The value of the NHS and the BBC is immeasurable

Attempts to denigrate these public institutions must be resisted

It has never been easy to justify making people pay for something they don't use. That is often how disgruntled Britons now see the NHS and BBC, despite the fact that often those who complain about their high taxes or the licence fee conveniently forget their recent trip to their GP, the maternity ward or the hours they spend enjoying commercial-free TV and radio. But the greatest value of these last major publicly owned institutions is not even quantifiable and it is the consistent failure to make this most difficult of cases for the defence that leaves them so vulnerable.

There is a lot to moan about at the moment. We can gripe about crime and bad schools or the Olympics bringing London to standstill or corrupt and elitist politicians – a dog even won Britain's Got Talent. But there are still a few things that make me relatively pleased to live here. Two things, in fact. The poor raggedy old NHS and the bloated, sometimes crappy but often wonderful BBC. The reasons for lumping these two behemoths together is simple: they both contribute to something well beyond their material value and they are both under dire threat.

Sometimes it seems as if the forces of free-market conservatism are out to get the NHS and BBC precisely because their true worth cannot be expressed on a balance sheet. They are the unfinished business of Thatcherite reform. It's as if it is not just that the government wants to dismantle the NHS for the benefit of profiteering healthcare firms and the BBC for their media-mogul friends, but that it simply can't stand the idea of people contributing to a communal pot for the benefit of everyone. It must really get up the noses of Boris Johnson, who called for a Tory director general this week, and Andrew Lansley, who has fewer friends in public health than the MRSA superbug, to see people “wasting” their money on obscure radio stations and someone else's heart op.

What the NHS and BBC embody and promote is that most slippery and seemingly useless political trope - the public good. This makes it even easier for their opponents. That the mayor of London, not exactly unencumbered by friends in the media, thinks he has the right to meddle in the affairs of the BBC shows the danger it is in. That, after labelling nurses and doctors as communists, the health secretary can this week effectively accuse the Royal College of Nursing of lying over job cuts again demonstrates the way opposition to NHS privitisation is portrayed as wrong economically and ideologically. So in both cases, the fight to save the head and heart of the nation should not only employ facts and figures, but the abstract. Sharing, redistribution, pluralism, protecting the less able and serving the less resourced - these are not worthless because they cannot be rendered statistically. The issue goes far beyond ratings for Eastenders and Radio 3 or cancer recovery rates and waiting times for hip replacements.

It is logical for me to pay for a local radio station that I don't listen to because it serves a community in a way a commercial one never could - or a national network I don't like because it enriches our culture in a way a profit-seeking company would never have the freedom to. I don't need to benefit directly or even “see” the benefit in others, because I am already benefiting by living in a society where such things exist. In the health service the advantages are even more blatant. By contributing to the cost of healthcare for the poorest in society, the wealthiest are helping to reduce suffering in others and by extension for everyone. The social benefits of better universal health, more workers and less crime for example, are obvious, but an explanation involves the kind of conceptual thinking politicians do not trust themselves to present to the public.

The enormous cost of the NHS and the BBC and the way the funds are collected from the public are being used as a hammer to provoke the basest reflexes of self-interest and insularity, Preying on the short-termism and anxiety of recession, the enemies of public ownership are seeking to create an environment in which such ideals are seen as redundant and archaic. It doesn't help that the BBC is guilty of grandiloquent and budget busting projects, yet turns to cutting local and specialist radio – perhaps the greatest expression of its public service – to save money. Despite the faults and weaknesses of both institutions, the forces against them should be resisted. The NHS and BBC, flawed as they are, are not merely worth protecting, they are just about the only two things left that preserve any sense of national community and cohesion.

The mere act of public funding has value. It is not selfless charity or waste; providing our hard-earned wages for something not solely for our own good contributes to our own good because the world we live is a kinder, better, less dumb, less rapacious place for it. In other words, if you think Britain is a divided, violent, parochial and unenlightened country to live in now, without the NHS and the BBC it would be immeasurably worse. There's the rub: the NHS and the BBC make Britain a better place to live - immeasurably.

George Chesterton blogs on politics and culture for the Huffington Post UK

BBC headquarters at Media City UK Photograph: Getty Images

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

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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.