Laurie Penny on the worth of our representatives and the cost of democracy

How hard a person works is not and never has been proportional to a person’s salary.

How much is a politician worth? According to MPs, the answer is “about four times as much as the average worker”. This month, an anonymous parliamentary survey found that most MPs wanted to see their £65,738 salary rise to roughly £86,250 – an increase of 32 per cent, putting them squarely in the top 5 per cent of earners. That’s before you include the second homes, travel, subsidised meals, perks and entertainment that continue to cost the rest of us millions every year. As most of us struggle with plummeting wages and living standards, the more interesting question is: “Why aren’t there riots in the streets?”

In case you’ve been out of the country or washing your socks for the past four years, here’s some context: in 2009 every major political party in Britain was rocked by an expenses scandal that led to a nationwide crisis and helped kick off a series of street protests. Here we are in 2013, and not only are the same politicians still milking the system and getting away with it, they’re actually asking for a large pay rise.

Meanwhile, as social security is cut to starvation levels, the very rich will be enjoying a 5 per cent tax cut from April. By this point, people like me who point and squawk at social injustice for a living have repeated phrases such as “it’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us” until the words begin to lose all meaning. By this point, nobody’s pretending any more.

There may, in recent memory, have been a time when it was modish to pretend that Britain was a land of opportunity where class was an outdated concept and poverty merely relative, but that time is over. Most of us know far too well that we’re living in a staggeringly unequal society, one where the gulf between rich and poor is growing wider year on year. Parents have begun to resign themselves to the idea that their children will grow up to be poorer than them; young people leaving school are gently abandoning the idea of a stable home, a secure job and a decent wage. Why do we continue to accept this situation? Why – let’s be frank – isn’t Parliament Square on fire?

We put up with it in part for the same reason that our politicians feel it entirely appropriate to request a 32 per cent pay rise in the middle of a double-dip recession: because of a new morality of money and power that justifies inequality. Since this government was elected in 2010, the right-wing press has pumped out a torrent of propaganda declaring that those on benefits are “shirkers”, whereas those who are rich and powerful deserve their wealth, because of their “hard work”.

Most people defending a salary rise for MPs and large bonuses for City workers do so using the disclaimer that bankers and politicians “work hard”. The test that has decided that a banker works 20 times as hard as a teaching assistant has not been identified, because it doesn’t exist.

Undoubtedly, our members of parliament work extremely hard. So do nurses, teachers and call-centre workers. So do the police officers who this week are having their starting salaries cut by £4,000 to £19,000 a year. And so do the single parents and tax-credit recipients whose vital social security payments MPs have voted to slash. How hard a person works is not and never has been proportional to a person’s salary: it is, as today’s politicians understand very well, proportional to their power and privilege. We don’t like to talk about power in this country, though; instead, we talk about “hard work”.

You don’t need an in-depth grasp of post-Fordist economics to get this. The single mum sobbing in the benefits office may or may not have had the time to read Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom but she has internalised its logic, and so have the rest of us: the idea that the free market, despite all evidence to the contrary, rewards everyone justly and therefore we all deserve what we end up with.

Right now, when politicians speak of “workers” and “shirkers”, they mean “rich” and “poor” – and they know which side they’re on. The logic of work and power is turned on its head. Our leaders and the superrich are praised as “hard workers” but if someone else is poor and powerless, they are told it’s their fault because they didn’t work hard enough, even if they are manifestly pulling double shifts and raising a family alone.

The logic of this might not hold for much longer. Eighteen months ago, when riots raged in England, the kids in hoods smashing up the high street listed bankers’ bonuses and MPs’ expenses among the reasons for their disaffection, though it was said that these young people just really, really wanted a new pair of trainers.

This year, the desperation is deeper and there are no Olympics to distract us. How long can the logic of inequality, the logic of “workers” and “shirkers”, withstand public rage?

Editor's Note: The print version of this column contained an incorrect reference to a 1996 UN report. This has been removed.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

Getty
Show Hide image

How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.