Labour is confused about its purpose. Rediscovering it starts with an examination of future demographic and societal shifts
The American political strategist Jim Messina likes to remind his clients that the average voter thinks about politics for around four minutes a week. It is easily forgotten in the Westminster bubble, obsessed with day-to-day political highs and lows, but the vast majority of people are interested in politics not as a sport in its own right, but to the extent to which it helps them make sense of what is going on in their own lives.
Political parties do well when they understand what really matters in people’s lives, and how people relate this to what’s going on in the political arena. In both 2010 and 2015, concerns about the economy were front and centre of voters’ minds. This explains the scale of Labour’s loss in both elections: voters have remained overwhelmingly unconvinced about the party’s economic competence since the Conservatives successfully embedded the narrative that it was the Labour government’s high levels of spending, rather than the global financial crisis, that was responsible for the rising national debt.
But another factor that helps explain the depth of Labour’s defeat in 2010 was the fact that some groups of core voters thought Labour didn’t seem to be offering any solutions to the social and economic changes they had been experiencing. Chief among these were the social and economic impacts of globalisation and high levels of immigration to the UK, particularly from Eastern Europe in the wake of the EU’s eastwards expansion. While the overall impacts of this wave of migration are thought to have been positive for the UK, its impacts have been differential. Some communities, which had previously experienced little immigration, saw much higher levels within a short space of time. For example, at the time of the 2001 census three per cent of the population of Boston in Lincolnshire were born abroad; ten years later this figure was 15 per cent. For people concerned about the impact of immigration on their jobs and services – regardless of the reality – Labour did not seem to be addressing their concerns.
Although this has been the slowest economic recovery on record, the economic picture should get rosier over the next five to ten years. This means if Labour were somehow able to meet a minimum threshold on perceived economic competence (a big if) it might not be the main issue on which the next couple of elections are won and lost. But even if the party were to regain voters’ trust on its ability to run the economy, this doesn’t answer the question: what is the British centre left’s raison d’être?
The party has not yet found the answer: hence the soul-searching continues. One of the reasons why Jeremy Corbyn did so well in this year’s leadership contest – on a far left platform that echoes the politics of the 1980s – is that none of the other leadership candidates were quite able to convincingly articulate what this raison d’être might be.
There are big social, demographic and technological shifts already underway, which will have profound impacts on the way that people experience family, work and community life
The starting point for Labour might be the questions people are going to be asking about how their lives are changing in the next couple of decades. There are big social, demographic and technological shifts already underway, which will have profound impacts on the way that people experience family, work and community life. Could Labour fashion an agenda based on responding to these?
First, we are all living longer, which is going to change the way we experience the last third of our lives. More of us will need to be cared for by family and professional carers; more of us will experience cognitive as well as physical decline through conditions like Alzheimer’s; and more working-age adults will find themselves in a position where they have to juggle work with caring responsibilities for their older relatives.
Second, the labour market has changed significantly in the last four decades as a result of globalisation and technological progress. We have spent a lot of time looking backwards at the impacts these changes have had. But, of course, as technology continues to develop, the nature of work will continue to evolve. While technology is likely to continue to create more jobs than it replaces, these new jobs are unlikely to be like-for-like replacements in terms of the skills they require. Patterns of working are also likely to change: we are likely to see a big increase in self-employment as online platforms like Uber and TaskRabbit allow people working in the service industries to find customers more easily than ever. Love it or hate it, work plays a key role in shaping our identities, and what it means to have a job in 30 years’ time will most likely have shifted as much as it has in the last three decades. A party named for – and whose foundations lie in – the labour movement must understand and respond to these changes.
Third, children’s transitions to adulthood are going to continue to evolve. Technology and social media offer the potential to augment children’s learning and development if facilitated in the right way. But they also bring risks: children are now exposed to more sophisticated and interactive advertising than ever before, and some children are accessing explicit sexual content before they have even hit puberty. The increasing incidence of mental health issues among children and young people has been linked to growing concerns about body image – fuelled by online images of what the entertainment industry see as perfection – and online bullying. Growing numbers of young people are benefitting from the social and academic transition to adulthood by going to university – but it comes at an increasing cost. And for young people who do not go to university – predominantly those from less advantaged backgrounds – there has been too little thought given to how they make the transition from education to work in today’s service-sector economy, let alone how this might need to change in a couple of decades’ time.
This sort of social change is nothing new: it is something society continually experiences and adapts to. But parties of the centre left have historically often found their purpose in helping everyone – not just the most affluent – make the most out of that social change, and to minimise its risks, whether by building the postwar institutions of the welfare state in the 1940s and 1950s, or supporting working mothers through greater rights to paid maternity leave and free childcare in the 1990s.
Just as with the social changes we have experienced historically, there are great opportunities associated with the trends outlined here: living longer is something to celebrate; in 30 years’ time, young people will have access to new and exciting jobs that we have not even conceived of today. But there are also risks, and like with the differential impacts of globalisation we have witnessed in recent years, some people may do better out of these changes than others.
These changes are not necessarily defining the electoral territory of today, and may not be in five years’ time. But it is surely worth exploring if there is a longer-term opportunity for the centre left to get ahead in understanding these shifts, and to develop ways to help people make the most of them while reducing their downsides. Centre-left politics could have an important role to play in ensuring more people gain from these changes.
This article focuses particularly on two social changes: the implications of lengthening lifespans for quality of life in older age, and, second, the changing nature of work and how young people’s transitions to the workplace might need to evolve in light of these labour market changes. It argues the current political response to these issues is inadequate, and considers what the opportunities for the centre left might be as it seeks to reinvent itself.
The complexities beneath inter-generational conflict
Since the publication of David Willetts’ seminal book, The Pinch, in 2010, looking at politics through a generational lens feels like familiar territory. But much of the intergenerational debate has – like the book – focused on how the generations have done compared to each other. Willetts argued that the baby boomer generation – those born between 1945-65 – has done much better financially than either the generation that came before or after it: they have enjoyed record rates of home ownership and house price growth; they will draw more out of the welfare state than they paid in; and many will enjoy generous defined-benefit pensions schemes in retirement that are now rarely on offer in the private sector. And many of these benefits have been enjoyed at the expense of today’s younger generation: spiralling house prices have taken home ownership out of many young people’s reach, while it is young people who will end up bearing the costs of the generous benefits and pensions that baby boomers are enjoying.
This is a very important insight, but over-focusing on intergenerational conflict risks obfuscating some other issues. First, generational divides accentuate the impact of class, as better-off baby boomers pass on wealth to children and grandchildren, while a significant group of young people stand to inherit nothing at all.
Second, focusing on the collective financial plight of different generations only presents a partial picture of quality of life issues affecting both generations. For example, less fortunate baby boomers will not have sufficient levels of housing wealth to pay for the costs of meeting their care needs; yet severely reduced social care budgets mean that there will no longer be a care safety net in the same way as there has been in the past. And young people may not just face issues in terms of getting on the housing ladder but in terms of what sort of jobs there are for them to do when they finish their education – and whether our education system is keeping pace with changes in the labour market.
Growing up and growing old: how social change will impact on different generations
By 2037, one in four of us will be aged over 65, compared to one in six presently. One-third of babies born in 2012 are expected to live to celebrate their 100th birthday.
This will have profound impacts on how people live out the last third of their lives. Increasing longevity and an ageing population means people will need to work longer to support themselves: the state pension age is rising to 68 between 2026 and 2028, and will be linked to rising life expectancy after that. While some people will live healthier lives for longer, others of us will have greater and more complex care needs as a result of living longer. More of us will experience cognitive as well as physical decline: currently around one in 14 (around 850,000) of the population aged over 65 has dementia; this is projected to increase by over 150 per cent to over 2 million over the next four decades. Over one-third of older people aged over 65 currently live alone, and projections suggest this number is set to increase in the decades to come.
Some local councils pay less for a bed in a care home than the average cost of a bed in a local B&B
There are two big issues that will impact on older people’s quality of life that are given insufficient airing in the debate about baby boomer fortunes: the quality of the care system, and ageism in the workplace.
First, it is no exaggeration to say that the care system is creaking at the seams as a result of chronic underfunding over the years, which is set to get worse as a result of severe cuts to local government funding. Some local councils pay less for a bed in a care home than the average cost of a bed in a local B&B. This has helped create a sector whose workforce is low paid, low skill and who work under significant time pressures: the care sector is one of the worst culprits in terms of non-compliance with the minimum wage.
Low pay – and poor levels of investment in skills and training – make for a care system in which there is too much poor-quality care. Caring is far from a series of physical tasks: it involves forming meaningful relationships with the person being cared for, treating someone with dignity in situations that might otherwise feel like anything but dignified, and navigating complex ethical dilemmas: for example, what should a care home manager do when a someone living in a care home with dementia forms a relationship with another resident to the distress of their partner?
There is a deeper issue here than insufficient funding, however, even though it makes the situation a whole lot worse. John Kennedy, the director of housing services at the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, undertook a personal inquiry into the crisis in UK care homes in 2013.He described how our care system is dominated by a culture of risk adversity, generated by a system of regulation that is about trying to regulate for the very worst cases of abuse and neglect in the care home sector, but which in doing so seems to lower standards of caring right across the board. It means that too often, the primary objective of care services is not to improve older people’s quality of life, but to minimise any risks. Should a care home run a trip for its residents, or open up the home to volunteers for the community? Too often these questions are evaluated solely in terms of the risks involved rather than a balance of risks against the value that it might add to someone’s life. This culture of risk adversity – far from promoting quality of life – at its worst leads to older people being objectified or infantilised.
The resource issue makes this worse. We expect people on low pay, with little training or support, to do work that can be hugely rewarding, but can also be very emotionally taxing, under the toughest of conditions. Imagine being a carer forced to work 15-minute slots that force you to choose between feeding or bathing your visibly distressed clients when you visit them. One strategy for coping with this might be to subconsciously take a step back and protect yourself by stopping yourself from forming meaningful relationships with your clients.
This is how we have developed a care system that – far from supporting people to develop meaningful relationships – can end up undermining people’s natural empathy and compassion. It has echoes of the work of Isabelle Menzies Leith, a psychoanalyst who undertook a study of nursing in the 1950s and found that nursing as a profession was structured in such a way as to prevent nurses from forming relationships with their patients in order to protect them from emotional stress, for example through breaking down the job into a series of physical tasks one nurse would perform for many patients, rather than being with charged with the holistic care of a smaller group of patients.
We have developed a care system that – far from supporting people to develop meaningful relationships – can end up undermining people’s natural empathy and compassion
Why do we permit this? The reason runs deep: at the heart of the issue is surely society’s very declinist view of ageing. Because we ourselves often see ageing as a process of decline; something to be feared, something we do not like to think about or plan for, this perhaps influences how we see people who have already visibly started this process. The way our care system tends to be run is a reflection of how we as a society tend to think about ageing, and we are never going to address the former without addressing the latter.
The second issue that will impact on older people’s quality of life is how these cultural attitudes towards ageing make themselves felt with respect to ageism in the workplace. As our lifespans stretch, people are going to have to continue working for longer – which is always going to be easier for some groups of older people than others, for example those who do very physical jobs. But attitudinal studies have suggested that there may be significant amounts of latent ageism amongst employers. We also have a labour market in which part-time workers are at a significant disadvantage in terms of pay and working conditions, which could work against those wanting to gradually reduce their working hours as they reach retirement.
But what of those entering the labour market? How are changes in it likely to affect young people’s transition to adulthood?
The stagnating wage growth we have experienced in recent years has sparked debate about longer-term shifts in the labour market: in particular, the impact of technological progress in polarising the labour market, with automation replacing a number of jobs that used to sit in the middle of the labour market in terms of skills and pay. Technology has historically created more jobs than it has replaced, but they have not been like-for-like replacements: it increases returns to capital and skills and therefore tends towards increasing inequality.
Futurology is a dangerous game, but there is no reason not to think these impacts of technology will continue to make themselves felt. There are already technologies that have been developed, such as driverless technology, that look set to replace jobs like taxi drivers, hauliers and couriers if they take off. Other jobs may be subject to the same kind of sophisticated automation enabled by new robotic technologies. On the other hand, we will see a growing number of jobs in a sector like care, which services a growing older population and relies on uniquely human skills like empathy.
Patterns of working have also shifted significantly in the last few decades: no longer is it common to leave school and embark on an apprenticeship that sets you up with the same employer for life as it was 40 or 50 years ago: people are more likely to switch employers, jobs and career. The next shift we may see may be an increase in self-employment, particularly, as previously suggested, with the development ofvarious online platforms and apps. But these new models of self-employment change the power dynamics between people providing a service, the consumers who use them, and the platform itself. Some platforms, like Uber, go as far as setting the price for a service.
The growth in self-employment would be an important shift for a party whose core mission is about representing workers
The minimum wage and many other aspects of employment legislation do not apply to people who are self-employed because there is no relationship between an employer and an employee. But that does not necessarily mean that people who are self-employed are not vulnerable to exploitation. This issue will become more important if the numbers of people who are self-employed continue to grow. This would be an important shift for a party whose core mission is about representing workers.
These trends will obviously have important impacts for people in today’s labour market, whose jobs may be reduced in number or replaced altogether over the next 20 years – or who may find themselves working in different ways, for example, becoming self-employed. But young people are also going to be at the sharp end of these shifts.
It would be easy to overstate what the implications of these changes might mean for reform of our education system: no amount of labour market change is going to change the fact that young people are always going to need core skills like literacy and numeracy. But there is an important question to be asked about how well post-compulsory education is equipping young people for the world of work today, let alone in 10 years’ time.
There have been two big shifts in post-compulsory schooling in the last few decades. First has been the huge expansion in the numbers of young people going to university. As numbers have increased, so have the costs: both for individual students, as fees have risen to up to £9,000 a year, and for the government, through the provision of heavily subsidised income-contingent student loans to cover the cost of fees and maintenance costs. The numbers of people studying for a degree are likely to rise further now that the government has lifted the cap on student numbers, meaning universities are free to recruit as many students as they would like.
In some ways this is a success story, reflecting the growth in the number of high-skill jobs. But there is a risk we have reached the limit of pushing out more highly skilled graduates into the labour market: recent research by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development suggests almost six in 10 graduates are in jobs deemed to be non-graduate roles. This highlights the issue that there are very different graduate premiums depending on the institution attended and the course studied.
This is not to imply that there are too many people going to university: so long as we can continue to create more jobs requiring high skills, growing numbers are a positive. But since students are contributing more on an individual level, and the government subsidy of higher education on a macro scale is likely to grow as student numbers increase, there are important questions to be asked about the public and individual value of studying for a degree.
Compared to other publicly funded sectors like schools or hospitals, there is a striking lack of transparency about value. The higher education sector on the whole has been reluctant to share transparent and comparable data on important outcomes, such as the earnings of those who graduate from particular courses, and learning outcomes; and on inputs, such as proxies for teaching quality like the number of hours spent in small-group teaching and the qualifications and training of those teaching a particular course.
The government has tried to introduce more accountability in the sector for the value it creates by introducing certain market features – for example, trying to encourage more competition between institutions by lifting the cap on numbers of students they can recruit. But this is not a functioning market in the sense that demand far exceeds the supply of places, and grade requirements mean it is still more a case of institutions selecting students rather than vice versa. The price homogeneity we have seen, with most universities charging either close to or the actual maximum fee cap, is a symptom of that.
Young people want to go to university to improve their career prospects and experience its social benefits, as well as academic benefits, and these are both important factors in choosing their course and institution. With some exceptions around specialist subjects, employers themselves are likely to rely on the overall reputation of an institution rather than any detailed knowledge of course quality and learning outcomes. So the ‘market’ does not necessarily involve scrutiny of these outcomes.
This raises the question: wherein lies the value of studying for a degree? How much of it is the academic and skills development one experiences as a result of studying for the course; how much the personal development that comes from living relatively independently for the first time; and how much from the ‘signalling’ function to employers, pre-selecting from their potential recruitment pool a group of young people who have met the entry requirements for a particular course? Of course, this will vary widely. But in order to know whether our university system is – in the round – providing value for money, and whether there may be more innovative ways of delivering degrees that provide more enriching experiences with greater impact, we do need to be able to ask these difficult questions, particularly as the numbers of young people going to university expand, at significant cost to themselves and to government. There has been remarkably little innovation in the way degrees are delivered; it has been decades since we have seen a disruptive innovation on the scale of the Open University in the 1960s. In fact, in some sense we may be moving backwards: there has been a significant decline in the number of part-time students since fees have increased.
The second big shift in post-compulsory schooling has been the long-term decline in traditional apprenticeships. Successive governments have tried to revive the apprenticeship system: numbers have increased, and the current government has an ambitious target to reach 3 million apprenticeships by 2020.
But expansion has been achieved as a result of sacrificing quality: the fastest growth in apprenticeships has been in level 2, or intermediate level apprenticeships. Many apprenticeships last under a year, compared to the two to three years that would have been the norm in the past here in England, and which is currently the norm in countries with strong apprenticeship systems like Germany, Austria and Switzerland.And the rapid growth in apprenticeships numbers has been driven by an increase in apprenticeships for the over-25s. At the same time, workplace skills training provision for adults has fallen, suggesting that some employers may be simply rebadging existing training schemes as apprenticeships and moving existing employees onto apprenticeships in order to attract government funding. Meanwhile, funding for further education has been cut by over 40 per cent since 2009, and returns to intermediate skills qualifications in the UK remain variable and poor.
The strong emphasis on apprenticeships at the expense of all other forms of intermediate skills development is an issue not just because of the poor quality of many apprenticeships on offer. Traditional high-quality apprenticeships are designed to train people in specific technical and vocational skills. But with expansion, apprenticeships in the UK are being applied to a broad range of jobs and careers in the service sector, some of which are perhaps not as well suited to the apprenticeship model for technical skills.
Rather than stretching the idea of apprenticeships to be all things to all sectors, we would be better off protecting the fragile apprenticeships brand by focusing on quality in a number of priority sectors, and taking a step back to ask how we can design a different type of school-to-work transition for young people who are going to go into growing areas of the service sector. How can we ensure they develop the sorts of transferable and personal skills that are so important to these sorts of jobs? Is there a route that can complement high-quality apprenticeships and university to support young people moving into jobs that mostly require transferable rather than specific skills?
How politics should respond: keeping up with and shaping change
The social and economic changes mapped out here could have profound impacts on people’s lives. What does politics have to say to people who lose their job over the next 10 to 20 years as a result of developments in robotic technology? Or to the woman in her 50s with poor private pension provision, who has to stop working well before the state retirement age to care for her father with dementia because there is not a safety net that allows her to combine working with caring? Or to the young person leaving school at age 18 who can only find a job as a care assistant – a job that in theory could be fulfilling and enriching but which in reality offers poor working conditions, low pay and little opportunity for progression?
These are difficult questions – but they also represent an opportunity for the centre left. David Cameron used his speech to the Conservative party conference in October to boldly claim the territory of social reform. The obvious critique of this grab for the centre ground is the big gulf between rhetoric and action on his pledges to lead an assault on poverty, to improve social mobility and to address the housing crisis.
But the striking thing about Cameron’s speech was not just this gulf: it was that the social challenges he focused on – equality of opportunity, race discrimination and insufficiently integrated communities – are age-old. That does not make them less important, and they will not be going anywhere anytime soon. But the prime minister failed to look forward to some of the emerging challenges on the horizonthat already impact on the lives of millions of people today: quality in the care system, ageism in the workplace, value for money in university degrees and the inadequacy of the apprenticeship system to support young people not going to university to help them manage the transition from education into work.
Herein lies an opportunity for the centre left. There are a number of questions the Labour party could be focusing on developing answers to over the next few years, for example:
Funding social care
What does a sustainable system of funding for social care look like, given that people are highly unlikely to save voluntarily for their potential care needs in later life? The coalition government looked set to introduce a model of funding that would cap people’s contributions to their care at a lifetime limit. However, it attached no funding to support local government in funding needs above the cap, and its introduction has now been delayed until at least 2020. The system was designed to encourage people to insure themselves against costs up to the cap, but the insurance industry has said it cannot design products for this purpose because of the uncertainties involved, and the system is so complicated it is very unlikely to incentivise the behaviour change around people planning for their care needs that it was designed to do.
Long-term care insurance could be one way of reinstating a contributory-based welfare system: in many ways, there is a greater justification for getting people to make compulsory contributions to care insurance than unemployment insurance
A review of funding should look at models around the world, for example, the Japanese system of universal and compulsory long-term care insurance. In Japan, all people aged over 40 are required to contribute to the scheme, which is part-funded through insurance payments and part-funded by general taxation. Contributions to the scheme entitle people aged over 65 to a range of care services depending on their level of need.
Long-term care insurance could be one way of reinstating a contributory-based welfare system: in many ways, there is a greater justification for getting people to make compulsory contributions to care insurance than unemployment insurance, as people are so unlikely to voluntarily save for long-term care needs. Government contributions to a universal insurance scheme would be a much better use of resource than the provision of free bus passes and TV licenses – things many pensioners are willing to spend money on and can afford to pay for.
1. Improving the quality of older care
A properly funded care system could form the basis for a relentless government focus on improving the quality of care through training and other reforms. What would an agenda to improve care quality look like which had the same amount of political energy focused on it as agendas to improve the quality of the nation’s schools and hospitals?
2. Tackling ageism in the workplace
How could government – working with employers and trade unions – really take on ageisim in the workplace? This will become a growing issue as more people look to stay in work for longer but find themselves sidelined once they reach a certain age.
4. Responding to rising self-employment
How can we ensure people who are self-employed are adequately protected in the workplace? What’s the role for trade unions in this area? And how should platforms like Uber – which do not just act as an online market place but which set a price for suppliers and customers – be regulated, if at all?
5. Putting a value on higher education
What reforms could we make to higher education so that universities are incentivised to maximise the value that young people get from their degrees, and which reduces the cost for young people and government where possible? How could government incentivise more innovation in the way degrees are delivered? For example, should universities share the risks of non-payment of income-contingent loans with government?
6. Providing alternatives to apprenticeships
What other forms of school-to-work transition could be developed for young people not going to university, other than apprenticeships? Ideas worth exploring might include:
First, service years: based on the Americorps model in the US, these give young people aged 18-25 the opportunity to volunteer full-time for a year on a structured programme designed to develop young people’s transferable skills as well as have an impact in their local communities. Young people also undertake training and personal development that partly focuses on the skills they need for their placement and partly on their careers beyond. For example, the charity City Year UK supports young people to volunteer for an academic year in inner-city schools, where they act as near-peer mentors in the classroom and break times, and run breakfast and after-school clubs. Service years can act as a transition between school and work, school and university, or university and work.
Second, studio schools offer 14-19 year-olds the opportunity to learn through enterprise projects and real work alongside classroom-based learning. They are open all year round with a 9-5 working day. Students often undertake paid work placements linked to job opportunities in the local area as part of their curriculum.
Third, the Edge Foundation has called for all young people to have the opportunity to do a ‘skills gap year’ before they move into work or go to university.
Raising job quality at the lower end of the wage distribution
How do we improve the quality of jobs for young people in sectors that tend to be low pay and low skill, such as in growth sectors like older care? How do we increase opportunities for progression and autonomy? This could not only improve the quality of care services for older people, but also the quality of professional opportunities for young people going into this sector.
Giving Labour a new sense of mission
In recent years, the Labour party has suffered from its failure to understand the differential impacts of globalisation, and to help people to make sense of the sometimes-negative social and economic changes they have experienced as a result. Labour should not repeat this mistake: there are social changes on the horizon that bring huge opportunities, but also risks.
Developing an agenda to support people in making the most of these changes is not an easy task, and some of the issues outlined here, such as care funding, have been very politically toxic in the past. We cannot stop these changes – and nor should we want to, given the opportunities they bring. But it is the job of politics to develop ways to help ensure more people gain than lose from them.
When it comes down to it, most of us are inclined to worry about what happens if the day comes when we need to put our mother or father in a care home, or about the jobs that might be available not just for the academically brightest of children, but for those of all abilities. This feels like a challenge that the great social reformers of the past, from Benjamin Disraeli to Clement Attlee, would have risen to, and one which could potentially reinject the Labour party with a new sense of mission, and new connections to the aspirations and concerns of millions of people, which they spend much longer than four minutes a week thinking about.
Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer.