We Should be Working 15 Hour Weeks… but I’ll take 25.

overworked

“So, we are working harder and longer than ever, and although there’s an abundance of wealth out there, less and less of it is being paid in real wages.”

Imagine having lots of spare time. Now there’s a thought! Maybe it’s slipped from memory, but we’ve all had periods of our lives that came with enough free time to encourage us to develop in individual and sometimes eccentric ways; some learn to play the guitar or cook, others work their way through the classics of literature, or go travelling. Some people appear to do very little with their spare time; but physical inactivity shouldn’t be misunderstood; still waters run deep, or so they say.

These periods normally occur before the social pressure of getting a steady job, an extortionate mortgage and building a little family really begin to squeeze.  Of course, a full-time job these days comes with a UK average week of over 39 hours to go with it, which has the knock on effect of sending your spare time into outer space for about forty-five years.

But let’s just imagine we could have both: spare time to indulge our natures and the same standard of living. If you were working 20-25 hours a week with your current full-time pay, you would have time and energy to really enjoy the family, maybe get involved with the community or see old friends. There’s usually something people want to do but don’t have the time: learn a new language, write, paint, play a particular sport, complete a course on feminism… the list is endless. Trying to do any of these things and work almost 40 hours a week reminds me of the Woody Allen line, “I took a course on speed-reading and now I’ve read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.” What we are talking about is having the time to develop who you really are, instead of allowing ourselves to be defined by the means with which we exchange our labour for money.

John Maynard Keynes

John Maynard Keynes

This was part of how John Maynard Keynes saw our society unfolding, back in 1930. He thought that with our living standards set to rise like never before, we would be able to own or access the necessary material things of life and therefore have a greatly reduced reason to work. Consumerism, as we know it today, was just a hatching plan in 1930. Edward Bernays had a year before staged the famous ladies smoking their ‘torches of freedom‘ and with it the concept of Public Relations and advertising (as a means to influence) was born.

A few years ago, Larry Elliott in The Guardian suggested that the reason Keynes’ prediction of such a reduced working week had failed to materialise, was down to ‘our desire’ to work harder in order to keep up with our wealthier neighbours. There may be a tiny element of truth in this, but I think there is a whole bunch of other things being tactically ignored.

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I think first of all we have to look at wages. Real wages have been generally falling for nearly 30 years in the UK. That’s why two generations ago it was common for an average family to live on one breadwinner’s wage. Then we came to our parents’ generation, the baby boom, who found a full-time job now needed supplementing, usually with the other parent taking on part-time work. Our generation has normalised the idea of both parents going out to work full-time; you have to question if the social movement of workplace gender equality has been a victory for campaigners, or if it was politically allowed to increase government revenue in taxes and obfuscate the shrinking of real wages.

An average family starting out today (even with both parents in work), will have by comparison with their grandparents, shocking levels of debt.

Real wages, 1964-2012 (Office for National Statistics)

Real wages, 1964-2012 (Office for National Statistics)

The above graph shows how wages have compared to inflation. You can see how the ECG of the boom and bust years is replaced in the early 1980s by the spidery scrawl of a dying villain. These are the neoliberal years; the adoption by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party of the economic theories of Milton Friedman et al., which are still held deeply in the bosom of the current Tory government. But it was also embraced by New Labour, spearheaded by Tony Blair in 1997. Jeremy Corbyn’s recent election as leader of the Labour Party, has created a schism within the organisation, as Blairites repel the principles of peace, justice and democracy from the new leader. From 1988 onwards, the graph tracks a serrated, quarter-century journey, mostly downhill. We are looking at an obvious decline, culminating in the death spasms of the recent financial crash.

GDP per capita, by contrast, has risen almost without fail, year after year… until the crash in 2008, but it has now surpassed the pre-crash level, indicating the recovery that we are always hearing lots about, but seeing very little.

UK GDP per capita, 1964-2014 (ONS)

UK GDP per capita, 1964-2014 (ONS)

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So although we are working hard and long hours, and the obvious fact that there’s an abundance of wealth out there, less and less of it is being paid in real wages.

The very notion of a tax haven summons up images of sun-drenched remote islands, palm trees, anchored yachts and cocktails. But this stereotype has benefited those who take advantage of the reality. The truth is, Britain itself is a tax haven, with corporate and business tax breaks and avoidance schemes orchestrated from the City of London. At the Treasury Select Committee this year, George Osborne proudly stated that Britain has “one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the western world”.

When CEOs such as Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP, who has a salary of £30million, earn 780 times more than their average employees, you begin to see how the huge gap between the top earners and everyone else has distorted the general equality that Keynes must have assumed was going to be a continuous aspect of social progression. That the present corporate world seems comfortable with the notion that one CEO can be as valuable as 780 employees, displays its lack of social conscience, not only in regards to employment level, but in the perpetuation of increasing global inequality.

I think the real reason Keynes’ vision failed to materialise has more to do with the advent of advertising and mass consumerism. Can he be blamed for failing to anticipate the uptake, through the ballooning influence of barely regulated or taxed financial institutions and corporations, of neoliberalism in almost all western governments, and their subsequent handing over of power (and mind-blowing wealth) to the banking and corporate world?

Heroes of Neoliberalism

Heroes of Neoliberalism

Sources:

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_368928.pdf
http://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/sep/01/economics
http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jan/31/real-wages-falling-longest-period-ons-record
http://highpaycentre.org/blog/ftse-100-bosses-now-paid-an-average-143-times-as-much-as-their-employees

http://topincomes.parisschoolofeconomics.eu/

The Great British Truncheon (part 1)

Orgreave-Battle-Picket-li-005

“I have no particular love for the idealised ‘worker’, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask which side I am on.”

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Growing up in the North of England during the 1970s and 80s seemed a fairly normal existence to me. Playing street-football in the evenings, watching T.I.S.W.A.S on Saturday mornings, and getting through the fights and scrapes of school was a pretty standard week. But behind all of that, a shift was spreading through the psyche of Britain. It emanated from Westminster, where the government was force-marching the country on a long journey right-ward. Songs of ‘personal freedom’, ‘personal wealth’, and ‘privatisation’ were perpetually sung by its leaders, and these catchy individualist tunes were beginning to lodge in the minds of much of the nation.

The council estate in Rotherham where I lived from a baby until 15, was populated with straight-laced, working-class people, tasked mainly with the gruelling labour of cutting coal from the earth, forging steel in the furnaces of British Steel and looking after their family the best they could. There was little crime that I can recall, so a police car parked on the street was rare. Yet the vast majority of these families were almost by nature distrustful of the police, referring to them in bad-news tones. We kids copied and did the same. I still do until I check myself. I don’t think this is unusual of working class communities. I think it’s older than the hills.

Today it’s easy to forget that each of the rights we now take for granted, has had to be fought and won, usually by the working classes, through protest and organised confrontation. British history is spilling over with the blood of up-risers, and at such flashpoints, since the mid 1800s at least, it has been the police who stands protector to the ruling classes, and therefore the opposer of any urgent demand for change from the masses.

In 2012, the South Yorkshire police referred itself to the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission – the body served with investigating complaints brought against the police). It did so in light of the investigative work of a local BBC journalist (click here to watch the documentary) and The Guardian. The charges are some of the worst possible for a police force to have levelled at it and include assault, perverting the course of justice and perjury. The criminal evidence unearthed (that the current South Yorkshire police force must feel substantial enough to effectively ‘turn itself in’) dates back over 30 years to the miner’s strike; specifically, one day in that strike.

On the 18th June 1984, a quiet northern village between Rotherham and Sheffield became the backdrop for the outpouring of violence that must, it seems, accompany any political ‘regime change’.

The strike was in its third month, and had started to gain some positive momentum from national and local papers, as well as increasing public support. Even so, a number of men going to the picket that day found it unusual that the police allowed so many miners to gather together without turning any away. The mass picketing at the coking plant had been going on for four weeks, and police had always tried to break up the number of pickets getting to the site by stopping cars, making arrests and even building road-blocks. But on this day, the police even escorted coaches full of miners off the M1, through the shimmering farmland, to the coking plant at Orgreave.

In South Yorkshire, industry and agriculture mingle together at their edges in acres of beautiful wasteland, meadows of wildflowers and stones. This was predominantly the terrain at Orgreave, the land cut across with winding country roads, and the the flow of the River Rother, towards the Don. As the gates opened to allow in the first truck carrying coal, some of the miner’s, as was routine, jeered and pushed at the police line in a halfhearted attempt to break through the police line and get to the truck. But on that hot day, instead of simply pushing the men back to the picket line as before, the police went berserk.

Within the police squads were British Army soldiers dressed in police uniform, minus the officers’ number badge. These soldiers had no policing training. They had no idea how to even make an arrest. As the violence increased, more and more police/army arrived at the site and were immediately sent into the fray.

orgreave truncheon

Wherever the miners ran, police lay in wait for them, usually on horseback, but sometimes with dogs. Men unaware of the police attack and walking back to the picket with cups of tea were suddenly ambushed by police with truncheons. Near the coking plant, a few lines of workers tried to rally, but were swallowed up by riot police and again the swinging truncheons. Throughout the day, the violence escalated, with with the police continuing it barrage of brutality. Some miners threw what looked like stones, which incurred yet more police battery raids.
By the end of it, men of both ‘sides’ needed medical care. Some miners had suffered broken limbs. The police figures had more officers reported hurt than miners. Ninety-five men were arrested that day, all charged with riot.

Why did this happened? Why did a police force, having sworn an oath to uphold human rights and maintain the peace, on that day throw it under the hooves of its police horses and the boots of its riot police? Well, as always, there’s a bigger picture.

In 1977 the UK police force was having serious problems recruiting and maintaining officers. The Labour government had commissioned a review that concluded the force required a 45% pay rise. Labour and the police force had parted ways when the force had been denied a union and the right to strike in 1919, so there wasn’t a great deal of solidarity between them. Instead of implementing the 45% fully, the government decided to phase in an agreed amount, which didn’t really solve their recruitment problem and did nothing for police/labour relations.

But then in 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power, and one of the first things she did was grant the police the full 45% pay award. Whatever Thatcher was, she was no fool. She knew that in order to change Britain’s direction as much as she intended, she would need the police in her pocket. Five years later, at Orgreave, she got a HUGE return on that investment.

Another thing to know is that in 1972 the miners were involved in another strike, and their success was largely due to a mass picketing campaign at another coking plant – this time at Saltley, near Birmingham. Arthur Scargill, a senior officer of the Yorkshire National Union of Miners at the time, led the rally. It was an amazing union triumph, and perhaps the last great act of workers solidarity in Britain, as thousands of men and women in factories and other workplaces in Birmingham walked out too, most of them joining the other picketing miners at Saltley. Up to 10,000 protestors gathered there by the afternoon. The police could no longer secure the trucks leaving the coking plant and the gates finally shut to the roar of the crowd.

The government was also well aware of the significance of the coking plant, and the union victory it represented, and they were not prepared to see it happen again. The Ridley Report, commissioned by Mrs Thatcher, was an instruction manual on how to break down a strike and dismantle the unity of the working man. A couple of Ridley’s suggestions stand out: “The government should if possible choose the field of battle.”; and “Train and equip a large, mobile squad of police, ready to employ riot tactics in order to uphold the law against violent picketing.”.

It was a revolution-by-proxy, for it paved the way, with the unions castrated, from a shift of a nation of ‘producers’ to ‘consumers’. The full regime change. Uniforms aside, the strike pitted working men against each other. But who could really see that then. It was the short-sharp-shock version of culture change. I hope we all feel it was worth it.

At the time of writing the IPCC has given no new updates on it’s plans to investigate the crimes of 18th June 1984.

Please watch Yvonne Vanson’s brilliant Battle for Orgreave