Does ‘Good’ Work Pay?

After the shock of the General Election result, the horrors of Grenfell Tower, and against the backdrop of the ongoing Brexit negotiations and Cabinet infighting – politics has once again been upended. The opposition have smelt blood. First on the list of demands has been an end to so-called austerity, not least for hard-done-by public sector workers. Jeremy Corbyn has accused the government of exhibiting a ‘lack of touch with reality’ in its refusal to pay public sector workers more money. Those brave fire-fighters who fought the terrible blaze in Kensington surely deserve more? As do those doctors and nurses working tirelessly as the NHS collapses under the strain of the sick. Those greedy tube-workers might drive us to distraction with their constant striking, but surely we can find more for demoralised teachers now that schools look like they might not be starved of funding after all?

This might sound fair enough. Badly paid public sector workers do deserve to be paid much more. And now is a good time to wring concessions from a government struggling to command authority in parliament. Northern Ireland has already benefited from the Tories’ disarray with the government’s promise to meet the costs of abortion for those women still forced to travel to England; and there’s the £1 billion bung that will fund much needed infrastructure in the province – something the government’s critics would welcome if it wasn’t a concession won by the much maligned DUP. The trouble is it is one thing to call for an uplift in public sector pay when it is capped at a miserly 1% and – for all your talk of the prime minister lacking a mandate – you remain leader of a divided opposition. What about the majority of the British public who don’t work in the public sector? How much should they get?

What about those working for the BBC? Graham Norton and Claudia Winkelman arepublic sector workers but, far from defend them, the Labour leader has called for pay restraint. ‘We have said again and again that there is a problem with excess pay and we need to address that’, he says. Indeed the Labour manifesto proposes a cap of its own that will slash pay so that nobody can earn more than a ratio of 20:1 of the salary of the lowest paid employee. Having a go at Gary Lineker (£1.8m) isn’t the same as supporting the down-trodden. On the contrary. Corbyn’s support for what he has previously referred to as a maximum wage does nothing to improve anybody’s standard of living. Indeed it makes that a much less likely prospect by undermining the logic for anybody demanding more. Why set a limit at all? Why can’t we all be rolling in it like Chris Evans (£2.2m) or – if that is too outlandish – why can’t the average worker at least aspire to be on a par with those wrongly-resented London Underground workers?

If you’re thinking that this is just an old socialist exhibiting the politics of envy you’d be wrong. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, and former head of the No.10 policy unit under Tony Blair, was commissioned by the government to write (and has recently published) the Good Work report. ‘All work in the UK economy should be fair and decent with realistic scope for development and fulfilment’ it says. People should be treated fairly and have the opportunity to progress; work should make them feel happy and contribute to the wider ‘wellbeing’ of society too. ‘Pay is only one aspect in determining quality work’, says the Review, ‘for many people fulfilment, personal development, work life balance or flexibility are just as important’. No doubt, but don’t be fooled by the soothing tone and the downgrading of the crude business of making money.
More commonly known as the Taylor Review, it is largely concerned with re-‘aligning’ people’s diverging ways of making a living. But here too the alignment is in a downward direction. Those who have struck out on their own and started their own businesses, for instance, are not to be encouraged but reined in for fear that their efforts are not sufficiently exploited by the taxman. Taylor is alarmed to discover that increasing numbers of workers are getting above their station and imagining themselves to be ‘genuine’ business-people. Such enterprising and initiative-taking upsets the plans of Taylor, and others, with designs on the world of work; and threatens the budget for the welfare system which must be propped up at all costs.
The truth is that Taylor is far more at home coming up with ways to protect the ‘vulnerable workers’ of the gig economy than he is backing the ambitions of ‘bogus’ non-worker workers with some get-up-and-go about them. It is, of course, the case that a minority of people are struggling on short-term casual contracts that suit their employers more than they suit them. But this one-way flexibility that some experience is not an argument for more top-down restraint – the state is no guarantor of a better deal for workers, vulnerable or otherwise. Those on the receiving end need to organise and fight – with a bit of solidarity from the rest of us – for a much better deal, whether that’s more pay or better conditions.

The miserable levelling-down and equality of low expectations offered up by Corbyn and by Taylor should be rejected. We all deserve better than that.

First published in Huffington Post

Inequality? What Inequality?

First published in Huffington Post

If you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.

This is what our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, said before walking through the door of Number 10 Downing Street last month. Jeremy Corbyn, in a speech launching his defence of the Labour Party leadership, had this to say:

The injustices that scar society today are not those of 1945 … Want, Squalor, Idleness, Disease and Ignorance … And they have changed since I first entered Parliament in 1983…Today what is holding people back above all are … Inequality… Neglect … Insecurity … Prejudice … and Discrimination …

And his opponent in that contest, Owen Jones, said he would rewrite the party’s Clause4 ‘to put tackling inequality right at the heart of everything that we do’.

So is inequality a spectre (to misquote Karl Marx) that is haunting the UK?

According to Tom Bailey, who I have invited to speak on the topic, ‘The past few decades have seen a dizzying amount of the world lifted out of poverty’. This is a consequence of economic growth, he argues, in places like China where 500 million people who were living in poverty are no longer doing so. As a result global inequality has actually fallen. So what is meant by inequality today? If we are increasingly equal and people are being pulled out of poverty at unprecedented rates, why are leftists and conservatives alike so obsessed with it?

How desirable, even, is equality? In the UK we were at our most equal in 1979, after four decades in which the gap in earnings got progressively narrower. At the outbreak of the second world war just over a third of the national income went to the top 10% of the population. Forty years later they accounted for just over a fifth of the national income and the poorest were a bit better off than they were before. While this may sound like a comparative utopia it is perhaps worth remembering that this was also a time of profound crisis and division in the country. The world economy was in turmoil and the British state was about to stamp on striking workers and rioting inner-city youth.

More to the point for all the focus on relative poverty by campaigners, we are absolutely better off now than we were back then. Even the poorest are nowhere near as poor as they were. This may seem an obvious point but it is continually lost on those who seem to think we’ve never had it so bad.

But what of gender inequality in the workplace? The ‘reviewing’ of Kevin Roberts’ position as Chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi for saying it isn’t a problem is surely evidence enough that it is? Well, no. As Joanna Williams argues, ‘the gender pay gap is dead’. If you compare like with like, the so-called glass ceiling is a myth. The assertion that women are getting a bad deal at work is a distraction from what really does hold them back – a lack of affordable childcare. The misplaced focus on women’s fast-diminishing inequality in the workplace also ignores the longstanding decline of traditionally male-dominated industries and the rise of the more female-friendly service sector in its place. The UK and indeed the world is less sexist than ever. The leading role of women in some of the planet’s most powerful jobs, from Christine Lagarde and Hilary Clinton to Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, should make that obvious.

That’s not to say all is well. Far from it. But rolling out the same old rhetoric about capitalist excess, exploited workers and untold misery – when capitalists have never been so risk-averse, unproductive and keen to virtue signal; and the ill-effects of their system so mitigated by state intervention – makes no sense. We are living through a period not only of longstanding economic stagnation but also of political cluelessness about what to do about it. It is surely more important – especially now, post-Brexit, when the political class is running for cover – that we have a national debate on how we go about building a more prosperous future, not worrying over the dividing up of what little wealth is being generated now.

Poverty pay: the political elite says this is as good as it gets

First published in International Business Times

Not so long ago support for a minimum wage, much like nationalisation of the railways and unilateral disarmament, marked you out as a state socialist. Today the Living Wage is the new common sense. While there is some opposition from employers, it is striking that the government and the bulk of the political establishment only quibble over the level at which it should be set.

It currently stands at a recommended £7.85 an hour, or £9.15 an hour in London. The National Living Wage, to be introduced by the government in April, will be a little less at £7.20 for over-25s rising to £9 by 2020.

While no-one had heard of zero-hours contracts until recently, taking a laissez-faire or state interventionist stance on the labour market would once have had you fall either side of a clear political divide too. No longer. Today, all are agreed that what amounts to casual working needs more or less regulating.

“Those exclusive zero-hours contracts that left people unable to build decent lives for themselves – we will scrap them.” That wasn’t Red Ed or Corbynomics: that’s David Cameron.

While the critics might want him to go further and ban them outright there is a consensus. The main political parties are opposed to the worst excesses of ‘poverty pay’, and agree that something must be done about it. But is this really such a good thing? It seems to me that this statist meeting of minds is shaped less by the fair-mindedness of the political elite than by the self-imposed limits of our anaemic political culture.

Clueless about solving the bigger problems, and unable to inspire anything but contempt, politicians desperately jostle around for easy headline-grabbing interventions like these. For instance, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has told Premier League football clubs they should pay their staff a Living Wage. “It would,” he says, “be difficult to argue they can’t afford it”.

Meanwhile, Costa has announced it will pay its staff a Living Wage slightly more generous than the national one. But why stop there? Living standards, especially for the poorest, have plummeted in recent times as wages have fallen and prices have risen. Is this really the best they can do?

It is a depressing sign of the times that such gesture politics can be spun as good news. In the absence of capitalist dynamism to raise people’s standard of living, this is all there is. There is no appeal to trickle-down economics anymore: an optimistic if not unreasonable belief that we all benefit as the economy grows.

Baristas are supposed to be happy with their new minimum (sorry, living) wage rather than imagine a world in which they might live like barristers or millionaire footballers. Instead of ambitions for more and better, the adolescent cry of “it’s not fair!” can be heard.

In a recent poll of students by job site Glassdoor, a third thought zero hours contracts were exploitative, a quarter wanted them banned, and over a third of those offered one turned it down.

As Diarmuid Russell at Glassdoor said: “These findings are intriguing, given these contracts allow students to move in and out of the job throughout the year, and potentially pick up hours which fit around studies and holidays.”

Quite – you might expect those who never tire of telling us about their spiralling debts to be a little less picky.

It isn’t just students convinced of their own victimhood. A chef who used to work for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was recently in court having being apprehended by police at a drug dealer’s house. According to his defence lawyer ‘it wasn’t him what did it’ – it was the zero-hours contract he signed with River Cottage. “As a result [he] was suffering from depression and sadly relapsed into heroin use,” it was claimed.

So as well as the notion that the best the poorest can hope for is to be a bit less badly off, is the patronising idea that some of us (chefs and students included) are so fragile that we couldn’t cope with a zero-hours contract anyway. While critics rightly argue that such employers are subsidised by us all in the end as those who work for them have to rely on welfare top-ups to their meagre incomes, this is only part of the problem with the official narrative on poverty pay.

What matters more is that the entire political elite, convinced that the poorest sections of the working class need protecting from the inequities of a flexible labour market, are telling us that this is as good as it gets.

Nothing great about the welfare state

In The Welfare of Nations, the decade-later follow-up to his The Welfare State We’re In, James Bartholomew – former leader writer for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail – takes us on a tour of the world’s welfare states.

It’s fair to say he isn’t a fan. He argues that the welfare state undermines old values and ‘crowds out’ both our inner resourcefulness and our sense of duty to one another – including our own families. Instead of aspiring to be self-reliant, the welfare state makes us self-absorbed. People aren’t encouraged to exercise responsibility anymore; instead, they are handed a plethora of ‘rights’. Welfare states ‘have diminished our civilisation’, Bartholomew concludes.

The welfare state has always been a problematic entity, from its modern beginnings in the nineteenth century with Bismarck’s cynical ‘state socialism’– built as much to placate the increasingly politically active masses as to attend to their welfare – to the vast systems maintaining millions of economically inactive citizens across the world today. The welfare state, as its advocates contend, always promises a better society, with higher levels of equality, but, as Bartholomew counters, it also tends to foster unemployment, ‘broken families’ and social isolation.

Some versions of the welfare state are better than others. Wealthy Switzerland has a low unemployment rate despite generous social insurance-based benefits. But, at the same time, the Swiss state imposes tough conditions: there’s no minimum wage and workers can be fired on the spot. Sweden’s benefit system is generous, too, but if you can’t afford the rent on a property, you have to move out.

In the UK, matters are equally complex. For instance, shared-ownership schemes, ‘affordable housing’ and planning regulations contribute to distinctly unaffordable house prices. Indeed, housing costs have risen from 10 per cent of average UK household income in 1947 to over 25 per cent. For the poorest sections of society, it is worse still. This is despite the fact that the state subsidises dysfunctional, workless households on bleak public housing estates.

And what of state education? Nearly one-in-five children in OECD countries is functionally illiterate. The best performing advanced countries have autonomous schools, ‘high stakes’ exams, quality teachers and a culture of discipline and hard work. Compare that to the US, where you can’t get rid of bad unionised teachers in the state schools.

Bartholomew convincingly argues that state schools’ ‘shameful’ inadequacy, for all the rhetoric to the contrary, breeds inequality. He fears that the success of the free- and charter-school movement is at risk, too, from ‘creeping government control’. Bartholomew is upfront about his own old-fashioned conservative views. He’s a kind of evidence-based Peter Hitchens, using ‘bundles of academic studies’ to show what he suspected of the welfare state all along. The care of ‘strangers’, he argues, is bad for children and aged parents alike, and damages the social fabric. Over half of Swedish children are born to unmarried mothers, whereas the family in Italy, he says approvingly, is ‘the main source of welfare’, with charity-run ‘family houses’ (no flats or benefits) for single mothers. At a time when Conservatives aren’t really very conservative, it takes Bartholomew to ask important questions about social change.

Again, southern Europe offers a useful contrast to the situation in northern Europe. Over half of single people aged 65 or over in Italy, Portugal and Spain live with their children. Just three per cent of single Danes do. Should individual autonomy trump the burden of caring for children and family members? What role should the state play? UK social workers are office-based, writes Bartholomew, and contracted care workers follow ‘rules rather than doing things from an impulse of loving care’.

By 2050 over a third of the European population will be aged over 60. Even though the age at which people are eligible for pensions is increasing, state pensions can’t be sustained, says Bartholomew. In Poland, Greece and Italy, pensions account for more than a quarter of public spending. The UK spends nine per cent of its national income on healthcare, the US an insurance-fuelled 18 per cent, and Singapore just five per cent (though Singapore has to put twice that into ‘personal’ health-savings accounts). ‘Wealth leads to better healthcare’, says Bartholomew, but the monopolistic UK system, despite the NHS’s officially cherished status, is one of the worst of the advanced countries for health outcomes, including, for example, cancer-survival rates. ‘Obamacare’ notwithstanding, millions of uninsured Americans – neither poor enough for Medicaid nor old enough for Medicare – struggle to pay for healthcare.

Democracies, says Bartholomew, are susceptible to the fantasy that welfare states can solve our problems without consequence or cost. This is despite US public spending increasing from seven per cent of GDP in 1900 to 41 per cent of GDP in 2011. In 2012, France revealed that public spending accounted for 57 per cent of its GDP.

But it’s Bartholomew’s critique of the wider welfare culture, rather than his carps at benefits systems, which provides an important corrective to what can be a narrow and mean-spirited discussion. He also offers practical solutions: let’s increase housing supply but abolish public housing; let’s have a system of ‘co-payment’ for healthcare between state and individual; let’s allow schools and hospitals to compete in markets; and let’s give individuals the opportunity to save and insure themselves to pay for social-care needs and pensions (albeit through Singapore-style compulsory bank accounts).

So what do we do with the welfare state? As Bartholomew puts it, the welfare state, rather than capitalism or communism, was ‘the ultimate victor of the turmoil of the twentieth century’. But Bartholomew makes clear that this is a hollow victory with many millions left idle and communities undermined. So yes, let’s cut the welfare state down to size and stop infantilising its dependants. But we also need to get more ambitious than Bartholomew allows. He thinks it’s too late to get our freedoms back and argues for a minimal ‘welfare’ state only. But why stop there? If the architects of the welfare state have anything to teach us, it is to be bolder in our visions.

First published in sp!ked

2014: Year of the Poor?

2014 has been the year of the poor. They have been a particularly feckless bunch this year, collecting their food parcels in record numbers and even becoming reality TV stars on Benefits Street. Incapable of cooking their own food or looking after what little money they have, all they have succeeded in doing is being victims of their own addictive lifestyles – wasting their pennies on fancy fruit machines, on cheap supermarket booze, ridiculously expensive payday loans and morbidly-packaged cigarettes. They’re that stupid. But they’re not to blame. They are far too feeble and pathetic for that.

So say the authors of Feeding Britain, a long-awaited report from a cross-party and allegedly poor-friendly parliamentary inquiry into foodbanks. With friends like that who needs enemies? Of course they couch their patronising views in sympathetic sounding language and doll it up as research. Lady Jenkin’s dissing of the poor’s culinary talents at the report’s launch was only unusual for being blunt. In our illiberally-liberal times being openly contemptuous of the lower orders is frowned upon. Even old Tory hard man Norman ‘on yer bike’ Tebbit changed his mind (or his language at least) about the fast food eating hordes reliant on foodbanks after visiting one himself. Perhaps he found that the people who ran it shared some of his anti-poor prejudices but had a kindlier-sounding way of putting it?

At least the old right wingers credited ‘scroungers’ with having enough about them to fiddle the system. Today all they’re expected to do is play their allotted roles as helpless victims of it. It is the most vocal self-appointed defenders of the poor these days who are, so it turns out, anything but. It is the so-called liberals and lefties who in fact hold them in the greatest contempt with their dismissal of the capacities of the least well-off to even tie their own shoelaces without some kind of ‘support’. The exaggerated plight of the poor has become an emotive stand-in where there once might have been a political argument worth having or a political movement with which to engage.

This is not to deny the dire state of the economy or that the poorest are getting poorer still. As a country, we’re worse off than we were at the start of the millennium. The post-war trend of a growing affluence is no more. The very worst off are particularly badly hit with the squeeze between falling incomes and rising prices particularly on paying for rent, fuel and groceries disproportionately affecting those that can least afford it. That isn’t at issue.

What is at issue is the pitying and pitiable response, the assertion that the poor are poor not just because they are materially deprived but because they are lacking in the basic ‘life skills’ (or common sense) that the rest of us take for granted. Which is why foodbanks are increasingly described not just as foodbanks but as ‘foodbanks plus’. They are about not just feeding the poor, but telling them how to live their lives too.

The good news is that hunger is not ‘stalking’ the streets as that report (and the Archbishop of Canterbury) claimed. A combination of economic crises, welfare changes and a tendency to turn to charity and the state rather than our own families and communities are responsible for the rise in the numbers of people using foodbanks – as I explain elsewhere. But the badly off, and the rest of us for that matter, are being stalked by a political class and charitable sector more interested in changing people’s behaviour than solving society’s problems.

First published in Huffington Post