There are two kinds of people in the Labour party: those that are born into it and those that choose it. My family have never been political. I look upon those born into the party and cannot comprehend childhoods snatched under tables in committee rooms. I spent my first 16 years kicking a ball against a wall. While my family are unfailingly supportive and my mum loyally reads all of my political writing (Hello, Mum!), they can be equally uncomprehending of my activism.
Why, then, do I bother? And how did it begin?
I am clear about why it began. The industrial north of my youth was a place where people were made redundant in middle age and never worked again and youngsters left school to go on the dole. This unemployment created a biting, pervasive sense of thwarted hopes, constant fears and visceral injustice visited upon a people by a morally deficient government. The Conservatives, still struggling to recover in the north, have hired Policy Exchange director Neil O’Brien as special adviser to George Osborne with a particular focus on recovering support in the north.
On soggy leaflet rounds and during tedious GC meetings I can be less clear about why my activism persists. What should sustain me is the same sense of moral clarity that brought me to the party in the first place: that unemployment is brutally stifling of human potential but is the consequence of human decision making and is, therefore, amenable to correction if different decisions are taken.
My GC was anything but tedious when Colin Crooks came to talk to us about his book How to Make a Million Jobs. He spoke powerfully about the corrosive effects of unemployment, insisting that things do not need to be as they are. And how they are is worse than even the grim headlines of late suggest. 6.5 million people are unemployed or underemployed in the UK. In other words, nearly one in three of working-age people.
The way in which unemployment feeds a plethora of destructive social problems is vividly spelt out by Crooks, both through quantitative analysis and by drawing upon the experiences of a successful career as a social entrepreneur. This career has left Crooks with a resolute belief that unemployment is a problem that can be remedied.
The ideas that unemployment is at the core of much of what ails our society and is a problem that it is in our capacity to correct are ideas that resonate as strongly with me now as they would have done half a lifetime ago when I first joined the party. What I also take from Crooks, which I may not have appreciated as a 16-year-old but do after 13 years of Labour government, is that big government is not always the answer.
In fact, locally tailored and specific solutions are invariably better. Different people and different areas have different needs and different capabilities. We won’t fully address these needs or unlock these capabilities by pulling levers from Whitehall. We can by cultivating a new generation of social entrepreneurs.
Part of what is inspiring about the work of Crooks is that he proposes solutions that are practical in the sense both of being achievable and in being things that we could get on with in the here and now. Labour councils do not have to wait for the arrival of a Labour government, for example, to concentrate as much of their procurement as possible upon the areas of highest unemployment.
Nick Cohen has recently and rightly lavished praise on Labour councils for finding new means of delivering fairness in austere times. Labour’s richest potential exists in these bottom-up solutions. Crooks provides a further battery of such solutions. We should carefully listen to him and act with the same certainty of purpose that first drew me to the party.
Jonathan Todd is an economic consultant. He tweets @jonathan_todd
For more on How to Make a Million Jobs by Colin Crooks see here
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