Fighting for fair pay

The Greens are more than a party simply for the environment.

Last Monday I helped to launch the Fair Pay Network, a new coalition of anti-poverty and workers’ rights campaigners, of which I am now a proud patron.

At the launch in Westminster were fellow patron John Cruddas MP and the chair of the Fair Pay Network, Karen Buck MP, as well as representatives from network members NUS, Unite, UNISON, the Fawcett Society, and Oxfam. Not forgetting campaigners from probably my favourite organisation in the capital (after the Green Party): London Citizens, whose work on the living wage I’ve">championed here before.

During the event, I spoke about fair pay for women. I've become a patron of the Fair Pay Network to demand decent wages for all workers, but it’s a simple fact that women workers are furthest from this modest goal. Low pay is worst among part-time and temporary workers - the workforces that are majority female.

As a result, women in Britain are 14% more likely to be in poverty than men. Close this gender gap, and we're well on the way to a fair deal for all workers.

I’m also very proud of the Green record on this issue. Green London Assembly members were instrumental in setting up the London Living Wage Unit, which carries out the annual assessment of the pay level needed to provide the basics of life in the capital, and Green AM Darren Johnson last year helped persuade the London Fire Authority to vote for all the cleaners in its fire stations to be paid a living wage.

There are no environmental reasons at all for my involvement in campaigning for fair pay. It’s all purely for reasons of social justice and equality – but these other facets of the Greens’ philosophy seem to be too much for some to take in.

Extremely curiously, Channel 4 insisted on removing a section covering the fire station cleaners’ story from our ‘Political Slot’ – an annual three-minute broadcast, which was aired by C4 on the Thursday before the Fair Pay Network launch.

This year, we decided to focus our film on the achievements of our two London Assembly Members, with me topping and tailing the piece with a short plug explaining how, ‘when voters put the Greens in positions of influence, we really get things done.’

After clearing the script with the producers and recording the piece without incident, the final cut was deemed ‘too election focused’ by Channel 4’s lawyers. Fair enough, we thought, and awaited a version without my plugs for electing Greens. However, in the final cut, all that stuff remained in and, instead, the entire section on low pay had been taken out.

Very, very odd indeed. We still have no idea why, but it has made us wonder about rates of pay at Channel 4. Whistleblowers and conspiracy theorists, please get in touch (about this, not about free energy, 9/11 or Diana).

Oh and of course you can watch the original cut, including the section on living wages on our">Green Party YouTube channel.

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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide