Til debt us do part

An interview with Stewart Lee.

What do Meat Loaf, Walt Disney, Oscar Wilde and Burt Reynolds have in common? Yes, they achieved success in their chosen fields but that’s not the answer I’m looking for. Give up? They have all been declared insolvent. I should surely take some comfort in being member of a club that has such established and varied members.

I’ve recently finished putting together a radio series about debt. It is the culmination of an Arts Council England project I have been working on that was prompted by my own attempts to understand and talk on stage about my insolvency. Over the past eight months I have been speaking to economists and academics as well as writers and performers to see what their views are on economics and debt as well as how one might talk about such subjects in an artistic way.

It turns out the latter isn’t easy. Talking about the economics of my trip into negative equity and trying to be entertaining at the same time is pretty difficult. It’s why – among many reasons - you don’t see stand-up economists. The abstractness of modern day economics pulls in the opposite direction to being interesting and fun on stage. But that’s not to say it can’t be done.

To look at how to do that I talked to some of the most successful performers, academics and writers who engage with politics and some aspect of economics in their work.

In a recent attempt to do this I spoke to the comedian Stewart Lee about how he approaches political material in his act as well as what he thinks about the cuts to arts funding announced in 2011 and, amongst other things, the current trend to put an economic price on art.

You can listen to the show, originally broadcast on Resonance 104.4 FM, below:

Sean Gittins is a stand-up comedian, writer and broadcaster. You can find out more about his Arts Council England project Til Debt Do Us Part and his other work at www.seangittins.co.uk and @sean_gittins.

Stewart Lee, centre, at the 2012 British Academy Television Awards (Photograph: Getty Images)
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.