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4 December 2017

The real crisis behind British workers’ low productivity

Spurious figures based on outdated measures are still published, causing regular bouts of national gloom.

By Peter Wilby

Britain, we are told, has a “productivity crisis”: our workers take five days to produce what a French worker produces in four. The real crisis, however, is among economists and statisticians who don’t have a clue how to measure productivity in post-industrial societies.

When manufacturing dominated the economy, productivity was easy to measure. It went up as workers turned out more and better cars, bottles of Coke or novelty hats per hour. As service industries grow, offering less tangible benefits, measuring productivity becomes far trickier. In many such industries, the public perceives increased “productivity” – through, say, fewer shop assistants per customer or shorter care workers’ visits to vulnerable elderly people – as a decline in quality.

How are we supposed to measure productivity in arts, media, sport and entertainment? In nail bars and food home delivery services? In taxi services and gyms? In education, health and social care, whether provided by the public or private sectors?

To be fair, economists are trying to develop better ways of calculating productivity growth. Yet spurious figures, based on outdated measures, are still published, causing regular bouts of national gloom.

Wage inflation

Like most members of the management class, the University of Bath’s former vice-chancellor, Glynis Breakwell, who this week agreed to step down at the end of the academic year, does little to boost the nation’s productivity. Her annual remuneration of £468,000 has provoked justifiable anger among the university’s staff, many of them on short-term contracts. However, I am amused that politicians (such as Andrew Adonis) have joined the condemnation.

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For several decades, governments of all parties have called for universities to become more efficient, more competitive, more “responsive” to “consumers” (students, that is), more target-driven, and more self-reliant through selling research and consultancy services to business. They were instructed to operate like private companies. Now that most universities are, as disgruntled academics describe it, “neoliberalised”, they have naturally imitated the culture of big companies, which pay chief executives high six-figure salaries as a matter of course.

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Crimes against humanity

In the late 1990s, the New Statesman – of which I was then editor – and the magazine’s former columnist John Pilger opposed Nato’s intervention in the affairs of the former Yugoslavia, and Tony Blair’s active support for it. So did Seumas Milne, then a Guardian columnist, now a senior aide to Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn himself was among the two dozen or so Labour MPs who regularly praised Pilger’s and Milne’s columns, and he signed an early day motion in parliament backing their stance.

In the wake of the International Criminal Tribunal’s conviction of Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, should we all now repent?

No. As Yugoslavia fragmented, terrible crimes were committed on all sides. Nobody should doubt that Mladic committed atrocities. Yet we should remain sceptical about the extent to which Western intervention, with what Milne described as its “reckless disregard for civilian lives”, was justified. Bosnia and later Kosovo provided Blair’s gateway drug for the Iraq invasion. That has led to more misery and more grisly deaths than anything the awful Mladic did.

Take it to the Bridge

In London’s West End theatres, with their eye-watering prices, you often come away with a sense of having been ripped off.

You sit with your knees almost under your chin and your elbows pressed into your ribs. The actors are frequently inaudible and often invisible too. The bars are as crowded as Tube trains at rush hour. If you answer a call of nature at the interval, you’ll probably miss the rest of the play.

Not so at the capital’s newest theatre, the Bridge, which is the brainchild of the former National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner. When I first saw its garish red signage on the south side of London’s Tower Bridge, I thought it was a Burger King. But when we watched its first production – Young Marx, co-authored by Richard Bean of One Man, Two Guvnors fame – we enjoyed spacious and comfortable seats, audible and visible actors, and a bar where you could swing not just a cat but a couple of tigers as well. The lavatories are more than adequate; my wife reported women forming queues before they realised that several cubicles were unoccupied.

I know West End theatres struggle with Victorian and Edwardian buildings. But it’s hard to believe they couldn’t learn a thing or two from their upstart rival.

Head for numbers

According to Andrew Strauss, the former Test captain who is now director of English cricket, Jonny Bairstow, the England wicketkeeper-batsman, headbutted (or, as Strauss prefers, “bumped heads with”) an Australian opponent in a night-club in Perth because “it’s something he does with his rugby mates”.

One is reminded of the actress Winona Ryder who, caught shoplifting, explained that she was researching for a part as a kleptomaniac. But it is true that, in his youth, Bairstow played rugby and, after England’s last disastrous tour of Australia in 2013-14, considered returning to it and giving up cricket. Moreover, a friend with experience of the rugby-playing community recalls a prop forward whose party trick was to shatter large ceramic ashtrays with his head and a leading French rugby club where prop forwards headbutted each other before every home game, sometimes needing stitches.

Strauss’s story has one flaw. Bairstow wasn’t a prop forward. He was a fly half, usually the most cerebral player in a rugby union team and the least likely to take risks with his head. 

This article appears in the 29 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world