Ann Czernik asks why wealthy Harrogate has welcomed the new Jarrow march with as much enthusiasm as their 1936 forebears
When the Jarrow marchers arrived in Harrogate 75 years ago it was reported that they were welcomed “like a relief column raising a siege.”
To the sound of a mouth organ, exhausted but exhilarated men brought a message from Tyneside, “Send us work.”
Today, with nearly a million 16 to 24-year-olds out of work, disillusioned and demoralised young people are following in their forebears’ footsteps.
In Yorkshire support for the 330-mile march has come from unexpected places. The Conservative mayor of Harrogate welcomed the marchers to the town. The Diocese of Ripon staged a lunch and the most senior members of the clergy and the Archdeacon of Leeds met the marchers. Old ladies borrowed a tenner from a neighbour to donate to the march, community businesses provided catering, while churches provided beds for the night. Local trade union branches donated financial and organisational support.
A broad cross-section of the real “big society” – anti-cuts campaigners, parents and schoolkids – recognised the truth in organiser Paul Callanan’s declaration. “We’ve had enough and we know it doesn’t need to be this way.”
The ruling coalition is far removed from the fear, desperation, anger and frustration felt by young people.
This distance was laid bare during the TUC March For the Alternative at the Tory conference in Manchester when Conservative MP for Horsforth Stuart Andrew foolishly chose to cut through protesters bleeding anger and despair – health workers, BAE and Bombardier workers, teachers, police officers and young people who don’t know what it’s like to work because there is no place for unskilled inexperienced workers in a marketplace flooded by an older, qualified labour force.
Angry young people from all over the country surrounded the MP demanding answers.
Andrew escaped unharmed after the police intervened but he was clearly shaken by the confrontation.
Young Tories such as Emma Carr, the director of Conservative-backed Young Briton Foundation, share his detachment from the real issues facing Britain’s youth.
Carr left university with a degree in politics and a fast-track ticket to Tory supremacy. Like the government she dangerously underestimates her generation’s anger about the current economic crisis, its causes and the solutions.
“Maybe I’ve missed the point but trying to compare the economic depression of the 1930s to the recession of the last few years is all in very bad taste,” she wrote recently.
But 17-year-old Lizi Grey, whose grandfather was Jarrowman Michael McLaughlin, is in no doubt.
“My granddad would be proud to see me on the march. But he would be desperately sad to know that after all these years we have to do it all over again.
“We are just like he was. We feel we are being abandoned and we’re getting desperate.”
There are now thousands of young people who, like Callanan, ask “why should bankers get millions in bonuses while a measly £30 per week for college students is branded unaffordable?
“Keeping our heads down and working hard won’t save us from the onslaught we’re facing at the moment – it won’t be enough to secure us a decent future,” he says.
“If that’s what we want then we have only one option – fighting back!”
The new marchers represent a zombie generation – so-called because they are living a half life. They are all in this mess together. So a girl from a working-class background in Jarrow shares the sentiments of a graduate from well-heeled Harrogate.
Tim, who graduated two years ago, explains that he supports the march because at the age of 26, having worked hard, studied hard and filled his CV with “extracurricular” voluntary work, he has no job, no home and is weighed down with student debt.
Harrogate is an affluent town. Over 80 per cent of its school leavers go on to higher education. But 30 per cent of the town’s benefit claimants are under 25.
“I was always told if you wanted to do anything, you needed to go and get a degree,” says Tim.
“So I’ve spent many years focusing on my studies working hard and getting qualified, getting all this extracurricular stuff because that is what I was advised to do.
“Now it just seems like maybe a better idea instead of coming out with all this debt would’ve been to have taken an apprenticeship and worked my way up.
“I wouldn’t have all this debt and I would have progressed.”
Tim returned from Nottingham to find that most of his friends have left to find work.
“I was in a group of six close friends who met at school,” he says.
“One lives and works in Birmingham, one had to go abroad to get some work, my other best friend is in London, one friend in the area does not have a job.
“Nobody lives and works around here.”
Tim wonders: “There is that doubt that maybe I should have taken that other route. Have I been misadvised? Was I given the wrong information?”
In truth Harrogate is a fiscal mirage. The town glistens with apparent wealth.
The middle classes move to Harrogate when they can afford to buy into the fiction of the genteel Victorian backwater or to retire comfortably.
But, like sulphur wells that brought visitors to the town in the 19th century, the local economy has run dry.
The retail trade is suffering, while the low-paid local workers who support the town’s key tourism industry are confronted by an ever-widening gap between wealth and poverty.
On Saturdays teenagers gather in the town centre because they can’t even find part-time work.
Youth unemployment affects the entire community. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how much experience you have or how talented you are if the jobs don’t exist.
In Harrogate, cleaners, gardeners and unskilled workers are being replaced by jobless graduates forced to return to the family home. Parents are struggling to meet colossal mortgage payments and are looking to make savings where they can.
Repossessions have increased rapidly in North Yorkshire as the recession bites. Families are being ripped apart by economic migration as young and old have to find work wherever they can.
Young people are marching 330 miles today because the routes to a better life, to a safe and secure existence, are blocked.
The withdrawal of education maintenance allowance, increased university fees, the prohibitive cost of housing, lack of job opportunities and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor have produced a political intensity that has reached the Tory heartlands.
Harrogate, unlike the marchers, is only beginning to realise what lies ahead.
One well-dressed middle-class woman reading one of the marchers’ leaflets remarks: “You don’t realise how many people feel the same way.”
God help the Tories when they do.