As Nick Clegg and Vince Cable were standing on their heads once more yesterday, and quietly forgetting their ‘I pledge’ posters on student finance, I was back in my classroom with a group of teenagers who have completed their formal schooling without being overly bothered about the impact of higher tuition fees.
The tragedy is that at least some of them are easily bright enough to have made it to university but for whatever reason – family and social background, circle of friends, school, other circumstances – it never happened.
I have been trying to show them not only that politics is important to their lives but that it can also be interesting, and encouraging them to come up with their own ideas on policy and ‘change the world’ campaigns. Yesterday we had friends and former Labour campaign colleagues of mine from Saatchi and Saatchi, who took some of the ideas of the students and turned them into instant posters.
It is the benefits debate that seems to get them going. One girl, Danielle, came up with a pretty good slogan – make benefit cuts fair … it acknowledges there are going to have to be tough decisions but wants the principle of fairness at the heart of any change. Saatchis came up with a few ideas, some of them really clever, but the one Danielle went for was a simple message, not a picture in sight … ‘When is a benefit not a benefit? When it is a neccessity.’ She and others in the class were able to take from that pretty much all of the main arguments that are going to rage as the cuts bite.
Harlem went into the detail of benefits and after making a lot of calculations come up with a slogan … ‘you don’t live on fifty quid a week. You survive,’ and in minutes Saatchis had designed a really powerful bus stop ad.
Meanwhile my rugby-playing friend Conor, who has a real thing about footballers’ wages, has a dozen to choose from that contrast Wayne Rooney’s wages with those of nurses, police and teachers.
I see in some of the papers that youth services are to be cut substantially when George Osborne makes his spending statement on October 20. One of the most powerful campaigns the students came up with, courtesy of Nana Kwame and Michael, was one warning that if young people have nothing to do, youth crime is likely to rise. ‘Cut youth services and they won’t be the only thing being cut,’ someone shouted out, but the general feeling was that was too agressive and threatening, powerful though the posters were.
But they are definitely of the view that there is something rather arbitrary about the way the cuts are being made, and that there will be a whole lot of unintended consequences.
That is very much the theme of the Price Waterhouse Coopers report suggesting that in addition to half a million public sector jobs being lost as part of the cuts, the private sector will see a similar amount being shed as a result of a shrinkage in government commissioning of major building and other projects. I have gone on about this before. The coalition talk of the public sector cuts in isolation. But if PWC are right – and they are hardly at the TUC end of the market, let alone Trots yearning to bring on the revolution – then what exactly are the implications for the welfare bills the coalition governemnt is pledged to cut?
As I watched Cable and Clegg doing their nodding-dog act for Cameron and Osborne last night, I wondered what their answer was. And I wondered where their moral compass was as they sought it? It seemed so clear once, when Vince was a Saint, and Nick was telling us all there had to be a better way.