No, Jamie Oliver, working 100 hour weeks is not pukka, it’s exploitation

That migrants are often happy to work in scandalous conditions doesn't prove British workers are “wet behind the ears”, it proves we need to improve employment protection.

“What uncouth toilers, in what remote corners of the world, sweated and starved to bring to some comfortable little householder in Upper Tooting his pleasant five per cent?” asked George Dangerfield in his seminal book The Strange Death of Liberal England.

The middle classes have often accepted the necessity of both the British and international working classes “sweating and starving” for the sake of life’s little luxuries. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is only the latest member of the comfortable middle classes to expect, as if by birthright, foreign workers to feel contented working sweatshop-like hours to bring contentment to today’s equivalent of Dangerfield’s “comfortable little householder in Upper Tooting”.

Like many others in a similar financial position today, however, he has a problem: British workers are apparently no longer willing to play their assigned role.

Oliver has made the news a number of times this week, perhaps not unrelated to the fact that he has a new book out. On Tuesday he claimed the poor were spending their money on ready meals and large plasma televisions rather than on nutritious cuisine. On Wednesday he then lamented young British workers who were, he said, “whingeing” and “wet behind the ears”. He went on to unfavourably contrast them with their Eastern Europeans, who are apparently putting in 18-hour shifts without so much as raising an eyebrow. (Don’t bet against him wading into the debate on Syria by the weekend.)

Oliver’s curiosity as to why the poor appear keener on dining out at the local chippy than staying in and eating rotten bread and homemade potted duck received a great deal of (largely disparaging) media coverage. This is as it should be, for as George Orwell explained in The Road to Wigan Pier, “The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food.”

But yesterday’s comments by Oliver on the apparent lethargy of the British working classes are perhaps worse than his remarks about the dietary intake of the poor, for they reflect a view conveniently held by the wealthy that there is some mysterious virtue in people (other people, of course) being exploited by wealthy employers.

In an interview with Good Housekeeping, the house journal of the suburban middle classes, Oliver claimed that young workers today needed to be able to “knock out seven 18-hour days in a row”. This he described as “a basic approach to physical work”.

On the political right it has long been fashionable to knock migrants, either for not speaking English, for speaking English too well (and therefore taking all ‘our’ jobs), or for essentially being foreign and expecting more from life than a few pounds a day working in a Soviet-era rust bucket. Liberal members of the middle class, however, are equally apt to lionise migrant workers for putting up with exploitative conditions at the expense of their British counterparts, who apparently have the front to believe there is more to life than filling their employer’s coffers.

As I recently wrote on The Staggers and as others have written before me, the white working class remains about the only group in Britain it is acceptable to disparage in polite liberal company. Throw in a few words about how brilliant foreign workers are and you will still be able to pose at posh London dinner parties as a bleeding-heart progressive only with enhanced credentials for your 'open mindedness'.

What, though, is virtuous about being exploited?

Oliver may well boast that when he was in his 20s “the average working hours in a week was (sic) 80 to 100”. The mistake is the corresponding assumption that the proceeding reduction in labour time and its replacement with leisure has been in any way a bad thing. As well as 100-hour weeks, for much of Oliver’s 20s there would also have been no minimum wage and prior to that no effective laws preventing employers from discriminating against disabled workers.

Hardly halcyon days.

Working 100-hours a week is what happens when employment protections are insufficiently strong and employers excessively greedy. The fact that migrants from developing countries are often happy to work in scandalous conditions in no way makes those conditions acceptable. It means there is work to be done in educating migrant workers on what to expect in the workplace, as well as in schooling them in effective union organisation so as to take a bigger share of the pie from multi-millionaire employers like Jamie Oliver. 

Jamie Oliver speaks to an audience about responsible eating during an engagement at the Wheeler Centre on March 6, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.