As we began our encounter at the two January seminars with the Coalition’s Positive for Youth paper, smuggled out in the week before Xmas, a number of reactions rattled against one another.
– A feeling that it is all sound and fury, but is no more than a raft of responses tied together in a pretence of policy.
– Countered by a feeling that it is altogether more coherent; that it represents an attempt to impose on the sphere of youth services and hence youth work the supposed logic of the social market; that, if the Youth Service of old is to be amongst the first of the public services to disappear, it will be replaced by commissioned and privatised projects of a social enterprise complexion, narrower in focus and committed to cutting costs. The landscape is altering.
And, even as we began to argue about these perspectives, it was abundantly clear that the P4Y proposals to all intents wilfully and deceitfully ignore the economic and political background, symbolised by its failure to engage with the spectre of over 1 million unemployed 16 – 24 year olds. As for youth work and the Youth Service the millions of pounds being cut from local authority budgets is conveniently overlooked.
This flagrant omission stuck in the craw of participants from both the statutory and voluntary sectors. Some of our supporters made redundant are chasing fewer and fewer jobs, whilst the ending of all manner of grants to voluntary organisations, especially the smaller, is causing all manner of ethical heartaches. In this context everyone recognised that both individuals and groups will have to do what’s necessary to survive. And as ever we discussed what room for manoeuvre might be left inside of any of the so-called new proposals?
Thinking pragmatically though brought us back full circle to our analysis of what we think might be the Coalition’s rationale and strategy.
– It’s necessary to remember that the Campaign was launched as a response to New Labour’s undermining of open, improvisatory youth work. The Coalition continues in that vein, deeply suspicious of any critical youth work. If Labour is to revitalise itself as an ally of democratic practice, significant self-criticism is needed. Simply bashing the Tories won’t pass muster.
– New Labour too embraced the market and enterprise capitalism. The Coalition is now pursuing relentlessly the same logic. P4Y, as Malcolm Ball suggested, can be read as a handbook for venture capitalists on how to explore whether there are sufficient pickings in the revamped world of youth services; as a guide to local authorities on ways of commissioning/privatising the delivery and ownership of young people’s provision. Evermore we are hearing the language of the market as parts of youth services are put out to tender in search of a preferred contractor.
– It is illuminating to see what types of organisations are prospering at this juncture. To take the National Citizen’s Service, The Challenge Network has been awarded 7 million pounds to deliver its part of the summer eight week programme. The Challenge Network was set up in 2008 by the Shaftesbury Partnership, a social business co-founded by Lord Wei, the Conservative peer who was appointed as a government adviser on the big society in May 2010. Wei stood down from the advisory role in May 2011. Last year Roberta Blackman-Woods, then shadow civil society minister, said the government’s decision to award funds to the Challenge Network raised “serious ethics and transparency questions”. Closer to home the leading players are formed into the consortium, CATALYST, led by NCVYS with the NYA, the Young Foundation and Social Enterprise UK in tow. This outfit makes no bones about its ideological commitment to ‘strengthen the youth sector market and equip the sector to work in partnership with the government’, of which more in our discussion on the Institute of Youth Work.
– The paper makes much of the government’s alleged desire to listen to young people and to ‘youth-proof’ its policies. 850 thousand pounds has been granted to the British Youth Council to head up the search for the voice of youth and hope springs eternal here, given the organisation’s involvement in ChooseYouth and its member led character. The reality though is that the Coalition ignored utterly young people’s independent and articulate campaigns. It preferred to listen to seemingly hand-picked youth supplied by organisations, which explicitly embrace the government’s agenda. The whole issue of the surge in the creation of young experts, what the Young Advisors Project calls ‘trained agents of social action’, needs some unravelling. The stance of this specific initiative is hardly neutral. In its own words, ‘Working through a social enterprise model, we deliver public service reform helping direct limited resources to where it is needed most.’
– As an example of the taken-for-granted marketisation of services we touched on the emerging concerns about the workfare programme, caught eloquently in this report,
– As ever contradiction haunted our argument and we returned to the classic question of whether it is necessary and inevitable to be ‘in and against’ the social market. And indeed whether democratic spaces could still be made. The example of a radical ‘free school’ was mentioned, together with some optimism about the work of the Cooperative College.
– Obviously we reiterated our concern that under the P4Y arrangements open and pluralist youth work continues to wane, whilst the emphasis on targeting gathers even more pace.
In the face of TINA [There is no Alternative] it is vital to keep debate alive. The profound irony is that those within our work embracing so uncritically the discourse of the market do so as the doctrine collapses all around us. They operate as if the wider trials and tribulations of a world-wide system in crisis has nothing to do with what they are up to. The Financial Times carries on its masthead, ‘The Crisis of Capitalism’. The Independent talks of ‘Crony Capitalism and craven folly’. The Observer leads on ‘The worldwide public realises there is something deeply wrong with today’s world economic system.’ At the height of their arrogance the free marketeers declared that they made and unmade reality. All the rest of us could do was live in and accept their virtual world. As Paul Mason argues, 2011 was the year when the graduates with no future rose across Europe, conscious the system’s promise, that if you play by the rules largesse awaits, had been broken. Contrarily you have to wonder what’s going on inside the heads of those within youth work, who talk now of National Citizen Service ‘graduates’, implying that completion of the 8 week programme paves the way for career success.
As ever this report is open to criticism and revision. Certainly in the coming months it would be good to begin receiving stories from the front-line about how all of this is turning out in practice.