London mob, where are you?

From Charles I to Margaret Thatcher, when British governments have got above themselves and tried to do what is contrary to most public opinion, they have been brought to their senses by the same powerful force: the London mob.

Taking to the streets is the last weapon available to an infuriated populace – visible as I write on the streets of Hong Kong and Puerto Rico and in the past in so many other places: the 2011 Arab Spring; the 1989 ‘Autumn of Nations’; and of course the 1848 ‘Spring of Nations’ referenced in that name.

Yet here we are, faced with an un-representative British government with less legitimacy than any in living memory, making decisions without popular mandate with a potential to affect many more people  much more seriously than Thatcher’s poll tax, and there is no mob to be seen on the streets of London.

There have been some polite demonstrations against a no-deal Brexit, which have been boycotted by many on the pro-Brexit left on the grounds that they are middle-class, neo-liberal and Blairite. There have also been some demonstrations calling for a general election but, so deep is the rift among former labour party supporters, in a kind of mirroring, many on the anti-Brexit left have failed to support them because they are ‘too cross with Jeremy Corbyn’. This polarisation on the left has been accentuated by the unpleasantly engineered charges of anti-semitism, in which the BBC has played a disgraceful role, matched only in political irresponsibility by the way in which it has conferred the ‘oxygen of publicity’ on the likes of Nigel Farage, Ann Widdecombe and Boris Johnson over the years, presenting them to the British public as entertaining eccentrics rather than the dangerous threats to democracy they actually constitute.

One of the most depressing aspects of these divisions is the claim by both sides in the debate on the left that they speak for the working class. If we look at voting patterns in the 2016 referendum it is clear that the urban population (where most of the working class, especially its black and ethnic minority members, resides) was largely in favour of remaining in the EU. The the average majority for ‘remain’ was 55.2% in the 30 largest cities. All the largest UK cities (apart from Birmingham) – London, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Bristol, Cardiff, Belfast – voted with substantial margins to remain in the EU. Other than in Birmingham and nearby Coventry and Wolverhampton, the urban ‘leave’ majority was concentrated in what Americans call ‘rustbelt’ areas – where local populations have been hit hard by deindustrialisation, such as Sheffield, Bradford, Wakefield, Sunderland, Nottingham, Derby, Stoke-on Trent and Hull. Sadly these areas are likely to be among those hit hardest by any no-deal Brexit.

Surely, a future historian might think, it is precisely in these large cities that one might expect people to take to the streets. Look at Manchester, with its brave tradition of popular protest going back to Peterloo in 1819. Or London, where in 1641 the London apprentices and their supporters took to the streets to prevent the bishops from entering the Houses of Parliament to thwart Charles I, and the Gordon rioters shook the establishment to its core in 1780. Not to mention the 1990 poll tax riots that are often credited with bringing Thatcher down. But so far, no sign.

What can explain this? Perhaps it has something to do with race and racism? Certainly a reaction to racism played a major part in triggering some of the most recent urban rioting, for example in  London’s Brixton,  Liverpool’s Toxteth and Leeds’s Chapeltown in the summer of 1981, and the so-called London riots of August 2011. But racism has, if anything, intensified considerably in recent years, fuelled by May’s ‘hostile environment for immigrants ‘ regime in the Home Office and the sense of entitlement of far-right racist parties in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Have people become too afraid to protest? Or lost faith in the solidarity of the white left? Have they succumbed to the kind of social paralysis that affects people with long-term depression? Or are they simply too busy scratching a living in the precarious gig economy to be able to take time off for the comparative luxury of political self-expression?

Of course I do not want to place the responsibility for leading us out of the mess that is obviously not of their making on any members of the urban proletariat, black or white. In puzzling over why they are not taking to the streets there are also other factors to be taken into account. Is it a question of culture? I seem to remember that some of the impetus behind the poll tax riots came from the anarchist group Class War, linked to a kind of punk culture that was consciously anti-racist, including mixed punk/reggae bands like UB40. I am no expert on popular music these days but it would seem to me that Stormzy’s popularity among Labour Party members follows in such a tradition. Nevertheless, it is one thing to have middle-class Glastonbury-goers applauding the music and quite another to have them out on the streets in solidarity with victims of racism in Lewisham or Moss Side. Or, for that matter, with food bank users in Brent or South Shields. Is it a question of leadership? On the principle that a mob is not a mob until it’s mobilised. Who knows? What seems clear is that there is now in London as in other cities across the land a bubbling cauldron of anger that seems overdue for an overflow. But where will it go? And who will be scalded in the process?




Thoughts on anti-Semitism

It is a long time since I wrote in this blog. There is a repeating pattern whereby a period of illness (in this case recovering from some surgery just before Christmas) sets me back in my ‘proper’ writing, rendering me too guilty to indulge in non-commissioned work until I have cleared the backlog. But eventually I feel so strongly about something that I have to break the self-imposed taboo. Something similar happened a couple of years ago when I found myself compelled to break the silence during the build-up to the Brexit referendum because of concerns about how it was reported. Today’s impulse also comes from a kind of horror at what is going on around me politically but this time the context is the whisked-up media attention currently being paid to anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, which, it appears to me, wearing my Cassandra hat, may be leading us towards something that is profoundly harmful, political and socially. (even though it might in the long run have some positive impacts by bringing what is hidden or taken for granted to the surface).

Despite (or perhaps because of) the huge media coverage, there seem to be important questions that are not being asked, or answered, adequately. There is of course a lot of discussion about where the attacks are coming from and why now: smoking guns aplenty for conspiracy theorists. The Tories, looking for any ammunition to use against Labour in the run-up to the local elections; the Israeli Government, happy to have pro-Palestinian voices silenced while they shoot unarmed civilians in Gaza; Blairites in the Labour Party who seize on any opportunity to attack Corbyn, regardless of its impact on Labour’s election chances; the mainstream mass media, drifting ever further rightwards with the BBC (fearful of the axe) rivalling the Murdoch press in its pandering to the Tories. This morning, on the Today programme, the fact that Corbyn had attended a meeting of Jewdas (‘a left-wing Jewish group critical of more mainstream Jewish organisations. organisations’, as the BBC put it) was treated as evidence that he was failing to address anti-Semitism in the Party in a piece of doublethink worthy of Orwell. The question that, it seems to me, is not being addressed sufficiently is how and why this particular charge is so difficult for serious socialists to counter. How is it that the energetic, resilient left, which has successfully fought back over the last couple of years against so many anti-Corbyn smears, can be so easily silenced when accused of something which that very socialist left has, over the years, done more than any other political grouping in this country to counter? What notions of good and bad, what intersections of fear and shame, what confusions, what extremes of guilt-by-association, have brought us to this pass?

So here I am again, adding yet another voice to the conversation.

Like last time, when I wrote about Brexit, I have been very hesitant about putting my thoughts online. On both topics there are many people much better-informed than I am. I feel a bit like the fool stomping in, in my muddy wellies, onto a polished parquet floor where even the angelic dancers hesitate before taking a tentative step. Not only is it likely that my generalisations will be quibbled with and my attitudes questioned as old-fashioned, badly informed or politically incorrect, but, in the case of anti-Semitism, there is also the undeniable fact that I am not Jewish, and therefore, perhaps genuinely insensitive to what is going on.

So I will start with a self-interrogatory personal narrative of what Jewishness means to me. I grew up with a strong awareness that anti-Semitism existed and was not easy to fight. My father was a student in Vienna in the 1930s and witnessed extreme forms of it first hand. He was a close friend of Muriel Gardiner (who became Muriel Buttinger after her marriage to Joseph Buttinger, the leader of the Austrian Socialist Party). Taking advantage of her family’s wealth and her US passport, Muriel played an active role in sheltering socialists wanted by the police from the Nazis and helping find ways for Jews to get out of the country safely, a role that was lightly fictionalised in the 1977 film, Julia, where her part was played by Vanessa Redgrave. My father played a small role in this (including helping to acquire British passports that could be used to get people across the border) and Muriel remained a life-long friend of his and, later, an inspiration to me. I have vivid memories of the last time I met her, over dinner in an Italian restaurant in Bloomsbury in the 1970s, in the company of my father and my friend Nick Redgrave, where she talked about her American socialist youth, collecting money for the defence of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1920. It was on this occasion that, when I admired the chunky Venetian baroque pearl necklace she was wearing, with typical impulsive generosity, she immediately took it off and said, ‘Here, have it!’.

Anyway, suffice it to say, this experience cemented for me an association between Jewishness and socialism. Like the rest of their generation (my father was born in 1902, my mother in 1907) my parents were by no means free of racial stereotypes. For them, Jews were clever, sensitive, musical and studious. They were good fathers but unlikely to be interested in sport or the consumption of alcohol. Some of these stereotypes were challenged when applied to the complex personalities of Jewish people I knew personally but many were not. I really did meet a lot of Jewish psychoanalysts, writers, university lecturers, publishers, musicians and artists. And an awful lot of them really were socialists. Most were also part of a shared culture which was secular and humanist and their Jewishness did not seem particularly important.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Jewishness, like other identities, felt to me like part of a historical legacy that would become less and less important with the progressive advance of universal education, and the spread of democracy and egalitarian welfare regimes. Religions, it seemed then, formed part of superstitious heritages designed to bolster hierarchies (including patriarchal ones), reinforce obedience to power, provide hope to people facing intolerable adversity and give them spiritual sustenance in their sorrow. While of course their practices should be tolerated and their rituals celebrated, their roles would increasingly be taken over by other communitarian agencies in the brave socialist future we imagined.

But I was sometimes reminded of the strength of Jewish identity, even among secular Jews. I remember a conversation with Michael Kidron (then my editor at Pluto Press) in which I was describing how international my family had become (my siblings’ spouses were, variously, Polish-German, Japanese, French and Palestinian – which extended in the next generation to Indian, Chinese and US spouses) and his immediate reaction was ‘Yes, but you’re all Goy’. I was also struck, living in Yorkshire in the 1970s, by the bonds that stretched across the Jewish community there, crossing party-political boundaries. When the National Front wanted to march through Leeds City Centre, this was stopped, so I was told, by Irwin Bellow, the Tory leader of the City Council, former owner of a company that made sewing machines (subsequently knighted for his services selling council houses as a minister in the Thatcher government) after a phone call from Lou Baruch, the communist leader of Bradford Trades Council (‘the textile workers’ champ’) – the anti-union capitalist and the trade union leader cheerfully colluding to thwart anti-Semitism.

In the early 2000s, when organisations like Jews For Justice in Palestine were formed in the UK, it came as quite a surprise to me how many friends I had up to then simply thought of as fellow socialists and feminists decided to identify themselves publicly as Jews. It had never even occurred to me in many cases that that’s what they were. I actually found it quite difficult to place myself, as a non-Jew, in relation to such campaigns, which seemed to construct people like me as outsiders. If one was campaigning on the basis that everybody was equal and religious distinctions should not matter, then it seemed on one level contradictory to insist on such distinctions. On another level, of course, it was very understandable. In a world where every non-Jew runs the risk of being (consciously or unconsciously) anti-Semitic, just as all white people run the risk of being (consciously or unconsciously) racist, then Jewish voices that stand against Israeli state policy have a unique chance of being heard out. Nevertheless, it left me, and perhaps others, with a sense of having nowhere to put my solidarity, a silencing of sorts.

This is not the whole story, of course. The atrocity of the Holocaust hung like a pall over my childhood, as I suppose it did for most of my generation. I didn’t even realise how deeply it affected me until I became a mother and found myself haunted by detailed and very concrete imaginings of the experience of deportation and the death-camps. What did you do, I kept wondering, crammed, standing, into a cattle-truck with nothing but the clothes on your back, when your baby needed a nappy change? When it cried? When it wanted to crawl? How did you cope with the leaking breast-milk when that baby had been snatched from you? Such questions, I realised, had formed part of the mental sound-track of my life since childhood, breaking their way into consciousness only at moments of emotional stress or vulnerability and playing who knows what convulsive riffs while they remained unconscious.  I can still remember, with great vividness, an experience at my North Wales primary school in the mid-1950s. Two boys were approaching kids in the playground with knowing ‘I’ve got a secret’ smirks, asking if anyone wanted to see their pictures. One by one, we were shown two well-thumbed black-and-white photographs, cut from a magazine, of the piled-up emaciated bodies that were found at the liberation of Belsen. It is hard to exaggerate the shock of this – not just the obscene reality that was represented in those pictures but also the voyeuristic frisson that these two boys seemed to experience, as if it were pornography, and the air of secrecy, as though these images revealed something so shameful that children were forbidden to view them. I am sure I am not the only person whose nightmares were invaded by these images. Such experiences confirm the idea of the Holocaust as something uniquely awful, incommensurate with other atrocities. Even to mention it in the same breath as other genocidal massacres can feel like somehow trying to diminish its importance. Small wonder that denying it is a criminal offence in many countries.

And then there is Israel. My early view of Israel was partly shaped by second-hand accounts of kibbutzim, which provided gap-year experiences to many more or less idealistic kids in the years after National Service was abolished for young British men. They seemed like a foretaste of socialism – sexual freedom and communal living amongst the orange groves. Israel was, in this view, the happy ending that awaited those who were lucky enough to have survived the horror and brave enough to fight for freedom, a view that was reinforced by the 1960 film Exodus, directed by Otto Preminger, one of the first I ever saw on a wide screen.

Since then, I have become only too aware of how necessary it is to unpick such facile narratives and explore their contradictions, not least through my first-hand contact with the descendents of Arabs for whom the foundation of Israel meant being turfed off their ancestral lands. But such unpicking is extraordinarily difficult to do when the narratives are so highly-charged, both emotionally and morally.

I became acutely aware of this when I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. By coincidence, this, my first (and so far only) visit to Washington, took place only a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. I was on one of the first flights into a city where at least one of the other airports was still closed. There was a strange jumpy hysteria in the atmosphere, with military aircraft zipping overhead and people with their heads down hurrying to get home. Flags fluttered everywhere. Streets were almost empty. My academic hosts had arranged for me to have dinner with their Dean in a fashionable restaurant that served up expensive versions of poor peoples’ foods (things I had only ever read about, like hominy grits). The restaurant was almost deserted and the Dean wanted to spend the minimum possible time there, departing in the middle of the main course after asking the waiter to box up his food so he could take it home with him, ratcheting up the already high level of awkwardness for those of us who had to sit it out until dessert had been consumed.

Rejecting polite offers to entertain me, I decided, in the free day before my seminar, to visit the Holocaust Museum, about which I had heard a great deal. The experience was  immersive. As you entered, you were given a card with the details of a Holocaust victim with whom you were encouraged to identify (I am using the past tense here because things may have changed in the sixteen years that have elapsed since this visit). The first spaces that greeted you gave a historical account of Hitler’s rise to power, with photographs of mass rallies, the swastikaed flags in the photographs uncannily echoing all those stars and stripes waving outside. It was made clear that the Nazis attacked socialists and trade unionists, as well as Jews but the main story was about anti-Semitism. The next section of the museum reinforced this, with a historical account of anti-Semitism in Europe and lots of artefacts showing the rich cultural heritage of European Judaism. Then you were taken, step by harrowing step, through the detail of the Holocaust – the roundings up, the transport, the conditions in the camps, the death chambers. Incidental mention was made of  non-Jewish victims (the gypsies, the gays, the mentally handicapped, the socialists) but overwhelmingly the story was about Jews, and hatred of Jews, and the unspeakable consequences of that hatred. It was all made concrete and vivid, not just through identification with the avatar-victim on one’s personal card but also by the volume of material evidence. Everyone I have ever spoken to who has visited that museum remembers the enormous pile of worn, discarded shoes, heartbreaking in its very banality. Emerging, trembling from the emotional impact of all this, you entered the final part of the permanent exhibition, intended, I suppose, to be uplifting, covering the liberation of the camps and the resistance. The last room celebrated Israel.

I came out into the glare of the Washington sunlight feeling shaken and moved. But also, confusingly, a little bit tricked. It took a lot of thought to unravel this feeling and I ended up concluding that it was the result of the slow elision of oversimplified dualistic oppositions, a slippery my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my friend/if-you-are-not-with-me-you-are-against-me logic that, when extended, led one along a path that was too narrow, too exclusive and not quite where one intended to go. This is a logic that conflates the political and the moral and, by virtue of the power of that morality, creates a stage in which everyone must be a victim, a villain or a hero (not unlike Stephen Karpman’s victim-rescuer-persecutor ‘drama triangle’). It is a world of goodies and baddies with very little scope either for shades of grey or for personal change.  The logic goes something like this: Hitler = evil; Jews = victims; Allied troops = heroes. Since Hitler was bad, Jews must be good, therefore Israel must also be good. Anybody who is against Israel must therefore be bad (like Hitler) – including Arabs. Socialists fit very awkwardly into this logic. According to the Nazi logic, they are as bad as Jews (indeed they are often assumed to be Jews, or manipulated by them) who must be stamped out, which makes them, by anti-Nazi logic, victims and/or heroes. Their historical role as opponents of anti-Semitism and racism in many European countries also renders them good. However if they use the same reasoning that enabled them to identify dispossessed Jews as victims to recognise dispossessed Arabs as victims too, that makes them anti-Israel which renders them bad. They become like those optical illusions of which the eye can only see one version at a time, toggling wildly between good and evil.

There is a sense in which we all want to be heroes of our own biographies, casting others as fellow victims or persecutors, allies or opponents. But in a political landscape so shot-through with moral righteousness and outrage it is extraordinarily difficult to step forward with confident conviction of one’s own heroism, especially if one is not a central protagonist in the story. Indeed, the greater one’s self-awareness and knowledge of history, the more difficult this becomes.

I had a Catholic upbringing which impressed on me the importance of the nightly ‘examination of conscience’ in which you reflected on everything you had done that day and, if any of it was bad, resolved how you would put it right tomorrow: a sort of memory-scan for shame. This kind of self-examination is of course not unique to Catholics. Variants of it can be found in the practices of psychotherapy, for example, or the consciousness-raising that went on in women’s groups in the 1970s.

Many of us, perhaps especially on the white left, are acutely aware of our own inadequacies. When it comes to racism and anti-Semitism, there are few, I suspect, who can put their hands on their hearts and proclaim themselves entirely not guilty. My generation was brought up in a culture that was profoundly racist and homophobic. Did we really never snigger at the camp gay stereotype played by John Inman in ‘Are You Being Served?’ or laugh at the jokes in ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ or ‘Love Thy Neighbour’? And how much of it washed off on us? We have had to admit that, even if we never consciously discriminated against a black person ourselves, we probably owe our relatively advantaged social positions in the British middle class at least in part to the history of slavery and imperialism. Even as we try to uncover our own hidden racism, we become more and more aware of how our society is steeped in it, how it takes myriad forms and changes over time, how difficult it is to disentangle concepts of cultural difference from those of discrimination, how complicated are the interactions between the past and the present in the formation of identities.

As with so many things in life, the more you know, the more you understand how complicated something is, and the more hesitant you may become about laying down the law to others. Yet alongside this growing comprehension of the complexity of human group inter-relationships, also comes an increasing awareness of how much unfairness and suffering and injustice there is out there. The impulse to remain silent is countered by an equally important impulse to do something about it (that’s what makes people join organisations like the Labour Party). But the interplay between these two impulses might create a sort of paralysis, or at least wrong-foot those who try to enter the public debate without having thought out their position carefully.

Justice is not a card game in which one kind of victimhood trumps another, rendering it irrelevant. We need a broader moral frame that recognises the co-existence of different forms of oppression, even the possibility that the same person, or group of people, might be simultaneously both an oppressor and a victim.

But articulating such a programme requires a degree of nuance that is beyond the binary logic of the mass media to cope with. And which of us, we might ask, has the right to propose such a programme? We seem to have arrived at a situation where non-Jewish socialists feel both unentitled to do so and held back by their very awareness of their own imperfections. I am not sure I am right about this but am wondering how much this might be the explanation for the diffidence (or perhaps even cowardice?) which non-Jews on the left feel about speaking out in the current debate. But speak out, I believe, we must. Somehow.




Not such good work, Matthew Taylor

The long-waited Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices is now published, under the title Good Work and it is, I am afraid, very disappointing indeed. In terms of its concrete recommendations it goes beyond being a missed opportunity, out of kilter with its times, to posing an active threat to workers’ rights and undoing past advances.

As might be expected from a lead author who was appointed head of Tony Blair’s Number 10 Policy Unit in 2005, it is not short on spin. It speaks repeatedly of ‘enduring principles of fairness’, nods often to the idea of good work as an essential ingredient of happiness and wellbeing and claims to be focusing ‘not just on new forms of labour such as gig work but on good work in general’. Pious mission statements, such as ‘We believe work should provide us all with the opportunity to fulfil our own needs and potential in ways that suit our situations throughout our lives’ sit alongside nods to the inevitability (and benignity) of technological progress. In the classic contradictory formula of centre-left neoliberalism it manages simultaneously to say that ‘Good work is something for which Government needs to be held accountable’ and ‘The best way to achieve better work is not national regulation but responsible corporate governance’!

Why was it no surprise to discover this morning that Taylor’s co-investigator, Greg Marsh, was a former investor in that most visible of gig economy companies, Deliveroo?

Out of kilter with the time

In light of recent events, the report seems oddly old-fashioned. It is little more than six months since the Inquiry was established (in October 2016) but during that period there have been unprecedented developments on the ground, with an upsurge in organising by casual workers in the UK (and elsewhere). New trade union organisations, such as the  UPHD (United Private Hire Drivers) and the IWGB (International Workers of Great Britain IWGB) have sprung up to represent drivers for platforms like Uber and delivery workers for companies like Deliveroo as well as casualised workers in other sectors, such as outsourced cleaning workers, porters and foster carers. A series of test cases brought by these organisations, sometimes with the support of traditional trade unions like the GMB, have established in case after case that workers for companies like City Sprint, Uber and Pimlico Plumbers are not the ‘independent contractors’ these companies claimed they were but ‘workers’, entitled to such rights as the minimum wage and paid holidays. As a result of these, and other well-publicised cases of exploitation of low-wage workers, such as Sports Direct, there has been a sea-change in public attitudes to fairness at work evidenced by the popularity of the demand for an end to zero-hour contracts in the Labour Party Manifesto.

The British public seems, at last, to have seen beyond the rhetoric that elides what is ‘flexible’ for the employer (in the form of a just-in-time workforce, waiting to be summoned at short notice by an app) with the older demands raised fifty years ago by the Women’s Movement for a ‘flexibility’ that responds to the unpredictable demands of family. Having lived it in their own lives, or watched their kids do so, most people now see only too well that being available on demand makes it very hard indeed to manage your own life, especially when childcare is involved. But the report shows no awareness that workers and employers may have different interests, merely stating vacuously that ‘Encouraging flexible work is good for everyone and has been shown to have a positive impact on productivity, worker retention and quality of work’.

While public opinion seems to have been saying ‘enough is enough’, the court judgements  have been saying, in the words of Jason Moyer-Lee, General Secretary of IWGB,  ‘”gig workers” already have rights – all we need to do is enforce them’.

A rational response to this situation – the opportunity that this report misses – would take the existing principles as a starting point and work to ensure that there are clear guidelines for their implementation, putting the onus of proof not onto vulnerable workers but onto those who dictate their working conditions and profit from their services. But this is very far from the Taylor approach.

Missed opportunity

The report quite rightly recognises that the employment status of casual workers is confusing and poorly understood. This is partly because it is dealt with separately under the tax system and in employment law. Under the tax system, unless you have some other legal status such as being a limited company or a partnership, you are either an employee or self-employed. Many workers living hand-to-mouth think it is preferable to be self-employed because that way they can defer the payment of income tax and set expenses against it. Under employment law being an employee brings a range of rights and protections, including such things as maternity and paternity pay, sick pay, parental leave and pensions coverage. These are probably worth much more to most workers in real terms than whatever tax savings they make by being self-employed, but of course can only be claimed if your employer actually agrees that you are indeed an employee and fulfils his or her part of the bargain. There are however some rights, guaranteed under employment law to all workers regardless of whether they are formally classed as employees. These include the right to the minimum wage and to paid public holidays.

The difficulty of establishing employee status is not new. Back in the 1970s and 1980s when I was doing research on homeworking this issue came up again and again. Frightened women, unaware of their rights, were told firmly that they were not employees (often believing – usually wrongly – that what they were doing was not quite legal and that if found out they would become liable for tax or national insurance payments and fined for being in breach of health and safety or tenancy regulations) so they would accept that they had no rights. The law had then no single test for being ‘genuinely self-employed’. Tribunals or courts were supposed to weigh up a lot of different factors such as who determined what work should be done and what should be paid for it, whether or not the worker had the right to employ somebody else to do it, how continuous it was, who paid for the materials and so on. Little has changed since then, although the case law has moved on. The most crucial principle is whether a relationship of subordination can be said to apply.

In the case of most platform companies, there is little doubt that the workers are indeed subordinate. Although practices vary from company to company, workers are usually told precisely what to do, with each ‘task’ well defined and costed. Not only is their pay and work process laid down, there are also typically detailed rules about quality standards to be met. While there may be some limited right to turn a few jobs down, there are usually strong penalties for doing so repeatedly. They do not have the right to pass the work on to others. And in some cases (Deliveroo being a case in point) they are even required to wear uniforms or sport company logos.

The report could have laid out clear guidelines for defining genuine self-employment and spelled out the obligations of employers of subordinate workers. But what it has done instead is muddied the waters still further by proposing exceptions to the existing principles which could be detrimental not only to workers who are currently working casually but also to other workers, including those currently defined as employees.

 How could its recommendations make matters worse?

  1. Establishing a new intermediate kind of employment status – the ‘dependent contractor’

The report proposes setting up ‘an intermediate category covering casual, independent relationships, with a more limited set of key employment rights applying’. Although this approach has been rightly resisted by British legislators in the past, this is not a particularly original response. Indeed it something of a knee-jerk reaction by neo-liberal ‘modernisers’ to the development of new forms of work. It was, for example, strongly promoted in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s (for example by the Belgian labour lawyer Roger Blanpain) as a way of encouraging teleworking without bringing it completely within the scope of existing employment protection laws. Italy provides a particularly extreme example of the ways in which different forms of ‘parasubordinate’ status and sub-categories of self-employment have been created to cover workers, such as call centre workers, who fall outside traditional sectoral agreements and regulatory categories. The overwhelming evidence is that when such new kinds of status are established they do not just result in reduced coverage for the ‘new’ kinds of workers who fall under them but, even more importantly, are then extended across the workforce to bring other more traditional forms within their scope, resulting in a worsening of conditions across the board. In other words, what they do is provide employers with a new tool for casualisation and erosion of existing rights, whatever well-intentioned language is used that purports to prevent this.

  1. Undermining the minimum wage

The report also proposes a change in the way that the National Minimum Wage (NMW) is applied: ‘In re-defining ‘dependent contractor’ status, Government should adapt the piece rates legislation to ensure those working in the gig economy are still able to enjoy maximum flexibility whilst also being able to earn the NMW’. What it proposes is complex, and difficult to summarise here. At the headline level it looks like a proposal to increase the NMW by a modest amount for workers with the proposed new ‘dependent contractor’ status. However the report also wags a stern finger at those who think that workers should be paid for all the time they spend waiting for jobs to come up, which is, they say unreasonable and open to abuse. Given that many workers in the gig economy spend half their time or more logging on in the hope of work that does not arrive, this could in practice lead to a fall in the time eligible for payment.

There is more in the report. I have only scratched the surface here. But am about to board a flight for China so will postpone further discussion for another day.

The key criticisms of basic income, and how to overcome them

I quite often write blogs for sites other than my own. It has been suggested to me that I should post them here too, to make life easier for followers who like to see things in one place, so here is one that was published on the Open Democracy website on 14th December.


How can a universal basic minimum income be made compatible with socialist principles and avoid inadvertently furthering a neoliberal agenda?

More than one in five UK workers, over seven million people, are now in precarious employment according to this analysis of official figures by John Philpott. Since 2006, the numbers on zero-hours contracts has grown by three-quarters of a million are and over 200,000 more are working on temporary contracts. My own recent research has found that some two and a half million adults in the UK may be working for online platforms like Uber, Taskrabbit or Upwork at least once a month, with about 1.2 million people earning more than half their income from this kind of work. A growing proportion of the population is piecing together an income from multiple sources, in many cases making even the concept of a fixed occupation anomalous.

Large numbers of worker do not know, from one day – or even hour – to the next if and when they will next be working. Yet we still have an anachronistic benefit system based on the principle that any fit adult (and, under the current regime, many who are less than fit) must either be ‘in work’ or ‘seeking work’. The old Beveridgean welfare state model is, in short, bust. What is left of the old welfare safety net is fundamentally incompatible with a globalised just-in-time labour market in which workers are increasingly paid by the task.

The victims of these incompatibilities are among the most vulnerable in our society – forced to take any work that is going but often unable to claim benefit when none is available. They are caught between the rock of harsh sanctions regimes and the hard place of capricious and unreliable employers, often with no dependable source of income whatsoever. And the numbers of these people missed by the safety net keep growing. The use of food banks has increased more than forty-fold since 2008, the estimated  number of rough sleepers has risen by 55% since 2010 and the number of children in poverty rose from 3.7 million in 2014-2015 to 3.9 million a year later – an increase of 200,000 in just one year. Something is clearly terribly wrong and the increasingly urgent question is how to fix it.

This is part of the problem to which the concept of a universal basic income (UBI) now presents itself as a solution to an expanding range of analysts. UBI is not only promoted as a way to update the benefit system to bring it into line with new labour market realities. It is also seen as a way to reward carers and others who carry out unpaid reproduction work in the home, to support artists, enable lifelong learning or give more autonomy to disabled people. This once-marginal idea is now seriously espoused in the UK by the Green Party, the Scottish Nationalist Party, some trade unions and sections of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and Plaid Cymru. Further afield is also actively promoted (including setting up experimental schemes) in Finland, the Netherlands, India, South Africa and, at the neoliberal end of the spectrum, by high-tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

At the headline level, indeed, UBI can seem to represent some sort of magic bullet that will solve all these problems simultaneously, and is often promoted as such. But a closer examination of the various models proposed reveals considerable differences between them. If these are not recognised, attempts to operationalise it could lead at best to risks of unintended consequences and at worst deep political fissures that could even exacerbate some of the problems UBI is intended to address. Most attempts to model how UBI could be implemented in practice in the UK (for example by Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley, Malcolm Torry and Gareth Morgan) have looked at it in what might be called a policy-neutral context, in which all other features of the economy and the tax system remain unaltered. But of course the reality is that any change in government policy that could lead to the introduction of UBI would be part of a much broader political upheaval that would transform many of these other features. Abstracting UBI from its broader setter in this way makes it harder to see such potential hazards.

For people who believe that the world’s sixth largest economy should be able to protect its citizens from penury, and are committed to (re)developing a welfare state that reduces social inequality and enhances choice and opportunity for its citizens, perhaps the time has now come for a serious debate, not just about the pros and cons of UBI in the abstract, but about which other policies it should be linked with to ensure that these objectives are met. This involves grappling with some difficult questions. Here I look at four of the risks that could arise if a UBI is introduced without such policy safeguards.

The risk of driving down wages

In the abstract, the relationship between a UBI and wage levels can be argued to be either positive or negative. Some argue, quite plausibly, that a guaranteed minimum income would enable people to be much choosier about which jobs they accept, giving them options to turn down really exploitative wage rates and perhaps even providing them with the equivalent of strike pay to enable them to negotiate more effectively with employers without their dependents suffering.

An alternative view draws on the experience of tax credits (and now, universal credit) to point out that providing an income top-up is, in effect, a subsidy to employers who pay below-subsistence wages. In 2015-2016, this subsidy was estimated at about £30 billion. Had this been paid out by employers as part of their wage bill then this would also have led to an increase in national insurance and tax revenues. These credits therefore represent a factor which, whether inadvertently or not, increase inequalities between those who rely on their wages for their livelihood and those who derive their incomes, directly or indirectly, from corporate profits.

If a UBI is not to exacerbate this state of affairs, it is imperative that it is linked to a high minimum wage and one, moreover, that can be linked to systems where workers are paid by the task, not just to hourly rates.

The risk of undermining collective bargaining for employer-provided benefits

An important argument against UBI comes from social democratic parties and trade unions, especially in parts of continental Europe with a strong tradition of sector-level bargaining, who argue that its introduction would undermine their efforts to make employers pay into schemes that provide negotiated benefits, such as pensions, health insurance or childcare. A UBI provided by the state would, they contend, shift the burden of paying for it from employers to the general taxpayer. As Richard Murphy has shown, ‘the poorest 20% of households in the UK have both the highest overall tax burden of any quintile and the highest VAT burden’. This shift would therefore exacerbate inequalities, rather than reducing them, at a societal level.

To avoid this risk, it is therefore important that the introduction of UBI should be accompanied by measures that support trade unions’ abilities to bargain with employers at company and sector levels for benefits for their members, by protection for existing company pensions schemes and by other measures that ensure that employers continue to contribute their share of the cost, for instance through employers’ contributions to National Insurance.

The risk of undermining collectively-provided public services

By giving everyone cash, neoliberal models of UBI play along with the grain of an increasingly marketised economy in which services are individually purchased from private providers. There is therefore a risk that UBI could become a sort of glorified voucher system, undermining collectively provided public services that are designed by bodies democratically answerable to the communities they serve, under the guise of offering individual choice. Quite apart from the considerable risks that this poses to democracy, social cohesion and the quality of services, this could disadvantage individuals with special needs who require more expensive and/or specialised services than the average, exacerbating inequalities even while purporting to offer everybody the same.

It is therefore imperative that the introduction of a UBI should be embedded with policies that protect the scope and quality of public services and their collective and universal character.

The risk of creating racist definitions of citizenship

If a UBI is defined as a right of citizenship, then this raises the question of entitlement: who is, or is not, a citizen? And on what basis is their right to UBI established? A final serious risk associated with the introduction of UBI is that it could become linked to a narrow definition of citizenship from which some people (for example refugees, asylum-seekers or residents who do not hold UK passports) are excluded. In addition to the support this could give to racism and xenophobia this could also lead to a two-tier labour market in which people who are not entitled to UBI become an exploited underclass.

The introduction of UBI must therefore be integrated with humane and well-thought-out policies on immigration and citizenship, perhaps by linking entitlement to the place of residence, rather than nationality.


I have highlighted here what I see as four major challenges that need to be confronted if UBI is to be introduced as a genuinely progressive initiative that can restore some dignity and security to the most vulnerable members of our society, enable a flexible labour market to function in ways that avoid exploitation while encouraging entrepreneurship and creativity and reduce social inequality. In doing so, I do not wish to pour cold water on the very idea. On the contrary, I think that, at this moment in history, it is crucially important – so important that what is needed now is a debate, not about the abstract idea of a UBI, but about how it could be introduced in the real world in a way that is genuinely compatible with social-democratic and feminist ideals and starts to rebuild the train-wreck that is currently all we have left of the 20th century welfare state that so many people worked so hard to create.

Not in a shy way

It was entirely predictable that Trump’s first dance as president of the United States would be performed (with some cartoonish mouthing of the words) to the tune of ‘My Way’, playing out in a manner beyond irony the triumph of braggadocio in 21st century public life.

It is hard for anyone with any degree of self-awareness to believe that this is entirely serious. Surely, we think, that degree of ostentatious and clichéd vulgarity must be enacted with a tongue lodged firmly somewhere in a jowly cheek: two tiny fingers raised to the good taste of those who manage the world; the jester releasing his evil-smelling trump (in the colloquial British sense of the word) in the deodorised boudoir of the establishment.

Then comes the awful realisation that this is absolutely for real. The foot-stamping toddler really does want his own way. The occupant of the gilded throne-room really does believe he has a right to rule and annihilate what stands in his path.

What has happened to the world in which modesty is a virtue, lights are hidden under bushels and, whatever you’ve got, it’s unladylike to flaunt it? Even to ask such questions, for someone on the left, is difficult. It puts us on the side of gentility, privilege, convention. It aligns us with that very establishment we thought we were critiquing. And it makes us vulnerable to accusations of snobbery – of being, Heaven help us, ‘North London intellectuals’, deploring the vulgarity of the working class (to a soundtrack of classical music) even while we purport to be placing its interests first.

Its conflicted relationship to popular culture is, perhaps, one of the factors that has contributed most to the intellectual paralysis that seems to have overtaken the British left in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Vulnerable to accusations of elitism, many are uncomfortable talking about the cultural pleasures of cosmopolitan connectedness. They would rather parade a connoisseurship of punk music than of Baroque ceilings, of real ale than of wine, just as it is easier to write a PhD on Eastenders than on Jane Austen if you want to keep your socialist credentials.  While some are happy to subject aspects of popular culture to detailed deconstruction (often in impenetrable language), others are afraid of losing touch, or seeming pretentious, anxiously submerging themselves in activities that reconnect them with their roots, from football to rock and roll. But even such immersion can be accompanied, as the late, lamented, Mark Fisher described so eloquently, by a haunting sense of inauthenticity – of being a fraud who has ‘somehow faked his way through’.

In these days of social media, there is perhaps, no innocence left when it comes to the experience of culture: no experience that is unmediated by the thought – even if resisted – of how it can be captured, reproduced, tweeted, misrepresented, mashed up. In a representational world in which just about everything can be both aligned and opposed to just about everything else, the logic of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ comes adrift. This makes even the sense of belonging ambivalent, and fraught with risk.

It may no longer be possible to recreate the kinds of spaces that were available for earlier generations of critical misfits to occupy – the Bohemias (whether in the form of physical districts or social milieux) where intercourse took place between artistic, political and sexual transgression and it was equally OK to criticise the ruling class and consumerism. But perhaps new ones will emerge. In the meanwhile, if we want to communicate beyond our own small circles we have to shout, over the cacophony of social media in which everybody else is doing the same, in the hope that somewhere out there will be another voice that responds to ours, in doing so breaking all those taboos against showing off and opening ourselves up to the accusation of not listening properly to others. We have, in short, to engage in precisely the sort of trumpet-blowing our democratic instincts (not to mention our desire to be liked) warn us against.

The question facing us is how to emerge from this paralysis and start moving again. This requires not only putting weight on limbs we may not entirely trust (and letting go with others) but also deciding  whose hand to hold and in what direction to move: to find a way of substituting ‘our’ way for ‘my’ way. And even, maybe, finding some means to do it in a shy way.

All that suffering. For what?

I cannot have been alone in my reaction to yesterday’s Autumn Budget announcements from Philip Hammond in which the government promises that underpinned the austerity agenda for the last six years were at last pronounced officially dead. What I couldn’t stop thinking about was the huge toll of human sacrifice those false promises had brought about: the elderly people hounded out of their council homes because there was one bedroom too many, the dying people deprived of benefits because they turned up a few moments late for a Jobcentre appointment, the disabled people put through humiliating and painful tests, the defeated expressions on the faces of proud people forced into demeaning make-work jobs, the shame of having to turn to a foodbank to feed one’s kids. So much pain. Then, all unbidden, the words came into my head from that Stanley Holloway comic monologue, so often requested on the radio in my childhood, called Albert and the Lion, in which the mother of Albert (who has been eaten by a lion at the zoo) is consoled by a magistrate with the thought that she can always have more sons and replies, indignantly, ‘What, spend all our lives raising children. To feed ruddy lions? Not me!’.

Whether those lions are seen as stand-ins for war or for capitalism, the joke, certainly understood by most people in the self-deprecating 1950s when I first heard it, hinged on the fact that of course, people always DO go on raising children, whatever the cost, whatever the sacrifice. In fact for most people, having children is the best and most altruistic thing they ever do in their lives. Having children, or grandchildren, or nephews and nieces, or loving the children of others, gives you a stake in the future, in peace, in public order, in a society that values more than just making money. It is actually society’s main protection from nihilist destructive rage, crime and greed gone mad.

Against all rational self-interest, in the knowledge that it will make them poorer, deprive them of sleep, of chances to go out in the evening, of holidays, people just go on having babies, drinking in their smiles, saving up to buy them treats, then later worrying themselves silly every time they fail to come home on time, trying desperately to protect them from pain and, yes, putting up uncomplainingly with horrible jobs just to try to assure them a secure future.

It was reported at the end of June this year in the Guardian that the number of children being brought up in poverty in the UK had risen from 3.7 million in 2014-2015 to 3.9 million – an increase of 200,000 in just one year of austerity programmes. If you listen to the way the parents of these children are described in the right-wing media, or see how they are treated by the Tory state, you would think that choosing to procreate is an act of pure selfishness, embarked on to jump the queue for social housing, or claim a bit more benefit. Rarely is it recognised that what parents are actually doing, often at great cost to their finances and their own bodily wellbeing, is bringing up the next generation of workers and taxpayers on whom the economy depends. Instead of being rewarded and praised for this, they are demonised.

If there is one single argument, above all others, for the need for a universal basic income it is this: to secure a future for our children – social reproduction – that does not have to be bought with such suffering (I was going to write ‘needless suffering’ but of course in this unequal world we know that there are those who benefit from it).



Varieties of xenophobia

An ugly wave of racism has been unleashed in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and, given the explicit appeal to anti-immigration sentiment used by the UKIP and Tory elements in the ‘out’ campaign, it is easy to explain the outcome of the vote as a simple expression of xenophobia.
Yet the left Brexit (Lexit) campaigners are adamant that this is not the case and their arguments are backed up by some evidence. This documentary, for instance, shows sincere, thoughtful, class-conscious working-class people (in this case, veterans of campaigns against pit closures in a Yorkshire village) repeatedly and convincingly insisting that they are not racist, by which they mean that they are not hostile to immigrants. On the contrary, their hostility is directed squarely at ‘Europe’ and the neoliberal politicians in the UK (including the Blairites) they see as in league with it.

What has struck me throughout this debate has been the extent to which Lexit supporters, like others across the British political spectrum, insist on seeing ‘Europe’ not as a terrain in which different players (including the UK government) advance and negotiate different positions – part of the same broad political field in which other decisions are made, whether at local, regional or national levels – but as some alien, autonomous body, impervious to pressure from below, which imposes its diktats from afar.

In puzzling about why this should be the case, it occurs to me that this may be partly the result of a very different kind of xenophobia. Not the racism directed at refugees and immigrants who are seen as undercutting native workers in the labour markets, or claiming shares of increasingly scarce public resources, but another, peculiarly British, kind of xenophobia directed at what might be called the European officer class.

Popular perceptions of Eurocrats bear many striking resemblances to portrayals of German officers in films and television programmes from the mid-20th century that are still shown today: cold, clever, bullying, unfeeling, sticklers for the rules and possessing a power that cannot be challenged directly but must be subverted by courage, ingenuity and humour.

Dad’s Army, the sit-com set in World War Two is still shown on BBC2 most Saturdays (the last episode was shown on June 18th, five days before the referendum). I imagine there are few British people who do not know by heart its theme song ‘Who do you think you’re kidding Mr Hitler, if you think Old England’s done?’ and, in their heads, echo Bud Flanagan singing ‘We are the boys who will stop your little game. We are the boys who will make you think again’. And any channel-hopper looking for an alternative to sport on television on a rainy weekend afternoon is liable to come across yet another repeat of The Great Escape, Mrs Miniver, The Dam Busters or another of the countless films set during the war, which formed the perceptions of ‘Europe’ most obviously for those who grew up in the 1940s, 50s and 60s (and who, perhaps not coincidentally, were most likely to vote ‘no’) but must also have penetrated the consciousness of younger generations.

dads army titles

Opening title sequence of Dad’s Army, still regularly shown by the BBC

‘Allo, ‘Allo, with its crude stereotypes not just of Germans but also of French and Italian people, is not shown so regularly on the main channels these days, but there must be few people over the age of 30 who are not intimately familiar with it and its cast of characters. Its portrayal of the Italian Captain Bertorelli buttresses that of southern Europeans in other programmes (like the Spanish waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers) to confirm a notion of incompetence and incomprehension that might (I am guessing here) not just characterise the British stereotype of Mediterranean people but also resemble some German ones too – for instance the idea of Greeks (who statistics show to be the hardest working people in Europe) as lazy, profligate and corrupt. In the UK referendum debates Greece was much discussed, as a victim, with some elision between the idea of a bullying Germany and a bullying ‘Europe’. This can be read in part as solidarity with fellow victims of austerity against neoliberal aggression. But it also has parallels with earlier popular British reactions to what was seen as German aggression, such as the widespread sympathy for ‘poor little Belgium’ when it was invaded in 1914.

Put together, this confusing jumble of stereotypes creates an idea of Europeans that is simultaneously sinister and comical: to be taken very seriously as a threat to independence and democracy; but not to be taken seriously at all as fellow members of a forum in which intelligent debates can be held and decisions made. Underlying this is an unspoken assumption of British moral and intellectual superiority.

This is an attitude I have come across again and again since I started working on European research projects in the 1980s. Though grateful for the money, and for the chance to meet in beautiful and historic locations, many British academics I came across showed a sneering condescension to their European colleagues. In several fields it was assumed that non-British ideas would not be new (obviously anything original and worth saying had already been published in English-language journals) and that only the UK partner had the overview. The view was often expressed that any old thing would do for a European report. It was something that one was contractually obliged to deliver but not worth wasting original thought on. Some thought that their main role was to put others’ work into good English, writing superficially and journalistically, correcting linguistic errors, highlighting empirical results and avoiding theorising (the notion of big theory as somehow unBritish still has a strong hold in some quarters).

Things have changed quite a lot in recent years, I am happy to report, but a lot of this is due not so much to new and enlightened thinking among native-born academics but to the way in which younger generations of scholars across the rest of Europe now write and speak English so fluently, and are so well-read in the English-language literature, that they can no longer be patronised. It is perhaps in no small part due to this development that few academics figured in the Lexit camp; most now have first-hand experience of collaborating with colleagues from other countries in ways that have generated mutual respect and, at least in the social sciences, an understanding of the need for solidarities.

In other occupations  people have less direct contact with continental counterparts in their daily working lives and their views are more likely to be shaped by experiences on foreign holidays, where their encounters are with people whose jobs are to serve them, or with officials.

It is particularly ironic that we may be seeing the triumph of a brand of xenophobia that sees European politicians as a combination of dangerous totalitarians and ridiculous buffoons at this particular moment. Because what we are faced with in the UK right now is the prospect of a government run by precisely such dangerous totalitarians and ridiculous buffoons. In a reversal of the adage that says tragedy comes first, repeated as farce, might we now see Chaplin’s farcical Great Dictator about to become a tragic reality?