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Laurie Penny: Don't be fooled by the Fred Goodwin sideshow

Gesture politics are good for only one thing: taking the edge off public outrage.

Bang goes the knighthood. Last week, one of the men most responsible for the financial crisis in Britain was stripped of his honorary title by the queen, following public outrage around the extravagant bonus that was due to be lavished upon his successor. The former Sir Fred Goodwin was chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which had to be bailed out by the British taxpayer and is still largely publicly owned. It is somewhat of an indictment on the limp, panting capitulation of the so-called opposition in Britain today that the confiscation of this meaningless imaginary trinket by the constitutional monarch actually looks like rebellion of a sort.

Every party has joined in the scrum for empty symbolic gestures to placate creeping public fury against bankers. The unfairness is terrifically difficult to spin: as disabled people and terminally ill cancer patients are threatened with pauperisation by the state, there are those at the top to whom the much vaunted "end of the something-for-nothing culture" seems by some margin not to apply. We are supposed to applaud meekly at this point. We are supposed to clap and be quiet as one or two of the best-reported travesties of financial feudalism are rectified in a manner likely to make little practical difference to the current and former chief executives of RBS, who remain fabulously wealthy men. Removing knighthoods from bank directors, of course, is no likelier to democratise contemporary capitalism than spending the winter in a tent city - like the Occupy protests, the trend is a portent rather than an agent of change. But what change?

Many liberal critics have grudgingly conceded that the removal of Fred Goodwin's knighthood and Stephen Hester's bonus are a step in the right direction. They are absolutely no such thing. They are a vacuous, cynical sideshow designed to distract attention from the fact that not a bloody thing is being done to rein in the power of the financial sector to do precisely whatever the hell it likes and force the global poor to pick up the tab. Away from the field of the symbolism Cameron and his Bullingdon bag-carriers have been lobbying hard at Davos against the proposed EU financial transactions tax, which might actually oblige actual banks to take slightly fewer crazy risks with other people's money. It's not much. It won't do anything to combat wage repression or the exploitation of workers on the breadline in Europe, and its sub-clauses make it laughably escapable for the larger multinationals, but it's a start - and our government is determined to stop it. It's okay, though, because Fred the Shred is no longer a knight of the realm.

Goodwin's humiliation is part of a broader cultural trend: the suggestion that the worst excesses of capitalism can be reined in by authoritarianism. You see it when the Archbishop of Canterbury suggests that bankers' bonuses and urban riots are equivalent symptoms of moral decline rather than of economic chaos - although they hardly come with equivalent penalties. You see it when the MP for Tottenham suggests that we'd have had fewer riots if only black and working-class youths had been beaten more thoroughly in childhood.

Free-market feudalism adapts to survive. Capitalism has always been able to neutralise its own discontents by absorbing them, and the politics of moral gesture are fast becoming a part of that process. There is an idea slowly growing in the public consciousness that Queen, country, duty, respect, faith and family can get us out of this fix. Removing a piece of royal frippery from a man who can do no more damage to our economy is part of this new code, the idea that fiscal ethics can be played out purely in the terrain of symbolism - although the young people serving jailtime for celebrating the August riots on Facebook could be forgiven for failing to see anything symbolic about their prison walls.

Gesture politics are good for only one thing: taking the edge off public outrage. Ultimately, walloping individual city workers is no more likely to make them behave than brutalising poor children is likely to keep them quiet the next time a young man is gunned down by police in inner London. All of this showmanship is about mood management - as if the entire country had been invited to go away and punch a pillow until we feel a bit calmer.

Gesture politics can give us a dirty thrill, but that's all they can do. We could insist that a tithe of bankers be sent every year to be publicly spanked with a traditional bristle birch in Hyde Park by a cohort of unemployed, low-waged and disabled people and indignant left-wing bloggers, and I'm sure we'd all feel a bit better about things, but at the end of the day they would still walk away rich and we would walk away poor. The idea that Britain is undergoing a moral rather than financial collapse - a moral collapse that can be rectified with selective public humiliation for the super-rich and beatings and prison for the rest of us - is not just deceptive. It's dangerous.

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

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.