Hello! Just a reminder that all my columns and blogs are now at the Independent website here…
I’ve just started writing a weekly column at the Independent. I’ll use it as best I can as a platform for the causes, issues and people that I believe in. Writing for me is a means to an end, and I hope I put it to good use.
I’ll keep on blogging on whatever crops up over at the Independent here.
I’ll keep this website up and running, but all my new stuff will be over at the Indy. Hope to hear to some of you soon!
Our Prime Minister certainly has few doubts about who’s orchestrating the backlash against workfare. “Trotskyites!” Cameron boomed during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions; if he’d thrown in “wreckers”, it wouldn’t have been a bad impression of Andrej Vyshinsky, Stalin’s semi-hysterical prosecutor during the 1930s Show Trials.
And yet Cameron barely had time to put down his ice pick before news trickled out that the Government was abandoning sanctions for the work experience scheme. Here was the vindication of that well-known Trotskyist transitional demand: that people should not be forced to work for free against their will.
Workfare is battered, but not defeated. The Mandatory Work Activity (the clue is in the name) and the Community Action Programmes remain intact, all of which compel the growing ranks of the unemployed to work for free or have their measly benefits slashed. But it was a slap in the face for the “protest doesn’t change anything” brigade, and another victory chalked up for the burgeoning alliance between small groups of activists and the Twitterati.
The truth is that direct action and social media are filling a vacuum. A coherent opposition to Cameron’s Britain is as lacking as it is needed. The Labour leadership is hobbled by the fact that, from workfare to NHS privatisation, they laid the groundwork for much of this Government’s agenda. If there’s any force uniquely placed to challenge the most far-reaching transformation of British society since the Second World War, it’s our trade unions.
This originally appeared in the new Fabian Society pamphlet: ‘The Economic Alternative: The politics and policy of a fair economy’
The recession has brought class inequality back into view by exposing the unjust distribution of wealth and power in Britain. Labour must tackle this with a new class politics of stronger trade unions and a more representative parliament.
During the long boom of the nineties and noughties, it was possible to at least pretend class was no more. ’We’re all middle-class now’ boomed politicians of all stripes; it was a line peddled by most of the mainstream media too. Britain’s growing class divisions – as entrenched as ever – were apparently papered over by the promise of ever-growing living standards.
We now know that this was a myth, even before Lehman Brothers collapsed. Real wages stagnated for the bottom half and declined for the bottom third in 2004, four years before the financial collapse began. After 2003, average disposable household income fell in every English region outside London. Cheap credit helped disguise the fact that the income of the working majority was being squeezed even as the economy grew.
But it was the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s that shattered the delusion that class was no more. The current recession has helped refocus attention on the unjust distribution of wealth and power, because it is self-evident that the impact of crisis is completely different depending on where you stand in the pecking order. The average Briton is currently experiencing the biggest squeeze on real income since the 1920s. Living standards are projected to be no higher in 2016 than they were in 2001. The Child Poverty Action Group has warned that poor families face a ’triple whammy’ of benefit, support and service cuts, adding that the government’s “legacy threatens to be the worst poverty record of any government for a generation.”
Yet while it is recession for the majority, it remains boom time for those at the top – including those principally responsible for the current economic disaster. Last year, average boardroom pay went up by 49%; in 2010, it soared by a staggering 55%. TheSunday Times Rich List – made up of the richest top 1,000 people in Britain – recorded an increase in wealth of nearly a fifth. Back in 2010, the leap was approaching a third – the biggest jump recorded in the history of the Rich List. While the government has hiked VAT – a tax that disproportionately hits those on low- or medium-income – corporation tax is being slashed, meaning the banks that had such a central role in the financial crisis will be enriched to the tune of billions. With such a glaring disparity, pressing the case that ’class no longer matters’ appears as nothing more than a naked attempt to shut down scrutiny of the ever-widening divisions in our society.
Now that class is back with a vengeance in the public consciousness, Labour needs to ride the wave. Above all, the case has to be made about representation. Less than one in twenty MPs hail from an unskilled background; more than two-thirds come from a professional background. The issues facing working people as they are made to pay for a crisis not of their own making will be not be addressed unless the middle-class closed shop of Westminster is cracked open. For example, there are currently 5 million people languishing on social housing waiting lists. When I asked Hazel Blears shortly before the 2010 general election why Labour had done so little to tackle this growing social crisis, she responded that there was simply no-one in government with enough interest in housing. But – inevitably – if there were MPs who have had the experience of years stuck on a social housing waiting list, the chances of the housing crisis being forced up the agenda would be dramatically increased.
There used to be avenues for working-class people to climb the ranks of politics. Other than Clement Attlee, the three pillars of the post-war Labour government were Nye Bevan, Ernie Bevin and Herbert Morrison. All three were working-class, who had experience of doing the sorts of jobs that most people had to do. Bevan’s experience of Welsh mining communities helped fuel the passion that culminated in the National Health Service. All three figures entered national politics through the trade union movement or local government, or a combination of the two. But it is precisely these routes which were massively eroded by Thatcherism. That is why the desires of some Blairite ultras to weaken the union link are so wrong-headed. Instead, it should be strengthened to get more supermarket workers, nurses, bin collectors and call centre workers into parliament.
That means the trade union movement has to change, too. While over half of public sector workers are unionised, only 14% of those working in the private sector are members. We need a new model of trade unionism that adapts to the fact that job insecurity has dramatically increased, and work has become increasingly casualised. For example, there are now 1.3 million part-time workers who cannot find full-time work; and there are another 1.5 million temporary workers lacking the same rights as others. Already, Unite – the largest trade union in the country – has introduced a ‘community membership’, particularly aimed at those without work. It is a step in the right direction. Back in the 1880s, trade unions were concentrated among highly-skilled craft workers; so-called ‘New Unionism’ aimed to expand it among unskilled workers. Today we need a new ‘New Unionism’ that particularly aims at service sector workers, giving them a voice both in the workplace and in society as a whole.
When addressing the crisis of representation, it is important to acknowledge that the working-class has changed shape. Back in 1979, over 7 million worked in manufacturing; today, it is around 2.5 million and declining fast. Instead we’ve seen a shift from a service sector working-class to an industrial working-class. There are now one million call centre workers; as many as there were working down pits at the peak of mining. The number of people working in retail has trebled since 1980; it is now the second biggest employer in the country. It is these workers that desperately need a collective voice: that is what the Labour Party and the trade unions were founded to do.
Labour has to develop a new class politics, relevant for the needs of crisis-hit 21st century Britain. The Tories, after all, have developed an ingenious form of class politics on behalf of their own base. And has always been the case, if you stand up for the bottom 70%, you are labelled a class warrior; speak for the top 1%, and you are presented as a moderate.
Poor old martyred Mr Fred Goodwin. According to ex-CBI supremo Lord Digby Jones, this latter-day Joan of Arc is the victim of a “lynch mob” mentality. Quite right: it’s the unemployed and poor who are supposed to get a kicking from the tabloids, not multimillionaire pillars of the establishment. Has the world gone mad?
But now the poor bloke has had his knighthood shredded, it’s a good time to rethink the whole honours system. For a start, handing out “Orders of the British Empire” strikes me as more than a little tasteless in the first place. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah turned down his OBE nearly a decade ago because “it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised”. He has a point: as a country we’re far from coming to terms with the barbarity of empire. As Mike Davis points out in the seminal Late Victorian Holocausts, millions of Indians starved to death in unnecessary famines under British rule. It is surely possible to recognise achievements without celebrating this murderous era.
When it comes to homophobia, it’s fair to say that ex-Everton football player Michael Ball doesn’t mince his words. “That fucking queer,” he tweeted about Coronation Street’s Antony Cotton. “Get back to your sewing machine in Corrie, you moaning bastard.” His aggressive antipathy towards gay people is shared by Jason Gibbs, a former Brighton teacher who called his students “poofs” and “batty boys”, warning one class not to “go into the shower because this group will start bending you over and do you up the ass”.
Both episodes are unpleasant reminders that anti-gay hatred hasn’t gone away. But they also offer hope, too, about just how far we’ve come. Ball’s bigoted tirade landed him with a £6,000 fine from the Football Association on Tuesday – the highest the body has ever imposed for homophobia; the same day, Gibbs was banned from teaching indefinitely.
There was more evidence of progress in how the media reported the 60th birthday of veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell on Wednesday. Throughout his tireless campaign for gay equality and dignity, he has been pilloried, demonised, and marginalised; but this week, journalists patronised him as a “national treasure”. It’s a fate which befalls radicals who are no longer regarded as a threat: iconic left-winger Tony Benn, who has been transformed from the “most dangerous man in Britain” to a kindly grandfather figure, is another classic example. But in Benn’s case, it was because the left was beaten; Tatchell is no longer a threat because the gay rights movement has vanquished nearly all before it.