A one-way ticket to Palookaville

At Motherwell Station, there is a reception committee awaiting me - or is it some sort of posse, with me in the Butch Cassidy role? One . . . two . . . three . . . no fewer than six ticket collectors bar my way. Golly!

There must be a certain frenzy involved in quitting the town - I envision flying wedges of berserkers without the wherewithal, desperate to board a local service for Garscadden or even a long-distance one to Berwick. Ever keen to lighten an official stoppage with banter, I say, "Whoa! What a lot of ticket collectors! I haven't seen so many ticket collectors in one place in . . . I dunno - like, never. What is this, some sort of job-creation scheme?" My sally is punctured forthwith by the hole-puncher nearest to me, a saturnine fellow with corrugated brows. "Ticket, please," he says, although what he means is: "I'd like to put a neat, two-millimetre hole in your fucking eye."
“What," I persist, as I pass the pasteboard, "are you not fond of a joke?"
“I am," he says coldly, "but only when they're funny."

I could see his point. Plenty of little girls and boys dream of becoming train drivers but I can't imagine that many fantasise about becoming ticket collectors. What must it be like to find yourself in a job that is not only tediously repetitive but also involves dealing with members of the fickle public, who veer between the enraged and the jocose? None of which explains why there were six of them.

It seems bizarre to suggest in these days of public-sector cuts and half-time working in the private sector, not to mention out-and-out redundancy, that crowds of superfluous personnel may be the order of the day, yet this is the case. A week earlier, dining at a gastropub on the A4 outside Reading, I was bewildered by the number of bar staff - there were more bodies behind than in front and, when I ordered a Virgin Mary, four of them collaborated in making it for me.

I spoke to one of these supernumeraries and it transpired that, until a year previously, he'd been part of a still madder crowd:
British expats in Dubai. He said he'd loved Dubai, despite a rather tricky time towards the end, when, due to, um, personal debts, he'd been unable to leave the country. "What did you do there?" I asked. He said he'd worked in human resources. I laughed bitterly and said that was rich, considering Dubai was a racist shit hole built on slave labour. He laughed still more bitterly and said that everyone was entitled to his opinion - although what he meant was: "I'd like to shove this two-litre vodka bottle right up your jacksy, then use
the optic to suck out your lifeblood."

At this juncture, I forbore from observing how wry it was to view his work history as a sort of arcade game - one of those penny cascades where the coins build up and up until they tumble down to the level below. Subject to the merciless buffeting of late capitalism, he had been catapulted from one overmanned economy to another and, in due course, he would doubtless tumble into the oubliette of unemployment. All of the above is my rather heartless way of pointing out that this crowd is crazed for a good reason: it senses the axe whistling about its ears.

Whatever works

The phenomenon of too many workers, far from being a sign of a booming economy, heralds the stage in a slump just before swaths get the scythe. Capitalism has a rotten skull beneath its toned, moisturised skin.

As a system, it is predicated quite as much on the supply of and demand for workers as it is on the supply of and demand for the things they make and the services they offer. In times of plenty - even mock-plenty - you will know capitalism by the scarcity of labour, which means potential employees, whether plumbers or prostitutes, are always being hurried to some location where money can make more of itself out of them; but, in times of crisis, look out for the masses deranged by their sense of being inutile.

Let us typists, however, not be immune to the vicissitudes of global finance and local indebtedness. It was the first time I'd seen six ticket collectors in one place but I've often seen six economically non-viable writers cheerfully congregate - and how deranging is that? The only solution is a carefully targeted programme of public investment in viable infrastructure - such as railways - and a literary set-aside scheme, whereby the government subsidises authors to produce books that will never be read. Only drastic measures such as these will give us the good mental health afforded by full employment.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.