Comment: For the sake of the kids?

Daniel Leighton is head of Demos' public interest programme
Daniel Leighton is head of Demos' public interest programme

The release of last week's growth figures, showing a contraction of 0.5% in GDP, has momentarily thrown the coalition government's deficit reduction strategy into disarray. Yet the most powerful justification for cutting hard and fast has always been premised on a long-term argument about intergenerational justice.

By Daniel Leighton

As the deputy prime minister put it the week before the 2010 spending review: "Tackling the deficit means wiping the slate clean for the next generation. It means ensuring that our children do not pay the price for this generation's mistakes."

In the run-up to the spending review, the government was understandably keen to foster a sense of consultation and dialogue with voters. High profile attempts to engage the public before the comprehensive spending review included a 'Spending Challenge' on the Treasury website and a three-day long citizens' jury, which the chief secretary addressed and Newsnight gave dedicated coverage. Yet similar attempts to engage actively with the views of the young people in whose name the government purported to be acting were notable by their absence. A process billed as fundamentally changing the nature of British society, ostensibly being undertaken to ensure younger generations do not bear the debt burden, seemed to have no space for young people to articulate their views on what should be prioritised.


At Demos we felt this was highly symbolic of another deficit: the deficit in political capital possessed by today's young people. With record youth unemployment feeding fears of a "lost generation" and high profile protests around cuts to education, rising fees and the cutting of EMA, finding effective mechanisms to elevate young people's voice in the political process is becoming ever more pressing.

We found common cause with the Co-operative Group and their Inspiring Young People initiative; a key focus of which is pressing for votes at 16 to boost the political capital of a generation that will face unprecedented future challenges, from job insecurity and employment to getting on the housing ladder, not to mention paying for the costs of aging population and climate change.

To address this deficit in political capital, Demos and the Co-operative held the Young People's Convention on the Deficit on October 16th with 100 16- to 18-year-olds, the weekend before the spending review was published. This was the first time young people not eligible to vote in the 2010 general election were invited to formally express their views on the fundamental political issue of our times.

In the opening session, one participant texted, 'I'm confused', eliciting nods of agreement around the room when the message was displayed on screen. Yet as the day progressed, many of the participants who had initially kept quiet in the group discussions became more and more animated - many expressed surprise that they actually had something to say on seemingly arcane questions about taxation and benefits.

The participants saw themselves as being potentially the worst affected by spending cuts, not least because they perceived politicians to take less notice of the views of young people than of those of older generations. They were particularly concerned about cuts to further and higher education. It was particularly notable that apprehensions about the abolition of the education maintain allowance (EMA) figured nearly as prominently as those concerning increases in tuition fees to pay for possible shortfalls in university funding.

There was near unanimous agreement that the deficit was a major problem that needed to be tackled. However, the majority did not agree with the pace and depth of the cuts being pursued by the coalition. When asked how quickly spending needs to be cut, 80% agreed with the statement, 'cuts need to be made, but more slowly to give time for the economy to recover' and just 11% agreed with the statement 'we need to cut spending as quickly as possible to balance the books'.

The message of "not so fast" from generation next may be music to Ed Balls' ears but the views expressed on cuts to welfare and benefits chimed more closely with those being pursued by the coalition. When asked which benefits they would protect at all costs, those for older people were ranked highest, whereas those for those out of work were ranked lowest.

However, participants' attitudes towards different types of welfare recipient and differing benefits were complex. Although somewhat surprisingly some participants supported benefits such as free TV licenses being given to all older people, most did not support the principle of universality for other benefits. They seem to be neither fully committed to universal provision across the welfare state, nor totally opposed to it in certain areas. Understanding how to work with these mixed views about universality may prove vital to building support for further changes to the welfare system in coming decades.

At the end of the event, I overheard one participant excitedly tell a friend that she had the oddest day: she had been asked 'by the government to tell them how to sort out their budget', and although she started the day 'feeling like a moron', she finished it feeling like she had become 'ten times more intelligent'.

While earwigging on others' mobile phone conversations is currently receiving (ahem) a bad press, this anecdote says something profound about the relationship between meaningful engagement and empowerment. It also neatly encapsulated the underlying purpose of the convention itself - to contribute to a shift in our political culture in which young people confidently exercise their right to be heard rather than waiting for an invitation to speak, and in which their contribution is given due consideration and respect.

Although increasing opportunities for consultation and lowering the voting age may be necessary to bring about a shift of political capital, neither will be sufficient. If today's young people are to have the capacity to imagine shared solutions to seemingly intractable problems, they need to be given the opportunity and resources to develop democratic questioning, deliberation and collective problem-solving. They need to experience democracy as an ethos and way of life today - in their homes, classrooms and communities - if they are to meet tomorrow's challenges.

Daniel Leighton is head of the public interest programme at Demos. Back To The Future, the full report on the young people's convention, can be found here.

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