Nelson Mandela’s last days, paying for boar stew in Corsica, and the Tories of Generation Y

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

One can see why MPs think they ought to have the pay rise – from £66,396 to more than £70,000 –proposed by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The new wage would still leave them well behind many doctors, lawyers, bankers, consultants and other London-based professionals with whom MPs most often mix.

Yet that is precisely why they shouldn’t get an increase. Far too many enter the Commons from metropolitan, middle-class backgrounds and have little feel for how most of the country lives even when they represent provincial constituencies.

Failure to increase MPs’ wages would deter “able” professional folk from seeking election, we are told. Let’s hope it does. We may then have more MPs from humble, non-metropolitan backgrounds. Able or not, they could hardly do a worse job of running the country.

New kids on the right

Why is the so-called Generation Y, born after 1980 and therefore aged under 34, so Tory? According to Ipsos MORI, over 20 per cent of this group supports the Conservatives, double the proportion in 2005. Members of Generation Y also take much harsher attitudes towards benefits and are far less proud of the welfare state than their parents and particularly their grandparents.

The most obvious reason for Generation Y’s Toryism is that it has little memory of the effects of Thatcherism. On the night of the 1991 census, 2,703 people in England and Wales were counted as sleeping rough. The figure was almost certainly an underestimate; a year earlier, the Old Etonian minister George Young (who is now the Chief Whip in the coalition government) had observed, “The homeless are what you step over when you come out of the opera.”

In the 2001 census, the figure was down to 938. Any big-city-dweller knows that the sleeping bags have started to reappear on our streets – according to some estimates, they have doubled in five years –and they will grow in number more noticeably, along with media stories of hungry children, as the benefit cuts bite. Young people’s opinions are volatile and I suspect they may yet swing violently against David Cameron and his government.

Wedded to the cause

On the subject of the Prime Minister, I am baffled by his eagerness to reward marriage with tax breaks. Presumably the idea is to encourage behaviour that is statistically associated with higher educational achievement, better health and lower levels of delinquency among children. Similar associations could probably be demonstrated for all sorts of other behaviours: sitting at tables for proper meals, serving greens, visiting National Trust properties, turning off the television, learning the violin.

Why doesn’t the government simply bug our homes to check we are all conducting ourselves as ministers would wish? Recent disclosures about GCHQ suggest it is more than equal to the task.

The art of a good death

By the time you read this, Nelson Mandela, who was described as being in a “critical but stable condition”, may at last, sadly, have succumbed to the inevitable. In the meantime, I don’t envy his large extended family making decisions about how long to keep him alive. Not only are they divided among themselves, as families often are, they must also contend with a divided nation that clings to Mandela as an icon of the national liberation struggle and unity.

Though obituary writers may praise a courageous fight to the end, nobody really wants to die in hospital, connected to tubes and machines. At nearly 95, Mandela can make at best only a temporary recovery, giving him minimal quality of life. If he is unable to express an opinion about his treatment (as I assume he isn’t), his family will be asked to make one on his behalf.

Prospective parents have no shortage of advice about childbirth, as Sophie Elmhirst wrote in this magazine last week. Yet I know of no equivalents of parenting classes for those struggling to cope with elderly relatives at the end of life.

When my 84-year-old mother neared her end 18 years ago, the hospital asked if, in the event of her heart stopping, I wished them to attempt to revive her. I had no idea what to say. Only later, when a team of black-clad paramedics burst in as she passed peacefully away, did I realise that the answer should have been “no”.

In addition to good food . . .

On a recent holiday in Corsica, I reflected, not for the first time, on the peculiarities of French restaurants. Most of the food was excellent – I particularly recommend the local wild boar stew, provided you make sure they haven’t substituted pork – and it usually arrived in reasonable time. The difficulty was with the bill. At one restaurant, we received, before we had been given our bill, someone else’s change, amounting to about €40. Next, we received someone else’s bill, which was roughly twice the size of ours. Then we got our own bill but minus the wine we had drunk. We pointed this out (generously, I thought) and the correct bill finally arrived, 30 minutes after we had first asked for it.

The staff then seemed bemused that we objected to waiting more than 15 minutes for our change.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

A red geranium pictured against the Three Sisters rock formation in the mountains of Corsica. Photograph: Getty Images

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Trade unions must adapt to the gig economy in order to survive

We can’t allow the story of UK trade unionism to just be about managing decline.

While the world around trade unions has rapidly changed, there is an impression trade unions have remained stuck in the past with antagonistic rhetoric, outdated governance structures and an inflexible approach. Yet trade unions remain as vital as ever in an insecure jobs market, and do have the capacity to protect workers and inspire support when they use positivity in place of hostility.

The future of the UK trade union movement has long been a matter for concern. Trade union membership has been stagnating for the last 30 years and structural changes in the UK economy have led to trade union density in the private sector dropping below 14 per cent. 

The most worrying aspect of this decline is that – despite work being increasingly less secure, growing wage inequality, and workers’ rights being slowly rolled back since 2010 – trade unions, or more precisely trade union membership, appears not to be a relevant choice for millions of workers.

Polling suggests that too many people who would be interested in being a member of an organisation that offered independent advice and protection at work are put off by the tone of voice and confrontational language they hear from union leaders, usually only during an industrial dispute or power struggle within the Labour party. If unions used to be angry, now they’re furious, and it is not helping.

Trade unions face serious challenges, but if we adapt, we can survive. The rise of self-employment, freelancing and the "gig economy" means more and more people are in need of the services and support that unions offer. But our benefits and services must be responsive to the needs of workers today and be flexible enough for change when it comes. 

We do not talk openly enough about our successes. We shouldn’t be embarrassed when we make something happen whilst working in partnership with decent employers. Nor should we shy away from championing successes achieved through industrial strength, but we need to be more sensitive to how we frame this to a wider audience.

But tweaks to our messaging and services are not enough on their own. We also need structural change in our trade union movement to ensure our long-term success.

Firstly, we need to recognise the severity of the situation that we are in and face up to the facts of declining membership, relevance and authority. There needs to be an acceptance that it is the responsibility of the trade union movement to understand the problems we face and to address them – not to blame others such as the press, politicians or employers.
 
Secondly, we need to build a consensus across the trade union movement on a recovery strategy. Given the diverse interests of our many sister organisations, that is easier to say than to deliver on. Strengthening the governance of trade unions should be one priority, seeking to develop a tripartite social framework with employers and government should be another.
 
Thirdly, we need to ensure the continuing and increasing relevance of trade unions to the world of work. We must recognise that we are struggling to connect beyond our membership and in many cases even beyond our activist base.

Too often change is done to trade unions, rather than by them. The Trade Union Act is the most recent example of a Conservative government taking action to reduce trade union influence. It won’t be long before they return to this pursuit. So rather than waiting to respond, why don’t we take the initiative?

It shouldn't be beyond the collective wit of trade unions to seek to develop and modernise our own structures, develop ideas that would underpin our future independence and seek out best practice across the movement in the delivery of services and benefits.
 
These are undoubtedly big challenges for the trade union movement. I know we want to help build a fairer, more equitable society with decent jobs, housing and education. Wanting to do these things isn’t enough, we need to be in a position to make change happen.

John Park is assistant general secretary of the trade union Community.