Speech to sixth formers at St. George’s School, Harpenden

It is great to be here with you at St. George’s School. I have heard so many wonderful things about this place so it is a real privilege to be here.

Thankyou for inviting me, to those who have organised today’s event – and for making me feel so welcome.

I hadn’t realised this school was planted from Keswick – a place very dear to my heart:

“We moved to the strange land of the South. We missed our excursions to the island, and our lake picnics (Lake Derwent Water). Instead of hills to climb and form teas, there were bicycle rides along green lanes, past rich cornfields into lovely villages, and we enjoyed the sometime shocked, but always interested attention, of the Hertfordshire folk who looked upon us no doubt as interesting specimens from the queer educational school up the road.”

More about Cumbria later.

The reason I am so excited about today is because of you. Because I know that each and every one of you is capable of changing the world. No not in an “I want to be Prime Minister in 20 years time” kind of way but in an “I can change the world today” way. You see, with the privilege of attending such a wonderful school in such a prosperous town that is so accessible to every opportunity that our capital city has to offer comes great responsibility.

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

Our modern world has a tendency to infantilise our young people – no more so than our politicians. Young people are yobs, they are irresponsible, fickle so we are told.

The Conservative MP for Broxbourne – not too far from here – Charles Walker, once said in a debate on Votes at 16:

They- that’s you – are not obsessed with getting the franchise. Sixteen and 17-year-olds want to chase girls, drink beer and have a good time. Let us stop accelerating the ageing process.

Our pensioners, on the other hand,  have earned their financial security through hard work and careful financial management – so we are told.

This, my friends, is why our current government have placed the burden of their austerity policies on your generation. Why you have been asked to pay higher tuition fees, why the Education Maintenance Allowance has been cut, why welfare benefits have been cut for young adults and why you have been priced out of the housing market for the foreseeable future. It is an explicit and widely-recognised political strategy of the Conservatives to chase the quote-unquote “grey vote” based on the fact that older voters are statistically more likely to vote than younger voters. Moreover, the current government’s plans on individual voter registration have removed over 100,000 young people from the electoral role.

Labour, recognising how hard things have been for young people in recent years, have put youth policy at the heart of our manifesto. Only today, Labour has announced that they will cut the maximum amount that students can be charged for tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000. This will be paid for by curtailing of pension tax reliefs for rich pensioners.

For those not going to university, Labour will guarantee a real, paid, starter job to every 18 to 24 year old who has been claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance for more than a year. These would be jobs people would be required to take, or else risk losing their benefits. We’ll pay for this with a tax on bank bonuses and by restricting pension tax relief for the wealthiest.

We haven’t always been so hard on our young people. As the apostle Paul said to Timothy:

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.

History is littered with young people who achieved great things. David was appointed king over Israel whilst still a young lad. Teenager Evan Roberts is believed to have initiated the Welsh Revival which completely transformed Wales in 1904. And every Remembrance Day we pay tribute to the young teenagers who gave their lives serving their country in two world wars – and in the many conflicts since. I believe that if we can only recapture that reverence and respect for your generation, we could achieve great things for our country.

And what does making a difference look like? It’s not about sending a postcard or an email – and I get hundreds – on your pet political subject. It’s about being the person who answers them. It’s not about moaning about the potholes on your road: It’s about being the person who mends them. And it’s not EVEN ONLY about being the Good Samaritan who picks up those left for dead on the Jericho Road but being the person who goes back again to sort out the streetlighting and the security to ensure no-one else gets mugged.

My belief that young people can change the world is at the absolute heart of my personal political story. For me, it all began in a Sunday School room in an isolated church on a windswept cliff edge overlooking the Irish Sea. With the support of the half a dozen lads in my Sunday School class – all between the ages of eleven and sixteen, we took on the reactionary elements in our church and completely transformed it. They led services, wrote plays and ran community events. The place came alive and when I left, the church went to the trouble of selling a church building to pay for a church youthworker to continue the work that I had started on a voluntary basis.

And having changed our church, we then turned our attention to our community. I became a school governor and a parish councillor – and then the BNP turned up. The British National Party – are a vicious and dangerous political organisation that were spreading fear in our local community – and with that same network of (largely) young people now spread far and wide, we were able to mobilize people to take them on and drive them out.

But it was through that campaign that I was confronted with the depth of problems facing our country – of poverty deeper than I had ever dared imagine. Whilst I was out leafleting in one particularly isolated community, I stumbled upon three little boys – they couldn’t have been more than seven. They wanted to know what I was doing so I gave them a leaflet which they took away. It talked about the racist policies of the BNP. I overheard them say to each other “so what’s tharabout” to which another replied “not being horrid to black people”. And then they burst out laughing. A few minutes later they came running back to me to shout racist abuse at me. Somewhat alarmed I said to them that I wasn’t foreign: I only lived down the road and that my family had lived in these parts for at least 300 years. “But yer talk funny” said one referring to my lack of regional dialect. “And yer hair”. Maybe my long dark hair made me look Mediterranean or perhaps Indian. Or maybe I’d caught a tan with all the campaigning.

I talked to these young lads at length. It came clear to me that they weren’t trying to be funny. They genuinely thought I was foreign. And they thought I was foreign because they hadn’t been very far – quite possible never outside their own isolated community.

That, my friends is what poverty does to young people. It breeds ignorance, fear and desperation. It creates fertile ground for poisonous – and dangerous politics to breed – and that puts the very foundations of our democracy in peril. You see, opportunity costs money – a car, a bus, a train fare. Aspiration requires decent schools – and a functioning local economy. And a functioning local economy requires infrastructure, investment and an economic strategy that doesn’t leave communities behind.

Some of you may be sitting here wondering what on earth some young kids 400 miles away has to do with you. I want to put it to you that it has EVERYTHING to do with you. You see, if we’re going to build a properly functioning economy then teenagers in Harpenden absolutely have to care about kids living at the other end of the country. Because the solutions to the challenges this country faces requires political will to make them happen.

I know that the 1980s are before your time, but back then, the strategy was “divide and rule”. Let’s stop subsidizing economies in the north, Wales and Scotland so that economies in London and Home Counties can prosper. That strategy created a lot of wealth but it left deep scars and a lot of intractable problems that we are still trying to solve today.

But those problems also affect Harpenden. You see, over the years, thousands of people like me have moved to Hertfordshire in search of a better life. That has put pressure on house prices and has priced your generation out of the housing market. It also crowds our trains, our schools and our hospitals. It has put us on a conveyor belt of problems that is almost impossible for us to get off. And as long as those in your parents’ generation continue to enjoy the benefits of ever-increasing house prices, there will lack the political will to change direction.

That is why it turns to your generation to take a stand. Everywhere we turn in our country, there are vested interests that hold us back from achieving our full potential as a nation – and prevent you from looking forward to a prosperous and successful future.

Those vested interests keep us playing this dog-eat-dog game of lower and lower real wages paying for smaller and smaller homes in the same corner of the country. It does not need to be this way. If we rebuild our whole economy across the entire country, we diversify opportunities. Harpenden youngsters don’t only need to aspire to work in the City but in Middlesbrough, Lancaster or Cornwall. They could aspire to more than a 500k tiny Victorian terrace but an acre of land, views of the hills and room for a pony. Building an economy that helps small children in Cumbria is perhaps the best way to build a future for Harpenden’s teenagers. Sometimes the most effective form of selfish individualism is in fact, altruism.

In the words of Dr. Watts,

“A school does not exist to send out men and women solely to play a part in life whereby they achieve a competence and honourable life of useful work, but it exists to send out for posterity and for their own generation, men and women who by their character shall leave the society in which they live, the better for their presence and hence the world much nearer the Kingdom.”