A Labour campaigner during the last days of the 2015 election campaign. Photo: Getty Images
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Labour were beaten, yes, but we're not dead

Labour were knocked back last month, but we can rebuild, and we must. 

I failed the 11+.

To say that it was a blow would be a bit of an understatement.

I was born and brought up in Small Heath. It’s one of the poorest areas of the city of Birmingham and it’s where I still live today. Birmingham then, as now, operates a grammar school system.
My parents are first generation immigrants from Kashmir who ran a corner shop in Small Heath. With four children at home my Dad also worked a day job. Despite the challenges we faced, my parents always encouraged us to aim high and that meant university. As a teenager my heart was completely and utterly set on one thing. I was going to be Kavanagh QC. Well a Muslim, female version at any rate.
To fulfil this dream I thought I needed to win a place at Oxford and for that I thought I needed a place at the grammar school. But I had failed, which is a pretty crushing blow for any 11 year old.

I eventually made it to Oxford where I studied law and became a barrister. The point is that things don’t always work out quite the way we plan and failure is not always indicative of total disaster.
The Labour Party did not plan to lose the election. We certainly did not think that the Conservatives would form a majority government.
But we did, and they have.
Sure there are challenges and I don’t underestimate the scale of the task ahead. We have big questions to ask about our approach to the economy and our relationship with business.

But the narrative that is taking a hold is that the Labour Party is in chaos. Let’s learn one lesson from the summer of 2010; if we allow ourselves to be defined before we define ourselves then it will stick however far from the truth it is.
We are not in trouble. Nor are we in chaos. We are having a perfectly reasonable leadership contest. If we are to be in the race in 2020 it’s important we face up to our failings in an open, transparent and inclusive way. Quite frankly, the next leader of the Labour Party should be up to this level of scrutiny.
Whilst there is no shortage of opinions about why we lost and where to go from here, what we are already seeing is the emergence of some consensus on our approach to the economy and business. Differences between candidates exist on a myriad of other issues from free schools through to Labour’s involvement in the EU campaign. But, on the economy, what is increasingly evident is a collective realisation that our relationship with the business community - big, medium and small – needs to be reset. 

Our economic offer was too narrow. Do I disagree that the minimum wage should be raised or that exploitative zero-hour contracts should be banned? No of course not, these measures should always be part of a Labour manifesto. But should they have been all we spoke about? The Tories cut the 50p rate of tax but they didn’t spend all their time talking about it.
If we want to be the workers party for now, then we have to be the workers party for the 4.5 million self-employed, the business owner, the public sector worker and the low paid. Our policies have to reflect the fact that there are 31 million people employed in this country and most of those jobs are in the private sector. And what do most people actually want? At its most basic, most of us want a good job (for ourselves and our family members), then the opportunity to get a better job and a helping hand or a second chance if things go wrong.

That means as a party we need to push relentlessly policies that focus on economic growth, productivity and the high-tech, high-skill jobs of the future – something we’ve been hearing a lot about as we choose our new leader.
Our policies also have to show an understanding of what it means to live these lives. And why shouldn’t they? For many us in the Labour movement these lives are our lives. My first experience of work was helping in our corner shop; going to the cash and carry, helping with the stock checks and serving behind the till. At home, watching my dad working two jobs and every hour God sent to provide for me, my mum and my brothers and sisters.
The lessons I learnt then are still with me now. I learnt about budgeting and money, about the value of hard work, about the importance of determination and graft. I learnt the importance of obligation and loyalty. These are the values I share and understand. These must be the values of Labour.

 

Shabana Mahmood is Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Shabana Mahmood is Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood.

Carl Court/Getty Images
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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