Waco, popular culture and newstatesman.com

Where we are at newstatesman.com and the extraordinary story of David Koresh

This week we asked a lefty blogger called Kate Belgrave to write us an article about John McDonnell’s leadership campaign – it’s a good read and it’s interesting to hear what young socialists in the Labour Party are saying about the lack of a contest to succeed Tony Blair. It also ties in rather nicely with our latest in a series of interviews with deputy leadership wannabes. This week John Cruddas.

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Just two months have passed since we relaunched newstatesman.com and we’re still introducing lots of improvements behind the scenes. We’ve plenty of plans for the coming weeks including forums and podcasting. As always we’re interested to hear feedback on what you like and dislike.

So let’s start with this question: what is a blog? Is it a second rate article posted online? A personal diary of somebody’s very dull life? The rantings of an unelectable right-wing nutcase? An exchange of techy news for and by nerds? Or finely honed column for that most discerning/fickle of audiences, the web-user?

The answer, of course, is all of the above and much, much more. I just pose the question because New Statesman columnist Becky Hogge made the observation that blogs should be a bit like a conversation. I thought I'd try it out. So what do the rest of you think?

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I recently made one of my rare sojourns in the world of popular culture, watching a fascinating documentary on the awful events 14 years ago at Waco. Remember the siege of David Koresh’s Branch Davidians that ended with the deaths of 84 adults and children?

It was one of the most extraordinary episodes of the 1990s – not least because it subsequently became a rallying point for right-wing nutcases like Timothy McVeigh. He chose to conduct the Oklahoma bombing on 19 April 1995 – two years after the FBI decided to put an end to the Waco situation in such a disastrously bloody manner.

What I think was interesting was the way this piece of TV operated. On many levels it was excellent - thoroughly researched, it had managed to bring together a lot of eyewitness accounts from those who had played key parts in the tragedy.

But what was distasteful, to me at least, was the mixture of reconstruction and original footage – it became unclear eventually what exactly you were looking at.

The real drama was in the accounts of people who have been left permanently affected by what they experienced, what they could have done, who they lost.

Plus there was more than 50 days of TV news footage from when the whole debacle began with a bungled bid by the ATF – the bureau of alcohol, tobacco and firearms – to take Koresh into custody because of his arsenal of weapons.

Why the documentary makers had to fake up the rest is quite beyond me – this was a story that required no actors.

But all that aside they managed to take the audience through events more or less as they happened.

There were moments where you were allowed to believe that Koresh wasn’t all bad – if you forgot the armoury of weapons he inexplicably kept in his compound or the fact he was siring children with underage girls and the wives of his followers.

One of his sexual partners was Kathy Schroeder who survived the gun battle and the fire. She still believes in Koresh as a manifestation of God, said she would have considered it an honour to have had his child and was plainly still entirely under the spell of the dead cult leader. That's despite the fact her 29-year-old husband was one of the first casualties, shot as he tried to return to the compound.

People can be incredibly susceptible to manipulation and that's one of my chief objections to this tendency to mix up the real with the 'reconstructed' on TV. It leaves us all in a state of confusion about what was real and what was a product of a programme-maker's imagination.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.