Why talking up youth of today will win votes
JACK McCONNELL won the May elections with a manifesto promising war on vandals, tearaways and nuisance neighbours. He saw his tough talk on anti-social behaviour as a positive response to the complaints he heard from ordinary people across Scotland.
And now the promised war has been officially declared with a bill to allow electronic tagging of under-16s, ban the sale of spray paint to youngsters, introduce fixed fines for minor offences and the threat of jail for parents who fail to comply with parenting orders.
But, despite the apparent populist appeal, the plans have not gone down well with everyone - and Labour’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are already planning a series of amendments to the legislation when it starts making its way through the Scottish Parliament.
They are unhappy about new powers to disperse groups of people who gather in the street - powers the police themselves have criticised; they are concerned about the extension of tagging powers; and they say there should be more emphasis on prevention rather than punishment.
Most of the attention at last weekend’s Lib Dem autumn conference focused on leader Charles Kennedy’s first public pronouncement on Michael Howard as the new Tory leader.
But anyone listening to the debate on young people would have heard some passionate attacks on the rhetoric which forms a crucial part of Mr McConnell’s war on anti-social behaviour.
Activist Jane-Claire Judson claimed the anti-social behaviour bill read like an anti-youth manifesto. And she told delegates: "There is a myth that must be exploded, that young people are the scourge of society and hell-bent on creating havoc whenever the opportunity arises."
Another delegate, Trevor Escott, pointed out several organisations working with youngsters had misgivings about the measures, including the Prince’s Trust, which believed anti-social behaviour orders could "criminalise" youngsters at an early age for minor offences.
"With Jack McConnell’s outlook, no wonder a third of young people want to leave Scotland," said Mr Escott.
And 15-year-old Stuart Douglas told the conference youngsters would show more respect to others if respect was accorded to them.
"Is it respect to young people to constantly stigmatise us and label us neds and yobs?" he said.
Scottish Socialist MSP Rosie Kane was ridiculed earlier this year when she called for the term "ned" to be outlawed as degrading and hurtful - but many young people do feel alienated by such language and suspect politicians are too ready to tar them all with the same brush.
Lib Dem MSP Donald Gorrie claims the party has already softened Labour’s stance on law and order in Scotland.
"We don’t have David Blunkett’s hanging and flogging policies in Scotland," he told the weekend conference in Dunfermline.
But he successfully urged delegates to back a clause criticising the emphasis on legislation and punishment, which he said would strengthen the hand of Lib Dem MSPs in negotiating changes to the legislation as it goes through parliament.
Labour backbenchers whose constituencies include large housing estates argue the Lib Dems are remote from the problems of decent people who face regular harrassment from groups of youths or nuisance neighbours. But Mr Gorrie, who is the Lib Dem spokesman on the communities committee which is due to look at the bill, insists he and his colleagues are making constructive suggestions.
"It is vital we show we are not anti-young people," he says.
And for politicians, there’s an added reason to curb the rhetoric - demonising any group is unlikely to win their votes.
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