The revolution according to Mary Berry

Democratic control over quantitative easing would be a welcome first step to my kind of revolution, writes Stewart Cowley.

Hitler lived out his final days in the foothills of the Patagonian Andes pottering around his plantation in a gardening smock with Eva Braun. The Japanese are a quirky set of sexless robots too busy upgrading their manga subscriptions to care about producing the next generation. A new study of the Zapruder Film shows that, if you look carefully, it is actually the driver of the Dallas limousine who turns around and shoots JFK. And, finally, an actor/comedian/pop star says it would be nice if everybody had a nice life all of the time. You would have thought the world had a pleasing regular rhythm to it the way these stories rise and fall like dead fish from the bottom of the ocean.

These days, economics can only dream of this kind of regularity and rhythm. The rules of supply demand have all but disappeared from our lives. For instance, there was a day when, if the economy wasn’t so great and unemployment was high, prices would fall as both buyers and sellers of goods and services reacted rationally and adjusted their behavior accordingly. I distinctly remember haggling with a salesperson in Dixons during the recession of the early 1990s for a ten percent discount on the sticker value of sound system. And I got it.

But now none of this works. People in the UK are working harder than ever before but their real wages are increasing at a crawling pace of about one percent a year.  The gap that is opening up is like nothing we have seen before and symptomatic of something very strange; economics has stopped working.

To fill the gap we have policies like Quantitative Easing, which pump-primes the economy with made up money, and schemes like Help To Buy, which attempts to reignite the problem that got us into this state in the first place. And it’s not like these policies are unique to the UK. The US, Europe, China and – above all – Japan are all doing the same. The result is a twisted and distorted system where the old rules of free market economics have simply broken down. If you were a physicist you would be wondering whether the speed of light really was constant.

Even attempts to revert to confrontational tribalism have stopped working. Russell Brand’s editorship of the New Statesman set me on edge waiting for Mary Berry to hold a press conference from the Claridges tearoom to call for the immediate redistribution of profits from the Great British Bake Off. But the social media response to Brand’s 4,500 word thesis was as incoherent as the original. There was much talk of the coming revolution but nobody on the left (defined only as those people who don’t see themselves ‘on the right’) could agree what it looked like. They had been led to the top of the mountain but there wasn’t anything there when they arrived – a basic error of leadership. The episode had the whiff of the scene in Citizen Smith when Robert Lindsay’s Wolfie was asked when the Tooting Popular Front’s revolution was starting – “About six, maybe half past depending on when everybody can get there.”

Meanwhile, in the real world, away from the undefined Utopia proclaimed from West End hotel rooms by multi-millionaire anarcho-syndicalists, the Unite Union had to climb down from the rejection of the INEOS rescue deal to save Grangemouth petrochemical plant faster than any shop steward has ever shouted “Everyone out!!!”.  In the face of private capital, labour does not have an argument, least of all from union leaders who think the rhetoric of the 1970’s applies to the financial realities of today. The traditional negotiating voice of workers has dwindled to a whisper.

We now have a twisted system of inadequate political and social responses to the financial crisis which says that we have learned nothing whatsoever from it – all we have done is to seek to dampen its effects so that we can avoid confronting it. At the same time, increasing calls for the post-crisis props to be extended and institutionalised is creating a democratic deficit – people now do not have a say in the things that really control their lives; there is no democratic control over QE for instance. By taking away the forces that would have, in previous times, allowed the recalibration of society we are brewing up a longer-term problem that leads you to an uncomfortable conclusion. If there was ever a time when free market forces should be allowed to let rip in a society it is now.

Mary Berry - revolutionary? Not likely. Photograph: Getty Images.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.