John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for April, 2011

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For a generation of young Poles, travelling abroad is still often the only option

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

In the town of Limanowa, teenagers are pessimistic about their prospects and know they may well have to seek work elsewhere

It’s 4pm, and the town of Limanowa is being battered by a sudden downpour. In the main square, young people are huddled in shop doorways in twos and threes. Among their number is a 21-year-old who tells me his name is Dominik, clad in the obligatory hooded top and baseball cap, tugging on a cigarette, doing his best James Dean, and surveying the scene with a kind of low-level contempt.

“I’ll be happy to get out of here as soon as possible,” he says. “There’s nothing here: to get a job, you have to leave.” What job does he fancy doing? “Any job,” he retorts.

He’s been back here for a year after a spell working in Italy, where he plans to soon return, maybe after trying his luck in Warsaw. His speciality is building work, and the local job market simply doesn’t pay: he says he’d get 50 Polish zlotys (PLN) an hour in Italy, PLN 24 an hour in Warsaw, and only eight if he stays here – with the proviso that finding even a low-paid job will probably be difficult.

Such is the kind of blunt arithmetic that defines the lives of thousands of young Poles: their generation may be hailed for being so worldly and well-travelled, but those qualities are often traceable not to joyous wanderlust, but a deep pessimism about the prospects of towns like this.

Limanowa, to be fair, is hardly a social hell. Around 60 miles south of Krakow, most of the way to the border with Slovakia, it sits in the Beskid Wyspowy, a range of hills that attract hikers and skiers, and the Alp-like Tatra mountains are not far away. The population is around 15,000, and compared with the gap-toothed high streets of so many comparable British towns, its centre seems relatively vibrant, an embodiment of that brazen post-communist capitalism whereby every available surface is plastered with an advert, and the more blatant the sales pitch, the better.

On the main road here, the hills – which, to my eyes, half-suggest the landscape of rural south Wales – are peppered with impressively large houses, which locals say are often paid for using money sent home from young relatives working abroad.

Underneath it all, however, is a story of ongoing hard times. Poland may have avoided a recession, but the unemployment rate in Limanowa county is 20%, a third of people who can’t find a job are under 25, and more than half are under 35 (nationally, youth unemployment stands at 23%, five points higher than in the UK).

Each winter, according to local officials, there is a sudden bulge in the number of young locals on benefits, thanks to an influx of people returning to Poland after working abroad. Back in the communist era, the local economy was swollen by the imperative to make sure everyone was in work: the local enterprises included a food-processing plant, and a factory that made industrial metering equipment. They’re both still here, but their payrolls are a tiny fraction of their former size, and local family-run farms don’t bring in enough money to keep their owners in full-time work, let alone anyone else.

What with scores of hiking trails and villages smattered with ski-lifts, there could conceivably be a tourist economy here. There’s a freshly launched local enterprise zone, which has attracted a handful of small businesses, and in April, a new call centre will open, giving work to around 40 people. But all told, this is a case study in one big aspect of Poland’s rising levels of inequality: the increasing gap between often thriving urban areas, and its rural backwaters.

“We have human capital: people who want to work,” says 35-year-old Marek Mlynarczyk, the director of Limanowa’s employment agency. “But there’s not enough investment.” To make things even more difficult, the budget for his agency’s work, he tells me, has just been cut by almost 65%.

The town’s schools reflect the general sense of life being lived in trying circumstances. Many Poles I meet mention a latent national anxiety about the under-funding of education, and you can see why: whereas plenty of British schools have long been modernised and equipped with mountains of IT, Limanowa’s remind me of the shabby-looking place I went to during the depths of the Thatcher years. There is an all-pervading smell of overcooked vegetables, and everything could do with a fresh coat of paint – but there again, at the Josef Pilsudski school (named after the legendary politician who brought Poland back into being after the first world war), a group of eight students aged between 17 and 18 are sparkiness and confidence incarnate.

After Polish teenagers have finished at gimnazjum schools – similar to British comprehensives – at the age of 15, they take one of four paths. There are “basic” vocational schools, lyceums aimed at readying their students for university, and two types of institution that sit somewhere in between: “vocational secondary” and “technical” schools. These eight are beneficiaries of the first type of institution, and all able to speak good English: learning it is compulsory for all secondary school students, and if you aim at working in any remotely high-end occupation, it’s a must.

On the wall of the classroom where we talk is a handmade poster that reduces the UK’s attractions to Windsor Castle, the Tower of London, York Minster, Stonehenge – and, for some reason, Harrods. No one, however, is minded to come and work in the UK; instead, people mention Italy, Austria, and, in the case of 18-year-old Lucjan Sobczak, Germany, whose labour market will be open to Poles as of 1 May.

“I went there three years ago,” he says. “There are jobs there, and the life-level is high, so it’s a country I like. It’s clean, not like here in Poland. You can see how it is here in Limanowa: there’s a lot of rubbish in the streets.”

What about working in the UK? “We associate the UK with sin,” he says. A brief exchange with the Guardian’s interpreter ascertains that he actually means “sinks”, by which he means washing-up jobs, and menial work in general. “We’re studying to get better jobs than that,” he says, “so we’ll go somewhere else.”

Around half of them want to eventually return to their home country to pursue careers as lawyers; a couple of others say they would eventually like to work as translators.

I talk to them for just under an hour, and the conversation is fascinating, pointing up the fact that they’re part of a generation caught between Poland’s long-standing Catholic conservatism, and a more liberal mindset fostered by increasing links with the rest of Europe.

Seven of them go to church each Sunday, though at least one confesses that it’s largely due to parental pressure, and they all concur that among their contemporaries, religious observance is on the wane. They unanimously endorse Poland’s strict abortion laws (it’s permitted only in cases of rape, when the mother’s life is threatened, or if the foetus is seriously abnormal), but are divided 50/50 on the idea of allowing gay marriage: its most vehement opponent today is Maciej Buklanda, 18, whose long hair and grunge-esque casualwear do not quite chime with his illiberal opinions. “It’s nonsense,” he half spits. “I don’t believe in love between people of the same sex.”

This riles Karolina Kowalczyk, 18, no end. “What do you mean?” she says. “If they want to, they should be able to. It’s none of my business. I don’t want to look at it … but it’s not an illness, or something like that. If a man loves another man, that’s up to him.” Politicians, they reckon, are a distant, irritating presence, guilty of “just arguing with each other” and feathering their own nests: they all say they’ll probably vote at the next election, but seem to have no idea of which candidate to choose.

They mention the ubiquity of the Polish black market, and cash-in-hand jobs. There is a surge of chat about graduate unemployment, an increasing problem in a country in which almost half of young people go to university, and there is unease about whether higher education meets the country’s economic needs. In today’s edition of the regional newspaper Dziennik Polski, there’s a piece about all this, headlined: “Young, frustrated, unemployed.”

When I ask them to define success, there are shades of an article I’ve brought with me, in which a Polish social psychologist rather sniffily sums up young Poles as “predominantly materialistic hedonists”. “You have to have a lot of money,” says Lucjan. “It’s not just about that, but if you’re poor, you’re not successful.”

Karolina dispenses an answer that ends with the possibility of “some of my dreams coming true”, and I wonder: is she optimistic about that happening? “I’m not optimistic at all,” she says.

“Not in Poland, anyway,” adds a voice at the back, grimly.

Round the corner is the Zespół Szkół Ogólnokształcacych i Zawodowych, a vocational secondary school which is privately owned and run, but publicly funded. We’re here to talk to an IT class; rather disconcertingly, today’s lesson is focused on how to work a till, a dozen or so of which are arranged around the desks. The entire class is female; their ambitions seem much more uncertain than in the last school, they speak to me in Polish rather than English, and only half say they aim to go to university.

But much the same themes recur. All of them go to church. They’re also unanimously anti-abortion, whereas gay marriage splits them in half (with the caveat that even for those in favour, gay adoption is a very problematic idea). The mention of politics draws a series of bemused blanks. Six out of eight have siblings working abroad, and when I ask if they’re minded to follow their example, the usual flurry of countries comes back in a flash: Germany, Austria, Sweden, even Brazil.

One question demands to be asked: what would have to change, to keep their generation not just in Limanowa, but in Poland? They mention what they understand as middling monthly earnings among the young adults they know – only PLN 1,500. “We need more jobs,” says Marzena Banach, 18. “And fair pay. People here work, but they don’t get the pay they deserve. It’s that simple.”

John Harris

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Why Clarkson and co are puerile and proud of it | John Harris

Friday, April 1st, 2011

The rise of child-men like David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson suggests an alarming shift in modern masculinity

Call it “preadulthood”: the period between late adolescence and one’s late 30s, when there are far more questions than answers. Jobs and relationships may only be fleeting. Life, particularly for those passing through higher education or in the midst of it, will appear to brim with choice and freedom – but eventually feel weighted with angst, exhaustion, and the realisation that any halfway livable existence should be altogether more settled. I should know: it’s not that long since I left.

Another thought: could women be better at navigating this phase than men? Bring in a few modern archetypes, and see why this might hold true. While no end of cultural noise is devoted to twenty- and thirtysomething career women, making haste in case motherhood brings things to a halt, how is it that the most common image of their male contemporaries tends to be silliness, ineptitude and too much booze?

Higher female attainment at school is traditionally put down to girls maturing more quickly than boys, with the gap closing by university. Not so: in higher education there have long been concerns about a growing gender difference reflected in participation rates and finals results (men are more likely to get 2:2s and thirds). At the last count, 11% of young women graduates had failed to find a job, and 17% of men. The chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters credits women with being “more mature and focused”; by contrast, to quote a US writer, might it be that millions of young men have yet to be more than “giant frat boys, maladroit geeks, or unwashed slackers”?

Those words, along with the term “preadulthood”, come from a new book called Manning Up, subtitled “How the rise of women has turned men into boys”, by the conservative polemicist Kay S Hymowitz. US publishing seems to produce these breathlessly written, often maddening texts by the score. But this one picks apart something that has been bugging me for years: a suspicion that my generation blazed a trail for a newly puerile kind of masculinity that has been locked into millions of lives.

I hit my 20s as preadulthood’s basics were being identified, and so-called laddism was at its peak. I recognise Hymowitz’s picture of the Anglo-American culture it spawned: “child-man” icons such as Adam Sandler and Owen Wilson, and male-fronted TV shows – Top Gear, obviously – that “wink at contemporary man’s shallowness and puerility, as if the dudes know full well just how ridiculous they are”.

Reading her book, I even started to wonder if the failure of modern male politicians to exude the authority of their predecessors might be down to the malaise she describes: witness the noticeable decline in the tone of PMQs once David Cameron got involved – usually put down to his Etonian “Flashman” tendencies, though perhaps just as traceable to a male generation for whom crass mockery is much more ingrained than elegant repartee.

That said, I’m not sure about her implication that inside every man is a semi-feral ubermensch who needs an outlet; better, surely, to encourage an updated version of the New Man wiped out in the backlash against the right-on 1980s. Though she cites evidence that female graduates are out-earning male contemporaries in some US cities (but not, it has to be said, in the UK), her picture of an insurgent postfeminist sisterhood bumps up against the gender pay gap, and the inability of most industrial economies to know what to do about motherhood. But there is something in her conviction that, among the vociferous middle class at least, one result of the embrace of female empowerment has been a dangerous downgrading of men, particularly when it comes to the importance of fatherhood.

From that, a lot follows. If you’re writing dads out of the script via blithe claims that their role is overrated and the celebration of reproductive independence (for the rich, at least), don’t be surprised if educated male thirtysomethings remain stubbornly dissolute and commitment-phobic, and at the more difficult edges of society you sow chaos. It’s also right to wonder about the pernicious effects of TV, movies and more, and what our public-service broadcaster is doing funding the rise and rise of Clarkson and co; right too, perhaps, to fear the consequences of “child-men” not just on our screens, but in power.

This is something Hymowitz doesn’t consider: gender inequalities staying much the same, and made more toxic by the arrival of a new male elite emerging from extended adolescence even less qualified to lord it around than its predecessors. In fact, on current evidence, might we be there already?

John Harris

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Five ways Labour can fight back | John Harris

Friday, April 1st, 2011

Ed Miliband must free Labour from the ‘what-would-you-cut’ narrative and start addressing the party’s basic predicament

Ed Miliband’s appearance on Thursday’s Today programme was no repeat of the snarl-up that happened last November, when John Humphrys skewered him over the precise identity of the squeezed middle. He emerged with scratches rather than wounds, but his encounter with Evan Davis still pointed up some worrying Labour weaknesses. They’re still prisoners of the what-would-you-cut narrative, and short on convincing answers; questions about his and the party’s essential purpose continue to draw unconvincing answers (enough stuff about “getting on” already – as one acquaintance said to me soon after: “On what? The bus? Norman Tebbit’s bike?”).

At the launch of Labour’s local election campaign not long afterwards, Miliband gave a good speech. As Allegra Stratton wrote last week, he now has three big themes he’s intent on hammering: the rising cost of living and its effects on even the supposedly affluent; the prospect of the next generation failing to do better than their parents’ (summed up in the slightly clunky idea of the “British promise”); and the importance of strong communities. All these need developing, and fast: moreover, it would be good to hear some of these themes being referenced by Labour frontbenchers.

But in terms of Labour’s basic predicament, that is only a small part of the picture. So, by way of starting a conversation, here are five pressing points:

1) The argument about the deficit has to begin with growth

Miliband came to this disappointingly late in his Today interview. It’s not only the nub of the “too far, too fast” case against the government, but the only way Labour can even start to break out of all those dead-ended exchanges about how many police/teachers/whatever they’d cut. The top line of any Labour person’s pitch on the public finances has to be the prospect of demand being so sucked out of the economy – and remember, for the 675th time, 95% of the cuts have yet to bite – that the government will imperil its own deficit-reducing raison d’etre. In other words, in terms of emphasis, Labour needs to revive the kind of arguments Ed Balls was making in last summer’s leadership campaign. The economy is stalling; people see it every day on gap-toothed high streets, and in empty situations-vacant columns, and it is more than likely to get worse. This, not specious arguments about how many public employees should be made redundant, is where the most urgent debate ought to be.

2) It’s also about what we value

Again, this was there in the Today interview, but not put as boldly as it should have been – though there was better stuff in the launch speech. The government’s monomania about cuts threatens aspects of society that are precious not on account of political theory, but their central place in millions and millions of lives. This argument will take you straight to the heart of the real middle England, as opposed to the fantastical metropolitan version (where the whole of the south of England looks like Weybridge and anyone halfway successful leaves the public sector well alone), believed by far too many Labour people. It’s a quote I’ve used a lot, but try this very prescient thought, written by the academic Ross McKibbin in 1999: “[Labour] would do well to reject the view that the public sector is in some way a proletarian thing, something Middle England does not like. If anything, the reverse is true. The middle classes make more use of the NHS, public transport, public libraries, local swimming pools, public parks and their right to state welfare than anyone else.”

3) The coalition’s position on 50p tax is an open goal

Whenever a microphone is put in front of a Labour politician, one phrase should pass their lips within seconds: inequality of sacrifice. Forget the dried-up accusation that opening up a debate about all this is to somehow risk class war; it’s a simple, and very British, argument about fairness. Towards the end of his time in office, in one of his few acts of clear thinking, Gordon Brown saw all this coming, and in keeping with his religious belief in “dividing lines”, came up with the new top rate of tax, thereby putting Labour on the right side. Now, the government makes noises about its imminent demise. In the context of, say, news about the boss of Lloyd’s £21m bonus, this creates a no-brainer political opportunity, largely ignored because too many senior Labour people think a tax on 1% of incomes somehow worries the “aspirational”. It doesn’t: what incenses the majority of Britons is the spectacle of so many people getting away with murder (and note: contrary to all those squeals about 50p being a revenue-raising dud, it appears to work).

4) What’s your vision?

The period when it’s easy to condemn the coalition as hatchet-wielding brutes will eventually pass. There is some fascinating, creative thinking going on at the highest levels of government, and the Lib Dems have very little to do with it. Read senior Tory adviser Rohan Silva paying tribute to EF Schumacher in last Sunday’s Observer, or consider the implications of the localism bill: whether this stuff will make it through the Whitehall mincer, or survive the opposition of the Tories’ more unreconstructed elements, is a moot point – but it doesn’t detract from where it might lead: free-market economics with a newly human face, in essence. As things stand, the Labour party has woefully little by way of a response, apart from the vague idea that some of it may not work. This is not nearly good enough. What is the good society? How will people’s lives differ if it comes to pass? What has Labour got to say about the distribution of power, and control? In the conference speech Miliband made immediately after becoming leader, there were promising passages about the decline of our towns and cities, “life beyond the bottom line” and more. This needs developing: by 2014, it may well be where the action is.

5) Winning isn’t enough

Labour will do well in the local elections. Its poll rating isn’t bad at all. It was good to see all those people marching last Saturday, and a Labour leader addressing them. Things are about to get even grimmer, both economically and socially. But as Labour people are currently fond of reminding us, this is precisely what happened in the early 1980s. And remember how they turned out.

John Harris

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