Show Hide image

Laurie Penny: A divided society

The chasm in our society is no longer between left and right, but between rich and poor.

For all the talk of one-nation Conservatism, the shadow-play of social injustice begins as soon as you step on to the train to the Tory party conference. Flinging my huge rucksack between the nearest doors just as the Birmingham train is about to pull away, I find myself moving through the low-lit hush of the first-class carriages. Wobbling through the half-empty aisles, I spot two Conservative councillors and several well-known columnists from the Times, the Guardian and the Telegraph curled comfortably in the spacious armchairs, over newspapers and coffee -- but through two sets of sliding doors are the cheaper seats.

Back here, it's stressful and there's not enough space. Standard class on the 8.50 Virgin Trains service is crowded with shift workers, students heading back to college after weekends at home -- and protesters. People from all corners of the country have given up their weekends to attend the national anti-cuts, pro-welfare demonstration convened by the Right to Work campaign and many of them are squeezed into the narrow red pens of Virgin's stock, shut off from the elbow-room of first class by a surcharge that makes all the difference. I drift off into a disturbing dream that Richard Branson is now running the welfare state, and several lurching delays later the denizens of standard class stumble out into Birmingham New Street, rumpled and irritable as only the British public can be after two hours crammed into a rolling metaphor for the state of the nation.

By noon, I am huddled in a car park under a dirty formica sky with several thousand welfare recipients, public-sector workers, local kids and union reps, getting thoroughly and miserably rained on. The press has dismissed the protest as union-led and union-run, because we now live in a world where "trade-union member" is a term of insult, but most of those I meet walking to the march assembly point are unaffiliated citizens. Kathryn, a teacher, says that this is her first protest since the Stop The War march in 2003. "It's mine, too," says Margaret, a retired social worker, who is marching alongside a gang of teenagers from local comprehensive schools. "I don't normally get involved in things like this, but this time, with these cuts, I just felt like I had to say something." "We've got to say something," agrees Kathryn. "It's better than staying quiet."

Everything's entirely quiet in the foyer of the Jury's Inn hotel where politicians and lobbyists are sipping tea in between fringe events. "It's hard to see how any protest will make much of a difference," says one Conservative MP, who refuses to be named. "Everybody knows that we have to make cuts anyway, so nobody's going to take much notice." Other delegates at the bar have heard that there's some sort of ruckus going on in the street, but the retreat into Tory bunker mentality has already begun. Despite this being the first conference in power the Conservatives have held for 14 years, the mood is far from triumphant -- at the fringe events, ministers are already on the back foot, defending the coalition's planned cuts to welfare and public services as calmly as possible.

Back at the march, a crosspatch cross section of British society is voicing its soggy dissent: pensioners grumble about the vehemence of some of the speakers while eating scotch eggs from plastic bags, and dreadlocked students share flasks of tea and foil-wrapped sandwiches with middle-aged mothers pushing prams. There's a curious sense of timelessness to the event. Some of the union reps clearly think they're back in the 1980s, and a dour close-harmony folk band is telling us all about the Hard Times of Olde England, but as the march moves off, it is led by disabled people in wheelchairs and their carers, determined to "show that we're suffering, too". At back of the folk band, moreover, is a man who everyone is trying very hard to ignore, because he is brandishing and occasionally honking through a vuvuzela, an item that seems in 2010 to have finally replaced the pitchfork as the prop of choice for the global working class attempting to annoy and terrify the bourgeoisie.

Meanwhile, just feet away inside the secure zone, behind a wall of steel cordons and police dogs, about the same number of warm, dry conference delegates are, and I'm not making this up, watching some contemporary dance. Specifically, a trio of twee pseudo-ballerinas in floaty saris from something called the Arts Conference, enacting modern interpretations of North Indian traditional dances with very serious expressions. They have been hired to twirl very slowly around the main stage before Francis Maude comes on to explain the "big society", and as he hasn't got a lot to say, they've clearly been instructed to take their time. The audience clap, polite and bewildered. Outside in the rain, the people who actually have to live in the "big society" are already howling for reprieve.

You couldn't have asked for a starker, more cliched illustration of the difference between the political elites and the rest of us if you'd given a toddler a fistful of red and blue crayons and told it to draw a picture of a divided society. The lines being drawn are wobbly and childish, but they are lines of pain and anger, and like the etchings of a traumatised child, they deserve to be paid attention to. The chasm in our society is no longer between left and right. The chasm is between rich and poor, and it's growing, dividing those members of the elite, including the liberal elite, for whom the coming cuts are an abstract if regrettable concept, and the people whose jobs and homes and families are under threat.

Most of the latter have not been able to afford the £400 accreditation process for access to the Conservative conference centre, with its finger-food receptions and winsome catered round tables to discuss whether central government should pull an awkward or merely resolved expression while tearing the heart out of the welfare state and refusing to share the financial burden amongst the wealthy. As delegates and journalists at the Demos grill nibble profiteroles and ask Greg Clark MP why he won't be slightly more forthright about shrinking the state, they seem not to have realised how much they are already resented by a good deal of ordinary people. Either that, or they simply don't care.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The changing world of work

As is always the case with challenges such as this, it falls to Labour to make the political case for action. Because inevitably the Tories will revert back to their time honoured answer - people are on their own and can sink or swim accordingly. 

“There is no point knocking doors here.  There won’t be many people at home.  Let’s just deliver leaflets.”  It was a Monday morning in April 2015, and I was keen to meet as many voters as possible, so I ignored the advice.  I’m glad I did.  For that morning I met a number of people, working from home, self-employed, trying to use every hour productively. 

That I met so many is unsurprising.  The reality is we are seeing an unprecedented boom in self-employment in this country. 

According to the ONS, between 2010 and 2014, the number of self-employed people increased by 663,000.  Indeed, in 2014, 15 per cent of the workforce was self-employed, some 4.6 million people.  This isn’t just a major spike in our history, it also gives us the highest rates of self-employment in the G7. 

This extraordinary rise shows little sign of reversing.  Which throws up a huge number of policy questions if we want to ensure that this rapidly changing employment market doesn't leave millions of workers precariously standing alone at the mercy of market forces. 

As is always the case with challenges such as this, it falls to Labour to make the political case for action. Because inevitably the Tories will revert back to their time honoured answer - people are on their own and can sink or swim accordingly. 

As the party that wants to ensure people from every background have a platform to make the most of their talents, Labour understand that for many people self-employment offers a number of attractions, not least independence. 

Many of the self-employed people I speak to tell me that they enjoy being their own boss, or having the flexibility to work their hours around the other things that are important in their lives, like child care or studying.  Before my election last May, I was self-employed, so I know the advantages it can sometimes bring. 

However, it’s also clear that existing systems have been too slow to catch up with a rapidly changing economy.  So for too many people the flexibility, comes at the price of a lack of security. 

As it stands, self-employed people have no entitlement to statutory sick pay. Self-employed mothers are only entitled to maternity allowance instead of full maternity pay. This is particularly significant, because whilst the majority of the self-employed are still men, the number of self-employed women is growing fastest.  With around half of additional jobs taken up by women between 2008 and 2015 being self-employed.    

The New Policy Institute-Citizens’ Advice report, “Who are the self-employed?” found that, in 2015, only 17 per cent of the self-employed were in a pension scheme, compared to 52 per cent of employees, with that latter figure likely to rise even further with the  continued rollout of pensions auto-enrolment.  Neither are all self-employed people high earners.  In fact, the median income from self-employment in 2013-14 was £209 per week.

There's also the problem that in some areas the status of self-employment is being used as a convenient label, to deny workers their rights.   

The Citizens’ Advice report, “Neither one thing nor the other” highlighted the problem of bogus self-employment: “People who are in bogus self-employment can have their hours, the nature of their work and even the amount that they are paid changed at a moment’s notice.”  Sadly, this kind of treatment is all too common.  The report concluded: “We suspect that one in ten of the people that we surveyed are bogusly self-employed.  If scaled up, this could translate into as many as 460,000 people nationwide.” 

Since it can be advantageous for employers to categorise workers as self-employed for national insurance purposes, the report estimated that government could be losing as much as £314 million per year from the coffers. 

The construction union UCATT have run effective campaigns exposing this kind of malpractice by some umbrella companies.  Yet more needs to be done to uncover and stamp out such exploitation. 

Bogus self-employment isn't only an issue for the self-employed themselves. In many sectors of the economy it can also result in a race to the bottom of conditions, driving down standards for all workers. 

These are just some of the factors that combine to create a complex challenge. New technology and ways of working have the potential to give millions of people the chance to enjoy far greater freedom. However, there's also a risk that growing atomisation of people will see many of the workplace protections that previous generations struggled to secure wiped away. 

As a Labour historian, I know that such challenges have faced our movement in every generation.  We have always risen to the task. Now we must do so again to show that Labour has the answers for the workplace in 2020 and beyond. 

I'm proud that as shadow employment minister I have a chance to play my part in that vital work.

Nick Thomas-Symonds is Labour MP for Torfaen and biographer of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan.