The employers and the MPs are the real shirkers

The tiny minority that runs big business and politics has failed the hard-working majority in Britain.

Shirkers versus strivers those have been the terms of this weeks biggest debate, over the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill.

Many important points have been made about the ridiculousness of the governments various claims about the closed blinds or curtains of those who they identify as the shirkers, the unemployed which will presumably include many of the employees of Jessops, who on the governments account this week are strivers but will soon be shirkers. (Not to mention the fact that closed blinds in the morning might well indicate a night-shift worker)

Many of the progressive side have, rightly, been rushing to say that people trapped in unemployment are not shirkers. Its a term that, in the usual terms of the debate, rightly has a bad name.

But shirkers there are.

Group one of the shirkers are the employers whove shirked their responsibility to provide decently paid, secure, reliable jobs on which their staff can build a life, and that can be the foundation of the a secure, stable economy which the future of their businesses must ultimately depend on. The CEOs and CFOs and their henchpeople have certainly shirked their responsibility to look beyond the next quarters profit-and-loss accounts, and their own annual bonuses.

We can offer excuses for some employers the small retail businesses struggling to compete against the multinational giants whove been enjoying tax-dodging and monopolist benefits on a huge scale, the small wholesalers, farmers and manufacturers whove seen their profit margins squeezed by the same giant customers.

But there are no excuses for the profitable multinational giants, which have privileged the position of their shareholders and top managers at the expense of their staff and their own long-term future, for ultimately they need customers who can afford their products, and staff on a minimum wage well below the level of a living wage, on part-time contracts and short shifts to maximise company convenience, and on the obscenity of zero-hours contract cant do that. Its the old Henry Ford story he knew he needed to pay his production workers enough to buy their own Model Ts.

And theres a second group of shirkers: the leaders of successive governments. The former Labour government has to bear a large share of the blame how could it be after 13 years of their regime that the minimum wage was significantly, in the South East hugely, below a living wage, that people working in a full time job needed significant benefits housing benefit and family tax credits simply to survive?

Of course, the blame lies with more than just the single figure of an inadequate minimum wage. Labour did nothing against job insecurity, short-hours shifts and zero-hours contracts indeed cut further the already Thatcher-slashed ability of the unions to fight for better conditions.

And it swallowed hook-line-and-sinker the neoliberal line about Britain being able to abandon food growing and manufacturing importing essentials from developing nations, plundering their water and soils, exploiting their grossly underpaid workers while relying on the genius of bankers and the luxury industries servicing them and their friends as a foundation for the British economy, a foundation that it turns out was built on shifting sands of fraud, incompetence and incomprehension of risk.

Further, it ignored the fact that in the low-carbon world we need to be moving towards fast supply chains must be shortened the distance from field to plate for food cut to a minimum (for reasons of cost as well as carbon emissions), that most goods need to be made much closer to where they are needed.

What a shirking of responsibility that was.

But beyond the blame, we can look to the positive green economic shoots, the small signs of the future, the small businesses, cooperatives, social enterprises and community groups - the true strivers, who against all of the odds, against the efforts of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition to intensify the neo-Thatcherite policies in Blair-Brownism, are trying to start to rebuild a sustainable British economy.

Whether it is the Transition groups up and down the country, promoting food growing, jam-making, baking and encouraging crafts, innovative small co-operatives like Who Made Your Pants? or The Peoples Supermarket who are building a new model of business, or groups setting up new community-owned generation schemes, there are strivers who are now trying, from the grassroots, working to build the new British economy.

And then theres the countless other individual strivers the parents struggling to give their children a decent life with inadequate funds, going without meals themselves so their children eat properly; the carers who for the measly sum of £58.45 labour huge hours, with inadequate chances for relief, for their loved ones; the unemployed who battle on for employment, completing courses, putting in applications, even in the face of multiple knockbacks and government insults.

So maybe we can rescue the terms shirkers and strivers. Lets highlight the real shirkers most of whom fit in the Occupy classification of the 1% - and celebrate the many strivers, the 99%. With those ratios, the future of Britain can only be bright.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. Source: Getty

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

Getty.
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.