It's work, Jim - but not as we know it

Ralf Dahrendorf argues that the government's welfare reform policies may be undermined by a revoluti

I accept the principles behind this government's attempts to change the welfare state. But there may be one big flaw in the thinking. Everything is regarded as fluid - as either changing or in need of change - but one area of social reality is quite often, at least by implication, regarded as constant. That's the world of work. There are quite significant changes in the labour market and these are highly relevant to any policy of equality, or as I prefer to put it, of inclusion. They may be summarised in six statements.

1. Since the early 1970s the relationship between GDP growth and employment has become tenuous in all OECD countries. Considerable increases in per capita GDP were accompanied by little or no employment growth. In Japan, from 1970 to 1995, GDP per head grew by 150 per cent, employment by only 2 per cent. In the UK, which was fairly typical of Europe, GDP per head grew by just under 60 per cent, while employment ended 4 per cent down. Even in the US, where the connection between growth and employment remains, as is well known, positive, per capita GDP grew by just over 50 per cent, employment by 25 per cent. Thus there is at least a prima facie case for the thesis that we have experienced a period of jobless growth.

I believe, therefore, that we have to change our economic language. We can no longer assume that GDP growth equals employment creation. And this is an argument for abandoning GDP as the one-dimensional indicator of economic success or failure.

2. There is evidence of significant divergences between the traded and non-traded sectors of the labour market - for example, between financial services and healthcare. In the traded sector, expansion is generally accompanied by employment contraction; a higher output of goods and services is achieved with less labour. The non-traded sector, on the other hand, provides, in principle, unlimited opportunities for work.

The important point here is that jobs do not materialise automatically from favourable macro-economic conditions for GDP growth. On the contrary, they may contribute to a decline in jobs.

3. In all OECD countries, there has been a significant decline in the number of people in typical employment relationships: full-time permanent jobs (or, more precisely, full-time dependent employment without built-in time limits). The most thorough study of this change is that by a recent German commission. It concludes that "in countries where the employment rate has changed little, about a quarter to a third of typical employment relationships has been replaced by atypical ones since the 1970s". In western Germany, 84 per cent of those in dependent employment had typical contracts in 1970; by 1995, this proportion had gone down to 68 per cent with a particularly steep decline in the early 1970s and again in the early 1990s. If one includes the self-employed, those on employment schemes and the job-seeking unemployed, less than half of the employable population in European OECD countries is today in typical employment relationships.

My comment is that we have already learnt to think in new ways about the family: we no longer assume that the nuclear family is the only model. It is time to make a similar leap of understanding with respect to jobs and employment. What used to be typical is about to become a minority phenomenon.

4. The new forms of employment, which have grown in importance, include, above all, part-time work, limited-term jobs and contract employment. There are also home workers; those on employment schemes of one kind or another; paid self-employed workers; and some other categories for which we have barely found a proper description. In addition, there is a vast array of not-for-profit, or rather not-for-gain work, much of it in the third, or voluntary, sector.

This proliferation of kinds of work requires us to rethink many aspects of social policy. A welfare system based on typical jobs leaves people who work in the new categories uncared for. Tax and benefit systems need to be adapted. Methods of guaranteeing everybody a basic income through tax credits or otherwise become irrelevant.

5. Since the end of the second world war we have seen a huge decline in the role of paid employment of all kinds in people's time budget. Longer education, shorter working hours, more generous holiday entitlements, earlier retirement - all these accompanied the economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s. Since 1970 we have seen two further developments. One is the frequency of portfolio living - or what might be called "women's pattern of life" - which combines employment and other activities. The other is the growth of ever earlier retirement at a time of rising life expectancy. The number of hours worked annually by the whole population has declined in most European OECD countries by 20 per cent since 1970. Retirement figures are even more dramatic. In the UK only 56 per cent of all 55 to 64-year-old men were in paid employment in 1995. The corresponding figures for Germany were 49 per cent; for Italy 42 per cent; for France 38 per cent.

These are figures of major significance. They show that universal social benefit systems can no longer be built on contributions from those in paid employment. They also show that work in the sense of paid employment loses much of its force as a source of satisfaction, of self-realisation and of social identity. More importantly still, work ceases to be an effective instrument of social control. How will people's time be structured in future?

6. Such changes in the world of work imply changes in the nature of unemployment. To be sure, there are still genuine problems of long-term unemployment. In the UK, in some inner-city areas, there are a large proportion of households without employment. Many no doubt, particularly single-parent families, need attention. But for many, unemployment is a phase between jobs, even an opportunity for alternative activities, including unfortunately, but tellingly, benefit fraud. "Total and helpless" unemployment as Beveridge described it in 1909, and as many countries experienced it in the 1920s and 1930s, and as most countries fought it in the 1950s and 1960s, may well turn out to be a peculiarly 20th-century phenomenon. It did not exist before, because people had alternative sources of survival, and it may not exist in future as new alternatives are discovered.

If the picture I have tried to sketch in these six points is largely correct, important policy consequences are indicated: for example, a reorientation of macro-economic policy towards jobs in the non-traded sector; the transportability of entitlements; a new approach to paid employment, other life activities and the sources of people's income and well-being.

Last March a group of 11 business and trade union leaders, as well as academics, wrote a letter to the Times. The implicit assumption of the government's reform policies, they wrote, was that the labour market will in the future provide the scale and type of employment required to support a shift from public to private provision. Yet we are also witnessing a revolution in the world of work, the longer-term implications of which are subject to speculation and controversy. What was needed, they argued, was a commission to pull together all the material that exists on the future of work and paid employment. Commission or not, I agree that the subject is of major importance and needs more consensus on facts as well as more debate on the consequences.

This is an edited version of a talk originally given last year at an 11 Downing Street seminar and now published, price £9.95, in "Equality and the Modern Economy", the first of a series from the newly launched Smith Institute, 191 Victoria Street, London SW1E 5NE

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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