Chris Bryant: Our young people face being stuck in limbo

A Political Life

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The self-assurance of the young was mesmerising at the Labour conference this week.

There was Rory Weal, a 16-year-old with an over-knotted schoolboy tie, who peered up through a tousled fringe at a hall full of a couple of thousand hardened activists and paused perfectly for effect or applause at just the right moments in a succinctly scintillating speech. So too an 18-year-old lad with Byronic hair berated me at length about the Labour Party's failure adequately to support the Palestinian cause, completely certain of his argument. And a girl who was 15 reeled off statistics about mental health care to me. Impressive stuff.

But it suddenly struck me on the last night, while doing my oldest-swinger-in-town routine along with a swathe of fortysomething MPs at the Young Labour disco (I hope I haven't ruined this for you already), that now is not a great time to be young.

Yes, their life is all before them and hope springs eternal and all that jazz, but you've just got to look at the stats to see how rough it is. A total of 972,000 16- to 24-year olds are without a job, 219,000 of them for more than a year and 93,000 for more than two years. It's even worse in Wales, where nearly one in four is unemployed – and this year has seen the figures worsen dramatically.

Which is why so many of them are stuck in economic limbo. They've done lots of adult things. They can drive. They have been on a cheap holiday abroad without their parents. They have lived away at university. They may have had children. But for the best part of a million 16- to 24-year-olds that key moment of adult emancipation – when you get a day-in day-out 48-weeks-of-the-year job – still eludes them. It's as if they have completed all the coursework for adulthood, but they haven't yet been allowed to graduate.

Limbo has its lethargic pleasures. You don't have to pay into the family kitty. Mum still does the cooking and washing. Dad still helps out with the car insurance. (Sorry – or the other way round.)

But this is not about feckless Britain. Far from it. Many, roughly 40 per cent, have taken whatever job they can get and are stuck in what the statisticians call "elementary" or "service" jobs for which they are over-qualified, in shops and bars. It's work, but not secure or well paid enough to pay off the student loan or save for a mortgage. It's a start, but a very halting one.

Nor is it about a talentless generation or one lacking in get-up-and-go. Half an hour with a sixth-form class will show you not just the traditional quotient of jokers and swots but a truly modern phenomenon - young people dripping in self-assurance, teenagers almost too self-assured about their sexuality, bold, brash, belligerent girls full of limitless expectations.

Limbo, of course, wasn't hell. The virtuous pagans and the unbaptised infants were not being punished. But it was certainly less than heaven – and what is on offer for many young people is a life less lived. What is more, there is a real danger that the mismatch between their talent and self-assuredness on the one hand and the lack of opportunity to flourish out in the harsh economy on the other will leave us with a sultry, angry, disillusioned generation. And hope dashed or slowly crumbled is a fearful thing.

The Government hasn't helped. The abolition of the educational maintenance allowance and the Future Jobs Fund, which guaranteed young people work, has cast yet more youngsters into limbo, but I hope that they will think again this week. After all, in 2007, after centuries of fearful predictions of the torments of dying unbaptised, the Pope abolished Limbo (or, to be more precise, downgraded the metaphysical concept from official Catholic doctrine to "a possible theological opinion").

I just hope the Government will go through the same conversion. A plan for jobs for young people is the only way to abolish limbo.

And a eight

I have been to the Tory party conference only once, when I was working for the BBC back in the late 1990s. Safe to say the BBC was not flavour of the month, so it was a rather lonely time. One night I set off for the local gay nightlife. Since the Tories were still voting against an equal age of consent, I presumed there wouldn't be any crossover with the conference. How wrong could I be? Eastbourne's gay disco was packed to the rafters with delegates. Bizarrely, it was a special Steps night and Tory researchers and MPs were lined up in rows performing Steps routines in immaculate synchrony. "One for Sorrow", "Tragedy", "Chain Reaction" – they knew all the moves.

How easy it is to be upstaged by a dog

As for our conference, I was speaking this year at a fringe meeting. It wasn't exactly crowded, but we managed a nice enough discussion. Another member of the panel was Talksport's Sean Dilley, who is blind. His guide dog Chipp was the star of the show. In the middle of Sean's comments, Chipp discovered the extensive buffet. It was only when he brought a platter clattering to the ground that we realised he had polished off large amounts of cake. Sean told me later that this was not Chipp's greatest misdemeanour. At a reception in Downing Street Chipp had fouled a flower bed. When Sean apologised to David Cameron, the PM apparently said, "Don't worry, Clegg will clear it up."

Politics and pets at Westminster Abbey

Years ago I was helping to organise John Smith's memorial service at Westminster Abbey. One of the ushers was almost as pompous as the building. When I suggested we would have to make space for David Blunkett and his guide dog, Sadie, who might need a bowl of water, he spat out, "It's one thing having the Shadow Cabinet, but I absolutely draw the line at a bloody socialist dog!"