John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for February, 2011

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A rotten sort of recovery | John Harris

Friday, February 18th, 2011

The coalition’s ‘flexible’ economic model relies on cripplingly low pay and rising job insecurity

A choice passage from the coalition agreement, to which not nearly enough attention has been paid: “We will review employment and workplace laws, for employers and employees, to ensure they maximise flexibility for both parties while protecting fairness and providing the competitive environment required for enterprise to thrive.” The warmer words in that sentence now seem flimsy, to say the least. If you want a more precise flavour of where things are headed, consider one of David Cameron’s recent prescriptions for economic success, lacking any such cuddliness, and echoed in an answer at yesterday’s prime minister’s questions: the righteous path, he reckons, is all about “reducing regulation and maintaining a flexible and dynamic labour market”.

What that means is obvious enough: for millions, the same deepening insecurity they experienced under the last government, and then some.

Vince Cable’s business department has plans to make access to employment tribunals more difficult, cheered on by such friends of the worker as Boris Johnson, lately heard decrying their “barminess”. The CBI howls, as ever, about other red tape. Meanwhile the pushing of more and more work from the public to private sector shreds plenty of protection, the growth of temporary and agency work continues apace, and rising unemployment pushes wages and conditions further downward.

The essential reality of our times is captured in a socio-economic term coined by the academic Guy Standing, and used for the title of his imminent new book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. No wonder this week’s inflation figures showed prices rising twice as fast as average pay.

If the near-silent, gap-toothed street that leads from the station to the centre of town is anything to go by, Swansea is as threadbare an embodiment of hard times as you could imagine. Heavily reliant on the public sector, it faces a three-way knot of problems: the axe falling on government jobs, poor prospects for local business and the key consequence of the “flexibility” gospel – that any new jobs will be uncertain and insecure.

And the average local hourly rate? “Just above the minimum wage – not great at all,” one man tells me. “I’m sure there are jobs that pay higher,” offers a NHS staffer on £7 an hour, “but I can’t seem to find any.” A young woman who’s an office receptionist on around £6 an hour tells me her outgoings have lately increased by £100 a month, and her weekly budget leaves only £40 for anything more than travel to work, rent and bills – including food. To everyone I speak to, the combination of stagnating pay and rising cost of living seems cruel and increasingly unmanageable.

At the council refuse depot I meet Ian Alexander and his two colleagues. As litter pickers they get £6.30 an hour, with a £54 a week bonus. The latter may soon go, thanks to the council’s belated embrace of equal pay: as in many places, it looks like resulting in a levelling down for men rather than appreciable improvements for women. Meanwhile the workforce is made anxious by ever-increasing numbers of agency workers, employed on inferior terms, who come and go at speed. In rubbish collection, one man tells me, they may number 70% of employees. Among those on fixed contracts the impression is of privatisation by stealth. “There’s so much uncertainty – I dread to think where we’re going to be in three years’ time,” says Alexander, a former steelworker.

And this picture is not restricted to unskilled work, or the more blighted parts of the country. When we appealed for information and testimony about low pay, worsening conditions and ever-tightening budgets from readers of Comment is free, responses came back by the score, seemingly covering all corners of Britain, both public and private sectors, and most parts of the economy.

“I’ve not received a pay rise in nearly three years,” wrote one poster. “I earn a little above the minimum wage. On this I have to support myself and my chronically ill partner.” Another said: “We had our salaries reduced by 10% 18 months ago after two rounds of redundancies at my firm. I am lucky to have very little responsibility outside of looking after myself and my partner … a child or even a larger house would completely cripple us. Following rent, tax, bills and basic living costs, I am left with practically nothing to actually live life on. I have to claim housing benefit just to afford living in my one-bedroom flat.”

A set of telling numbers from another contributor, who has children, ran as follows: “My partner is facing a 5% pay cut, and for less money they are going to ask him to work an extra 15 hours a week so they can make redundancies. He already works 45, so he has to choose between 10 hours a day, six days a week, or eight-ish hour days, seven days a week.” And what about this: “My son is working fulltime as a painter on the Olympics site. He is paid £42 per day plus £5 daily “bonus” if he is on time. He loses the whole week’s bonus (£25) if he is late on one day.

“He has not received any pay rise since completing his apprenticeship, though he has repeatedly asked about his situation. He is expected to buy all his own painting equipment.

“To arrive at his place of work by 8am he leaves home every day at 6.30am. He has to take three different forms of transport to get to work, and I have to subsidise his living costs because he is so low-paid. I hardly need point out that this company is non-unionised.”

Such are the wonders of all that dynamism and flexibility, and an economic model with a rotten promise at its core. Work for less, with even fewer protections than before, but fear not – because that way lies recovery, and prosperity. For whom, exactly?

To watch the third film, and contribute ideas, visit: guardian.co.uk/anywherebutwestminster, or email anywherebutwestminster@gmail.com

John Harris

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John Harris: Barely making ends meet in the flexible labour market – video

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Anywhere but Westminster: John Harris meets low-paid and insecure workers in Swansea and London caught in a race to the bottom, and hears about the rise of the ‘precariat’

John Harris
John Domokos

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Barely making ends meet in the flexible labour market – video

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Anywhere but Westminster: John Harris meets low-paid and insecure workers in Swansea and London caught in a race to the bottom, and hears about the rise of the ‘precariat’

John Harris
John Domokos

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Rightwing politics is inherently pluralistic – the left needs to be too | John Harris

Friday, February 4th, 2011

It makes no sense that Peter Mandelson is allowed to join Compass while someone like Caroline Lucas is excluded

Compared with the cuts, rising economic uncertainty and all that unrest overseas, the membership criteria of an influential Labour-inclined pressure group may not seem like the pressing subject for debate. But something is afoot that will soon say a great deal about how the British left is to develop, come up with an answer to Tory-Liberal hegemony, and align itself with a political culture that’s changing at speed.

Compass, in case you didn’t know, is the inheritor of the mantle of the “soft left”, and much more besides. It provided the momentum and ideas for Jon Cruddas’s much-admired deputy leadership campaign. Of late, its work on what it calls the Good Society has exerted a powerful effect on Ed Miliband. It has long campaigned for such policies as a graduate tax, the roll-out of a living wage, a ban on advertising aimed at children, and an end to legal loan-sharking. When Gordon Brown’s premiership was corroding Labour morale to the point of misery, it took the brave step of decisively exploring what all those cliches about pluralism and “reaching out” might mean, and began working with the Greens’ Caroline Lucas, left-leaning Lib Dems, and many more.

Which brings us to the current controversy. As things stand, full Compass membership is open to Labour members, and those who have no formal political affiliation – but if you’re in another political party, you’re kept on the margins. The group’s leadership now propose opening things up, and the result has been a flurry of hostile comment. The move, say some, is “a distraction from fighting the Tories”. It will “weaken Compass’s central purpose of bringing about left of centre change within the Labour party”.

These voices ignore the fact that, even after a modest surge in numbers after the party left government, Labour is woefully short on both members, and new ideas. They pass over one of the inevitable quirks of the current rules: that a right-of-centre figure such as, say, Peter Mandelson could happily join Compass, take full voting rights and decry its very move – whereas a sympathetic, supportive politician such as Caroline Lucas must stay on the periphery. Put another way, even if you supported the Iraq war, backed rampant privatisation, and argued for keeping Trident and bringing in tuition fees, a Labour membership card will get you in; but if you campaigned against all those things and understandably joined another party, tough.

The choice is not between weakening Compass’s voice within Labour by reaching out, or staying put and somehow winning the debate. If Compass were decisively opened to voices beyond Labour, it would actually increase its clout within the party, allowing it to bring in ideas and approaches whose influence ran much wider, and thereby gave them all the more credibility. This is partly a lesson of Labour’s history: if the people on the left are prone to go all misty-eyed about the government that took power in 1945 and imagine some latter-day equivalent, it’s worth bearing in mind that it drew much of its agenda from non-Labour people: Beveridge and Keynes, both Liberals, are the best examples.

Consider also an iron rule that applies when Labour is in power: that in terms of influence, being a member of the party can cut very little ice at all, and the leadership will always be in danger of becoming captured by the usual vested interests: Rupert Murdoch, the CBI, the network of lobbyists who endlessly push governments towards the free-market right. In those circumstances, how do you maximize the potency of Compass’s beloved trinity of equality, democracy and sustainability? By limiting your reach, or maximising it?

Some other (rhetorical) questions. Would providing a space for the Lib Dems who are repelled by the coalition, and allowing them to harden their attachment to centre-left ideas, be to the benefit of British politics, or its detriment? Does Labour need to become way more green? If the cuts are to be resisted on the basis not of a reactive “no”, but a different vision of society, hadn’t those opposed to them better build alliances beyond the Labour movement?

And note this. Rightwing politics is inherently pluralistic, and the dominance free-market economics — self-evidently — is built on much more than just the Conservative party. It has companies and corporations to propagate its view of the world. It controls most of the media. It knows the power of lobby groups and NGOs, and it has scores of them, from the Taxpayers Alliance to the Institute Of Directors. For years, the British right has been a case study in reaching-out – which is why, whenever they take power, it feels like we’re under the rule of not just a party, but an entire social tribe. And now, having embraced coalition politics (no qualms about party membership cards there), they’re doing a very good job of it.

The question is: what is the left’s answer to all this? To try and put jump-leads on a monolithic politics that passed its sell-by date years ago, or attempt a new approach that will actually be to Labour’s benefit? We’re about to find out.

John Harris

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Uncool Britannia: how British culture turned Tory

Friday, February 4th, 2011

British culture is going through a blue period, with actors, musicians and artists all happily admitting that they’re privately educated Conservative toffs. What happened?

You may have missed it, but early last month, a very telling photograph appeared in the newspapers. Snapped on New Year’s Day by a couple out for a walk on Coombe Hill in the Chilterns, it featured a party of eight – including David and Samantha Cameron, education secretary Michael Gove, film director Tim Burton, and the latter’s extremely posh other half Helena Bonham Carter. According to subsequent gossip, the latter couple had been introduced to the Camerons by Bonham Carter’s one-time Westminster school contemporary Nick Clegg. Others suggest that the two couples have been friends for years.

The group had reportedly stayed at Chequers, the prime minister’s country retreat, on New Year’s Eve – where the conversation doubtless turned to Bonham Carter’s role in The King’s Speech, the most accomplished example to date of our new appetite for tales of troubled bluebloods and intrigue on country estates. In its own way, then, this was an image of the New Britain as telling as Tony Blair’s famous Downing Street encounter with Noel Gallagher: proof of a new blurring of Tory politics and popular culture that speaks volumes about our times.

Other examples abound. There is surely a deeply zeitgeisty aptness to the fact that Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, has recently become a working Tory peer. Though whispers about her own arrival in the upper house have died down, TV’s aristo homebuyer and make-and-mend guru Kirstie Allsopp remains an equally fervent supporter of the Conservatives. And what about Gilbert & George, apparently enthusiastic Tories whose civil partnership and combination of tweedy tradition and metropolitan urbanity surely make them honorary Cameroons? “We admire Margaret Thatcher greatly,” George said in 2009. “She did a lot for art. Socialism wants everyone to be equal. We want to be different.”

Last year, Tracey Emin came good on pre-election talk about her pro-Tory leanings – sparked by her loud opposition to Labour’s 50p tax rate – by claiming Britain now had “the best government we’ve ever had”. On the campaign trail, David Cameron launched Tory plans for a new National Citizen Service with Michael Caine, and a proposed national “School stars” talent contest in the company of Take That’s Gary Barlow. “There’s no one more with-it than David,” the latter assured an audience in Nantwich, Cheshire; by way of returning the compliment, Cameron hailed Take That as “Britain’s best ever boyband”.

For sure, there remain plenty of celebrity Tory endorsers who do not push quite the same A-list buttons, and instead suggest a time-honoured mixture of seaside summer seasons, golf jumpers and ITV: Cilla Black, Ronnie Corbett, William “Ken Barlow” Roache, Joan Collins, the ex-pop star and I’m A Celebrity contestant David Van Day. Pulses did not exactly quicken when they were joined by such names as Matt Willis, an erstwhile member of the teen-pop trio Busted, and Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley.

Yet the main point is inarguable: there is a whiff of stardust around the Tories that would once have been unthinkable. It’s easily forgotten now, but there were very serious rumours about Mark Ronson DJing at the 2009 Tory conference, and giving Cameron a public endorsement. Now, in a twist no one would have seen coming, Courtney Love recently attended a “Port and Policy” debate organised by Oxford University’s Conservative Association, and was given the post of “non-executive officer for rock’n'roll”. Photos of the accompanying revellers show Love – who is dating Kirstie Allsopp’s art dealer brother, Henry – dutifully posing in front of a union flag with a mostly-male array of student Tories, who look about as non-rock’n'roll as you might imagine. What Kurt Cobain would have made of it all is anyone’s guess.

There is, then, something afoot: a waning of the old stigma that got in the way of “creatives” backing the Tories, and resulted in any who did facing loud ridicule. Consider the case of the synth-pop icon Gary Numan – these days a name it’s perfectly OK to drop, with a dependable cult following. Back in the 1980s, his public statements of support for the Thatcher government made him a music press pariah, and played some role in his fall (as late as 2003, however, he was unrepentant: “Thatcher had a clear idea about everything and seemed to be massively pro-British against the rest of the world,” he said). In 2010, by contrast, the other Gary’s campaigning for the Tories caused no career damage whatsoever: it simply stood as an above-average photo opportunity, crashlanded on the evening news, and was promptly forgotten.

So what has changed? Cameron’s diligent attempts to rebrand his party by affecting the role of the modern, bike-riding urban dad and paying endless tributes to his favourite rock bands have undoubtedly helped. The same applies to the feting of his supposedly switched-on wife.

Much more important, though, is the wider context. Whether austerity will bring a renewed ideological charge to the relationship between politics and culture is an interesting point: certainly, the famous names who have protested about arts cuts and library closures suggest that very familiar battle-lines are already reappearing. That said, we still largely live in the post-Blair age, in which the right-left divide is not nearly as entrenched as it once was, and people’s political preferences count for much less. Whisper it, then – but after decades of ignominy, it might just be OK to be a pop-culture Conservative.

In any case, the arts are aligning themselves with the Tories in ways much more subtle and insidious than simple endorsements. Just as New Labour managed to slot itself into the wider moment known as Cool Britannia, so there are lines that can be drawn from musicians, actors, film-makers and novelists to people at the top of government. Here, the arriviste likes of Barlow are less important than a new elite who speak with the same accents as people at the top, and attest to a simple fact: the privately educated seem to be newly dominant, and a sharp change of tone and taste stretches from politics, to the arts, and beyond.

The demotic affectations – glottal stops, photo-ops in greasy spoon cafes, an affected love of football – that were obligatory 15 years ago have completely disappeared. Last year, there was a flurry of news coverage when the Word magazine discovered that during one week in October, 60% of the acts in the UK charts came from privately educated backgrounds. When this story was revived last week in an item on the Today programme it brought a furious emailed response from one Jane Blount, better known as the mother of that renowned Harrow alumnus James Blunt.

Barely a day goes past, it seems, when you cannot pick up a newspaper and find the latest sensation in music, or film, or literature, expounding on an early life of dormitories, tuck shops and “prep”. Take, for example, the actor Dominic West – AKA Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, and just cast in an ITV drama as the serial killer Fred West. He went to Eton, his wife is a former countess, he has a daughter from a relationship with a member of the Astor dynasty, and he is – but of course – a friend of the Camerons. He is also said to have once had a soft spot for the prime minister’s wife. When asked, he has occasionally seemed uneasy about his background, though he has tended to end up sounding much the same rather questionable notes as the Old Etonians in government. “It probably helps that we now live in a meritocracy,” he mused two years ago, “so we don’t need to worry where people came from.”

Earlier this month, the Daily Mail roundly ignored such sentiments, and captured the new mood in a list of “Britain’s 50 most powerful posh people under 30″: they included Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, the rather irksome comedian Jack Whitehall, two members of the “nu-folk” sensations Mumford & Sons, and Sophie Winkleman, better known as Big Suze from Peep Show.

Accompanying the list was a piece by Dylan Jones, the long-standing editor of GQ, another supporter of the Tories, and the author of the in-his-own words book Cameron On Cameron. “Privately educated scions of the great and the good no longer feel that everyone is against them,” he wrote.

“What is more, they are happy to proclaim their status and to exploit it. Look around you. So many fields of public life are now dominated by those with, at the very least, a private education, [and] in many cases wealth and in a few instances a title. In the arts, sport, television, fashion, music, nightlife and, of course, politics, it’s positively Brideshead Revisited Revisited.”

Or, if you prefer, Born To Rule Britannia.

John Harris

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