David Cameron, happiness and delusion

Can you be happy without a home?

David Cameron may be a One Nation Tory, but what does his new index mean if people can't even get on the property ladder? (Let alone the rest)

When I was small, we used to have at home a mug which bore the words of an Irish blessing (or an Irish curse, as my mother used to call it).
It went as follows:

Health and long life to you,

A child every year to you,

Land without rent to you,

And may you die in Ireland.

In a country with a strong sense of history, where between 1603 and 1750 the percentage of land owned by Catholics went down from 90 per cent to around 7 per cent, there is resonance, or at least the pullstrings of memory, about that third line, "land without rent to you". If an Englishman's home was his castle, an Irishman's was his homestead, the possession of his own turf some safeguard of the means to raise produce for his family - for as the Potato Famine showed, the British government could not be relied upon to provide for its subjects in John Bull's other island (food was exported from Ireland even as the populace starved).

Land without rent is, however, a dream for the young in Britain today. And even a cramped flat in an undesirable suburb is going to be out of the question for years to come, according to a new survey by the Joseph Rowntree Trust.

Mortgages are unlikely to be easy to come by for first-time buyers -- ie without a hefty deposit of 25 per cent or so -- it reports, until 2020. It is not as though soaring property prices had not made it difficult enough already. In the early part of this decade, while working at the Independent, I remember colleagues only a few years younger than me looking despairingly at estate agents' websites, wondering if they would ever be able to afford anything within commuting distance of Docklands. (This, as well as the fact that pay, to an extent, and certainly freelance rates, in print journalism have dropped dramatically in real terms over the last 20 years, has had the perverse and unwelcome effect of making it increasingly a profession which only those who enjoy considerable parental support can enter.)

Prices may now be coming down, but the banks that got us into this mess in the first place are now penalising the rest of us for their foolishness, in all sorts of ways, including an unwillingness to lend to those who are thus forced to turn to rental - spending more money than they might on a mortgage but with no long-term investment in bricks and mortar in return. (For a superb analysis of how Ireland is being punished for the banks' mistakes, incidentally, I recommend Paul Krugman's "Eating the Irish" in the International Herald Tribune.)

On top of this, new graduates are even less likely to be able to raise the requisite deposit once they are saddled with further debts from tripled tuition fees.

This is just one of several contexts in which David Cameron's plan that we should think of our well-being in terms of a "happiness index" instead of GDP is particularly jarring. It may well be that there is something in the idea - President Sarkozy persuaded the Nobel Prize winners Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz to head his commission to examine it, while the term Gross National Happiness was coined by Bhutan's king in 1972.

Most would accept that the quality of our lives is not determined simply by how much money we have, although the efforts of the Labour government's "Happiness Czar", Richard Layard, appear to have been swiftly forgotten.

It's more that there is a shade of the well-meaning but not-quite-in-touch patrician about this, as though Cameron were a country squire meeting a tenant farmer whose crop had failed and saying brightly, "Chin up! Better luck next year!". The squire's sentiments may be genuine, but utterly fail to grasp the nature of the devastation visited upon the farmer.

Others may be far harder on the coalition. But I don't think that Cameron is a bad man, or that he is at all like the hard-faced Thatcherites who did appear to revel in the "creative destruction" of the old industries that threw millions out of work in the 1980s. Nor is that my opinion of the many members of his team whom I'd met long before they even went into politics.

I see them sitting together, brows furrowed, saying, and meaning quite truthfully: "Something must be done". But here I now believe, having welcomed the formation of the coalition initially, http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2010/05/labour-party-coal... that the wealth of those taking decisions is a grave problem. According to the Daily Mail in May, 23 out of the 29 ministers then entitled to attend cabinet were millionaires.

They may very well know people who are facing harsher realities, like Howard Flight, who in the interview that got him into such trouble also said: "Two of my nieces and nephews, both of them very bright, gave up university halfway through because they didn't want the financial burden." But that's not the same as having the remotest chance of facing those realities themselves in the future. We really aren't all in this together.

As I thought about this, a very minor personal example came to mind. Some years ago, probably around 1995, I attended a party in a South Kensington flat shared by some City trainees and, if memory serves, George Osborne. (At the least, the party was certainly thrown by mutual friends and I'm sure I remember him being there.) Come 3 or 4am, it was time to go home. I lived way up the Harrow road in north London, and a mini-cab would have cost me not far short of a tenner. This was exactly what I had. The only trouble was that, not being a City trainee myself, it had to last me for the next four days. So I walked home instead - no great trial for a healthy man in his early 20s, although it did take me about three hours which is probably why I remember it still.

This is no ill reflection on the man who is now the Chancellor. He may, for all I know, be inordinately fond of a stroll, whether nocturnal or diurnal. It may well be that, had I asked him, he would have cheerfully said, "I'll tell you what - I'll join you, I could do with stretching my legs." My point is that I find it hard to imagine George ever looking such a dilemma in the eye, as it were: taxi home - even if means having to make do on a pound or so for a few days?

And if such a small inconvenience is beyond the experience of a large percentage of the cabinet, how can they really understand what it is like for prospective students today, for whom the choice of going to university entails debts unthinkable when George, Danny Alexander and I attended Oxford? (There were still student grants then, for Heaven's sake.) How can they empathise with those with no idea when they will ever be able to call any square footage - never mind the grand terraced houses of the Notting Hill Tories - their own? Above all, how can they possible claim to have an inkling of what it is going to be like for the thousands, perhaps millions, who are going to lose their jobs, only to come up against a reduced welfare system that it appears will regard them as workshy?

David Cameron may be a One Nation Tory, but that honourable strand of Conservatism rests on the assumption that the less fortunate feel some connection to those who would "feel their pain".

Our PM once made a point of wearing a lounge suit to a wedding when all the other men wore Morning Dress. If his policies cause too many people, however, to picture him in their mind's eye in the tailcoat he spurned - still less in the full fig of the Bullingdon Club - he will find no One Nation to unify, and certainly no Big Society. He and his millionaire colleagues need to show that they realise there will be something gross and national about the consequences of these cuts.

To say that happiness will be any part of the equation, however, is delusional at best.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.