A marketing device that uses crass assumptions to slice society into “generations” has leached into general conversation, transforming those assumptions into self-evident truths. Building on a long tradition of belittling and ridiculing old people, the right-wing press is full of insulting stereotypes based on age, scapegoating those born in the decade and a half following World War II for ruining life for those who came after them.
We can see why neoliberals who advocated the breakup, privatisation and commodification of public services might want to offload responsibility for the destruction of the economy and people’s lives, but tragically this one-dimensional analysis has gained a following among sections of the left.
Allowing ourselves to be divided along spurious lines is dangerous – and in this pandemic it has proved deadly.
To encourage people to think again, and to challenge ageist hostility, I proposed a motion that my Labour Party branch has passed overwhelmingly and which I hope will be supported by the Constituency Party as a whole.
Here is the motion, followed by the speech I made in proposing it.
Time to Fight Discrimination
Despite the experience, creativity and activism of many older Labour Party members, the Party has not been prominent in challenging discrimination and oppression based on age. Coronavirus has exposed and exacerbated inequalities but the Party has been slow to respond to a particularly deadly form of discrimination.
UK care homes have recorded 19,394 coronavirus deaths – 47% of the official total of 41,486 (both almost certainly underestimates). During the spring peak, old people were triaged out of hospital and into care homes without being tested. Many of them and their carers, disproportionately Black, ethnic minority and migrant workers, lost their lives.
We have known from early on that older people are particularly susceptible to Covid-19. But instead of that triggering extra protection, they were knowingly exposed to the virus. This, together with the straitened situation of care homes before the pandemic, should have been high on the left’s agenda.
However, while campaigning effectively on PPE, furlough payments and tenant protection, the Labour Party seemed paralysed about defending the rights of old people. This enabled the government to pursue a eugenicist policy, downplaying these deaths as “only” affecting “older people with underlying health conditions”.
As schools and workplaces reopen, older people, particularly from poorer and/or minority backgrounds are again disproportionately vulnerable. Many live in multigenerational households, caring for grandchildren, and where working family members will encounter the virus on public transport and workplaces.
Nevertheless, we increasingly hear socialists expressing a simplistic, almost conspiratorial, explanation of inequality, environmental destruction and economic decline as caused by “the older generation” rather than by capitalist structures and interests based on class, which affect all ages in different ways. Routine ridiculing, degradation and blaming of old people in the cultural mainstream and on social media has allowed the government to treat them as collateral damage as they prioritise the economy over lives.
St George’s Ward urges the Labour Party to challenge this ageist hostility. Instead, drawing on its fundamental aims of ending discrimination and oppression, it must actively challenge the pervading culture and ideology of ageism, within as well as beyond the Party.
One of the things I treasure most about being in this Labour Party branch is the mixture of generations – young adults through to people in their 90s who work collaboratively and in solidarity. This was so striking when we were out canvassing in the last two general elections, but that fruitful way of working is predicated on the fact that we don’t make assumptions about each other based on age or anything else.
Last weekend I heard David Willetts (not my favourite Tory, if we can grade Tories) on Radio 4 giving a generational analysis of the decline in the economy – admitting he has done well at the expense of the young. There are some key ingredients missing from this so-called analysis, most notably class, and I look forward to the day when rich, upper middle class people accept responsibility for impoverishing the working class.
This myth has permeated certain sections of the left, who divide up the world into so-called generations – something that’s usually done for marketing purposes – and stereotyping and blaming one particular age group for having grabbed everything and run off with it at the expense of the young. Like all myths, there’s a strand of truth in this one. My generation who grew up in the three decades after the Second World War did benefit from hard-won but functioning public services and an economy that wasn’t as completely skewed and distorted as it is now.
But you couldn’t grow up in those post-war decades and ignore the devastating impact of class on people’s lives, life chances and life expectancy. This is all being laid bare in this public health crisis but it’s not new. The miners of my generation whose industry, communities and lives were destroyed, the former chemical workers in the North East who are suffering an epidemic of depression, the shipbuilders, textile workers and car workers – they were the majority of baby boomers. They took nothing from anyone, and their children have inherited the devastation that was wreaked by Margaret Thatcher and the governments that followed her, whose politics was not a product of their ages.
There have been failures. Most older people failed to support the students in their struggle against student fees. It is equally true that young people have been pretty absent from the struggle against the privatisation of social care. The point is that neoliberalism – which turns services into commodities and us into customers – affects all of us. What has been striking, amongst other things, about the media in this pandemic, is the absence of the voices of both old people in care home and of children in schools. What we urgently need to understand is that our needs are not in competition but are linked, and the struggles to meet those needs are also linked.
We can see what happens if we don’t link those struggles: it’s deadly. The scandal of deaths of people being cared for in their own homes might turn out to overshadow even the devastation in in care homes. This could only happen in a society that treats human beings as commodities and where the media collude with the government by devaluing, ridiculing and silencing old people, leaving the government free to treat them as collateral damage in the battle to save the economy. And they haven’t even managed to do that!
One thing we can do in the Labour Party is to challenge the ideological devaluation of old people that allows governments of all ages but generally of one class to triage them out of having their needs met and abandoning them to a deadly virus.
Please support this motion.
Julia Bard, Islington North CLP
This blog first appeared on the author’s own website, which can be found here.