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Commons confidential: Balls tweet auction, Lib Dem caution and Dafydd Cameron in Wales

Plus: could Gloria De Piero be a future culture secretary?

The US ambassador to London, the Democratic Party fundraiser Matthew Barzun, likes to tell of how he learned a few words of Welsh in the lead-up to the 2014 Nato summit in Newport, only to find that the locals spoke English. Dafydd Cameron took a different route on a recent foray to lecture the Welsh Tories in Cardiff. A copy of the speech he delivered was punctuated by phonetic translations. He was advised to say that the Wales minister Alun Cairns is from “Ysgol [pronounced Usgol] Pontardawe” and that he’d tell Labour’s Stephen Kinnock “da iawn” [pronounced “dye yown”, meaning “very good”] on 7 May when he comes second to the Tory candidate for Aberavon, the China-born “Edward Yi He [pronounced Yee Hay]”. Labour used to do the same with the word-mangling John Prescott after he stumbled over Slobodan Milosevic.

Disloyal of Danny Alexander to exclude Nick Clegg from Talk of the Glens, the eight-page glossy magazine given out to his Highlands constituents. There’s a recipe for Danny’s sausage and butternut squash stew, a crossword, an approving reference to Harriet Harman’s “ginger rodent” gibe, photos galore and an interview with his dad, Di, a former fireman. But no mention of Clegg. Indeed, all references to the Lib Dems are restricted to the back page. It seems the man who styles himself “Our Champion” is going it alone. Danny will have only himself to blame if he loses.

The Great British Battleaxe, Christine Hamilton, is selling cereal bars. Christine will soon appear on television fronting an ad campaign for the weight-loss range Slim-Be. The larger-than-life (though she claims to have dropped a dress size by eating what she’s flogging) Tory-turned-Ukip activist is, like her husband, Neil, the ex-MP, increasingly disillusioned with the Purple Shirts. Farage made it clear there’s room for a solitary ego in the party and his own is insatiable. At the rate the party is falling in the polls, it could yet win Political Slimmer of the Year.

To Leeds, and Morley’s magnificent, colonnaded old town hall. The Grade I-listed Victorian masterpiece boasts a bust of Herbert Asquith, a local lad who for eight years in the Edwardian era was Liberal prime minister. The current MP is Ed Balls. A copy of his notorious tweet (of his own name) was auctioned for £250. The fundraiser was split with Dewsbury, where Labour’s Paula Sherriff (younger sister of Lee Sherriff, standing in Carlisle) hopes to overturn the Tory barrister Simon Reevell’s vulnerable 1,526 majority. The talk in Dewsbury Labour ranks was of a Conservative action day to flood the former mill town’s streets with activists. They couldn’t fill a taxi.

From breakfast TV to culture secretary? That’s the word on Gloria De Piero if Labour wins the election.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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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