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Decoding the royal guest list: Laurie Penny on the new elite

Celebrity elitism is merging with the elitism of previous centuries.

The English royal family is a devious dynasty. Over centuries of bloodletting, back-stabbing and intermarriage, the monarchy has used all possible means to secure the one thing that matters to it above all else: its own survival. Although the withering of the English aristocracy has been dinner-table discussion in this country for generations, you need only glance at the publicity for the coming royal wedding to understand that the royals plan to be around for a long time yet.

After over a decade of mutual hostility, this wedding represents a strategic thawing of relations between the monarchy and the world of celebrity. Every photo shoot has been posed and distributed with care and the gossip press has been permitted to gorge itself on endless morsels of irrelevant detail about the intimate lives of the happy couple. The awful, see-through dress in which, according to the rather strained tabloid legend, the prince first saw Kate at a student fashion show is now apparently an icon of modern tailoring, even though it looks like a tinsel-edged colostomy bag.

All of this has nothing on the guest list. Alongside the usual dukes, diplomats, generals and bishops, a number of pop stars will be in attendance, including the first couple of British celebrity, David and Victoria Beckham. When the Spice Girl and the superstar footballer married in 1999, they seemed to be the people's answer to the tarnished rituals of the post-Diana aristocracy.

At their wedding, the Beckhams quite literally held court to an adoring international press on two enormous, gleaming, custom-made thrones, with matching sparkly fake crowns. For the royals, the iconography couldn't have been more baffling if Rob Brydon had bought a plastic sceptre and declared himself the prince of Wales. Yet, in a culture where the terms "rock royalty" and "fashion aristocracy" are used without irony, celebrity elitism is merging with the elitism of previous centuries.

Posh and posher

Victoria Beckham, for example, has made the transition from pouting, post-pubescent pop star - whose "Posh" moniker served only to highlight her relatively humble origins - to multimillionaire model and designer partying with royalty. Other significant wedding guests include Elton John, who has done more than anyone else to fashion the royals into a mawkish celebrity freak show.

Fourteen years after the singer howled his way through an updated version of "Candle in the Wind" at Diana's funeral, the royals have finally come out of hiding, sliding into an entente cordiale with the latest upstarts.

None of this is new: the English aristocracy has always responded to enemies it cannot face down by inviting them in. Every decade, the British declare that they have buried class and, every decade, the grave stays empty as the elite choose to evolve rather than fade away.

This royal wedding, with its guest list and sleek PR machine, might seem a refreshingly populist operation but it merely signals the determination of the British monarchy to weather the storm of celebrity. Above all, the English aristocracy are survivors and, in tight situations, it plays the class card better than anyone else.

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

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants

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Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog