privatisation of the Royal Mail.

Proposed by Josiah Mortimer, University of York Green Party

Young people can criticise Thatcher as much as anyone

[Reposted from my piece up at The Yorker here]

It’s fair to say the outrage against those celebrating Thatcher’s death has been simultaneously immense, orchestrated, and unsurprising. Much of it centres on the fact that, as an article in last week’s i newspaper stated, ‘the majority of those celebrating…were not old enough to remember the Iron Lady’s reign’. But regardless of the ethics of grave-dancing, why should young people be excluded from having opinions on the rule of one of the most influential – and arguably devastating – politicians of the 20th century?

We live in a world moulded by Thatcherism – the individualist logic of self-interest, manifesting itself politically as a programme of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation. The impact of Thatcher on young people today can’t be underestimated.

I’ll start with the most obvious. Trade union membership. Working people – including young people – in 1979 were organised. 13.5 million Brits were union members. Upon her exit, that had shrunk to 8.5 million after the whole-scale privatisation of utilities, and the crushing of the (largely Northern) miners and dockers. Now, just a quarter of workers are in trade unions – and just a tenth of 16-24 year olds. It’s no surprise then, that young people are now probably the most systematically exploited demographic in Britain, working zero-hours contracts to be fired on a whim. Our generation is precarious, teetering from one short-term job to the next – when we can find work.

Thatcher ushered in the era of mass unemployment. The ending of the social democratic consensus brought with it the long dole queues, which despite being by no means unknown in pre-Thatcher years, became accepted and normalised. At the peak of Labour’s so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’, unemployment was at 1.1m – a figure we could only dream of now. Under Thatcher it doubled to peak at over 3m. Who does unemployment hit the hardest? Those with least experience, in most likelihood – the young. Around a million young people are now unemployed – around the same as the total ‘Winter of Discontent’ figure. You read that right. Thanks, Thatcherism.

Of course, despite our very serious worries as uni students, they are trivial compared to some of our generation. Those not wishing – or unable – to go to university are plagued by the decimation of manufacturing which used to provide stable and reliable employment to working-class kids after school. Going from around 18% of the economy in 1979 to less than 10% today, the systematic destruction of our manufacturing base to undermine the unions has led to a crisis of youth unemployment, especially for those not expecting to go into higher education.

It’s in housing that young people are currently hurting the most, were there to be a rather macabre scale of modern miseries. The property obsession Thatcherism stimulated culminated in her deregulation of the mortgage market – a partial cause of both the unsustainable property bubble of the 2000s and the 2008 financial crash. It also led to unfulfilled aspirations. 88% of people today aged 18 to 30 still say they want to own their own home in the next 10 years. Most of these know it’s a pipe-dream. And with a massively depleted social housing stock due to the Right to Buy policy, there are no truly affordable homes to fill the gap. Millions are on waiting lists. An IPPR report in 2012 recognised the problem for this generation – ‘housing under-supply – in combination with a number of other social, economic and cultural forces – is having real and substantial effects on the lived experience and future aspirations of young people‘.

These problems are just a few of those faced today by our generation, which were in large part due to, or exacerbated by, the policies of the Thatcher governments of the 80s. Post-Thatcher governments have failed to turn away from a services and finance dominated economy which offer the wonderful polarity of McDonalds – for us – or RBS, for the new elites.

This isn’t to go into the many mental health problems caused by an all-permeating ideology of greed, consumerism and privatised space, where billboards and the media daily sell us more insecurities which can be solved – at a cost, and temporarily – by the latest fad. Young people today are raised on such insecurities, which are added to the list of material worries discussed before.

I think it’s safe to say young people have a better claim than many to criticise her. We live in a world partly of her making. We are acutely hit by increasingly precarious work (when we can get it), increasingly unattainable housing, and by the decline of communities which once offered refuge and comfort when you were in trouble. I won’t say party on, Brixton revellers. I won’t say download ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’. But hold some kind of opinion. We owe that much to the first generation hit by her policies – the miners of Orgreave, the dockers of Liverpool, the pit communities surrounding York. Celebrate her death if you want – but more importantly, get organised. Because this government is carrying out policies Thatcher could only have dreamed of getting away with.

The Cat Got May’s Tongue – Tory hypocrisy on human rights

“The government are saying…you don’t know best – we do”. Such was the denouement of Theresa May’s maiden speech in 1997, condemning the new Blair government on its education reforms. Sadly Blair’s instincts seem to have rubbed off on her. At this week’s Conservative Party conference, May endorsed Cameron’s plans to take back power from ‘unaccountable judges’ under the Human Rights Act and ‘bring them back’. To politicians? “You don’t know best”: May’s words to judges today.

It’s hard to think of such a contradiction for the Tories as the Human Rights Act, which took powers back from Europe (by bringing the European Convention on Human Rights into British law – and our courts). Strangely, you won’t see Eurosceptics mourning the apparent death of the HRA on Newsnight, despite Brits no longer having to go to Strasbourg to sort their problems out.

Cameron had a lot to say about liberty and rights upon becoming Tory leader – ‘compassionate Conservatism’ (borrowed from that arch-executioner George Bush) aimed to fix the ‘flog em all’ reputation of the Tories. Appointing the liberal Kenneth Clarke as chair of a new Tory ‘democracy group’, Cameron even stole some of the Lib Dems pink flair while they were still battling over who would lead their own party.

By the time the 2010 election arrived however, Cameron promised to replace the HRA with a Bill of Rights (which Clarke described as ‘zenophobic’). The dispute in the coalition over the HRA mirrors the manifesto divide – the Lib Dems pledged to ‘protect the Human Rights Act’. Then again, they also pledged to scrap tuition fees. Where this leaves the coalition now though is uncertain. The coalition agreement is ambiguous, seeking to establish a commission to ‘build on our obligations under the ECHR’.

May, who voted against New Labour’s rights-infringing counter-terrorism legislation, described herself to the Tory conference as one ‘in the minority who want [the HRA] to go’. Let’s hope the hypocrite remains in a minority. But other senior figures in the party also want the act scrapped. Will the Lib Dems fight for it, or perform another cowardly u-turn? After the tuition fee debacle however, it’s unlikely the party faithful would forgive another. Cameron’s future is stable. But Clegg’s future as leader could stand on this. The question ‘stay or may be about more than just the Human Rights Act a few weeks down the line.

Campaigners to Camp-Out in Defense of Cornwall’s Most Vulnerable

[March the Fury’s report of the demonstration itself can be found here.]

‘A pound spent on Supporting People is probably going to save five or six quid down the line’

These are the words, not of an anti-cuts protester, nor an ardent socialist. These are the words of Eric Pickles, aka the Local Government Secretary. His Tory compatriot, the head of Cornwall Council, Alec Robertson, is now setting a ‘target’ of cutting the Supporting People fund – which helps thousands of homeless and vulnerable people in the county by keeping a roof over their heads – by 40%.

This indefensible attack on the most needy in Cornwall is being made despite the fact that Cornwall Council is receiving essentially the same funding for the scheme as last year. The funding helps not only the homeless, but also the elderly in need of care. What kind of society lets its parents and grandparents go without support because of a banker-induced recession?

To oppose this ideological move local people will camping outside County Hall this Sunday (the 13th) from 6pm onwards. Those coming are advised to bring a lot of warm clothes, obviously. If you do not want to camp out then do come and offer your support and solidarity!

When the morning comes, Councillors will be greeted by people who will not stand for, in Eric Pickles’ words, for such a ‘deprecable’ slashing of this much-needed support.

Cosgarne – Supporting Homeless People in Cornwall

To see Alec Robertson trying to defend the move click here.