Post-Browne, Labour must strive harder for inter-generational justice

If it is David Willetts who identified inter-generational justice as a profound area of public policy interest, it must be Labour who gains from such insights.

Yesterday Vince Cable was busy defending the Browne report’s findings to the House of Commons, claiming that he accepted the “broad thrust” of the report and that a potential removal of the existing cap on tuition fees was along the “right lines”. Dr Cable also clarified that the previous Liberal Democrat pledge to scrap tuition fees was no longer tenable given the context of the economic climate and the size of the national public deficit.

What is perhaps ironic is that it is the thinking of his colleague at the department for business, innovation and skills, David Willetts, that presents the left with a sweeping context for the regressive and unfair nature of increasing tuition fees within the broader framework of inter-generational justice.

In Mr Willetts’s book, ‘The Pinch: How the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back’, he describes how the baby boomer generation (which includes Mr Willetts, Dr Cable and Lord Browne) has prospered from the core trends in Britain’s economy and society over the last few decades, usually at future generations’ expense.

Instances of this include high inflation helping them pay off their mortgages quickly in the 70s and early 80s – then price stability subsequently helping them preserve their wealth, just as rocketing house prices gave them another massive windfall. Elsewhere they prospered from an influx of cheap foreign labour from the mid 1990s onwards, just when Generations X and Y were coming on to the labour market and when a shrinking labour force might have helped push wages up.

Most pertinently they benefited from a generous welfare state that guaranteed them access to free healthcare, far more generous unemployment and job security benefits than exist at present and of course free higher education, a benefit that has been steadily eroded and now appears in free-fall.

The fact that Generation Y will have to deal with a far less generous welfare state throughout their lives, coupled with massive generational asymetries in asset ownership (most keenly housing) and the strain to the public purse (funded by tomorrow’s taxpayers) of ‘greying demographics’; i.e. looking after today’s baby-boomers who will be withdrawing their pensions as of 2015, it doesn’t take much to figure out that the age cohort between 18-28 are historically disadvantaged when compared to preceding post-war generations.

Indeed, the socio-economic pressures placed upon them are not entirely different to those of the ‘greatest generation’ whose selflessness and sense of community immediately following the war bequeathed us with a rebuilt Britain, a growing economy and the Bevanite welfare state. An inheritance Mr Willetts is at pains to explain that has been largely squandered by the Boomers.

While it is a Tory who has isolated the inter-generational iniquity of a number of public policy and socio-economic phenomena over the last decades that adversely affect today’s young (and who is now part of a cabinet that seems keen on further exacerbating them through increasing higher education fees among other things) it can potentially be the new Labour leadership who stands the most to gain from tying up their own critique of tuition fees within this broader narrative of inter-generational injustice that is regressive, unfair and wholly without principle.

This can be achieved through several ways.

Firstly, through the issue of fees Labour can be seen as speaking the language of aspiration and ambition. By addressing the concerns of Generation Y and making issues such as unpaid internships and tuition fees the target of policy focus, we can tap into something that Labour in opposition has rarely done – appeal to national sentiments of ambition and aspiration.

While this has been a traditional stomping ground for the Tories (think Harold MacMillan and Mrs Thatcher), David Cameron would appear to have immersed himself in the narrative of ‘cuts’ to his own detriment here and would seem incapable of being able to articulate a message of optimism. Unlike in other areas such as crime or poverty reduction, the ‘big society’ agenda or the narrative of a reconstructed geist of wartime national solidarity would appear to have nothing to offer and subsequently Labour can stand as a unique voice of optimism, a rare opportunity given the context of the economic climate and the cuts agenda.

Furthermore, rather than looking like simply being against ‘necessary’ reform for the sake of opposition the frame of inter-generational iniquity gives Labour a story to counter the hegemonic discourse of crisis and ‘deficit fetishism’ that is simply far more compelling and understandable to the electorate. It will resonate not only with the young but parents and grandparents. We are denying the new generation the opportunities the old took for granted.

Secondly, Labour now has a historical chance to capture a whole generation of young voters, recent graduates, those currently in university and those who wish to enter higher education over the coming years. By tapping into their optimism and addressing issues of student tuition fees, unpaid internships and other issues that are too often seen as nebulous or minor such as the digital economy act and climate change the left is presented with a moment to capture a whole generation of not only voters but also potential party members, organisers and activists. If not under the banner of the labour movement than under the banner of a movement for progressive change.

Thirdly, if anything the last three years have taught us that debt is rarely a good thing and that it has become indelibly etched onto the public psyche as irresponsible. While the Conservatives have managed to don the cloak of fiscal prudence, Labour must reveal these tuition fee increases for what they are, the reaffirmation of a debt-centric economic paradigm that we have seen blow up spectacularly since 2007 in every area from consumer debt to housing and national sovereign debt.

Labour’s task is to illustrate the failings of debt-centred models to pay for public services when compared to the Bevanite model of collective and universal provision paid through general taxation, a model under much scrutiny since the proposed amendments to child benefit and a model of which our party should be proud.

If Labour plays this right we will be seen as talking a language of public economic prudence and responsibility and private aspiration and ambition. What is more we can capture the hearts and minds of Generation Y by adopting the language of inter-generational fairness and progressivism. If we do so we might prospectively capture the same youthful dynamism that informed the Democrat campaigns of Howard Dean in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 – just imagine it, tens of thousands of young people, not only as party members or voters, but as organisers, activists, agents for change in their communities, aware and self-reflective of their roles in advocating the interests of a generation that is being neglected by public-policy makers to an almost historically unprecedented extent.

A historical moment is here – to speak a language of genuine aspiration again and to empower a whole generation of young people who can help make this country a more enlightened, progressive country in which to live. If it is David Willetts who identified inter-generational justice as a profound area of public policy interest and a space for much political gain among voters, it can and must be Labour who gains from such insights. After all it is the lens of inter-generational justice that most succinctly deprives the proposed increases in university tuition fees of any moral legitimacy what so ever.

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