Boys in the Hoodies

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New Labour and the fashion police should have more respect for the young.

It's remarkable how full of ideas New Labour suddenly is immediately after an election. Just imagine, if only they'd come up with these popular progressive policies to dump nuclear waste throughout the country and vastly extend PFI profiteering in April how well it would have gone down with the electorate.

The most nasty recent example of New Labour's unremitting two fingers to working class people is Hazel Blears' opinion that 'respect' should be drummed into the nation's youth by dressing them up like Guantanamo Bay detainees and forcing them to work for nothing in US-style chain gangs. Quite where indentured servitude fits into the 'forward not back' mantra is difficult to say, but it says a lot about the government's real opinion of our 'young country'.

On the one hand, teenagers and young adults are the focus of a remarkable amount of corporate attention. Despite Britain's ageing population, advertisers relentlessly target the demographic known to have the greatest disposable income. Sex, violence and knowing irony are ubiquitous ingredients in this strategy, in which 'the next big things' in computer upgrades, music, movie stars and fashion succeed each other with ever greater speed.

Young people, struggling to find an identity, can be easy prey for the corporate vultures. They are sold images of independence, acceptance, success and power through consumption. Even the 'no logo' backlash can be repackaged and sold back to them, Avril Lavigne or Marilyn Manson style, unless their beef goes beyond the music and the clothes.

Advertisers are happy to see twenty-somethings buy into these crazes, but the social pressures which have created a kind of extended adolescence (while simultaneously undermining it) go much deeper. Changing living patterns are a major factor. Career concerns, birth control and the weakening ideological grip of the 'traditional family' mean that most people now marry (or increasingly cohabit) later, if at all. And student debts increase the need for young adults to continue living with their parents well into their twenties: 58 percent of men and 39 percent of women aged 20 to 24 now do so.

This trend is reinforced by the spiralling cost of getting on the housing ladder. A survey by MarketPlace last year showed that a quarter of first time buyers take four to six years to save for their first property. The Social Trends survey shows that the average house price was almost £155,500 in 2003, a 16 percent increase on the previous year. Renting is not a particularly attractive alternative - private sector rent has doubled (after housing benefit) in the last ten years, while local authority rent has increased by 47 percent.

Where do the hoodie wearers fit into this picture? As a symbol of society's ambivalent attitude towards youth - on the one hand, something to be lauded, imitated and sold, on the other, something to be feared and scapegoated.

The potential to whip up fear is nothing new. From teddy boys' quiffs through punk Doc Martens, there is a long history of associating youth fashion with gang culture and crime. 'The morals of children are ten times worse than formerly,' said one politician - Lord Ashley in 1823.

In fact the number of ten to 17 year olds convicted or cautioned fell by nearly 26 percent between 1992 and 2002. Since then the number of young offenders has further decreased - but three quarters of people asked believe that the numbers have gone up. The government drive against 'anti-social behaviour' has stoked this disproportionate fear. Its classification of this phenomenon - acts likely to cause 'harassment, alarm, or distress to one or more persons not in the same household' - is so broad as to be meaningless. Personally I'm alarmed that John Prescott was so distressed by his alleged confrontation with hoodie-wearers that he was unsure whether it happened two weeks or a year ago. I also think Tony Blair's statement that people are 'rightly fed up with street corner and shopping centre thugs' was designed to prompt police harassment. And the chain gang plans of Hazel Blears are perhaps the most anti-social proposal yet. Who was it that argued that 'work makes you free'?

It's worth remembering how this whole furore began. In a shrewd piece of marketing, a shopping centre in Kent got its name emblazoned across the media by banning hoodies and baseball caps - though not its shops from selling them. The government then weighed in with its 'respect' agenda, which clearly for it is synonymous with 'deference' and 'conformity'- the irony being that wearing a hoodie is itself a form of conformity. It's mainly worn by young men who want both to identify with hip-hop culture and also - as the main victims of youth violence - to blend in with their peers.

The government sees hoodies and caps as an affront to its surveillance culture. We're all meant to be constantly available for monitoring on the ever-present CCTV cameras. To want privacy, anonymity, is inherently suspicious, perhaps criminal. Hence the need to 'stop and search' anyone wearing such clothes which, handily for the fashion police, are often worn by young black men. To be stuck on a street corner is equally unacceptable. They should be out doing something 'useful', preferably consuming in a privatised space where they can be observed and regulated.

And if they choose something else? If under pressure from poverty, unemployment, decaying social provision and school exclusion (three times the rate among black Caribbean pupils compared to whites) they 'cause alarm' by often doing nothing more than standing in groups talking? If we have created a society so scared of its own shadow, so bereft of intergenerational solidarity, is that their problem? Or is it ours?

As I approach 26, my young person's railcard will soon be but a distant memory, so I think it's time to disavow any claims to be able to speak for 'the youth' (a horrible phrase that no one young actually uses). Parts of the left have an unfortunate habit of hanging around in student politics for decades or colonising 'youth' union caucuses or campaigns, which I have no intention of doing. In any case, the students who struck from school over that most anti-social of wars don't need us to talk for them. They have their own voice.

They need only our solidarity, our support and, yes, our respect.