Ben Towse, NCAFC LGBTQ caucus
Content note – this article discusses homophobic and transphobic intolerance and abuse within families
Liam Byrne, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, last week reiterated his party’s intention to deny 18-21 year olds access to Jobseekers Allowance (JSA). In his essay on post-16 education and training policy, “Robbins Rebooted”, he wrote that instead, young people out of work or education should be given a “Youth Training Allowance”, which would be means-tested based on their parents’ income, and which would be taken away if they did not accept training programmes and stay in them.
Like the Tories’ previous attempts to cut housing benefit to under-25s – which Byrne and Labour themselves criticised – this is a foul assault on all young people. Such policies blame young workers for their poverty and mass unemployment: as if by bullying us into “rolling up our sleeves” and getting stuck in, decently-paid jobs will magically appear for us to fill. But even more perniciously, because these policies are founded in the assumption that young adults should remain dependent on their families, they threaten particularly acute consequences for LGBTQ youth, among others. Labour is not only abdicating, once again, its supposed role as champion of the working class, but also its claim to a positive record on LGBTQ liberation.
The assumption that parents will step in to support young adults is all very well for those fortunate enough to come from families that are financially secure and accepting of their childrens’ identities and lives. But many families, for all sorts of reasons, either refuse to support their children, or make their support conditional upon their own views of who their children should be or how they should live their lives. This is not to mention those simply unable to supply the necessary level of support; some always fall through the gaps in means-testing systems. For LGBTQ young people hiding their sexuality or gender identity from intolerant families, some in fear for their safety, these policies mean prolonging the pain of being trapped in the family home. And many young people who are out of the closet are subject to intolerance and abuse, or are simply prevented from living as who they are. Financial dependence is frequently used as a tool by abusers to control their victims and prevent them taking action or leaving. Easy availability of financial independence from the family is a key class struggle demand for LGBTQ liberation.
Labour’s policy is based on proposals from the “progressive” IPPR think-tank, which says the system should mirror means-tested access to undergraduate maintenance. That system supposedly allows students who cannot rely on support from their parents to be recognised as estranged and funded as independent. However, to do this you have to convince Student Finance – and presumably in future your Jobcentre – that you are completely estranged from your parents and have been for some time. The burden of proof is, of course, entirely on the applicant (proving such claims can be difficult to do and a distressing process in itself), and if recent history is any indicator, harsh targets for cuts will be set that push assessors to reject the claimant. Moreover, none of this is any help to those who are in the closet, still living with intolerant families or even just keeping in touch: even unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation have been held against applicants. In this way, the system demands that young LGBTQ people struggling with their families, or even just individual family members, completely give up on their entire families and cut them out. A bitter irony, given the conservative moralising of the major political parties about the importance of the family unit.
And if young people don’t comply with the training “offered” to them, they will be cut off entirely. There is no guarantee that what’s provided will be remotely useful or relevant to each individual forced into it, and as with other benefits sanctions this is yet another example in which something painted as an opportunity becomes a moralistic stick with which to beat disadvantaged people, or cut them off to save money. Moreover, the IPPR proposals would fund this involuntary training by “redirecting” up to £1.5 billion from skills and apprenticeships for older adults: voluntary opportunities are to be raided to fund involuntary programmes! Parents’ access to Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit will also be cut back from age 20 to school-leaving age, so they will be expected to support their adult children while having the means to do so removed.
Byrne only mentions JSA and doesn’t say whether Labour plans also to cut almost all young peoples’ access to Employment & Support Allowance, which the IPPR does advocate as part of the same reform. ESA supports those unable to work due to illness or disability*. Replacing it with a system that demands they “take responsibility” for training their way into work or lose the support they need to survive is dangerous and cruel, and in many cases nonsensically so.
The ruling class’ media and politicians rail against a “culture of entitlement” as they launch these attacks. The members of that same ruling class live lives of incredibly disproportionate privilege and luxury. The exploited working class of our world produces more than enough wealth for every human being on the planet to exist very comfortably. So it is not too demanding, but extremely modest to feel entitled, at minimum, to whatever share of that wealth is needed for us to live decently, and with the liberty to be who we want and live as we wish.
That means, from at least age 16, living stipends for every student, living wages for every worker, and full living benefits for those not in work or education.
Student and trade unions, left activist organisations, and advocacy groups like Stonewall – have a responsibility to take up this struggle. We should fight tooth and nail everyone pushing them, but Labour leaders who claim to stand for us, and who are theoretically accountable to the labour movement, must in particular be made to feel the weight of our anger and whatever pressure we can bring to bear.
*[CORRECTION: ESA is not only for those unable to work, but also those with a limited ability to work]