Leading the fight back?
Posted by Left Luggage on July 10, 2009
In the first of what we hope will be a series of profiles and interviews with groups and activists, we interviewed Ben Robinson of Youth Fight for Jobs about the campaign’s aims and tactics, as well as the challenges it will face. Ben is writing here in a personal capacity, and his opinions do not necessarily reflect those of YFfJ as a whole.
Please tell us the main aims of Youth Fight for Jobs and how it is seeking to achieve those aims?
The Youth Fight for Jobs campaign was launched in January 2009. As we saw it, youth unemployment was set to continue rising, with the situation of mass youth unemployment becoming the norm for a whole number of years. Not only that, but the main parliamentary parties were still committed to an agenda of privatising and attacks on the working class. Education privatisation and a lack of decent services were also set to be a feature of young peoples future. After a general election university fees will almost certainly be raised, cutting out many working class youth from education. So the campaign was launched, not only to combat youth unemployment, but also to fight for a future for young people. So the headline aims of the campaign are for the right to a decent job with a living wage, for apprenticeships with jobs at the end, and against university fees. There is also a broader set of demands that appear on the website and on the leaflets.
Those aims can only be achieved through mass action of young people and workers. Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems will not introduce these measures if just asked for it. It will be a question of building a mass movement in order to make it clear that this is what the majority of people want. I think the example of the French youth movement against the CPE is the best recent example of how that strategy can win victories, but also the anti-poll tax campaign in the early nineties, the school student strikes in the mid eighties in Britain, but also in france and spain. These show very clearly that it is possible to fight and to win.
YFfJ seems to be a campaign with very ambitious goals. What would constitute a success for the campaign?
This campaign is going to be around as long as mass youth unemployment is! I think there are a number of battles which will take place over specific issues. In September, many universities and colleges face savage cuts in their budgets, with whole courses going in a lot of cases. In addition, tens of thousands of young people will be excluded from university because of a government miscalculation. In January, the government are introducing compulsory working for some unemployed young people – there will have to be a battle to ensure that young people are not used to drive down workers wages and conditions. There is clearly going to be a massive battle over pay in the public sector. I’ve already mentioned the prospect of university fees going up as well. I think that activists from the campaign will be involved in all of these struggles, and clearly a victory on any of them would be a success. Local groups are getting together and forming demands locally for the campaign on the question of youth unemployment and lack of opportunities in those areas as well. But those examples are defending young people and workers from attacks on our present conditions. The stated aim of the campaign is to win a decent future for young people, and we will fight until we achieve it.
There is also a question over whether capitalism can achieve our demands. From the point of view of those in power, the vastly wealthy ruling class, unemployment is good as competition for jobs can help drive down wages. The recent news that ‘bonuses are back’ shows just how little the rich have had to pay for the present crisis. But for a programme of socially useful job creation, to end unemployment and provide decent jobs and education for young people, and the population as a whole, would take a massive struggle. I think that some of the demands can be won under capitalism. After all, the NHS and other reforms were won on the basis of a mass movement. But I also think that there’s a fundamental divide in society between the interests of the tiny rich elite and of the mass of the population. If capitalism cannot afford to implement and maintain a decent future for young people, I think young people can’t afford capitalism.
What is YFFJ’s strategy? Who are you seeking to recruit to the campaign; what tactics do you intend to use; who exactly are you trying to influence and why?
The aim of the campaign is to build a mass movement, and to reach out and involve young people in the campaign and in political activity. It should involve all young people; workers, unemployed, school, college and university students, white, black, Asian, migrant, LGBT, etc. Young people from a middle class background will also be affected by the crisis and hit by unemployment, the YFfJ campaign is as much for them as it is for working class youth.
We have especially made an appeal to the trade union movement to get involved in the campaign. I think that the unions have huge potential power in society. The RMT union has been able to win and maintain relatively good working conditions for tube drivers and other staff on the London underground, through a fighting union policy, including strike action to defend those conditions. Building links, supporting workers in struggle is vital to the success of the campaign.
I also think that youth fight for jobs could play a role in supporting young people organising in the workplace. The vast majority of young people are not unionised, or in workplaces organised in the unions. If we were approached by a group of young people wanting to organise a trade union, and to fight for better conditions, the campaign would offer them every assistance in that fight.
But there’s also a need for a generalised struggle. A victory for workers in one workplace is inspirational, and can inspire others to take action. Already this year we have seen victories at Linemar, Visteon and Lindsey Oil Refinery. I think that the campaign should help to get the word out about these victories and explain their significance to young people especially. But this is a campaign for all youth, for a decent future. So we will campaign in the local areas, in the workplaces, but also link that up to a national fight back. The present fortnight of action is a good example. Areas are organising demonstrations, lobbies, pickets, gigs, protests, stalls, meetings, etc. Some are highlighting local issues, but it is part of an action that is taking place around the country, linking it to the struggle nationwide.
These general demands are demands that we place on the government. This government had the power to introduce university fees, we say it should use that power to scrap them. Margaret Thatcher’s government scrapped the Youth Training Schemes, which seems to me to be what the ‘future jobs’ fund is based on. A minimum wage has been introduced, we argue that it should be set a level that allows people to live a decent life. But New Labour and the Tories are parties in the pockets of the rich. It will only be through the pressure of a mass campaign that they would acquiesce to these demands. But for example with the minimum wage, even at the present low level there are exemptions and evasions galore. Only an active workers movement can maintain decent conditions at work and in education.
Working class young people in the UK seem to be quite depoliticised, and there is little evidence to suggest that they are attracted to progressive or socialist politics. What are the chances of the campaign gaining recruits amongst working class youth? Is there a danger that this campaign will attract mainly middle class students, and will therefore reflect middle class rather than working class concerns?
I think the question puts a bit of a false split between the interests of working class and middle class youth. What are the interests of middle class youth? The right to go to university? I think everyone should be able to attend university, and free education would enable more youth from working class backgrounds to go to university, as well as ease the pressure on those from slightly better off backgrounds.
Of course, we want the campaign to involve young workers as well as those in education. I think that it is a positive sign that the majority of the youth fight for jobs steering committee are not in full time education, ie that they are either at work or looking for a job.
But it is a question that we will have to deal with. The fact that there have not been successful mass movements of youth in our generation does weigh heavily on young people, and their confidence to get involved in struggle. But there have been times that we have been close. Tony Blair thought seriously about resignation during the initial protests against the Iraq war. The government was very nearly defeated on the issue of top-up fees. We have to learn the lessons of those movements and ensure that those mistakes are not repeated.
But beneath the surface, there is definitely anger at the conditions young people are faced with. There have been a number of instances of school student walk outs, against academies, threats to education and staff cuts. University students have also been campaigning against cuts, something that is likely to increase during the next academic year. And, on picket lines with a young workforce and a fighting union, such as the PCS in the public sector, young people are playing an increasingly important role.
Whoever wins the next general election is not going to halt attacks on young people. The Tories are already boasting about the scale of cuts they will make! It will become increasingly clear to young people that they have no choice but to fight. I think that this campaign will have a big role to play in assisting that process.
The 2009 budget contained a number of attacks on working class people, including cuts in public spending and some regressive tax rises, but the media focus was on the rise in the top rate of tax to 50%. This illustrates how little power the left has to influence the media agenda at the moment. Given this climate, do you think YFfJ will be able to influence the media agenda and public opinion?
The media is owned by the likes of Murdoch and other big businessmen. The recent slander against the RMT strike in London shows clearly which side most of the media is on. Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers campaign against Tommy Sheridan in Scotland shows how friendly they are to the left!
But given that, I think youth fight for jobs has had some good media coverage so far. We have been covered by Sky News, the Sun, the Mirror, the Sunday Times, Channel 4 news amongst others, as well as a fair bit of local and regional coverage. If we’re organising sizable protests, then it can be possible to get some coverage. Though having said that, my local newspaper gave our youth fight for jobs demonstration half the coverage it did to a story about cats, so you still have to question their priorities!
But I think that the main way that the campaign will get its message across will be to organise events, get people along, and be a visible and campaigning organisation. It will be the situation that capitalism puts workers and young people in that will push people towards our campaign, rather than relying on the media alone.
According to the Youth Fight for Jobs website, your demonstrations during the G20 summit attracted around 600 people in total, and an activist sympathetic to the campaign said in a comment on our website that about 200 people attended the main march through East London. Compared to the demonstrations in the City, and given the number of unemployed young people in East London, these are very small numbers. Was this disappointing? Why do you think the City demonstrations attracted far more people?
Just on the contradiction in figures, the police estimate was 400 on the demonstration, so I would have said that 600 throughout the course of the day (some people joined and left etc) is a fair estimate.
They are small numbers compared to the task that the campaign has set itself, but I actually think it was an excellent start to the campaign. Given that we had been going for only a few months beforehand, a turnout of 600 was a very positive start to the campaign. It has given us a solid base to build our campaign from there on in. I think undoubtedly we could have picked up more young people along the route of the march had we been given permission to go though more busy areas – along Mile End Road, Cold Harbour Lane etc. As it was it was tough negotiations with the police and we were relatively happy with what we got – it was the only demonstration to get permission to march that day. However, to get this meant that we had to change the starting point in the last 10 days before the demonstration, and despite our efforts some people may well have gone to the old starting point and not seen our supporters who were redirecting people.
I think the issues that we were talking about, the need for the start to a mass campaign, was something new on the scene. We are going to have to win people to the ideas of the campaign, and as I’ve said earlier encourage people to get involved in politics and protest, show people the point. In some ways, the protests at the city were of a different kind – they were a chance for people to show their anger at the finance system, at environmental destruction, at war, but without a commitment to a general programme and strategy. We should also point out the role of the media in hyping up those protests, the coverage that Youth Fight for Jobs got in comparison to the city protests was virtually nil. All the coverage mentioned earlier has been since the G20.
But we were very pleased with the march the G20, the numbers of young people who got involved in that and are now active in building the campaign, the level of trade union support and speakers, and the traditions of the working class that we were alluding to all clearly set out what the campaign was all about.
The Socialist Party is heavily involved in running youth fight for jobs. In the past, many campaigns run by Left parties came to be seen as front groups that prioritised gaining new recruits over building the campaign. Isn’t YFfJ just another front group?
Youth Fight for Jobs is definitely not a front group. It is a broad organisation, involving young people from different political backgrounds. It has the support of three national trade unions – RMT, PCS and CWU – as well as many local trade union branches and community campaigns. We have a democratically elected steering committee involving representatives from the affiliated trade unions and from local groups. Personally, I am a member of the Socialist Party, and the Socialist Party is a supporting organisation, amongst others.
In fact ‘fronts’ has never been a tactic actively pursued by the Socialist Party. If you look at the Shop Stewards Network, the Socialist Party participates in it and plays an important role – but so do others that the Socialist Party works alongside of. In Scotland, the Socialist Party’s sister organisation is involved in Solidarity together with Tommy Sheridan and others on the Left. As Militant, before we changed our name to the Socialist Party, we were involved in the anti-poll tax unions and the Liverpool Labour council, both genuine campaigning bodies with different ideological trends involved, but both led mass campaigns that led to some victories.
Socialist Party members are participating in Youth Fight for Jobs as a genuine campaign. The record of the Socialist Party makes that clear. I think as part of the course of the campaign, our members role as part of the campaign in encouraging genuine debate and discussion and reaching out to involve as many young people as possible will show that yet again.
How broad based is Youth Fight for Jobs? All organisations that are listed on your website as formally supporting the campaign are linked to the Socialist Party. Are other groups involved?
Youth Fight for Jobs has the backing of three national trade unions, which is a vital basis of support for the campaign, and one that we want to broaden. This is in addition to a whole number of local branches, trade union campaigners, and activists and local campaigns.
Members of a number of political organisations that have not pledged formal support have attended our launch conference, moved amendments at the conference, spoke, as well as attended other protests and meetings and activities organised by the campaign. As I’ve said, the campaign is a democratic one, pretty much the only people who we would not allow to join are fascists and scabs.
But the main base of support that we want to involve is the unorganised mass of young people, the 850,000 unemployed under-25s, the millions of school, college and university students, the overwhelming majority of youth who are on low pay, on temporary contracts, up to their eyes in debt, unable to move out from their parents, not in a trade union. It will be by reaching out to those that we build a genuine campaign.
The agenda for your conference on 9 May appears to have a similar format to Stop the War Coalition conferences – lots of speeches by high profile leftwing opinion leaders, but not much opportunity for activists and ordinary members to make suggestions and contribute to debate. Don’t you risk alienating activists with such a strategy?
If we had unlimited funds, my preference would be to have a two day conference with more time for discussion on the issues, I think that that would be better for the campaign and activists would hopefully get more out of it, and more chance to discuss with each other. However, the campaign is relatively new, and short of funds. As it was, the conference cost youth fight for jobs nearly £2,000. There is also the question of time taken out of workers weekends, or holiday that people have to take to attend events as well.
So the conference was a result of trying to make the best use of limited time. And I’m quite pleased to say that we did have a number of speakers, people involved in campaigns and struggles, including activists from the campaign. But there was also some time for discussion in the morning, lots of discussion in the smaller sessions in the afternoon, and also a serious debate about the motions in the afternoon. I don’t think that anyone who had something to say would have gone unheard. It is not ideal to be squeezed for time, but I think that the conference was good given that factor.
What is the structure of the Youth Fight for Jobs campaign? how are decisions made and what mechanisms are there for ordinary members to get their views across?
To get in contact with myself or Sean Figg is fairly easy, just use the contact details on the website! A steering committee was elected at the conference, and members can raise ideas with its members as well. It’s this body that acts as the national leadership. Local groups have the power to recall the steering committee, call an emergency conference etc should they wish. It is the conference that takes the major decisions for the campaign, and if there was to be a major change for the campaign I think it would be necessary to call a conference to democratically discuss it, if at all possible. The aim is as much as possible to allow the campaign to be led by ordinary members. These structures are fairly basic of course, but the campaign is fairly new – it has only had formal membership for less than 2 months! As the campaign develops we will definitely look at developing more structures where necessary.