Tate that

A festive protest at a key London art gallery raises the profile of poor pay in one of the richest c

What do you need to earn per hour to support yourself in London? You won’t be surprised to hear that the national minimum wage of £5.52 per hour is nowhere near enough. In fact, research by the GLA’s Living Wage Unit shows that a wage of at least £7.20 per hour is what it takes to provide enough for the basics of life here in the capital.

Yet far too few of London’s workers receive this amount: around 400,000 Londoners fall into a ‘working poverty gap’, with their families receiving less than they need to get by. These families will be running up debts all year round, and as a result will be finding Christmas virtually impossible to manage.

So, that’s why I was more than happy to join the London Citizens’ living wage campaigners on Friday to sing myself hoarse as part of an audacious protest at the Tate Modern art gallery.

More about the protest itself in a second, but first I’ll explain why the living wage campaign is interested in the Tate gallery. South London Citizens (one of four major coalitions across London that make up the London Citizens organisation) has been trying to persuade the Tate to become a living wage employer for nearly a year, but still the board are refusing to ensure their 50 or so cleaners and catering staff are paid the London living wage of £7.20. Most of the cleaners are in fact on the national minimum wage and many have never received a pay rise above the minimum.

For a hugely successful gallery group, and one which is endowed with millions of pounds that came originally from the profits of a sugar industry that boomed thanks to slave labour, this is not good enough, so along we went on Friday to escalate the campaign.

A Christmas time protest at the Tate Modern is almost obliged to be both festive and arty, and the organisers had come up with something brilliant. It so happens that the gallery’s massive Turbine Hall is currently hosting artist Doris Salcedo’s installation of a 167 metre giant crack along the length of the hall’s floor, which appears to show the building literally coming apart. The piece is, among other things, a representation of the gap between the rich and the underclass in modern society, so it provided a perfect foil for our action.

Posing as a diverse range of ordinary art fans, around 100 of us waited for our signal (a lone singer and then lined up each side of the crack to link hands and solemnly sing together a range of Christmas Carols. After these songs, we filed out of the huge entrance doors – still singing – to join the more traditional union picket and brass band outside to continue performing seasonal songs with slightly doctored lyrics , including ‘we wish you a merry workforce’ (my favourite).

The effect of all this was so moving that we drew a large audience of spectators inside the gallery and the action inside was described on air as ‘incredibly impressive’ by the BBC reporter sent to cover it.

For me, the most impressive thing about the event was that a high proportion of the demonstrators were actual, in the flesh, vicars. This is because this highly radical campaign is being organised largely by faith groups and churches across London, alongside unions and student groups. Convinced by the rightness of their demands on behalf of the workers of London, these organisers are prepared to be more militant than most NGOs and are not afraid to be confrontational in their actions or scared to name and shame offending companies.

This radicalism means that they are really getting results, and hopes of eventual success with the Tate are therefore high. London Citizens’ work has already led to £10 million a year being paid in higher wages across London, with universities, hospitals and the Olympic Delivery Authority already committed to paying a living wage to their lowest paid employees. The Tate is clearly able to afford to pay all its staff decently, and the board cannot be happy at being shamed in such an eyecatching way at Christmas time by a group that includes so many Christians.

A similar protest at Citigroup in Canary Wharf at Halloween got a very quick response that means all their cleaners have the chance to support their families decently on their wages. In a city as rich as ours, there’s no reason why all big companies can’t do the same. I just hope we don’t have to send the vicars round to every one.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.