Radical youth practice, by its very nature, challenges the status quo. This can be made particularly difficult when the ‘status quo’ you’re targeting – the government – happens to be your source of funding. Every youth service that receives local authority, or other government funding, knows this all too well. It’s very difficult to challenge a local authority when they are your main funder, even if this is what ‘good’ advocacy requires.
While this conundrum has been around for ages, austerity and authoritarian politics has sharpened its edges. Firstly, austerity has had some pretty obvious immediate effects on youth services in the UK. Funding for work with young people has increasingly becoming hard to secure, with an estimated £387m cut from local authority’s budget for youth service between 2010/11 and 2015/16[i]. This means there’s an even bigger incentive ‘not to rock the boat’ if you’re funded by a local authority.
Secondly, a new form of politics that seems unwelcoming of criticism from charities and service providers is on the rise. For example, for larger services working on national issues there’s the new threat of the Lobbying Act, aka the ‘gagging act’. The act now means charities are meant to join an official register if they spend enough on activities deemed to be ‘political’, which is just enough to make many charities think twice about campaigning and speaking out. Greenpeace faltered under this act, and was fined £30,000 for campaigning around climate change[ii] (aka their mission). But it doesn’t take an act of parliament to chill public discourse, politicians seem willing to join in on their own; Child Poverty Action Group which was publicly accusing of behaving irresponsibly by a Minister for seeking a review of a piece of welfare reform[iii] (aka their mission). While neither provide direct services to young people, they highlight a rather chilling climate for healthy advocacy.
The ‘chill’ in local youth service, while less discussed, I think may be equally insidious. Anecdotally, I’ve also noticed a lot of stories of youth services, young people and youth practitioners being discouraged from engaging in any sort of advocacy that’s critical of government. Is there a great chill happening, that we’re just not talking about?
As I’ve written about previously, I’ve noticed a lot of youth services retreating from explicitly political practices, which I strongly suspect has a lot to do with not wanting to ‘rock the boat’ in this political climate that does not welcome challenge. As some young people described their experience of trying to contact their local mayor in a youth club:
Zerina, 16: Our youth club didn’t want us to do it (Write a letter to their mayor).
Meela: Oh yeah?
Zerina: They told us to like… if you want to do it, go do it in your time. So we got on time and we did it.
Tasnim, 17: And then we boycotted the youth clubs.
Zerina: Yeah, rebels!
Tasnim: They told us not to do it, but we wanted to do it so we just went and did it and then we left the youth club.
Zerina: Our own youth club didn’t support us. They took us to separate rooms and they told us if you want to carry on (and write to your mayor) the youth club can’t support you because we don’t support you, but if you want to do it… they just said you guys can’t do it.
I’ve also heard of youth services being so concerned about rocking the boat, that even council delivered services are self-censoring. More than one youth worker has told me about projects or art pieces that their ‘higher ups’ have instructed to be deleted or destroyed because the young producers spoke different truths … effectively ‘modern book burnings’ at the behest of youth services.
Funding can also used a panoptic tool to ensure youth practitioners ‘stay mum’. Many local authorities that commission youth services add ‘gagging clauses’ into their contracts, making an explicit condition of funding that providers cannot critique them. As one trustee for a youth club confidentially told me:
Our “borough commissions us to deliver part of their youth service strategy. Most of our funding comes from our local authority, and we’d be in really trouble if we lost it. Buried somewhere in our SLA is that we’re not allowed to use our funding to campaign against the local authority. We found that really challenging when the young people we worked with wanted to speak out about (a local issue). I was told they wanted to write a letter to the council, but we were pretty sure if we did that we’d end up worse for it, so we told our young people they had to send it themselves and leave the youth club out of it.”
But that’s the political climate we work in. Youth services are legitimately under threat, so perhaps this self-censoring and de-politicisation is a legitimate survival technique. However, this does not bode well for the capacity of radical youth practice, nor the genuine transformative capacity of youthful politics however. How can we support young people to critically engage with politics, if we can’t even do it ourselves?
I’d be really interested in understanding the scope and impact of this, but one of the effects of ‘the chill’ is that we probably can’t talk about it safely.