frontline 10

"Who are you calling a Ned?" New Labour's War on Youth

Citizen Y

New Labour have wasted no time in stepping up the attacks and scapegoating of young people in Scotland. In this article Nick Tarlton and Keef Tomkinson from Scottish Socialist Youth analyse Labour's plans and look at what answers socialists have.

"We need to tackle crime and disorder. Tougher sentencing, new powers for the police and local councils, more police officers on the beat, prisons and punishments that reform rather than encourage youngsters to re-offend." That was Jack Mconnell's position in the New Labour manifesto for the May elections. Youth crime and a promise of an Anti Social Behaviour Bill (ASBB) became the main plank of Labour's election campaign

That was no surprise as for over a year New Labour has been talking tough on youth crime. The media and New Labour who worked in tandem scapegoating asylum seekers began using these tactics to blame young people for more and more of society's ills. They are burglars, dealers, vandals, thugs, muggers, arsonists, a menace to society. To be young in Scotland today is to be a criminal.

In this article we explain the reality behind the Scottish Executive's spin, why we should oppose not only the general attacks on young people but specifically the ASBB and what the SSP should offering as alternative to the reactionary politics of blame and discrimination.

Labour's Proposals

The consultation document entitled Putting Our Communities First represents the concrete proposals being raised and their underlying ideology of attacking young people specifically and working class communities in general.

Minister for Communities Margaret Curran writes that a 'small minority undermine the lives of the many. We have seen the effects of their actions. Communities, once healthy and robust, plunged into a downward spiral of inaction, fear and neglect'. The blame for the problems faced by communities on individuals is placed on individuals with no mention made of the 'inaction and neglect' of successive Tory and Labour governments.

The majority of the proposals in this document are aimed at young people. Those that have attracted particular attention are the extension of Anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) and electronic tagging to under-sixteen year olds and new powers for the police to disperse groups of young people.

ASBOs were introduced for those over sixteen in 1999, the Executive now proposes introducing them for 12 to 15 year olds. A local authority or registered social landlord such as a housing association can apply to the sheriff court for an ASBO which will prohibit someone from a specific type of behaviour. It is then a criminal offence to break the order with placement in secure accommodation being one possible outcome. Anti-social conduct is defined as 'that which causes or is likely to cause alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household'. This definition covers everything from dropping litter to physical violence and it seems simply being young is 'likely to cause alarm or distress.'

Elsewhere the document states 'although they may be completely innocent of any crime or offence, the presence of any group of young people can be seen as intimidating and contribute to fear of crime'. SACRO, the criminal justice voluntary organisation, state in their 2003 manifesto that youth ASBOs 'would be counterproductive, criminalizing young people unnecessarily'. Young people who break an ASBO can end up in the criminal justice system for behaviour that does not of itself count as a criminal offence.

Electronic Tagging

Electronic tagging maybe a preferential option to secure accommodation for some young people but the Executive's proposals go much further than this. The executive proposes allowing tagging of under-16s in the criminal justice system and young people within the Children's Hearing system either for those who commit offences or those with serious welfare needs. This latter option would seem to criminalise young people when they are most in need of support.

Electronic monitoring is contracted out to private companies who then contact the court if the conditions are broken. The American Marxist Angela Davis has documented how the intrusion of private companies into the U.S. criminal justice system has led to a self-perpetuating 'prison-industrial complex'. Extension of the use of electronic tagging to the under-16s the Executive is also extending the potential for private companies to profit from the misery of many young people's lives.

The Executive also proposes to give the police new powers for the dispersal of groups of young people. The police would have the power to disperse groups of people under sixteen and remove them to their home 'where an officer has reason to believe: a) that any members of the public have been intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed as a result of the presence of groups of two or more persons in public places in any locality in their police area and b) that anti-social behaviour is a significant and persistent problem in the relevant locality' So if someone is behaving 'anti-socially' the police will be able to stop any group of under-16 year olds and take them home. This has been compared to the stop under suspicion laws that led to an increase in friction between police and young people in the 80's. The Executive is criminalising young people for hanging around the streets when they have no real alternative because their councils have closed hundreds across Scotland.

The proposed Parenting Orders caught the attention of the media. These orders are imposed on those who are considered to be failing to adequately fulfil their responsibilities as parents. Although it is the parent or guardian who must carry out the order, the conditions imposed can include preventing young people from going certain places or out at certain times. Whilst we have no illusions as to the extent to which families often fail children and recognise society's responsibility to ensure the welfare of young people, a situation where parents are criminalised for failing to control a young person and thus face a fine and potentially prison cannot be right. This proposal could lead to the imprisonment of the parents or guardians of vulnerable young people when they need most help.

New Labour's criminal justice proposals have always included catchy, media friendly ideas which have more to do with image than crime prevention. On the Spot fines are a favourite and are included in the ASBB. The stupidity of the idea is impressive. When hard pressed ministers have admitted that many of these 'criminals' will be from deprived areas but ignore the obvious question of, 'How will a 15 year old with no income pay the fine?' Scotland's courts and custodial institutions are already full of criminal masterminds whose crime is not being able to pay fines and debts.

Fighting the propaganda

SSY and the SSP must fight back against this black propaganda just as we have the lies over the drugs laws: with facts. The fact is that juvenile offending rates are almost unchanged in 10 years. The fact is that young people are the biggest victims of crime. The fact is Scotland has one of the most draconian justice systems in Europe with the age of criminal responsibility started at eight and the third highest prison population. The fact is that poverty and deprivation are the single biggest causes of crime.

So should the SSP be saying to that all young people are innocent, that there are no young criminals? Of course not but we should be prepared for our opponents to represent us in that light. We should recognise that there repeat and serious young offenders. However, rather than striking this groups off as a lost cause, just as we approach the general prison population we should raise the alternatives that do exist to throwing teenagers into young offenders institutes.

There are projects across Scotland and the rest of the Britain aimed at helping and rehabilitating these young people which understand the complex reasons behind much of the crime. At the recent the SSY conference the issue of graffiti was raised. In the ASBB there are proposals to ban the sale of spray paint to under 16s as well as a clamp down on the perpetrators of graffiti. Many SSY members raised that a lot of graffiti was creative and expressive, so instead of condemning these 'criminals', we should in fact help through college or courses to develop this art. The SSP should seek to bring such projects and ideas in public debate.

It is clear New Labour sees youth as an easy target. Young people do not have the vote until they are 18 and then most do not vote. The working class youth who face the brunt of the attacks often do not have a full education and do not have forums or tools to voice opposition. The fact they are societal group with different aspirations and a vibrant but misunderstood culture means that older generations and their class can be turned against them. As with the drugs debate, anti-war movement and Section 2A referendum the fact that sections of the working class will oppose our stance should not mean we retreat but argue our principled case.

There are many more contradictions, lies and regressive measures. Indeed too many to write about in full. What has been shown is that not only are the proposals flawed in dealing and preventing with what youth crime exists but it ignores the key issues and problems facing young people in Scotland today. There is no mention of poverty, low pay, affordable housing, youth facilities, voting rights, boredom, job opportunities or access to education.

That should come as no surprise. Using the fact that not all anti-social behaviour is based in deprived areas New Labour have carefully ignored the issues of prevention and poverty. When Jack McConnell launched the consultation document he said, "Our package is based on a graduated approach, emphasising prevention first, voluntary measures next, but tough and effective sanctions for those who persistently fail to respond." However there have been no significant plans put forward about prevention unless the universally failed approach of 'deterrence' counts.

Furthermore, in New Labour's 2003 manifesto the 'worker's party' shows it true colours when mentioning an adult mentors scheme, "…adult mentors…help them [young people] grow healthily and well into adulthood, avoiding drugs, alcohol and truancy, and so avoiding the trap of poverty." So New Labour's position is that it crime, drugs, alcohol etc that lead to poverty not vice versa.

A socialist alternative

So what is the SSP's alternative? As stated above while we should seek alternative forms of rehabilitation in general we should reject the Executive's parameters of the debate. What do young people need today in Scotland? Go to any youth husting or speak to young people on the street and you find the answer.

Presently there is age discrimination within the minimum wage and benefit system. If you are below 18 you receive no protection. If you are aged between 18 and 21 you receive a lower rate. There is no corresponding discrimination when it comes to paying for food, clothes, books, rent or bills. Such a situation prepares in the harshest way, young people for the perpetual debt they will face in life.

Even though this discrimination exists in young people's earnings they are still expected to pay tax. For those under 18 there is the anomaly that you can pay tax, marry, join the army and ride a motorcycle but not vote or stand in an election (people are barred from standing for office until they 21). It is no wonder when young people face these issues that they see themselves as second class citizens.

As already mentioned, the shortage of youth facilities in Scotland is a disgrace. Tory and Labour cutbacks have seen thriving youth centres closed to become the target of vandalism and disrepair. The development of youth centres, ran democratically by youth themselves would cut across a range of issues from having to hang around street corners to boredom.

Boredom represents a major problem for Scotland's youth. When combined with concerns about their future with Higher Education inaccessible, job opportunities being limited to low paid mundane work and the lack of affordable housing, many young people see only a bleak future ahead of them. Over the last 30 years suicide rates for young Scots has increased rapidly with it reaching 70% for males. More young men die through suicide then in road accidents. These list of monetary and social issues are never examined or recognised by an Executive seeking votes not solutions.

Not for one minute do we say that changing one of these issues will solve the problem. Setting up a youth centre will help but the is part of a larger process. An education or training would help but the poverty only allows a few to escape.

The opposition to the proposals is already developing. More youth advocacy groups have voiced disagreements. Academics have questioned the legality of some measures, SSY is launching a national campaign to build opposition and our MSP's are challenging the Executive's propaganda.

winning the next generation

Rosie Kane received criticism for opposing the Executive's use of the word 'ned' (non educated delinquent). Ministers were using a catch all phrase to describe a criminal element they could not define or provide evidence of, and therefore ended up tarring youth with the same brush. Just as the words 'junkie' and 'hooker' are offensive 'ned' is a degrading term. Many criticised Rosie for her stance saying she missed the bigger picture. The problem was that the media put our words out of context and ignoring what we said about poverty. As with the drugs campaign, the SSP must realise the media is not our ally and for the next four years each campaign we launch will face this distortion.

It is clear the ASBB has limited vision, reactionary steps and flawed arguments but the fundamental reason for SSY and SSP to oppose it is that we have no choice. If we are serious about reaching out to a huge layer of primarily working class youth who are victimised and alienated by a system which has consciously ignored them for more than a generation, we must oppose these attacks. We would not be worth the name 'socialist' if we did not stand with them.

We can expect to attract a significant number of recruits from the campaign but not an avalanche. Trust is a huge issue for young people when it comes to political parties who promise the world but deliver only blame. The SSP is ahead of the pack due to the principles and actions of Tommy Sheridan, Rosie Kane, SSY and the SSP. This campaign is part of a longer process of re-engaging with young people who in soon become not only voters but trade unionists and community activists.