Tag Archives: trade-unions

David Cameron’s vision of a McSociety

Many people will have blogged already about David Cameron’s Hugo Young lecture by now, but as I saw it being delivered live, I thought I ought to add my two-penneth.

My first observation was the eagerness that Cameron was to please his Guardianista audience. This is actually the second speech I’ve seen Cameron give in person and it was true when he delivered his speech to the Power Inquiry Conference back in 2006. Certainly he spent a significant amount of time couching what he had to say in fluffy, leftish language and he went down the usual list of name checks to keep everyone happy. That said, there was some meat in what he had to say which should trouble anyone of a left persuasion.

If the reaction to Cameron’s conference speech last month is anything to go by, there are almost certainly some out there saying that this was a speech that Clegg should have made. And in terms of some of the rhetoric, that is certainly true. Indeed, some of the rhetoric was actually borrowed from Clegg. Does this sound familiar to you?

Not far from here the incredible wealth of the City exists side-by-side with some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our country. For every tube station along the Jubilee Line, from Westminster to the East End, Londoners living in those areas lose almost an entire year of expected life.

I’m not convinced it amounted to a convincing whole however, or that it was especially well thought out.

Income Inequality

Two of the first names he was to check were Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and indeed he went on to summarise the whole Spirit Level thesis. For a second this sounded quite exciting – a Tory government committed to reducing income inequality would be something to see. But before we could get our hopes up too high, he went and threw it all away:

We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it. That doesn’t mean we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom.

Instead, we should focus on the causes of poverty as well as the symptoms because that is the best way to reduce it in the long term. And we should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because that is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.

Shares of total household income by quintile group
Shares of total household income by quintile group
Dowhatnow? This simple graph from the Office of National Statistics shows clearly quite how problematic a focus on comparing the poorest incomes with the middle is. As a proportion, the incomes of the middle earners have actually gone down as a proportion over the last thirty years. True the gap between the poorest and the middlest has widened, but only because the poorest have done even worse. You could of course reverse this trend by ensuring that the poorest’s share of the national wealth started declining more slowly than the share of the middle incomers – while the top 20 per cent continued to rake it home.

The other thing you’ll see from this graph is that the reduction in the bottom 60 per cent’s share of national wealth started in 1979. Funny how all these problems that Cameron has summed up with the phrase “Broken Britain” – marriage breakdown, anti-social behaviour, etc. – all seemed to start to exacerbate around then. I suppose it is just possible that the problem was that as the middle got poorer, the poorest got poorer still, but I think it probably has something more to do with the top quintile’s incomes shooting up at everyone else’s expense. That is certainly Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis. Isn’t it funny therefore that in summing up the history of the welfare state, Cameron develops a narrative that starts in the early 30s, progresses through to the War and the founding of the welfare state, reaches 1968… and then zooms forward to 1997. Move along, nothing to see here.

I think I know where this focus on the “middle” comes from. I suspect that Cameron has been reading the same research I have been this summer which suggests that everyone seems to think they earn an average amount. By developing a policy which effectively lets off the top 40% – most of whom assume they are earning only slightly more than average and who will be scared off by talk of actual redistribution – Cameron gets to wear progressive clothes without having to promise any of the pain to the wealthy that goes along with it. It is entirely about playing into the hands of people’s prejudices and salving their consciences. It is less clear what any of it has to do with reducing poverty of social problems.

The Big State

I’ve blogged before about Cameron’s equation of “big state” with “means testing”. Suffice to say, it is nonsense. If you want to get rid of means testing, you have two choices: spend more and create universal benefits or cut those benefits all together. If you do the former then you end up with a “bigger” state. If you do the latter then you shrink the safety net and make the poorest poorer – something which Cameron claims to oppose.

The tax credit system designed by Gordon Brown is a classic example of his doctrine of progressivism by stealth – and a perfect example of why this doesn’t work. The benefit to the poorest is reduced by creating an incredibly complex system and disincentives to work. From the chancellor’s point of view however it is great because it is relatively cheap.

Of course, aside from slamming these disincentives, Cameron has nothing to say about how they should be actually reformed. He wants to increase them for married couples – to bring them in line with single parents – yet surely this would just lead to more welfare dependency (and a larger state), not less? He wants to focus Sure Start on the poorest families – yet surely this suggests more means testing, not less? He wants a pupil premium, but unless he is proposing to pay for it by cutting investment in schools elsewhere, that too would suggest a bigger state. With the exception of making employment benefits and employment services dependent on payment by results, in almost every area Cameron seemed to be calling for both more means testing and more investment.

The Big Society

In the final section of his speech on the “Big Society”, the role of the state seemed to grow still further.

This section was the most intriguing. His argument was that the left want to grow the size of the state while the right want a larger and more vibrant civic society. Is that really the case though? It certainly seems to me that most of the civic republicans throughout history have been on the left, not the right. Even when Cameron talked wistfully about “the vibrant panoply of civic organisations that meant communities looked out for one another” he listed “the co-operatives, the friendly societies, the building societies, the guilds” – most of which have their roots in the left and was careful not to mention rather more problematic forms of “mutual aid” such as the workhouses. Throughout the 80s and 90s the Tories were all too eager to see the co-operatives and building societies demutualised. He could also have mentioned trade unions – a system of mutual aid which the Tories have and continue to attack – and mass membership political parties – the club of which the Conservatives only joined in 1999.

In short, yet again, there is a whole narrative here that Cameron left out: that being the sustained attack of the “strong society” waged by the Tories between 1979 and 1997. Tories get terribly upset when you mention that famous quote by Margaret Thatcher, but her actions spoke louder than words. And Cameron’s failure to address this was deafening.

Cameron now recognises there is a role for the state in rebuilding that strong civic culture – and this is something I wholeheartedly agree with. I’m not so sure about what he plans to do however.

His three pronged approach lies in “identifying and working directly with the social entrepreneurs”, “engaging with community activists” and developing “a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation.” None of this seems especially well thought out and sounds remarkably similar to the sort of thing Blair was saying in the late 90s. Why should we assume that Cameron’s vagueness will go on to become any more concrete than Blair’s?

What’s more, two phrases set my alarm bells ringing. The first was his suggestion that the state should “franchise” proven social programmes. After EasyBarnet we have McSociety. Can you really reduce every civic minded venture down to a manual and a uniform? Surely, by definition, these initiatives defy mass production? Plenty of organisations have attempted to spread themselves out over the years – what will bad old government be able to do that the social entrepreneurs themselves can’t?

The franchise model seems entirely inappropriate to social enterprises. It suggests a by the numbers approach when what is needed is a careful application of fairly universal organising principles to specific local circumstances. And in what way will these franchises differ from quangoes, those bete noires of the modern Conservative Party? They sound pretty quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisational to me.

The other aspect of all this that made me uncomfortable was Cameron’s vision of social engineering. Of course he didn’t use that term as it is seen as perjorative, but how else do you sum up this “nudge” theory of establishing social norms? Much of what he had to say about developing a broader culture of social engagement seemed to be focused not on creating active citizens but on creating good ones.

It is hard to see what this three week long “National Citizens’ Service” will achieve other than telling “good” 16 year olds how to behave while trying to stop the “bad” kids from sneaking off. What good is three weeks? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on getting citizenship education right in schools, from 5-18?

Ultimately, can’t we think of a better summary of the sort of stronger society we want to create than the largely tautological “responsibility, mutuality and obligation”? What about interest? What about curiosity? And can any of this be achieved without, at the heart of it, a culture rooted in egalitarianism?

Overall then, what Cameron leaves out in this speech is as interesting as what he actually says. And at the heart of what he does have to say is a profound oxymoron: stronger societies tend to be egalitarian ones precisely because that sense of “them versus us” is diminished. Yet while Cameron recognises the need for a stronger society, he cannot bring himself to embrace equality. And having denied himself a pretty crucial tool to rebuild the “broken” society, the only thing he has left seems to be yet more state intervention.

It is a pretty hollow analysis.

MPs just “don’t get” the minimum wage

David Wilshire has been hilariously telling any journalist who will listen that his £65,000 annual salary is “dangerously close to the minimum wage” – which means that he must be working a 30 hours a day, 7 days a week (or 24 hours a day, 9 days a week – take your pick). But he isn’t the only MP who doesn’t seem to know at what level the minimum wage is set at.

Throughout the week there have been noises off about Sir Thomas Legg’s retrospective limit of £2,000 a year to claim on cleaning, with MPs and trade unionists claiming that it would mean MPs being forced to pay their cleaners less than “a decent living wage.” As is the nature of such things, this “well known fact” has started to get parroted in passing uncritically.

This being British journalism, no journo I have come across has yet had the wherewithall to sit down with a calculator for five minutes to determine the veracity of that fact but it isn’t exactly difficult. First of all, what is a living wage? Well, the London Living Wage, as supported by trade unions, is £7.60 an hour. In my unforgiveably middle class household, we pay our cleaner £9.50. From my straw poll of people I know, rates paid have varied significantly. The most I’ve been heard about is £15, which is apparently the going rate in Kensington.

Let’s assume £15 an hour, which is roughly double the living wage and which amounts to more than I earnt when I started my current job even taking into account national insurance (in fact it’s more than I currently earn, but then I’m down to a four day week these days). Let’s also assume that MPs second home is, at most, a two bedroom flat (that’s a reasonable assumption isn’t it? Second homes are meant to be boltholes, not luxurious family homes. Luxurious family homes are first homes, unless you’re on the fiddle).

It takes five hours to fully clean our four bedroom home here; no-one I know with a flat pays their cleaner for more than two hours to clean it. So, even assuming the £15 hourly rate, that would cost MPs £30 a week, or £1,560. And that’s assuming they use a cleaner 52 weeks of the year – despite the fact that for much of the year they will presumably not be using their London-based flat as Parliament will be in recess.

So, after all that, can anyone explain to me how trade unions of all people have managed to establish that £2,000 is too low a limit to spend on cleaning? The problem, I suspect, is that the people at the top of trade unions these days are about as in touch with the reality of peoples’ daily lives as, well, David Wilshire. Unlike the average MP, they don’t even hold weekly surgeries. The rot in the political class is not limited to Parliament.

Electoral Russian Roulette

One of the most remarkable things about the Labour Party is why it persists with an internal electoral system that has served it so badly. We can all remember the scandalous 2000 selection for a Mayoral candidate when Ken Livingstone won overwhelmingly amongst the membership but was blocked by a combination of the MPs and union block vote. The deputy leadership contest was nearly a repeat of this, albeit less so.

The figures, which someone has now helpfully posted on Wikipedia, tell the full story. In the final round Harman won more than 56% of the membership vote and around 52% of the combined membership and affiliated organisations’ vote. Yet, even assuming all 371 cast their votes, if just 5 MPs or MEPs had given her a lower preference over Johnson, she would have lost. Indeed, Johnson was consistently and comfortably beaten by Benn in the membership college right up to the point until the latter was excluded. We’ll never know, but it is entirely possible that Benn was robbed.

Cruddas’ vote is also interesting. He didn’t do terribly well in the membership college, yet did brilliantly amongst the affiliated organisations (I couldn’t help but laugh when I read the comment from a Cruddasista on LabourHome that their candidate had lost due to the “Soviet” electoral system – if the system was less Soviet, Cruddas would have got less far than he did!). Unlike the Livingstone debacle in 2000, all the unions and other affiliates now ballot their members, yet it is clear that the steer from the union leadership still has a significant influence in a way that CLP support does not. It would be interesting to see what the turnout for this college was: I suspect that it was quite low, indicating that a large number of union members are technically affiliating to Labour (and giving the party cash) while not identifying with the party in any way.

What we’re left with is a system that I simply fail to see is justifiable in 2007. The fact that the MPs and MEPs get a whole third of the vote to themselves is appalling, especially when you consider that they already get to pick the shortlist and get to vote in both the other colleges as well. The affiliates’ college is easier to justify, but even then it leads to a situation whereby the number of times an individual gets to vote is only limited by the size of his bank balance. Instead of this current system of one-member-one-third-of-a-vote (or alternatively one-member-however-many-votes-one-can-afford), why not simply aggregate the memberships of all the affiliate organisations and members together? If the trade union-Labour link is so vital, this should be a no-brainer. But then, the voice of the individual trade union member has always been a low priority for both the Labour Party and the trade union leadership themseles. Why else are they currently embarking on this mad rush for mergers and acquisitions?

The limits of collective bargaining

No-one can deny that collective bargaining has brought ordinary people very real rights that they could never have acquired through other means. Every employee in the country has a lot to be grateful to the Labour Movement.

But there comes a point where the disadvantages of the hive mind approach starts to outweigh the advantages. Arguably, that point was reached in the 1970s when the Unions began to behave as if they could order governments around, whether Labour or Conservative, which inevitably resulted in a backlash and thus their nemesis, the very much undead alive Mrs T.

I would argue that another example of its limitations is going on right now. For the last ten years, local authorities have been obliged to pay female workers on the same rates as male workers. Yet, fearful of job cuts, trade unions have been negotiating pay deals which undermine affected women workers, to the point that they have been frequently shown to be illegal.

In this case, collective bargaining has meant that unions have compromised womens’ rights, many of whom were never even consulted. Now, you might argue that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but the law’s the law, and the union-brokered deals have relied on these women, some of the most vulnerable in society, being ignorant of their rights.

Women have had no recourse but to get solicitors to fight their corner, and there are plenty of solicitors willing to take these cases on on a no-win no-fee basis (not least of all because they have pretty cast iron cases).

This is, in fact, a classic example of capitalism working to empower and protect people’s rights. A cause for celebration? Well, according to trade unionists, the lawyers who are helping these women are, to quote Chris Mullin, “parasites”. This view was echoed by Phil Woolas on the Today programme on Tuesday. That vanguard of socialism Nick Cohen says much the same thing.

Some of us happen to think that rights are indivisible; if there is a genuine tension as in this case, then local authorities should consult with the whole workforce, not leave it to their buddies in the unions to stitch it up for them. If Labour truly believe that women’s rights can be negotiated away by (predominently male) trade unionists, they should simply put their money where their mouths are and scrap the Equal Opportunities Act. After all, we know they only consider their much vaunted all women shortlists a priority if one of Gordon Brown’s pals doesn’t want the seat.

The most grimly ironic thing about all this though is that it was Labour who introduced pro bono in the UK as a first step to their dismantlement of legal aid. Overall, I’m sure they will be comforted in the knowledge that where trade union incompetence hasn’t left them so open to legal action, vulnerable people will have much less recourse now.