John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for January, 2011

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Feeling the squeeze? We want to hear from you | John Harris

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

The public and private sectors seem to be engaged in a race to the bottom on pay, so let us know how it is affecting you

One of the avowed aims of our Anywhere But Westminster series is to push well beyond the current news agenda into places and themes that not enough of the mainstream media bother with. In fact, if everyone else is metaphorically zigging, we’d rather zag – which brings us to our third film and article, and what we want to explore.

With the annual advent of bonus season, more news space than ever has been dedicated to pay at the top. But the position of people at the other end of the pay scale looks more fragile than ever, and not nearly enough attention is being paid to what’s happening to millions. In the public sector, wages are being squeezed as never before (witness the council worker we spoke to in Altrincham, who’s just had his £13,000 salary cut by £750 – he appears at around 3:50 into the video). In the private sector, a similar race to the bottom – often involving temporary and agency workers – seems to be setting in. If you thought we’d seen the limits of labour market “flexibility” under the last government, think again.

Meanwhile, VAT goes up, inflation rises, and the cost of running a car or even taking public transport threatens to become prohibitively expensive. Issues such as immigration and housing blend into the debate. A whole swath of the consumer economy, from budget supermarkets to pound shops, has sprung up to serve a part of the labour force that is too often ignored. And while competition is used to justify rewards at the top, it supposedly excuses nosediving wages at the bottom.

So we want to hear from anyone who lives on low pay, and is feeling the squeeze on their wage. Given that the series is so geographically specific, we’d also like on-the-ground intelligence about places that are particular bywords for the low-wage economy, and what “flexibility” does to them. John Domokos and I will be back on the following thread for the next three days.

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Why the Conservatives need someone with the common touch now that Coulson has gone

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

With the resignation of Andy Coulson, some Tories fear the party no longer has a voice of the people

In the wake of Andy Coulson’s exit from Downing Street, one of the more interesting responses came from Conservative maverick David Davis. Most current Tory high-ups, he told the BBC, “don’t come from a background where they had to scrape for the last penny”, whereas Coulson conveyed the views of “the poorer part of the country” and will be missed. Davis went on: “There he was, an Essex boy, council-house lad, made his way in the world and frankly never minced words.”

So, who will step into the breach as the Tories’ voice of the people? Davis mentioned Eric Pickles and Sayeeda Warsi, though he rather shredded the proletarian credentials of the latter by saying they applied only “in her younger days”. In fairness, the Tory part of the cabinet contains a smattering of regular(ish) Joes: William Hague, Liam Fox and Caroline Spelman all went to comprehensives, but cannot quite match up to Davis’s idea of what Coulson brought to the party.

So time for some blue-sky thinking. Step forward Andrew Rosindell, born in Romford, and the MP there since 2001 – state-educated, and fond of campaigning with a dog wrapped in a union flag. To quote from his Wikipedia page: “Rosindell’s political views are firmly right-wing: he is a Eurosceptic and supports the re-introduction of the death penalty and the detention of asylum seekers.” No word-mincing there, then. What are they waiting for?

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The Rolling Stones’ guide to world politics

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

From the Iraq war to the financial crisis, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have a song that seems to fit the occasion

As was reported yesterday, among the tonnes of leaked papers about the Israel-Palestine conflict, there lurks a particularly remarkable memo from September 1999. It offers advice about Palestinian negotiating tactics, and suggests adopting an approach recommended by the Rolling Stones in 1969. From the top, then: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you can get what you need.”

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards will doubtless be thrilled with their new role as geopolitical gurus – but their songs have, on the odd occasion, dealt with such topics as a matter of deliberate intent. In the wake of the Gulf war, they released a single titled Highwire, pointing out how the US had once aided Saddam Hussein; on 2005’s A Bigger Bang, there was a piece about the Bush administration called Sweet Neo Con (it rhymed “certain” with “Haliburton”).

True to the spirit of the aforementioned memo, here are four Stones songs with completely unintended messages about war, peace and world affairs . . .

Tony Blair, the Iraq war, and the views of the attorney general

The Last Time, 1965

Thanks to the Chilcot inquiry, we now know Lord Goldsmith advised that invading Iraq without a second resolution would be illegal, but that Blair thought his views merely “provisional”. Shades, perhaps, of this early Stones toe-tapper: “I told you once and I told you twice/ But you never listened to my advice . . .”

Extraordinary rendition

Dirty Work, 1985

The Stones predict contracted-out torture: “Let somebody do the dirty work/ I never see no grease on you baby/ Never roll your sleeves up, do you, never baby/Let somebody do the dirty work/ Do it all, do it all for free/ While you’re out having all the fun/They’ll take the blame when the trouble comes.”

The Non-Aligned Movement

Sittin’ on a Fence, 1967

While conflicts rage and the big powers square up to each other, the 118 member countries of the NAM want no part of it. So, think of such noble nations as Belarus, India, Haiti and the Maldives, while humming this Jagger/Richards throwaway: “I’m just sittin’ on a fence/ You can say I got no sense/ Trying to make up my mind/ Really is too hard to find/ So I’m sittin’ on a fence.”

Why finance capital is ultimately king

You Got the Silver, 1969

Why do the banks get away with murder? Why does no one ever make a move on offshore tax havens? Over to Richards: “You got my heart, you got my soul/ You got the silver you got the gold/ You got the diamonds from the mine/ Well that’s all right, it’ll buy some time.” This is what all western governments believed until autumn 2008. Doh!

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The British high street: RIP

Saturday, January 22nd, 2011

As HMV announces the closure of dozens of branches, and other big-name retailers continue to struggle, is the future for our town centres all Poundlands and betting shops?

Two and a bit years ago, it was the demise of Woolworths; this week, the predicament of the British high street has been reflected in the increasingly uncertain fate of HMV. Yesterday it emerged that British retail sales across the board had suffered their worst December since 1998. And in the wake of profit warnings and a plunging share price, HMV’s suppliers have been cutting back credit, debt advisers have been called in to look at the business’s finances, and 60 shops are now set for closure – including 20 branches of Waterstone’s, the once-thriving high street name that was folded into HMV in 1998, and may now be sold off. This week, a number of record companies announced that they would support the chain by leaving their trading terms unaltered, but the latter half of 2011 could be yet grimmer, because without the additional goodwill of the people who make DVDs, computer games and the rest, it will be almost impossible to build up stock before Christmas.

In response, as with Woolies, scores of voices have been dredging up their HMV memories. You will doubtless have your own: mine go back to the mid-1980s, and endless trips to the two branches on Manchester’s Market Street, where I would habitually buy 12in singles by the Style Council, and wonder whether to spend what money remained on the Redskins, Easterhouse or the Faith Brothers (don’t ask). Of late, as the music industry tumbles towards doom, I have been thrown by HMV’s decision to push music further and further towards the back of their shops in favour of more profitable lines, but have still been gripped by a regular urge to go inside in search of some unexpected musical discovery. Certainly, the idea of London’s Oxford Street without their two signature stores seems very strange.

Yet that may be where we are headed. In countless towns, and parts of our cities, the basic story is simple enough: first, the big chain stores saw off independent shops, but now they themselves are either ailing, or off somewhere else. The result, to use a phrase invented by the New Economics Foundation (Nef), is a passage “from clone town to ghost town”, driven by three factors, much more deep-seated than economic ups and downs, which point to the likely shape of the retail future. First, the rise and rise of the internet – 39% of CDs and 34% of DVDs are bought online, yet only a miserable 10% of HMV’s business happens there. Looking ahead, music, films and games – and, yes, books – will increasingly be downloaded rather than physically owned, and we’ll also see to even more of our personal finances and house buying online (according to the Ordnance Survey, between 2008 and 2011, the high street presence of building societies came down by 29%).

Second comes the ever-growing tyranny of the supermarkets, and third, the retail trade’s ongoing shift from the cramped environs of urban streets to places where the big names can stretch out and keep their customers captive. Increasingly, when you think of Boots or Next, you will not picture a standard-issue, high street shop, but a much bigger construction, either placed within a town centre “retail destination”, or plonked on a ring road in an American-style strip mall built around a vast car park. By comparison, the idea of walking down the street while doing your shopping looks quaint and inconvenient, and the likes of HMV find themselves laid lower and lower.

In February last year, Nef published figures for shop closures in the 12 months up to April 2009. The death of Woolworths accounted for 807 stores. The Stylo group, which owns the shoe chains Barratts and Priceless, had shut 220; 214 Celebrations card shops had gone, and another 125 shops had become empty thanks to the death of the misfiring entertainment chain Zavvi.

There was also bad news from chains such as JJB Sports (55 closed shops), the Officers Club (32), and good old Passion for Perfume (45), and since then, the great emptying-out of the high street has continued. Philip Green’s Arcadia group is set to close up to 300 shops, mostly less-than-sexy brands, such as Burton and Dorothy Perkins. The once-ubiquitous chain Game has announced that 90 of its branches are going.

Every six months, people from a research firm called the Local Data Company walk the streets of around 800 towns and cities and chronicle their fate. “There is a fundamental change happening,” says their business development director, Matthew Hopkinson. “I can’t prove it yet, but that’s my gut feeling.” He mentions plenty of ailing businesses, but also what’s happening to thriving chains. “The big retailers – the Nexts and the Topshops – are cutting their number of stores, and they’re going for big-box formats,” he says. “It’s cheaper to do business that way, and they don’t have to contend with councils. These are controlled environments.

“It’s best to have total control over what the consumer sees, smells and everything else. Because once you’ve got them under your roof, you can manipulate them until the cows come home. And on the high street, it’s very difficult to do that. That’s what the supermarkets have taught us.”

After decades of ceaseless expansion, talking again about how Tesco et al have strangled the high street might seem like a cliche, but as the so-called big four extend their business into lines once undreamed of, it’s easy to miss the potentially momentous consequences. “They’re not really supermarkets any more,” says Hopkinson. “They’re almost becoming mini-villages. You get your milk, bread and all your food, but Tesco is launching places where you can get your hair cut. It’s: ‘Buy your school uniform, go to the doctor – and if you come to us, you get your loyalty points, and it’ll be cheaper than anywhere else.’”

Among other consequences, this means the retail equivalent of the “squeezed middle”, and the likely survival of only those businesses that sit either side of it. “The quality, niche guys – like Burberry – have done bloody well, and the Poundlands and 99p Stores have done bloody well,” Hopkinson adds. “But if you’re in the middle ground, you’re right where the supermarkets are.” For proof of this polarisation, look at recent headlines about some of the few high street businesses that seem to be on the rise. Bookmakers are doing well, increasing their share of the high street over the last two years by 5%. Meanwhile, the 99p Stores chain recently announced that it wants to increase its shops from 138 to 600.

At the same time, an even more pernicious divide seems to be taking root. When I talk to Tim Danaher, editor of the trade magazine Retail Week, he makes a distinction between two kinds of place, and what tumult on the high street means for each of them. The essential divide, he explains, is between such urban centres as, say, Manchester, Bristol and Leeds, and much smaller places, which will feel the pinch: your Tauntons, Grimsbys, Barnsleys and Wrexhams.

“In our top towns, with a handful of exceptions, we’re getting to a stage where the focus of our high street is going to be on fashion,” he says. “But in the secondary towns, who knows? Value retail is growing, but it’ll only go so far. Beyond that, what’s there going to be?”

Empty shops, I suggest.

“Empty shops. That’s right.”

The first panic about increasingly gap-toothed high streets happened in early 2009. The recession was in full swing, and the average shop vacancy rate in towns and cities was forecast to rise to 15%. The independents that remained in urban centres were falling like flies, and the only businesses that were bravely announcing expansion were such titans as Asda, Subway and KFC. There was talk of empty shops being handed to artists, musicians and community groups: in April of that year, the government announced a £3m package to encourage precisely that – though its effects on most high streets seemed negligible.

Two years on, we’re supposedly out of recession, but the picture is still grim. The aforementioned 15% average vacancy rate will soon be passed, and in some places – such archetypal “secondary towns” as Rotherham and Margate are good examples – the figure is closer to a third. There are ongoing complaints about distant retail landlords, ever rising rents and the current business rates regime – although some people in the trade say there are glimmers of hope in the government’s localism bill, whereby councils will have powers to take a much more flexible approach to the last.

In the midst of all this change, one set of statistics has always chilled me to the bone. It comes from the work of a US academic named Kenneth Stone, who famously studied what happened when Wal-Mart moved into the state of Iowa. In the following decade, the state lost more than 555 grocery stores, 298 hardware stores, 293 building suppliers, 158 women’s clothing shops, 153 shoe outlets, 116 drug stores and 111 children’s clothing stores: in total, 7,326 businesses disappeared.

Is this where Britain is going? At Nef, Elizabeth Cox has been examining the fate of our high streets for eight years; looking ahead, she sounds a little more upbeat than I expected: “We’re not America, are we? That’s the worst-case scenario, and we have to heed that warning. But I think there is more opposition to that vision in the UK, and people are trying to do something different.” That said, she agrees that the current moment is fraught with danger: “It’s about whether people see this as an opportunity to build something different, or they say, ‘We’re doomed, and we’ll leave these places closed down’. That’s the fork in the road at which we’ve arrived.”

So what will the high street look like in, say, 2030?

“It’s going to be full of services, and social aspects,” says Hopkinson. “It’ll be full of hairdressers, tanning salons, cafes and restaurants. There might be doctors and dentists there. And it’ll become very leisure-focused. If there’s an area where people like the architecture, and they can socialise, and not just shop, that’s what will happen. You’ll get a place where people will go for community.”

That, I suggest, sounds rather optimistic. What of the more blighted areas of Britain, where there simply isn’t the money to sustain that kind of vision?

“That’s where you’ll get the analogy of Shitsville, Tennessee,” he says. “If you haven’t got nice buildings, or any events, or any reason to go there unless you live or work there, you’ve got a problem.”

Welcome, then, to one very depressing vision of the future. Lattes, book festivals, and high-end casualwear if you’re lucky; pound shops, Ladbrokes and boarded-up businesses if you’re not. If 21st-century Britain often feels like two countries, we may not have seen the half of it.

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At the sharp end of austerity unions are still our best hope | John Harris

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

This is a year for unions to find the clout and relevance millions are relying on – not feed the caricatures of Tory papers

Sedition! Treason! Infamy! When it comes to the royal wedding, according to a poll by ComRes, 59% of us couldn’t care less or are “largely indifferent” – but if you are planning communal revels, you should supposedly be ready to guard yourself against the wrecking tactics of the beastly Labour movement. “Union militants target Royal Wedding,” howls the Mail; “Union boss threatens Prince William strike chaos,” says the Sun.

The provenance of these stories looks fuzzy, to say the least. The train drivers’ union Aslef is one of two unions accused of planning such mischief – and though there is an ongoing disagreement with London Underground about bank holiday overtime payments, a union insider tells me the idea of a wedding-day stoppage is no less than “frogshit”, and agrees a strike that day would demonstrate “a staggeringly pisspoor idea of public relations”.

At the Public and Commercial Services Union accusations that members might purposely spoil the nuptials get short shrift: “It’s a bank holiday,” one press officer calmly points out, “so most of them won’t be working anyway.” Not that any of this will calm hysterical shrieking from the Conservative press: self-evidently, if 2011 looks set to see endless headlines about unions, absurd caricatures and non-stories will pile up.

Today I spent time among real-life trade unionists, and sampled a mood split between rising fear and defiance. At the TUC’s London HQ Unite was launching Don’t Break Britain, a campaign focused on the national TUC demonstration that will make its way through the capital on 26 March. There was optimistic talk of “the biggest march this country has ever seen”, surpassing even the historic anti-war protest of February 2003.

Contrary to the usual cartoon of dinosaurs marooned in the analogue age, the day’s proceedings were being streamed online, and Q&A sessions included questions sent in via the web. In the foyer, I met two young trailblazers from a company called Mass1, which is providing the union with a means of massed intelligence-gathering and dialogue, via text messaging: 140,000 Unite members have already signed up, and the numbers are rising. They not only take part in ongoing opinion polling, but serve notice of the kind of sharp-end developments that the government hopes the mainstream media will not notice, or ignore.

This pair showed me dozens of messages, the most interesting of which concerned under-the-radar news from people working in local government.”Many, many jobs going at Knowsley council,” went one. “Notices have been given out people asked to re-apply for their jobs which are now lower paid and called different titles.” Another text ran: “Staff at my work don’t get replaced – their jobs are given to agency workers and contractors who have to work nights, 7 days a week, 52 wks a year. i know an agency worker who does 60-plus hours a week – is this safe?”

Such is the reality of Eric Pickles’s moronic insistence that councils can somehow do “more with less”. As a Unite rep from Hull told me, the reality is redundancies, skyrocketing contracting-out, and determined attacks on salaries, hours, sick pay and overtime – matched by under-reported moves in the private sector, where the fretful economic climate seems to be sparking a similar race to the bottom.

All of which underlines an inescapable fact: that those who dread the coming austerity will surely have to make common cause with the only organisations with the finances and capacity to make things happen. For sure, as the unions make their way into the political foreground Ed Miliband will probably be nowhere to be seen, but that is less about any kind of sellout than the realpolitik that faces any Labour leader. But for those of us who do not have to fret about swing voters and the like, the only option will be to set aside any differences of opinion, and get on with it.

There are, however, real problems. There was a troubling dissonance on display today, as the aforementioned digital innovations jarred against a disappointing sense of business as usual. Unite’s outgoing general secretary, Tony Woodley, delivered the kind of speech that makes the Sun and Mail’s attacks a cinch: he made repeated reference to “our class”, and maligned the Tory frontbench as “Thatcher’s bastards”. In the hall there was a glaring lack of women, young people and anyone who wasn’t white. The question would not go away: what of that great, quiet swath of public opinion that is fearful of austerity, but will not respond to the unions’ time-honoured practice of appointing angry men to issue standard-issue rhetoric?

Which brings us to the small matter of strikes, and how badly they may play. The day began at 10am, and it took until 11:18 for Len McCluskey – Unite’s new general secretary, and a more nuanced and appealing operator than some might think – to bow to the inevitable and mention “co-ordinated industrial action”. In the Guardian Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union has held out the prospect of synchronised walkouts over cuts to public sector pensions, and he is not alone. Here, though, may lie the difference between public sympathy and hostility – because to many egged on by the government, the packages the unions want to protect will look comfy and ripe for the chop, and industrial action in their defence will suggest sectional shouting rather than pursuit of any great cause.

That may not be fair – but the circumstances with which even the most righteous movements are confronted rarely are. For now, surely, the imperative should not be playing to type, but devoting every ounce of energy to seizing on an increasingly anxious public mood, and decisively turning it.

Towards the end of this morning, Unite’s activists heard from their assistant general secretary, Gail Cartmail, there to deliver a speech about the shrinking of the state. She spoke calmly, and sounded exactly the kind of note that had been lacking. “The much-maligned state is hot meals for old people,” she said. “It’s playgroups for parents who need a safe space. The state is the midwife, and the mortuary technician. It’s our protection against crime and antisocial behaviour.”

They were heart-stopping words, which only pointed up how much is at stake, in two rather different ways. 2011 may well decide the future of the welfare state, but it will also answer another question: as the government makes ever-louder noises about stifling them with new legislation, will the unions remain the prisoner of other people’s caricatures – or find the relevance and clout on which millions of us are counting?

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