Class Monitor No. 8: Checkout women

As she scans my Chilean red wine, I notice that the woman on the checkout has eaten the quick from her fingernails. It also appears that an unkind hand has forced her roughly into her nylon uniform: it struggles to button at the front, and is riding up at the back. The colour is ghastly, an ersatz pale blue reminiscent of prison and Manchester City football club in equal measure.

The coat is designed to render the wearer depressed, and yet the woman smiles. More than that, she talks, nodding at the wine and saying, "You'll
enjoy that, won't you?" I am saying, "Yes, yes I will", when we are joined by the store manager, who has been overseeing a girl stacking own-brand rice pudding.

He barks questions at the checkout woman, although they are less questions than assertions of his authority: "Have you taken your break? Has Susan taken her break? Have you booked your time off?" He is 20 years younger than the woman, yet he feels able, obliged even, to bully her.
Embarrassed on her behalf, I look down at the discounted goods in my basket. The manager goes on, making sure that the world - in this case, me - knows how important he is.

The woman, who really is important, as without her I couldn't buy anything, doesn't react and continues to scan my groceries. He carries on harassing her and she still smiles, as if she has developed the ability to exist outside her circumstances and interacts only with those things she chooses.

She continues to pass my food over the scanner. A single apple bleeps noisily and she laughs, complicit with me in the small comedy of bleeping apples. Inside my head, great violence befalls the manager. I imagine his slip-on shoes, too-tight suit and gelled hair disappearing beneath a bus, which then reverses back over him, just to be sure. Would society still function? Things would be just fine, yet the plan at this high street store is not to get rid of him, but her.

It has found a way to remove the woman from the members-of-the-public/discount-groceries interface. From next year, all the tills will be automated and she will lose the work that quite probably keeps her family above the poverty line. She may be offered a job stacking shelves for less money, but she is too old for hours of bending down and reaching up. The manager knows it.

His will to power sated, he slopes off. The checkout woman turns to me and winks. I'm glad she is a winker. I have no doubt what he is.

Michael Hodges writes the Class Monitor column for the New Statesman. He was named columnist of the year at the 2008 Magazine Design and Journalism Awards for his contributions to Time Out.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.