"From this perspective, the Conservatives' new proposals suddenly seem significantly less radical..."
If the Conservatives’ plans for a National Youth Service and support for marginalised young people reveal anything it’s that politics has no memory. In this case not even a short-term memory. If it did then the Conservative party would recognise that intensive investment for youth engagement initiatives and preventing the social exclusion of young people are already parts of government strategy, under the combined package of the New Deal for Young People (NDYP), the Department for Children, Schools and Families’ Aiming high: a ten-year strategy for positive activities and the Cabinet Office’s Youth Taskforce Action Plan. Each of these programmes, due to outlive the election, make explicit their aims to make young people aware of their social responsibilities, prevent marginalising young people from policy-making, stimulate youth employment through welfare-to-work, and ensure that young people are drawn towards active participation in political decision-making. From this perspective, the Conservative’s new proposals suddenly seem significantly less radical.
More worryingly Cameron’s statement and the good response it received could also indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of youth work. As commentators such as Bernard Davies have argued voluntary youth organisations are driven by the aim to give young people real influence in decision-making, regardless of whether this will lead to visible social improvement. The purpose is to put young people in control within a setting where they can have real influence over what an organisation does, not to impress upon them the importance of political and civic engagement. It is the diversity of activities and potential to adapt to the needs and requirements of young people that give youth work its power, not its ability to bring together communities or imbue young people with a sense of social responsibility. The Conservatives' plans for a standardised format of volunteering and engagement overlooks this and promotes an organisational ideology which youth work does not fit into.
From a more cynical perspective, the electoral nod to the problem of youth apathy and marginalisation could be just that, a nod to a perennial problem which requires recognition but may never be resolved. Despite the amount of investment that youth support and engagement programmes have received – the NDYP for example is the largest of the New Deal programmes for social improvement – young people still remain socially marginalised and disengaged from formal politics. Cameron’s pledge to introduce further programmes to involve young people, while seemingly positive, could also be interpreted as tokenism and unlikely to reach young people whose interests do not conform with the Conservatives' model of voluntarism. Cameron’s National Youth Service, while only for short periods of time, operates along a particular model of community engagement. Such as singular approaches belies the diversity of the voluntary sector and the fact that the activities youth organisations engage in are responsive to what young people want to do. This situation is not necessarily something that will come as a surprise to members of the current youth service. Elections are a time when parties seek to promote themselves as capable of producing tangible goals and youth work does not necessarily do this. Although 250,000 young people have moved from Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) to NDYP welfare-to-work schemes since the programme was introduced in 1998, it is still unclear whether the implementation of these schemes has had any real effect on youth unemployment considering that of the 470,400 18-24 year olds currently claiming JSA, 50,000 made their first claim in the last year. In terms of reaching targets, programmes such as NDYP have failed but that does not mean they have not supported thousands of young people who would have otherwise been ignored or excluded from the labour market.
Ultimately the question is one of purpose. The purpose of initiatives such as the NDYP and the youth service as a whole is to tip the balance of power in the favour of young people, regardless of whether doing this will bring about the type of change policy assumes. Praise-worthy as this may be, it does not fit with the results-focused image the Conservative party seeks to project. Despite the support this morning’s announcement received from supposed advocates of youth engagement, the implementation of a National Youth Service has the potential to undermine youth organisations that do not conform to this model and impose a system which young people have no influence over.