Young people have a lot to be angry about. At least I said so back in 2009 in an interview for the Independent as a young Lib Dem.
“We’re furious,” he says. “We don’t have jobs, we can’t afford housing, we’re the first generation that has had to pay for university education directly, and we’re not getting our money’s worth. Meanwhile, we’re struggling day-to-day to pay utility bills while MPs are spending our money on things we couldn’t dream of buying.”
Two years down the line its very much a question of ‘plus ça change’. Youth unemployment is at a decade’s high, the average age of a first time house buyer is about 36, university fees have tripled and people still aren’t getting their money’s worth whilst energy companies continue to fleece everyone who has central heating.
On the upside, MP’s are not still spending our money on silly stuff like duck houses or moats or porn – so that’s a plus right?
Coalition government was not expected, and it has not been easy. People are at best disappointed and at worst raging against the Liberal Democrat half of the coalition because of the decisions taken and the compromises made in coalition. There was little choice in the matter however.
We are in a global economic storm. Those countries with weak or divided governments have seen confidence in their markets disappear, and their credit ratings fall. Those which have no plan to tackle their growing debts face bankruptcy and ruin. If the Liberal Democrats had left parliament hung and left an unstable minority government to rule alone then the party would have doomed us all.
If that is the path we had taken, if we had shirked out of our duty to provide stable government in a global maelstrom, then that would have been a choice of which I would have been ashamed and which Liberals would deserve no forgiveness for.
Whilst no one likes hearing it, Labour are at fault for the economic situation we face. Not for causing a global crisis, or for bankers, both of which must also share the blame, but for hubris.
Labour thought the good times would continue to roll, they thought banks could be trusted to run their own affairs, that the sticking plaster of a benefits system could solve generational inequality, and entrenched joblessness when what was required was activist intervention. They had no answer for that in government, they have none in opposition.
And so, inexorably, we come to the protest that happened this weekend, calling itself an occupation, claiming to represent the ‘99%’ of the people they think are in opposition to the governments policies.
I can understand why they are angry, and I imagine they are for the reasons I set out for my anger above.
These are not, however, the 99%.
Laurie Penny, a flag bearer and protagonist for the occupation movement was last spotted in Spain, having jetted in from the United States, more ‘jet -set socialist’ than working poor. Few people would or could commit to months away from work as the few hundred people at the demonstration at St Pauls, London have.
Most of the people occupying St Pauls, if they are honest to themselves, are those with the resources to miss work, who take an almost ‘day in the park’ approach to weekend protests whilst they sip a cappuccino from Costa. It is their choice to protest, but they only represent a tiny percentage of the people of the UK, let alone 99%, and it is arrogant for them to say otherwise.
The 99% are the young couple trying to save up to get married and anxious about if, not when, they might afford to start a family or by a house. They are the single parent going from pay check to pay check hoping that prices don’t rise further, or else they’ll have to decide whether they eat or their kids do. They are the worker approaching retirement who wonders if they’ll afford to do so. They are the mother or father who works 3 jobs to help their child get through university, the son or daughter who cares for a disabled relative. They are anyone wondering if they can afford to turn the heating on this winter.
They are everyone, they are someone you know, you may be them yourself, but they get on with it knowing they have bigger commitments to their loved ones than waving a banner or grinding an ideological axe.
The answer is not trying to shut down the London Stock Exchange, bring about the downfall or western capitalism or attempting to bring the ‘con-dem’ government to its knees. The answer is getting people back to work, getting household and government finances in order, making the tax system fair and the welfare system work. It is about providing opportunities to learn and support yourself not just for young people but for everyone.
Those in government must not lose sight of that or what they are in politics to do. I believe, as a Liberal we should be in politics first and foremost to give people hope, and make their lives as easy as possible.
We have to take it on the chin as people rightfully say that the cuts don’t seem fair. The situation is not fair. However we occupy the real world and they are necessary. If we were to bury our head in the sand, or to continue to borrow in the vain hope that it would lead to growth, not collapse, we would be lying about what needs to be done. Cuts are not an ideological obsession – they are the last resort of a government whose predecessor tried everything else and failed. It is not done lightly.
The government can point to the rise in the income tax allowance, the green jobs initiative, the increase in number of university places and apprenticeships, efforts to help small, medium and start up business by freeing up lines of credit as evidence it is trying to help. This must be its only focus.
We are metaphorically beaten up by an opposition Labour party who forgot long ago what they are in politics to do, except to beat the Tories in an ideological battle of whims. Let them swing. The moment we let party politics take precedence over helping people is the moment we don’t deserve to be in government.
Yes too, the ideological guff Conservatives and Liberals alike have been coming out with, be it scrapping the human rights act, changing the voting system, in Europe or out or Boundary reviews, has to take secondary importance.
Unless it helps people get back to work. Unless it makes people’s day to day lives better, fairer or freer it must take a back seat. There will be better days to argue about what is of interest to politicians but peripheral to the lives of everyone else, these are not those days.
People are angry. In truth, I’m as angry about how much is wrong with the world as I was two years ago but the way to change things is not to chant repetitive slogans on the streets, or clash with police, or camp in a tent in central London. It’s about doing what has to be done and going through the grind with as much humour as can be mustered. The issue here is not anger at a political class long since voted out of power, its the economic survival of our country and its people. This is no time for a sideshow.
In number terms the occupation in St Pauls is less than 1% of the population. This morning the 99% will be in work, or looking for work, looking after loved ones or in class working toward a better future.
The protesters are welcome to join the rest of us whenever you’re ready.