PMQs review: Cameron still lacks answers on living standards

If the PM wants to dismiss Miliband's energy price freeze as "a con", he needs to come up with a superior policy.

Ed Miliband arrived well armed at today's PMQs: food-bank use has tripled, pay growth is at its lowest level on record and the number of people working part-time because they can't find a full-time job has reached a new high. But after last week's floundering performance, David Cameron put up a better defence. He was able to boast that unemployment had fallen in every category and that there were now a million more people in work than in 2010 (a statistic you can expect to hear every day from now on). The PM also finally settled on a line of attack against Miliband's proposed energy price freeze, branding it a "price con". It is doubtful whether those forced to choose between heating and eating will agree, but this appeal to cynicism is an improvement on last week's red-baiting.

In response to Miliband's questions, all of which were on living standards, Cameron strikingly argued that the best way to improve voters' incomes is to "cut taxes". As was reported earlier this week, the Tories are set to mimic the Lib Dems and pledge to raise the income tax threshold to £12,500. But for voters who are seeing their wages fall by an average of 2% in real-terms, a promise from the government to take a smaller chunk away is unlikely to prove sufficient. The Tories need a plan to increase the minimum wage and to spread use of the living wage, a subject on which they remain oddly silent.

If he wants to dismiss Miliband's energy policy as "a con", Cameron also needs to devise an attractive policy of his own. He currently boasts that the government is ensuring consumers are put on the lowest tariff but figures show that only 10% will benefit from this. Others in his party pin their hopes on a bonfire of green taxes and regulations but these account for just a fraction of the average bill. Polling shows that 75% of the public don't believe that rising bills are due to green levies. Miliband also delivered an effective riposte to the charge that his environmentalism was to blame for excessive prices: "They’ve been floundering all over the place and they blame the last government and green levies. Who was it who said: ‘I think green taxes as a whole need to go up’? It was him as leader of the opposition ... I look back at the record on the energy bill of 2010. Did he oppose the energy bill of 2010? No. He supported the energy bill of 2001. You could say, Mr Speaker, two parties working together in the national interest."

Until Cameron devises a policy with as much appeal as Miliband's price freeze, it is still Labour that will look like the party with answers on living standards.

David Cameron leaves Downing Street earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Carl Court/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war