Talent north of the border

Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column.

I’ll be cheering on Celtic on 6 March against Juventus in their Euro Champions game – because of the name of their goalie, Fraser Forster. He’s had a tough career: seven years at Newcastle United without getting a first-team game, on loan to Norwich, then on loan again two years ago to Celtic, who eventually bought him for £2m. Thanks to his great displays for Celtic against Benfica and Barcelona, he got called up for international duty in the England squad. That’s when I realised he was not Scottish. Which I had originally presumed.

His first name sounds Scottish and the second bit is pedigree Border – as I know well, being married to a Forster. Right along the border, east to west, on both sides, you find Forsters, as Walter Scott pointed out all those years ago in “Lochinvar”: “Forsters, Fenwicks, and Musgraves, they rode and they ran.” No mention of the Braggs in that poem, as I am always telling them. Fraser Forster was born in Hexham, so that is spot on, geographically. What I didn’t know about him, until I looked up his background, is that his father is Brian Forster, QC, recently made a circuit judge. Now that did surprise me.

Yes, I know, don’t say it: why should footballers not come from a middle-class, professional background? Because they just don’t. He even went to a top school, Newcastle Royal Grammar School, now independent, though it was an ordinary grammar when

I played against it for the Carlisle Grammar School first XV. (We played their fourth XV. And got well stuffed.)

Fraser did play rugby, early doors, only later turning to football and then joining Wallsend Boys Club, the football academy whose alumni include Alan Shearer, Peter Beardsley and Michael Carrick.

There are a few vaguely middle-class sons in the Premiership, but only of the second-generation variety, such as Frank Lampard, son of a well-known footballer, brought up in affluence and a big house. You don’t often come across doctors’ or barristers’ sons – which I thought would have happened by now, as Prem players are so well paid, even better than the average barrister. Foreign players are different, in every way. Quite a few of them have middle-class backgrounds and higher education, always have done. Sócrates of Brazil was a medical doctor.

At one time we did have a few home-grown players who were graduates, such as Steve Heighway and Steve Coppell; both studied economics. Steve Palmer, who played more recently in the Prem with Watford, and also with Ipswich and QPR, had a Cambridge degree in software engineering. He retired from playing in 2005. Since then, there does not appear to be a single graduate in the Prem, not that I can find. Unless they are crouching. (In League One, Matt Smith of Oldham has a Manchester University degree in business management.)

I assume one reason is not the lack of graduate talent but that these days it all starts so early. In the 1970s of Heighway and Coppell, you could come into football late, but now the net is cast so widely – they’re fishing for raw talent in every corner of the globe – and you get spotted and signed up at ten, then dumped on the scrapheap at 12. It’s very hard to break in once your balls drop and your voice breaks.

So Fraser has done jolly well to stick it out and not let his rather privileged background and educational opportunities hold him back from what he really wanted to do. He’s six foot seven, so anyone in the dressing room who might accuse him of being a posho should beware. Hard luck on his dad, though. I bet every time he’s in court some joker says he hopes his son won’t have to spend too much time on the bench.

Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.