No representation, no rights–the plight of the invisible working class

The attack on the rights of Britain’s workers continues apace…George-Osborne-laughing

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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

Crumbling ironwork – The Iron Lady

“All I wanted to do was make a difference in the world.”

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There have been many onscreen depictions of Margaret Thatcher, both during and after her highly divisive Premiership. She’s been portrayed by satirists (Janet Brown, Jennifer Saunders), respected actresses (Lindsay Duncan, Maureen Lipman) and the just plain unlikely (John Lithgow on Saturday Night Live). All of these have tended to focus on one particular incident in her turbulent time in office – her struggle to become MP for Finchley, her conduct of the Falklands War, her relationship with Chilean dictator and all round bad guy General Pinochet. But Phyllida Lloyd’s much trumpeted new biopic The Iron Lady is the first attempt to make a comprehensive biography of this most divisive of Prime Ministers. Generally, it succeeds. But there are some massive, glaring flaws.

Margaret Thatcher is a difficult figure to approach objectively. Not for nothing have I used the word ‘divisive’ twice in the last paragraph; this is a woman whose leadership polarised political factions more than any other. To the left, she’s a catch-all demon, to be invoked as an example of everything that’s wrong with free market Conservatism. To the right, she’s the perfect angel, in her defeat of socialism, quashing of troublesome trade unions and championing of that very same free market. The truth is almost certainly more complex and nuanced than the popular perception, and it’s that truth that Abi Morgan’s screenplay tries to get at here – not the truth about Thatcher as a politician, but Thatcher the human being, Thatcher the woman, Thatcher the mother, and most of all, Thatcher the wife.

To do this, the film tries its level best to be generally apolitical, not passing any moral judgement on anything Thatcher did or didn’t do, but merely attempting to depict it without comment. But Margaret Thatcher can’t be separated from her politics – politics is what drove her, what made her the person she is or was. The trouble is, with feelings about her still very strong on both sides, it’s difficult for a film maker to produce a partisan piece; support her, and you’ll win firm condemnation from any left-leaning viewers, condemn her, and you’ll be damned as a leftist yourself. The trouble is that sidestepping the moral issues of the politics makes the movie seem in some ways rather anodyne.

I’ve generally enjoyed Abi Morgan’s work as a writer, most recently her 1950s set newsroom thriller The Hour, but in order to walk this apolitical line, the script she’s come up with here is a curious mixture of the cliched and the inspired. In keeping with the most overused of Hollywood tropes, it shows Thatcher as a woman triumphing over all the odds against her, fighting against the (male) establishment and winning. Now, no doubt there’s a fair bit of truth there. But the presentation, all sneering men against our plucky heroine, Thomas Newman’s score giving us swelling strings as Margaret triumphs yet again, recalls all the numerous Hollywoodisations of women triumphing over adversity – Silkwood, Erin Brockovich et al.

In keeping with that style, they’ve got a Proper Hollywood Star in to play Maggie – no less a luminary than Silkwood star Meryl Streep herself, in case you’ve been living in a cave and missed the insane amount of media coverage her casting has had over the last year. But while I wanted to dislike her – how dare this American try to portray our most famous post-war Prime Minister, even if I did hate her? – I have to join in the rest of the critical worship and admit that Streep simply makes the movie.

Her performance is extraordinary, and extraordinarily good. With some clever and subtle makeup, she somehow manages to pull off the tricky feat of convincingly impersonating a well-known public figure while simultaneously giving a nuanced performance. For most of the time she’s onscreen, you forget to admire this, because she so thoroughly inhabits the role, your brain never questions that what you’re actually watching is Margaret Thatcher herself. Not only that, but Streep shows us Thatcher developing over decades, from Education Secretary to Conservative leader to Prime Minister to frail old lady, and catches all the mannerisms that we, the public, always saw in her. That shrill, hectoring voice, trained downwards for authority in her run for party leader, is easy to impersonate, but not so easy to incorporate into a performance; but a real performance is what Streep pulls off, and talk of Oscars seems perfectly justified to me.

The trouble is that, while Streep towers over the rest of the movie, other aspects of casting and characterisation are less successful. There seems to be, in British drama, a standard roster of character players you’re used to seeing as Parliamentarians in this kind of thing, and they all seem to be present and correct here. Nicholas Farrell is Airey Neave, Roger Allam is Gordon Reece, Richard E Grant is Michael Heseltine, etc. For the seasoned viewer of TV satire and docudramas, the struggle was to not associate them with all the other parliamentary dramas they’d been in, and remember that they were playing real people.

And since the movie isn’t being outright political, they’re playing those real people as cyphers, two-dimensional cutouts that lack even the depth given to them at the time by Spitting Image. This is a shame; there are some good actors here who do the best with the material they’re given, but it’s telling that, some of the time, I couldn’t tell who they were meant to be until I looked at the cast list. Given the most screen time is Anthony Head, trying his best to dull down his natural smooth good looks and impersonate Geoffrey Howe. He does pretty well, but his attempt to imitate Howe’s flat drawl comes across as rather forced, as though he’s smoked 80 Marlboro a day then taken a dose of Mogadon.

That the movie chooses to avoid politics by sidelining figures like these is actually a shame, because anyone who lived through those years knows that the British politics of the 70s and 80s was genuinely colourful and dramatic. In the days before spin, before focus groups and the domination of PR companies, politicians seemed like real, often wildly eccentric personalities. The movie catches a little of that, in a couple of montages that show the House of Commons to be a kind of shrieking Bedlam (accurate enough), but reduces some real, flamboyant figures to little more than extras. Grant’s Heseltine, for example, is barely seen, even when he stabbed Thatcher in the back to challenge her leadership; Ted Heath, portrayed rather colourlessly by John Sessions, only gets one scene before he is deposed (offscreen) by Maggie and her scheming cohorts. The few occasions which do show Thatcher sparring with her opposition in the House give a little glimpse of how well this could have been done, with Streep electric in catching her subject’s vehement, strident certainty. But even here, her main opponent is Michael Foot (a convincingly scruffy portrayal from Michael Pennington), though her most fondly remembered scraps of the 80s came with Labour leader Neil Kinnock, not even shown here.

Of course, like her or loathe her, everyone has their favourite Thatcher moment, and it would be impossible for the movie to please everyone on that score without being longer than The Godfather. But for the sake of the drama, it seems odd that some moments have been left out – most notably, Thatcher’s own ultimate downfall could have been neatly counterpointed by details of how she inflicted an identical betrayal on Heath, heightening the sense of hubris when she is ultimately deposed in the same way. Instead, we get an almost disturbingly messianic sequence in which, composed apart from a glistening tear, she exits 10 Downing Street along a bed of rose petals to the accompaniment of a mournful operatic aria.

This kind of virtual deification is disturbing, and recurs at key moments in her career, most notably her ascension to Prime Minister. Streep delivers the “where there is despair, may we bring hope” speech well – perhaps better than the real thing – but for a movie that tries to avoid being partisan, it’s difficult to rein in the triumphalism that’s so key to ‘women triumphing over adversity’ movies. The main side effect of which is that, in portraying her as the conquering heroine, the script seems to implicitly side with her politically. It’s hard to admire her as a person without admiring her politics, and oft times, the movie seems to do that.

As it progresses then, we get a potted history of her political career, which tells us little we didn’t already know. We see her intransigent stand against the trade unions, but with little conveyance of the consequences it had; the miners’ strike is glossed over in a couple of minutes. We see her agonising over the deaths in the Falklands (though, significantly, not the Argentinian ones). And we see her shaken by terrorism, as she is (implausibly) the first one to the scene when Airey Neave is blown up by a car bomb, then victim herself in an effective recreation of the Brighton hotel bombing. All of this is well enough done, but has an almost ‘tickbox’ approach. The scene late in her Premiership in which we see her ruthlessly bullying her Cabinet at a meeting is brilliantly done by Streep et al, but is nonetheless nothing more than a convenient dramatic shorthand to emphasise her ego and hubris, which made her downfall inevitable. Done better, this could have been almost Shakespearean; as it is, it just seems workmanlike.

But even if the movie seems (to me) to fail by divorcing Thatcher from the politics that were so much an integral part of her, it does rather well on its own terms, at portraying her as a flawed human being in her relationships with her family. This is best shown by the framing narrative which actually takes up about half the film; Margaret as she is now, a doddering frail old lady, guarded by machine gun wielding policemen who keep her a virtual prisoner, and most notably haunted by the shade of her beloved Denis, dead eight years previously. As Denis, Jim Broadbent is reliably brilliant, making him loveable in a way that he actually really did seem at the time. Broadbent has two tasks here. In the flashbacks, he’s the real Denis, curmudgeonly, irascible, but part of a loving relationship in which the participants endearingly refer to each other as “M.T.” and “D.T.”. In the present day, he’s a hallucination of the increasingly frail Margaret, prone to sharp observations that logically must have come from deep within her own fragmented mind.

This framing narrative is where the movie works best, though as a consequence, it’s quite uncomfortable to watch. The ageing make up on Streep is thoroughly convincing, as is her body language as she shambles, lonely, through her dimly lit flat. Since by this point you’ve virtually come to believe that she really is Thatcher, it’s hard to watch the indignity to which she’s come. Which isn’t entirely helped by the presence of Olivia Colman as her frequently visiting daughter Carol. Colman, a skilled actress does pretty well, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the glaringly obvious false nose she had to wear – evidently all the good makeup had been saved for Streep.

But these scenes do work extremely well, though I can see why some real life acquaintances of Thatcher find them in poor taste, particularly while she’s still alive. Interestingly, the other really effective sequences are the flashbacks to Margaret’s early years, in which we see her enthusiasm for politics fired up by her small business owning father, and falls in love with an improbably pretty young Denis. For all the praise that’s been heaped on Streep, it’s fair to note that Alexandra Roach also makes a real impression as the young Maggie; Harry Lloyd effectively twinkles as the young Denis, though he’s a little distractingly good looking.

It’s a telling point that the screenplay works best at being apolitical in these sequences particularly; it’s a tightrope it can’t quite walk depicting her actual time in office. As a director Phyllida Lloyd teases out some great performances, and also has the occasional flash of visual brilliance. In particular, there are some very effective overhead shots; of Margaret, the only flash of colour in a crush of black-clad MPs, or of Margaret surrounded  by a crush of the admiring press at her ascension to PM, who gradually fall back from her as if in worship. But Lloyd is a little hamstrung by the movie’s low budget. It really needs a sense of scale to match the real life events, but this can only be provided by the insertion of grainy contemporary news footage, stretched to fill the widescreen image so that people in it look oddly wide. This is generally jarring, and actually has the effect of highlighting the lack of budget, making the viewer even more conscious that the filmmakers couldn’t afford to restage these events in the manner of movies like, say, Gandhi (and that’s a comparison I never thought I’d be making).

The Iron Lady is, at best, a deeply flawed film which can’t quite find an identity. But it is very watchable, if only for Streep’s magnetic performance. And it might be interesting to find out the reaction from people who have little knowledge of the real events portrayed – mostly more than 20 years in the past now – who would be able to take the movie on its own terms rather than as a recreation of times they actually lived through. It comes across as a TV movie writ large, elevated beyond BBC4 by the casting of an international superstar and little else. Not that that’s any reason to condemn it, and as an attempt at a proper biography it works pretty well. But I do wonder whether, with a perspective of distance, later films about Thatcher might be able to come up with a better judgement of her leadership than simply her triumph over adversity as an undeniably formidable woman.