As the Conservative Party Conference rumbles on in Birmingham, I was surprised to hear a note of what felt almost like socialism from Chancellor and professional “posh boy” George Osborne in his speech on Monday. New businesses, he said, should hand out shares to all their workers, giving them a stake in the company’s success and motivating them to work harder. I could hardly believe my ears. A senior Tory – the one most responsible for the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in this country – espousing the idea that the fabled “wealth creators” should share some of their largesse with their underlings, by forming, in effect, co-operatives?
Ah, but there’s a snag, which came up next. In order for the workers to take advantage of this munificent offer, they would have to sign away some, perhaps all, of their employment rights. That sounds more like the Osborne I’ve come to know and loathe. The Osborne that wants to, in effect, bribe the British worker, already one of the least protected workers in Europe, to give away some of the few paltry rights he/she has left.
Meanwhile, a recent brainstorm by some new Tory high fliers has produced a particularly nasty little pamphlet called Britannia Unchained, in which they proclaim that British workers are the laziest in the world. And all the time, unemployment figures are kept low with fixed term contracts and part time positions which now seem the default instead of a full-time, permanent position. Never mind that these workers have to claim state benefits in order to live. They’re not “unemployed”, which makes the figures look better. They’re the new working class – the “working poor”.
Remember when we actually had a “working class”? It used to be almost a badge of pride for some; the idea that you were getting an honest wage for an honest day’s graft, and you were thrifty enough with your meagre income to eke out a modest but unpretentious standard of living. Ah, it were grand in them days…
Somewhere down the line, that disappeared. Perhaps it was during the blindly aspirational 1980s, when we were told that we all had social mobility; perhaps it was when John Prescott declared that “we are all middle class now”. Somehow, the label “working class” took on a mantle of shame, as though if you hadn’t reached “middle class” status, you just weren’t trying. So everyone started calling themselves middle class, regardless of how redundant that made the term. The rot probably set in when we started using terms like “lower middle class” and “upper middle class” in place of the middle/working class division. But however you want to label yourself, the vast swathes of the population toiling away for meagre payments means that the working class is still very much with us.
George Monbiot recently wrote an article recalling the July speech by Barack Obama, in which the US President proclaimed of businesses “you didn’t build that (by yourselves)”, the first part of which was ruthlessly appropriated out of context by the Republicans for their own agenda. Obama was referring to the fact that private enterprise always depends, to some extent, on spending by the state, financed out of taxes – roads, education, infrastructure and so on, while Monbiot focused on how many of these “self-made millionaires” had inherited the means to their success.
But they both ignored another vital aspect of “you didn’t build that by yourselves” – the workers who staff those businesses. The wealthy business owners like to twist the English language to portray themselves as benefactors by calling themselves “job creators”, a term predicated on the idea that their businesses give people jobs. And so they do. But it’s a two-way street. Yes, without those “entrepreneurs”, the businesses wouldn’t exist to “create the jobs”. But without the jobs then being done, by workers, the businesses themselves would crash and burn.
There’s been a lot of demonising of the very rich by the left, and the rich have taken exception to being described as “parasites” (even though it doesn’t seem to bother them when applied to the benefit-claiming poor). But the increasing agenda of hacking away at workers’ pay, rights and conditions makes the label all too appropriate. In a fair capitalist system, the relationship between a business owner and his/her workers should be a symbiotic one; the business owner provides jobs for the workers, the workers do the jobs that need to be done, for a fair wage, to keep the business running. Both have a stake in the business’ success, and both are motivated to ensure it. That way everybody wins.
But the agenda of the parties on the right, both here and in the US, is that progressively fewer rights and benefits should be conferred on those workers, while progressively more should flow the way of the already better off business owner. The Tories in the UK and the Republicans in the US clamour for lower taxes and less regulation for the rich, while hacking away at the pay, conditions and few remaining rights of their workers.
In the UK, the lobbyists for the rich urge us to get rid of the already paltry minimum wage, which despite its recent increase from £6.08 per hour to a princely £6.19 is still falling in real terms and was never enough to live on. The shortfall is then made up by the UK taxpayer in the form of tax credits, which effectively subsidise the profits of big businesses by allowing them to get away with paying wages that aren’t enough to live on.
The Tories’ pet businessman Adrian Beecroft and state-dismantling fanatic Mark Littlewood, of “thinktank” the Institute of Economic Affairs, hector us constantly that even that level of minimum wage is too restrictive for businesses to succeed, and it should be done away with. Together with the right to redundancy pay, or to appeal unfair dismissal (the qualifying term of which has already been doubled). There are already moves to legislate that industrial tribunals to consider unfair dismissal should be paid for by the plaintiff regardless of their success, which coupled with the massive slashing of entitlement to legal aid will ensure that this means of redress becomes less and less of a viable option for those sacked because they’re the wrong race, the wrong gender, the wrong sexuality, or simply because the boss doesn’t like their face.
Meanwhile, when the workers threaten to protest against legislation whittling away their pay and rights by threatening to withdraw their services, they’re portrayed as being selfish and uncaring by the political establishment (even Ed Miliband, who can’t tell us that strikes are wrong often enough). But if the rich threaten to withdraw their services, by moving abroad to a more desirable tax regime, politicians can’t kowtow to them quickly enough. A protesting worker gets demonised by the Daily Mail; a protesting business owner gets the tax laws changed in his/her favour. We live in a democracy (allegedly). Which of these groups could rightly be said to constitute a majority?
When we’ve reached a state of affairs when the business owner’s appreciation of his workers’ contribution to that business is non existent, and the business owner wants to take more for less from the workers, that relationship is by definition no longer symbiotic. In a situation where one party takes from another while giving nothing back, you call it what it is – parasitism.
Now, to be sure, the working class of today bears little resemblance to that of yesteryear. The wholesale destruction of Britain’s industrial base began by the 1979 Tory government, and carried on with such gusto by the ideologues of New Labour, left the country’s workers (those it had left) employed primarily in service industries. As much as possible was outsourced overseas to where maximum profit could be gained by exploiting workers used to far less.
But not everything could be shipped overseas. Today’s working class is the vast army of people who serve you in shops, who serve you in restaurants, who answer the phones in the few call centres still left in the UK. And they have nobody to represent them at all. The Tories, of course, never did, despite the Alf Garnett-alikes who always voted for them. The Lib Dems, protest though they will, are so keen to be centrist they represent very few. And the leader of the Labour Party, started by the Trade Unions precisely to give the worker a voice in governing the country of whose population they were the majority, now bleats about the need to appeal to “the squeezed middle”, following in the Middle-England chasing footsteps of his supposedly discredited predecessor Tony Blair.
There was a time when workers had representation, of course. Arguably too much of it. The collective bargaining power of the Trade Unions, hitched to the political clout of the Labour Party, was responsible for attaining many of the workers’ rights we have today, the ones being sliced away at by the Coalition. Thanks to Trade Unions, we no longer have children working sixteen hour days in factories, and workers have the ability to challenge perceived unfair dismissal.
But like so many given a dose of power, the unions grew arrogant. The heady scent of power rose to their heads so that, by the 70s, their fits of pique over the most trivial of issues would regularly bring production to a standstill, while madly unreasonable demands for pay increases crippled Britain to such an extent that the tremulous Heath government, embattled by power cuts and three day weeks, was effectively toppled as a result.
It was inevitable that there’d be a reckoning with their old enemies when the Conservatives got back into power in 1979. So it proved, with the Thatcher government introducing legislation that crippled them while peddling a media narrative that they were all nest-feathering “loony lefties” on the take. Militant union leaders blindly played right into their hands, with the bitter conflict of the mid-80s NUM strike effectively destroying their reputation for good.
So like a seesaw, the balance of power had swung from bosses to workers back to bosses again. And it continued to stay over on the bosses’ side with a “New Labour” party that sought to emulate its adversaries’ agenda. Tony Blair’s modification of the party’s defiantly socialist Clause IV allowed him to start peddling off the state’s assets with the same fervour that Thatcher and Major once did; under New Labour, we got the first public/private partnerships in the NHS, and the first academy schools.
Today, trade unions have so little sway in the private sector that only one in seven employees is a member. The public sector remains the only area in which unions are strong, which explains the Tories’ rabid desire to promote a private/public conflict. Demonise the “tax-sucking, gold-plated salaries” in the public sector, and you’ll have the private sector crying out that its working pay and conditions should be brought down to their level.
This is the political equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. Let that happen, and bosses will be free to suggest that pay and conditions should be degraded yet further, with no one left to have a higher standard to compare with. Private sector workers shouldn’t be angrily demanding that their public sector equivalents get worse off; they should be angrily asking why they themselves aren’t better off.
Sadly, the current crop of unions are still doing themselves no favours wheeling out 70s-style caricatures like Bob Crow as their figureheads, and demanding full-on socialism. I may have some left wing views, but I think total socialism has, to all intents and purposes, been proved unworkable. The thing is, so has total free-market capitalism.
What’s needed to redress that balance is a compromise between the two. And what’s needed to achieve that compromise is a voice for that now-voiceless mass, the working class. If Labour won’t do it, and the unions can’t do it, maybe it’s time for some new kind of organisation that will, before the few persuade the many to give up their last pennies in exchange for cheap trinkets.