I’ve now returned to Birmingham after a week in which the Coalition managed to look incompetent and shambolic as well as cruel. We’ve had Willetts admitting he is content to see poorer students having to settle for a degree at their local sixth form, rather than enjoying the full university experience; Norman Tebbit joining the near-univeral coalition against the NHS transformation; U-turns on defence spending and health to add to the growing list which includes school sports and buildings, forests, and even the Downing Street cat; and of course Nick Clegg. When he hasn’t been complaining that he is the nation’s ‘punchbag’ or facing criticism from his own son, he has been making some interesting comments about social mobility.
I am not going to slam the Deputy Prime Minister for having had a leg-up from his neighbour (a peer of the realm) in order to get an internship at a bank (it had to be a bank), because I challenge anyone reading this – assuming I have a readership – not to have seized the opportunity in the same way if they were in Nick’s position. A Labour party which wants social justice and equality of opportunity from birth should not be blaming someone for a background thay had no control over, and that even includes Cameron who had someone put a word in from Buck House. However, Clegg’s attempts at addressing the age-old problem of the ‘It’s who you know’ culture were embarrassing, coming at the same time this government is slashing Sure Start centres, EMA, univeristy budgets and allowing socially divisive ’free’ schools to blossom up and down the country.
I spoke to people this week in the valleys who have Masters’ degrees who have spent over a year unemployed – young people with ambition, drive and what should be a promising career ahead of them. I overheard sixth form students on the bus complaining that they had not been accepted for any of their UCAS choices, despite the prediction of 4 As at A-level. I have personally had difficulty finding summer placements when I am not lucky enough to be able to work unpaid for six months in central London. Nick Clegg’s diagnosis was correct, but there is far more to it than setting an example to almost-bankrupt businesses by paying interns at Lib Dem HQ.
We need a new cultural shift in this country, brought about by government, where the disadvantaged are caught as soon as possible and at every stage of their lives are helped to gain the same opportunities as the better off. This should not involve positive discrimination or handouts, but should involve investment in our young people which other European countries manage while they bail out their neighbours, but we seem to think is unaffordable. A national internship scheme or national bursary programme, complementing investment in careers education (which at the moment is dire) to inform young people that they are just as talented and ambitious as the more privileged, and what opportunities are out there for the taking, is desperately needed. The underlying factors, such as affordable transport, need to be subsidised so someone who lives in the middle of nowhere with no ‘contacts’ can get work experience in a city near them.
There are important elections coming up in the devolved nations and local councils in England. Young people should be demanding better from the government and their local councils at the ballot box, and should express their dissatisfaction with the Coalition, which just doesn’t get it.