No issue did more to help New Labour win power in 1997 than the waste and shame of persistent youth unemployment; and nothing may do more harm to the Government's reputation than its unwelcome return. Taking the broadest view of youth unemployment, the number of young people out of work or excluded from the workforce is up to almost 1.5 million. Even on the more limited definition employed by the official statisticians, the jobless rate among 18 to 24-year-olds stands at 14.6 per cent, against 5 per cent for the workforce as a whole.
In truth, youth unemployment, like productivity and fixing the NHS, was always going to be one of the more stubborn problems the Government faced, even in the good years. Measures such as the New Deal may well have helped some, though global economic expansion had as much to do with it. Progress has been made in making life better for young lone parents and their children. It is unfair to portray Labour's years as wasted; yet the NEETS – those "not in employment, education or training schemes" – have always been with us, and their numbers now threaten to reach epidemic proportions.
Often the last in and first out, the young are traditionally the most vulnerable to falling into poverty when they lose their jobs. They are less likely to have built up savings or to own their own home, less likely to be able to rely on the earnings of a spouse, and less likely to have the experience to find employment quickly. After six months or a year they will drift even further away from the world of work, a world they will only recently have become acquainted with.
For the Prime Minister this represents a very personal failure, as he made so much of his political reputation as a rising backbencher in the 1980s through his angry denunciations of Tory complacency, or worse. He campaigned for the "lost generation" that grew up under Margaret Thatcher – and yet now unemployment seems set to exceed the levels seen during her momentous decade in office. The assumption must be that, having soared though the 2 million mark, unemployment will peak at somewhere between 3 and 3.5 million by this time next year – just in time for a general election campaign.
Mr Brown's protests about the "betrayal of Britain's future" in those years may come back to haunt him. The Number 10 website proudly points out that Mr Brown's maiden speech in the Commons in 1983 was on the growing problem of unemployment, of which he said: "The chance of a labourer getting a job in my constituency is 150 to 1 against. There is only one vacancy in my local career office for nearly 500 teenagers who have recently left school." The labour market in Cowdenbeath and Kirkcaldy may soon see that miserable situation repeated. The Chancellor too says that the mass unemployment of the 1970s and 1980s was what brought him into politics.
One answer to the problem presents itself immediately; raise the school leaving age, or at least encourage young people to spend a day or two a week in some kind of training. The Government is doing this any way - but it is not scheduled until 2014. That will be far too late for the teenagers flopping unwanted onto the jobs market now. A fine use of the vast amounts of cash available for "quantitative easing" might be to bring these plans forward. Mr Brown, more than most, must not wish to see another lost generation and another betrayal of Britain's future.Reuse content