The Class Monitor No. 14: The Regional Managers

Rod, Frank, Gus and Stuart just get through before the doors close on Stuart's briefcase. The announcer says, "Stand clear of the doors, please," but Rod, Frank, Gus and Stuart stand around the doors, trying to get the briefcase back. They laugh manically.

When the doors open, as we know they must, the grip on the briefcase is released and the four men fall back. Rod, Frank, Gus and Stuart laugh even harder. We know their names because they are using them loudly to one another in what, in normal circumstances, would be a silent Tube carriage. And we know what they do. Rod, Frank, Gus and Stuart are regional managers.

“What's this deal worth for the London office, Stuart?" asks Frank, once the laughter subsides.

“I'd say 30 million," says Gus. Rod, Frank and Stuart nod sagely and things go quiet. But not for long. "Rod, how's your Melanie?" Stuart barks at Rod.

“Oh, college material, we think, Stuart. It's all A-plusses with Melanie at the moment."

“She gets her brains from her mother, then," says Stuart, with the smallest edge in his voice.

Rod either doesn't hear him or chooses not to reply. So Gus says it again: "She gets her brains from her mother, then." Rod laughs. The laugh is high-pitched and thin; it seems strange coming from a frame encased, like Gus, Rod and Frank's, in a suit that is cut to forgive rather than stress shape. "Yes, yes. Brains from her mother, that's right. How's Justin?" says Rod.

“Justin's not really academic as such," confesses Stuart. "Sport for him. He's crazy about sport."

“Free of mine soon," Gus buts in cheerily. "One gone already, the next is 17. 'That's it,' I'll say when she's 18. 'I love you lots but there's the door. Off you go.'" Again they dissolve into laughter.

The intercom announces something. None of the Londoners makes any attempt to listen to the garbled words, but Rod, Frank, Gus and Stuart do. It is inaudible; whatever portents the message holds remain unknown. Stuart pulls a face, as if he finds this surprising and, I sense, wrong. Frank looks around, shakes his head and says, perhaps to me, "What did that mean, eh? We'll never know!"

“I love London," says Frank, stressing his East Midlands accent. Once more Rod, Frank, Gus and Stuart laugh loudly at each other. Gus turns and grins broadly in the face of a strap-hanging black youth. "Do you love London?"

The youth contrives to furrow one brow and arch the other in surprise. "What?"

“Do you love London? I bet you'd like to get away if you could." More laughter.

“Where would you go, Stuart?" asks Rod.

“I'm there already, Rod. A few yards down our road and that's the fields starting. That's what I like. Must have air."

“Not much air in here!" says Gus. The laughter reaches a new peak, and the youth sidles up the carriage.

“What do you think lunch will be like then, Frank?" asks Rod.

“Oh, not good," Frank tells him happily. "They never are. But don't worry, I've got plans for tonight."

The train stops and Rod, Frank, Gus and Stuart leave the carriage, laughing uproariously. Those of us left behind exchange glances. But we say nothing and the train rumbles on, quiet again.

Michael Hodges writes the Class Monitor column for the New Statesman. He was named columnist of the year at the 2008 Magazine Design and Journalism Awards for his contributions to Time Out.

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.