Saturday, 30 June 2012

Two Great Barriers To A Labour Victory

Labour is ahead in the polls, but don’t go counting any chickens yet, Ed Miliband; you still have a long way to go before people will trust you to run the country.
 

Yesterday, I went to a meeting about housing benefits, organised by a local residents’ group.  If you are a regular reader of my blog, you will know that I think we are heading for a housing crisis, and that housing – as much as anything else – is going to be a key issue in the next election, so I was very interested.  The meeting started with a speech by my MP Phil Wilson, who placed the changes in their political and ideological framework.  He was followed by two County Council officers; every word they said backed up what Phil Wilson had told us.

So far so good, therefore, and thus finished the first session.  The chairman thanked the contributors, and reflected the general mood of the meeting that it was all very alarming … and then he said this:

“Isn’t it a pity that our MPs in Westminster care for their ‘Party’, when perhaps they should be caring for the people”.
And my heart sank.

He had not realised we are in a war

It was not just that it is a trite and naïve remark. 

But I was also distressed because, despite everything he had heard, this man obviously still had not appreciated that the problem is this Tory government. 
He was a decent, working-class chap, smart and pleasant.  He clearly cared about the residents he had helped gather together.  He had just heard a list of ideologically-inspired measures specifically designed to damage them.
And yet still he had not realised that we are in a war.   
Still he did not see that the solution is Labour Party.
Instead he saw the very concept of ‘Party’ as a BAD thing.

I was left depressed.  If we cannot convince this man that Labour is the Party of the people, then we are lost.

Labour always used to be ‘the Party of the people’

It never used to be so.
Right through into the 1980s, Labour always used to be ‘the Party of the people’, as much as the Tories were the Party of business.

Not that it did Labour much good.
I was brought up in a true-blue Tory home.  For my parents, a Labour victory was akin to a national disaster – Labour would lose control of the economy; Labour would give the unions the whip hand.
Labour were accepted as ‘the Party of the people’, but even many working class people still voted Tory.  We all knew that the Tories were the Party of the bosses, and that they would screw the working man down ... but at least you could rely on them to govern competently.

It is worth reflecting that Cameron’s popularity survived both austerity laws and an economic recession, and only began to dip when his government began to look flustered, seemed corrupt, and started making u-turns.  You see, we expect, even forgive the Tories for ‘bashing the poor’ – “it’s what the Tories do”.  What we cannot forgive in a Tory administration is incompetence.

Conversely, nobody used to doubt that, when Labour got in, they would take measures to try to improve life for ‘the people’.  But there was always this underlying suspicion that they were not fit to govern.  Thus Callaghan, and the winter of discontent, and the great inflation of 1979, seemed to prove everything people always believed – and ushered in Thatcher and 18 years of Tory rule.

Then along came Tony Blair

Under Tony Blair, Labour lost that ‘not-fit-to-govern’ image.
Whether you loved him or hated him, one thing you could not level at Tony Blair was incompetence.  If anything, the charge against Blair was that he was TOO competent in government – too smooth, too addicted to spin, too presidential.

Blair captured that middle-class yearning for a leader of stature.  He looked the part – smart, almost Kennedyesque.  He acted the part – rarely ruffled, assured and reassuring.  Meanwhile, he had behind him a New Labour team which also defied dismissal.  Campbell, Mandelson, Reid… these people were hated, and feared, but nobody could suggest they were incompetent.

The problem was that, as time went on, New Labour ALSO lost its image as the Party of ‘the people’.  Even at the start, Blair surrounded himself with the rich and famous – Ecclestone, Oasis and the like. And,
through ten years and three elections, a string of events ground down the ‘popularity’ of the Labour administration – the Iraq War, identity cards, cash-for-honours, academies, neoliberal economics, a widening wealth gap, Milburn’s NHS reforms etc.

And thus it was that, by 2007, nobody could pretend that New Labour was any longer a working class movement, whereupon a world financial crisis, and three years of Gordon Brown, restored Labour’s reputation as the Party which ruins the country.

Conclusion
And thus we find ourselves in a church hall in 2012, with an audience of people genuinely terrified at what Tory legislation will mean for them, yet who STILL blame Labour for causing the mess … and yet STILL do not see Labour as ‘the Party of the people’ which they need to support to fight their cause.

Before Blair, we were the Party of the people but were thought unfit to rule.
Under Blair, we were felt fit to rule, but lost our image as the Party of the people.
Under Gordon Brown we lost our reputation of being fit to rule without regaining our image as the Party of the people … and as yet we have regained neither in the minds of many, many people.

We still have a long way to go before we can hope to win in 2015.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

We Need To Talk About HealthWatch ... And ACT!

HealthWatch is in danger of becoming the Cinderella of the NHS troika – and it is YOUR job (and hugely in your interest) to act now to make sure it doesn’t.

For all we hate it because its subvert aim is to marketise health, the Coalition’s NHS is truly elegantly-designed as a three-strand plait.  
However awful it may turn out in practice, it looks good on paper.

CCGs and HWBBs
At the heart of the new NHS, of course, will be the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), comprised primarily of GPs and clinicians.  These are the groups which will be taking over from the Primary Care Trusts – which will be spending the money and commissioning the NHS services.  They are required to include ‘lay people’ on their board, but a quick glance at the person spec is enough to make you realise that these are not ‘ordinary people’ in our understanding of the term.  I would guess that most will turn out to be retired clinicians.  The CCGs are intended to be very high-powered, very expert groups.

Inter-twining their role with the CCGs, will be the Health and Well-Being Boards (HWBBs).  If the task of the CCGs is to excel, the task of the HWBBs is to keep them grounded in reality, in the medical and social needs of the local people.  The HWBBs will include representatives from the local CCG, but its main body will be comprised of relevant Council officers (e.g. the directors of public health, adult social services, children’s services etc.) and as many Councillors as the Council chooses to place on it.

Local HealthWatch – what it can do for YOU

The third (and most important for us) strand in the plait will be the Local HealthWatch.  Each council area will have one and, for us ordinary people, this is the most exciting part of the process – the part that we will have a say in, and the body which will represent us most directly in the NHS process. 

LHWs, in the government’s scheme of things, are intended to be a development of the NHS Local Involvement Networks (LINks).  The LINKs were set up in 2008 to provide proactive client scrutiny for the local NHS; one of their powers is ‘Enter and View’, and a significant strength is that they are allowed to present anonymous testimony.  Although in many parts of the country, LINks have been badly-publicised and ineffective (and you may even be unaware that you have one at all in your authority), some are run very energetically by an independent Management Committee elected from the membership, with office function supplied by a ‘Host’ provider commissioned by the County Council.

LHW is LINk writ large. 

LHW will be a ‘hub’ of all the different health and care networks and will thus constitute a ‘one-stop-shop’ – a ‘no wrong door’ – gateway of access to the NHS for ordinary people, helping them where possible, or ‘signposting’ them to the appropriate health or care services where necessary.  It will provide NHS complaints advocacy.  It will seek and solicit the needs and views of local people and feed them to the HWBB (on which it will have a seat) and the CCGs, so that those commissioning bodies can use them to inform the commissioning process.

A Role in Scrutiny

Most of all, the LHW will have the power (and the duty) to MONITOR the local NHS – not only its services, but also its processes (i.e. the HWBB and CCG). 
This is the intended primary role of the LHW, and by far the most important.

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with the NHS.
At one level it is our pride and joy – the pinnacle of our Welfare State.  Health Care irrespective of person, and free at the point of need, is a principle British people value, almost as a defining factor in their ‘Britishness’ … and when Americans recently took to criticising our NHS, their comments were decidedly unwelcome!

Having said that, however, we all know that the NHS is a strange Dr Jekyll character – at one moment miraculously bringing back your wife, literally, from the dead … then taking all afternoon to conduct the simplest eye examination.  Talk to anyone about the NHS – especially to those with chronic conditions – and you will hear story after story of an NHS which is alternatively unprofessional, cruel, careless, lazy, profligate, inefficient and downright incompetent.  Worst of all, you will find that most people don’t bother complaining, for fear of victimisation, or because they believe that the medical profession will ‘close ranks’ and that resistance is futile.

In this situation, LHW could be the most valuable and important part of our NHS, not only because it will have the authority proactively to seek out client experience and feed it through to the HWBB and thereby the CCG, but because – through HealthWatch England – it will have ‘teeth’ … HealthWatch England, through the Quality Care Commission (QCC) will have the power to force HWBBs and CCGs to change.

Credit where credit is due; if the LHWs work like we would want them to work, we could end up thanking the Coalition for a truly marvellous piece of legislation (at least in this respect).

Finding out the details
As you read this, your local County or Unitary Authority is busily planning its Local HealthWatch.  Are you aware of what it is doing? Has it consulted with you?

These are the crucial days – the days of creation.  There will be a terrible impulsion at Council level to create an anodyne, compromised HealthWatch – all show and no teeth.

Chase your local Councillors and make sure that they are aware of what is going on, that they keep you informed, and that they are pressurising for an incisive and effective HealthWatch.  Go on your local council website, search for ‘HealthWatch’, and see what is going on.  Locate the scoping document, and demand the commissioning criteria.  Where there is a consultation, get involved and make your views known.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has published a guide: Building Successful HealthWatch Organisations.  Compare the HealthWatch proposed by your local Council to the models described by the LGA.
A good HealthWatch spec, says the LGA, will address nine key criteria – purpose, membership, responsibilities and competencies, functions, governance structures, methods of accountability, outcomes, milestones, and outputs.  How comprehensively does your LHW model prescribe for these areas? 

Two Key Issues
This is not something that can be campaigned nationally, for the government has stated that every LHW will and should be different, to meet differing local needs.  So it will be up to you to find out what is going on locally, and to shout out if what is going on locally is not what is needed locally.

However, I would suggest that there are two issues which are worth especial scrutiny:

First, make sure that MONITORING is at the heart of your LHW.  Is the primary and explicit focus on scrutiny?  Does your Council model stress proactive monitoring as the primary function of its LHW, or has scrutiny got buried in a welter of essentially cosmetic functions?  Does the model define HOW, and how often, the LHW will monitor the quality of local NHS services?  Above all, does it state explicitly that the LHW will monitor the quality of the commissioning process (i.e. the CCG and the Council’s HWBB) as well as simply the quality of the services commissioned?

Secondly, research the proposed membership and governance of your LHW to make sure that there is a democratic element. 
To be fair to your Council, this is not required.  Of the exemplar Councils in the LGA guidance, only two (Derby and Essex) were explicitly moving towards a full-on democratic model.
But – if the LHW is NOT at base a democratic body – how can it ever be wholly representative of the public?  The alternative to a democratic body is a paternalistic quango, ‘consulting’ on its proposals, telling us what is best for us, and then networking as fellow-professionals with the services they are supposed to be monitoring.
Yes of course there will need to be professional input – in most cases, the extended brief of the LHW will be way beyond the often amateurish LINks.  But you should make sure that your Council is insisting that the LHW has a stated strategy for an extensive and active membership, and you should insist that at least a third of members on the Management Board are lay delegates elected from that extensive membership.

Conclusion
This is all something that you will have to do yourself, for your own LHW.  If the new NHS is a thee-fold plait, the LHW must not be allowed to be a weak strand within the model, or the whole structure will function inadequately.

You may find that you have to pursue the issue in the face of downright opposition from your local Council, which would much prefer to construct their LHW to be as pliant and ineffectual as possible.  But you know as well as I that it is in our interest that the Local HealthWatch is as fearlessly invasive and critical as possible.

As John F Kennedy said in his inauguration speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country” – and this is your time to do something for your local NHS.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Lunacy Of Talk About Banning Factionalism

Are we looking at the end of the Labour Party as we know it?


Today, a Labour blogger named Emma Burnell has written about the possibility of a GMB motion to Conference which will, essentially, 'outlaw' the Labour lobby-group 'Progress' which, they claimed, is guilty of 'factional activity'

The Resolution on Banning Factions
Of course there is a precedent for banning factionalism.  It was Resolution 12 of the Tenth Party Congress of the Bolshevik Party in March 1921.  And the person whom Lenin chose as 'Gensek' to enforce the purge was ... Josef Stalin!
It strikes me that the cure is worse than the disease, here.

I do have reservations about Progress - the main one being that, by being - in essence - the rich man's wing of the Labour Party, it absorbs all the rich men's funding.  So we have a Labour Party which is desperately in debt, and a lobby-group within the Party which is awash with money.

However, whatever you think of their political beliefs, the grassroots members of Progress such as Luke Akehurst are totally-Labour, and for Labour to consider outlawing them would be tantamount to cutting off your arms because they don't look like your legs.

I'm not particularly in tune with Progress policy-proposals, but any attempt to expel them would have even me swinging round onto their side.

A move which will split the Party
I don't know Paul Kenny, but this is a stupid move.  It begins to look for all the world like an attempted Trade Union coup.  If successful, it will split and destroy the Party, because it will involve expelling a large number of the Party's most senior politicians, and leaving a rump of pro-unionists whose public perception will be at the mercy of the right-wing press.

Typical Labour Party - just as we've got the enemy on the run, some idiot gets us all fighting amongst ourselves again.

Hopefully, it'll all turn out to be a storm in a teacup - a bit of tub-thumping connected to this designed to focus the Shadow Cabinet's minds - and we can get on with unseating the Tories.

The whole point of Labour
The whole point of the Labour Party is that it is a tension between centrist pragmatism and left-wing idealism.  What Mr Kenny needs to appreciate is that this polarity exists within each member, as much as across the two wings of the Party.  It needs debate, understanding and compromise, and it cannot be solved by explusion.

Friday, 8 June 2012

The Problem With Our Government

The problem with our government is that we have allowed it to become something that is done TO us, rather than BY us.

We have been utterly complicit in this. We have sat back and allowed others to do the work, and to take decisions themselves, whilst we have got on with more pressing and enjoyable tasks – such as pursuing our careers, looking after our children ... and going shopping and playing on the X-Box.

The problem now is that we are finding that a whole load of 'stuff' is happening to us – 'dumped' on us by government at its different levels – about which we are told little-or-nothing until it happens, and which we have no power to change when it does.  And we find that the processes of consultation and public engagement are often stitched up in such a manner that we have no way to have our say other than (usually futile) protest-after-the-event.

This applies to the Labour Party, just as much as it does to local and national government, or as it does to those great services of state such as the NHS, planning and transport.

This in its turns creates its own disengagement and apathy, because people think 'what's the point?'

Was it not different previously?  Do I remember a time when many more ordinary people were much more politically literate, and were much more keen to be routinely and regularly involved in the governance of their church, their union, their party?  Do I remember a time when the unions were active and radical, and when many dozens of people would turn up to the Branch to select their Labour Party candidates?

And is it not significant that those days were times when people were trying to and had a hope and belief that they could (and would) make things better.
And do you not find across society now a resignation, and a despair, that things can't be changed, and are only going to get worse?
These things are not disconnected.

The problem with our government is that we have allowed it to become something that is done TO us, rather than BY us.

I have no solution, beyond pleading with people to become more informed, and to get involved.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

How Close Are We To A Social Revolution?

Journalists have stopped talking about the 1930s.  In a development which is as alarming as it is apposite, they’re beginning to mention 1789.


When this crisis first erupted in 2008, people compared it to the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Rightly so, too – did not the 1930s depression start with a Wall Street Crash, and then morph via financial instability and declining confidence into a world-wide depression?  The parallels were too close to ignore and Britain’s response – replacing a discredited Labour government with a coalition government which implemented an austerity programme – almost identical.

As time has run on, however, you will have noticed that the references to the 1930s have diminished … as too have the rather simplistic calls for a Keynesian reflation à la New Deal. People have found out what FDR himself found out in the 1930s – that the solution is not so simple in real life.  Instead, the British nation – government, industry and people – seem increasingly to be hunkering down for an extended (maybe permanent) period of decline and difficulty.

The one thing they ALL missed about the 1930s was that they went on for a decade, and only stopped when a world war enforced an explosion (literally) in government spending.

[Interjection off-stage: “But this is a kind of a war, isn’t it – a war against economic recession?”
Well, yes, you’re right, and the parallels with the 1930s haven’t stopped, as I will come to later in this article … but people’s focus has changed, and that’s what I want readers to realise.]

A change of focus
The recession has been going on a long time now – long enough for people to begin to get over the initial shock and to start to look about and see what is happening around them.
   
Even the Labour Party has begun to realise that the cuts aren’t being applied fairly – that we’re hammering the unemployed and disabled, and giving tax breaks to the former 50p taxpayers. 

But you don’t have to look very carefully before you realise that the issue is about much more than simply a government which has misjudged where to make its cuts.  You do not need to know very much before you realise that this crisis has ceased to be an economic problem, and is becoming increasingly a social and political crisis.

Because it is becoming clear that what has been one man’s disaster has been another man’s opportunity.

On the continent, today, we are being told that Europhile technocrats are drawing up plans for a greater federalisation of Europe, with all that means for national democracy and self-determination. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is increasingly linking increased German intervention to increased German influence and – however philanthropic the surface intention – one can’t help wondering whether the Eurozone crisis is being played by certain interests for their own advantage.

In Britain, the contrast between the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ in the recession is even more stark.  I won’t even bother to describe the recent outrages as ATOS has declared undeniably terribly-disabled people ‘fit for work’ (1, 2, 3), or to contrast them with the continuing obscene bonuses for bankers and directors – you have been living in a alternate universe if you have missed them. 
Similarly, my twitter feed is full today of outrage about the unemployed people who were duped into working untrained and in appalling conditions marshalling the jubilee – a perspective which jars uncomfortably with the pageant of privilege and excess we are watching on our TV screens. 
It is not simply – as dictators through the ages have realised – that a good Triumph takes people's minds off the problems back home.  It is the truth that a procession sorts out the nobs from the oiks – those whose destiny is to rule, from those whose purpose is simply to stand and serve.

The return of the aristocracy
The most telling article of all about this process of social delineation, which you may have missed, however, is by George Monbiot in today’s Guardian.

Forget the apparent focus of the article, which seems to be about environmental matters.  Look instead at the social and political information that he supplies along the way:
* that the rich have taken advantage of the recession significantly to increase their ownership of land (paragraph 6);
* that we live in a Britain where an aristocrat can have a have a chat with his gamekeeper about pesky buzzards, swan down to Westminster, and introduce a law to destroy buzzards (paragraphs 1-3);
* that we live in a Britain where a very limited measure to grow a few more trees on the moors can unleash a rich-man’s storm and cause a hasty withdrawal of the proposal before it even sees the light of day (paragraphs 11-12).

The outrage of Monbiot’s article is not so much that we live in a Britain where “anything that cannot be shot and eaten is shot and hung from a gibbet” or even where “the countryside reverts to a playground for the rich”, but that 

as Britain heads towards Edwardian levels of inequality … the aristocracy is back in charge.
And it against this background that I return to my initial observation, that journalists have stopped talking about the 1930s, and are starting to mention 1789.


Towards a Revolution?
1789, of course, is the date of the French Revolution – not of the 'French Revolution' we all know from our TVs, with the guillotine and Napoleon, but the real French Revolution, which overturned absolutism and introduced the world to liberté, égalité and fraternité 

The crucial article is by Nick Cohen: No wonder the working man despises the elites, in which he comments:
They forgot that perks that no one notices in ordinary times can in crises become as intolerable as the tax exemptions of the aristocrats and clerics were to the French revolutionaries of 1789. In a crisis, the elite has to convince the masses that there is a rough equality of sacrifice – a connection between them and us – or lose legitimacy.
and in which Cohen quotes – even more appropriately – Thomas More’s Utopia:
"God help me, I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of the commonwealth"
And suddenly you wonder whether the 1930s is the most appropriate parallel for our current situation.

1789 arose out of a government which was incompetent, out-of-touch with the reality of ordinary people’s lives (‘let them eat cake’) and – above all – financially bankrupt.  It went to the rich (the king called an ‘Assembly of Notables’) and asked them to consider paying taxes … the nobles simply laughed.  All this took place against an entrenched and growing inequality between the poor and the ruling aristocracy … and all it took was a meeting in a Tennis Court and an angry march on the Bastille, and the walls of state and society came a-tumbling down.

I will not labour the analogy.  What Mr Cameron needs to contemplate is not so much the fact of 1789 (aristocratic elites, oppression and injustice can survive for centuries unchallenged, never mind untoppled) but the fact that, when the tocsin sounded, it took everyone, not least the government, by complete surprise.

Back to the 1930s

During the 1930s, in America, unlike in 1930s or even present-day Britain, Roosevelt introduced a string of measures (the so-called ‘First New Deal’) to tackle the depression.  He accompanied these with a number of ‘Fireside Chats’ in which he appealed directly on radio to the ‘ordinary man’ to support him against the rich vested interests which were resisting his measures.

By 1935, two things were becoming clear:
* The first was that the New Deal was not curing the depression – that even Roosevelt’s huge Keynesian stimulus was in itself insufficient to restore growth.
* And the second was that – unlike our current government, which is quite able to spin a bit of banker-bashing to try to gain street-cred – Roosevelt really WAS on the side of the working man against the rich vested interests.

Consequently, from 1935, Roosevelt introduced a series of measures which are known collectively as ‘The Second New Deal’.  These were measures which were not just sticking plasters designed to ameliorate the depression, but measures of genuine social change, which gave the USA a system of pensions, unemployment insurance, disability payments and employment rights which changed the lives millions of poor Americans.

Conclusion
What the British people and the Labour Shadow cabinet need to realise is not just that austerity which isn’t working – fiscal stimulus doesn’t work either.

The real issue was never about the crash or the economy - that is just the background context.  The real issues are social and political, and concern a process which has been going on for a number of years, by which increasing amounts of wealth and power have been concentrating in the hands of a very small group of people.

I have no problem with rich people per se – except that they seem nowadays to want to become richer and richer and ever-more powerful.

And the answer – whilst the vested interests drive systematically towards technocratic government, federalism and increasing inequality – is NOT ‘too far too fast’ nor even fiscal stimulus, but a radical and appropriate programme of social reform.

The power of the rich has increased, is increasing, and must be diminished, as John Wilkes would have said if he were alive today.

And, Ed Miliband please note, what we need for this is a new Roosevelt, who can see the need for an 'equalising' programme of social reform, and can force it through by means of an alliance with the ordinary man – if necessary in the teeth of opposition from the rich and the powerful – and pull this country back from the echoes of 1789.



     

Friday, 1 June 2012

Are We 'Unemployable' - Or Just Being Fleeced?

The 'unemployability' narrative is a Tory trick to maintain profits at our expense.

Richard Murphy in a blog today asks the question: ‘Are we unemployed or unemployable?’  He relates the two terms to Growth versus Austerity, Demand-led recovery versus Supply-Push recovery, Left versus Tory.

But he opens the door on yet another, deeply-disturbing development in the Tory narrative – the demonization of the workforce.

The ‘Unemployability’ narrative
Have you noticed, indeed, that the language of 'unemployability' is becoming more common?  The one that hit the headlines recently was a statement from the Scottish motor firm Arnold Clark, which announced that four-fifths of applicants for their apprenticeship scheme were ‘not employable at all’ – that they were ‘shocked’ by a normal working day, possessed of unrealistic expectations and unable to say any more than ‘I want’.  In addition, claimed the firm, the youngsters had ‘no concept of citizenship’ and – the TV report revealed – insufficient excitement about a career in the motor industry.

But Arnold Clark are not alone.  In February 2012 the Adecco group released ‘research’ showing that 73% of employers believed that a ‘permanent underclass’ of unemployable people is emerging within UK society.  The report revealed that 57% of employers did not have any apprentices, despite a general belief that they were ‘a good thing’ – the implication being, of course, that it was the ‘unemployability’ of young workers which was putting the employers off from expanding their workforce.

It’s not just young apprentices who are receiving the ‘unemployable’ treatment.  Last month UK Employment Minister Chris Grayling led a charge of business lobbyists claiming that UK graduates were ‘unemployable’, citing the lack of a can-do attitude among various other employability failings of UK youth.

The Tories, of course, are playing to an easy market.  Ever since Lee Adams penned the lyrics to ‘Kids!’ in the 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie, people have tut-tutted about the failings of youth – the Adecco group found that, even more than the 73% of employers, no less than 84% of UK workers bewailed the emergence of a ‘permanent underclass’.  To a degree it’s even true – ‘real’ work always comes as a surprise to school-leavers.  (I remember well my first day at work – in Greenwood’s The Man’s Shop – when I was required to STAND! all day on the shop-floor; despite the fact that I was a cross-country runner and fit as a lop, I went home that evening seriously wondering whether I would ever walk normally again!)

It’s a myth, of course.  Having taught since the 1970s, I can assure you that the ‘youth’ of today are harder-working, better-educated, more flexible and innovative, more reasonable, and altogether better citizens than the pupils of 40 years ago – ten years of League tables and punitive Ofsted reports have seen to that.  Long gone is Willy Russell’s ‘Our Day Out’ teacher and any concept of education as ‘fun’ – nowadays, pupils are given their target grades when they enter Year 7, and they are relentlessly hounded and assessed to get them beyond that target by the time they leave.

So why the unemployability narrative?
So why the constant whingeing about easy GCSEs and devalued qualifications?  Why the unemployability narrative – why do we have a government minister openly talking down the British workforce on the international stage?

Part of it, of course, is a typically-Tory softening-up process before they fall upon our education system.  It is a strategy we are now familiar with – first you rubbish it, then you marketise it … on the grounds that this will make it more ‘efficient’.  The Arnold Clark announcement was overtly and explicitly political, not economic, and showed us where the Tories are going next: ‘We are increasingly concerned at the State-Sponsored Babysitting nature of some college programmes rather than the specifically-targeted vocational training … we believe taxpayers’ money should be being spent on.’

The ‘lazy workforce’ narrative
But the ‘unemployability’ narrative goes further and deeper than that. 

In another world, in 2006, the Guardian carried an article which claimed that ‘no one is unemployable’, in which a whole range of experts argued that, with the right support, anyone can be helped back to work.  That language of inclusivity has long since disappeared. It has been replaced by the ‘scrounger’ narrative, which sees many disabled and unemployed as work-shy opportunists who needs to be driven to work by interviews and reduced payments.  Last month even Nadine Dorries – whose mission is to bring the posh Tory leaders down to reality – outlined that part of that reality was ‘children being unemployable and spending a life time on benefits’ (my italics).

Neither is the target simply the young and adults on benefits.  The British worker is getting a kicking too.  Last year a Uswitch survey found that more than half of private businessmen believed public sector workers to be ‘unrealistic in their expectations about pay, holidays and employment terms’.  Only one-in-fifty stated that they would actively seek to recruit public sector workers, and one in ten stated that they would not employ public sector workers under any circumstances, even if they were the only applicant for the job.

And similarly, last year, steel billionaire Ratan Tata justified cutting 1,500 jobs on the grounds that the British workforce was ‘lazy’ and ‘unwilling to go the extra mile’.  We really do seem to be returning to a Thatcherite narrative of the ‘lazy’ British worker, who needs shocking and disciplining back into line to make British industry competitive again. I recently pointed out an alarming passage in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement in which he demanded ‘the right to work all hours’ and moralised:  ‘It’s no good endlessly comparing ourselves with other European countries.  The entire continent is pricing itself out of the world economy.’

So why the ‘lazy workforce’ narrative?
Yet people in the UK work longer hours and enjoy fewer public holidays than any other country in the European Union.  So why the increasing insinuation that British workers are in fact inferior and lazier than their counterparts in other countries?

Part of the answer, of course, lies in the Tory ‘it’s-not-our-fault’ reaction to economic recession.  Lazy British workers are simply one more cat-to-kick – alongside the outgoing Labour government and the Eurozone crisis.  Connected to this is the demonstrable failure of the private sector to expand (as the Tories promised) to employ sacked public sector workers … so you sell the unemployed a line that tells them to they are unemployed, not because you are an incompetent government with a non-existent business strategy, but because THEY are ‘unemployable’ – that it’s their own fault they are unemployed.
   
Partly, also, it is because theTores know that a ‘lazy-British-worker’ strategy will play well with the Tory working class.  Who doesn’t believe that he works harder than his workmates, and the Tories are past masters at playing on people’s resentments.  It also undermines working-class solidarity, and stops workers making waves when their colleagues are sacked … they must have deserved sacking because they were lazy.

How still to make a huge profits in a recession
But mainly, I suspect, this narrative of 'the unemployable' is part of the Tory strategy to further drive down wages and conditions of work.
It was the implications of George Osborne’s speech which terrified me – if European workers have ‘priced themselves out of the world economy’, what is the solution, if not to reduce their price – if the East has people who work much harder for much lower wages, is there any alternative save that we are going to have to do so too if we are to remain competitive.
And if the comparator is Thai children sewing footballs for pennies in filthy workshops, is that how far we are going to have to go?

Regularly, we are hearing of changes, many of them un-noticed and barely-protested, systematically stripping away, or proposing to strip away, people’s rights at work – pensions renegotiation, the pay freeze, regional pay, unfair dismissal rights, reform of the EHCR, ‘red tape challenge’, the Beecroft report, and on and on…

SO WHY, you have to ask yourself, are the government and the employers so determined to reduce our pay?
And the answer is brutally simple – money!
If they can reduce the workforce to a low-paid, terrified body which will do anything for nothing - companies can still maintain company profits despite the lower turnover during the recession.

Osborne and his 1% fully realise that Austerity will shrink the economy.  They know that growth and Austerity don’t mix. So they have to do two things:
* Firstly they have reduce costs if they are to maintain profits in a declining market … and the costs they have decided it will be easiest to reduce are labour costs.  Improving technology – innovation and investment – cost money, which they are not prepared to risk in a recession, so they fall back on the short-term (and yes, ‘lazy’) alternative, which is to reduce wages.  They are reducing the return to the workforce in order to maintain the return to themselves.
* And, secondly, they have to soften up the workforce to accept their reduced rights and pay – and you do this with propaganda which makes workers think that we ARE a lazy workforce and an unemployable population, and that therefore we MUST buckle down and (as the Lemsip advert said) – ‘stop snivelling and get back to work’.

Conclusion
So, maybe, the next time you hear a government minister ‘talking down’ the work-ethic or work-suitability of  British schoolchildren, or Britain’s workforce, you will be able to take it for the Tory trick it is.



'All in this together'?  You've got to be joking.