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''We've had to let six staff go this Christmas . . . people with families and mortgages''

Families all over Britain are bracing themselves for hard times. For some, they have already started

On first impressions, Rayne Precision Engineering is a neat little company. Tucked into the hills of the southern fringe of the Peak District, it consists of four solid modern sheds, built of a fake stone material that blends in with the local housing. These are arranged around a tidy yard next to a mobile hut that serves as office accommodation. The atmosphere in the yard is pleasantly quiet. There's a faint hum in the air, but none of the clashing or screeching of metal on metal that you might expect.

It quickly becomes apparent that there is a reason for this. The company's founder and managing director, Andrew Simmill, leads me into first one shed and then another to show me an array of laser-cutting and welding machinery, all of it standing idle. The signs of recent activity are all around - a scattering of little metal shavings; a neat pile of ring-shaped components bound for the automotive industry. Today the firm is having a shutdown, Simmill explains.

In the summer of 1997, Rayne Engineering, which is a few miles outside the market town of Leek, had 47 full-time staff, working five days and sometimes nights or Saturday mornings as well, making parts for JCB, GKN and a range of other engineering companies. Simmill bought a people-carrier so that his welders could drive in from Stoke-on-Trent, 20 minutes or so down the road. He had diversified, too, into making shopfitting parts for Waterstone's.

The crash, when it came, came fast. In April this year Simmill took on a salesman to try to boost a flagging order book, but to no avail. Now Rayne Precision is down to 26 staff working four days a week. There have been 12 compulsory redundancies. The remaining staff agreed to their hours being cut from 39 to 31 last week.

"Last week was my worst week," Simmill says. "We had to let six people go. You're looking people in the eye just before Christmas . . . these are people with families and mortgages. And there's nothing I can do - I've got to protect the business."

Simmill is a big, weather-beaten man in blue overalls and a sweatshirt. He looks out of place in the firm's meeting room, under the glossy banners he ordered so they could push for scarce orders at trade fairs. He looks as if he could shoulder quite a burden - and that is exactly what he is having to do now.

"Carol, who does the stores and the planning, came to me last week and said, 'I'll take redundancy, Andrew.' She's over 60. She didn't want a younger person with a family to lose their job. But she's a key part of the business. I don't mind admitting I've had sleepless nights about finding enough work for my men."

This little local heartache is solid evidence of the tectonic shift that has affected businesses across the world in recent months. The plummeting housing market, the struggling construction industry, banks cracking under the weight of bad mortgage debts and overextended credit, all lead here to this little office.

For Simmill it trickled down in part from JCB, which dominates the heavy industry in this area, previously employing 5,000 at its plants in Rocester, Uttoxeter and Cheadle. The digger manufacturer - for whom Simmill has nothing but praise - was forced to cut production by a third and to make nearly 600 staff redundant this autumn as orders, even from previously buoyant markets such as Russia, began to dry up.

In the nearby Potteries, there have been 350 job losses at Wedgwood and Spode has gone into administration, putting a further 150 at risk. The misery goes on, the figures stacking up in tens here, twenties there. On the day of my visit the front page of the Sentinel, Stoke's local paper, carried the news that Hinks Fine China, the UK's last china flower manufacturer, was to close with the loss of another 16 jobs. At Uttoxeter, Dairy Farmers of Britain announced it was closing its Fole Dairy with 250 to go. At Phones4u, another major Staffordshire company, 240 IT jobs were reported to be at risk. Simmill ("I'm 47 but I feel 67," he says, then laughs) has been here before. Twenty years ago he started an engineering business with his father during the tail end of the 1980s boom.

"Nineteen eighty-nine was an extremely good year, but 1990 . . ." he pauses for a moment. "I was financed up to the hilt. I had £70,000 debt on one machine. Then I had 12 months where my father died of cancer and my brother was killed in a road accident at 23.

People are buying cheaper cuts of meat rather than the high-end products on sale

"Everything came at once. I got married, my daughter Carly was born, and two weeks later the company went into receivership. I had finance people chasing me; my house was on the line. I was on the verge of being made bankrupt."

But Simmill doesn't give up easily. For a year he worked for the man who bought his business, then rented his machines. "It was just 12 months after I went down," he says. "The banks and accountants hadn't had any faith in me, and it was almost to prove them wrong. I'm a determined sort of fellow."

He and his wife Clare now have three daughters - Carly, 17, Sheri, 16, and Kate, 13 - and they never stop hearing about the evils of credit. "I was out shopping one time with Sheri when she was only four or five," recalls Simmill. "I ran out of cash and so I thought, 'I'll wait until next week.' She turned to me and said, 'Put it on your card, Dad.' I was really taken aback by that, and I thought about it a lot. What I'm fearful of is my children going through what I went through. There are too many credit cards, too much easily available credit. That's put us in this mess."

About 18 months ago this niggling worry turned into a family crusade. Sitting around the table outside their house one summer evening over a meal, they began drawing out a game on sheets of A4 paper. Then the girls got busy with clip art and a boardgame, Credit 4 Life, was born. Players start with £1,500 and on a throw of the dice they pay bills - mortgage £600; night out £50; credit card 30 per cent debit interest - and, if they are lucky, draw wages. The game, now in a smart box with a laminated board, has been sold to about 20 schools and is being supported by Caudwell Children, a charity funded by John Caudwell, the local Phones4u tycoon.

Simmill says he talks to his children about the problems his business is facing, and after school they often come to see him at work instead of going home. But he has no plans to bring them into the family firm. "I'm not being sexist, but I think manufacturing is a hard game," he says. "If the government doesn't believe in it there won't be any manufacturing here in ten years."

As you drive into Leek along the Ashbourne Road, the signs of economic gloom are easy to spot. A 19th-century mill stands with its glass grimed and a board outside advertises a small business within. Further into town the White Lion and Talbot pubs are both boarded up. The Leek Post and Times has a picture of Gary Clewlow of GJ's Greengrocers holding a sign saying "Closing Down (sorry)", over the headline: "Shoppers urged to stay local as credit crunch bites hard". Clewlow tells the paper he cannot compete with Aldi.

To be fair, the former textile town, which weathered the decline of the silk industry in the late 19th century and the globalisation of synthetic fabrics in the 20th, is not completely down at heel. Its market square is wide and cobbled, and a queue of shoppers is keeping its well-stocked fruit and veg stall busy. There's a half-timbered Marston's pub, the Bird in Hand, flanked by Cancer Research and Oxfam shops.

Businesses such as Simmill's are at the sharp end of the recession, and others in the area are less gloomy about the future. Off the A523 between Simmill's works at Ipstones and the town of Leek, signs point to enterprises with a more rural flavour: Beaver Hall Equestrian Centre, Middle Farm Bed and Breakfast. Down a long track, Janet Phillips runs the Threshing Barn, a small shop selling craft supplies and meat reared on the farm she runs with her husband, Dave.

Phillips says she always has a pot of coffee on the go in her shop, which is packed to the rafters with skeins of brightly coloured wool, Christmas wreaths and knitwear; it helps to make the place feel welcoming, she says. The craft workshops she runs - a launching pad for sales of equipment and materials - had their best October ever, she says. But the meat is doing less well. People are buying cheaper cuts rather than the high-end products they sell here.

"I think long-established businesses will survive, but January and February are going to be grim," says Phillips. "From December, we would usually expect big orders, and they're not coming in. I don't think people are going to go for the big items this year."

On Derby Street, a Butters John Bee estate agent stands with property details in its windows and a To Let sign above its door. At first glance the business seems to be occupied, but a closer look reveals too-neat desks with phones and notepads and nothing else, and a notice on the door confirms, "Please note: This office is now closed. We will continue to provide our services from our Hanley and Congleton offices." Just a few doors along, the Ponden Mill shop also bears a To Let sign and big banners announcing, "Twenty Per Cent Off - Everything Must Go", though an assistant says she doesn't know whether they're going to close.

Round the corner, near the now-defunct GJ's Greengrocers, is Photoprint, founded nearly 30 years ago by Brian Johnson, now the town's mayor and president of its chamber of trade and commerce. His assessment of the situation is relatively upbeat, and he attributes several of the town's business failures to a lack of initiative or staying power. Despite having spent half a million pounds on opening a horse livery last year and carrying a lot of debt ("You don't want to know," he says when I ask how much), he is investing £20,000 in a digital colour printing machine, which would have cost him £34,000 in normal times.

"You'll often hear people saying, 'Leek's always in recession - what difference does it make?'" he says. "People round here have been used to tightening their belts.

"But the new businesses have never had to face this before. They don't make allowances, they don't think ahead far enough. People will have to promote their businesses - they'll have to think positive."

Others in the town are struggling to follow his advice. Looking for the Diva shoe shop which, according to the local paper, is to close after Christmas, I stop to ask directions from a couple huddled against the cold and carrying a plastic bag of meat bones. They cheerfully offer to show me the place and as we walk along together the man, David, tells me he has been out of work for the past six months, after being laid off by a firm that makes parts for car exhausts.

"My old boss closed the doors," he says. "I'd take anything, but if you put on your CV that you were in engineering, they think you don't want a menial job. They think you'll take off as soon as something better comes - and I would as well.

"JCB has a massive effect on this area. Last year employees had a £1,000 Christmas bonus, but this year they'll be lucky if they get anything. I've given up."

He asks if I'm going for a job interview. I tell him no, I'm writing an article about the credit crunch for a magazine. "Well," he says without a trace of rancour, "at least someone's making money out of it."

Fran Abrams is the author of "Below the Breadline: Living on the Minimum Wage", published by Profile Books (£6.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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