Friday, 4 January 2013

A Free Uniform With Every Job

In an obvious bid to cover itself against the charge of being soft on "scroungers", ahead of its opposition to the government bill to limit benefit increases to below inflation, Labour has recommitted itself to the idea of workfare, specifically extending the current cheap labour programme for 18-24 year olds to those over 25. According to cuddly Ed Balls, "those who can work must be required to take up jobs or lose benefits as a result – no ifs or buts". Meanwhile the less cuddly Liam Byrne says "If you haven't got a job, you need to be working and training, not claiming".

According to the Grauniad, "Labour says the £1bn cost of subsidising the jobs, mainly in the private sector, would come from reducing tax relief on pension contributions for people earning more than £150,000 a year to 20%, instead of the 45% proposed by the government in the autumn statement". This is, of course, a £1bn subsidy to business. While the targeting of pension contributions makes sense in its own right (abolishing tax relief on contributions over a set amount per year would make more sense), the idea of a fiscal transfer between the well-off and business is smoke and mirrors as there is a fairly close correlation between the well-off and the beneficiaries of business profits.

This could just be dismissed as New Labour triangulation, but what I think is more concerning is the ideological anxiety it betrays. There is a sense of desperation in the language used, the idea that everyone must be feverishly "working and training", while the unemployed "must be required to take up jobs" (my emphasis). This echoes the neoliberal tenet that everyone who wants to work can find a job, assuming that the state steps back (or intervenes, depending on which neoliberal wing you adhere to) to "make work pay" (i.e. price labour to the satisfaction of capital). But the last 4 years have started to erode the basis of this belief. Not only are we seeing persistent structural unemployment due to long-run technological change (notably automation), but the growing reliance on part-time work, precarious self-employment and in-work benefits all point to an economy where work and wages are increasingly rationed. This shifts the ideological focus more towards divide and rule: convince the poorly-paid that their problems are the fault of the unwaged. Balls (if not Byrne) is less obviously as vindictive as Ian Duncan Smith, but his core message is the same: people who don't work are the problem.

I also think that politicians have started to work out the implications of the very high rates of unemployment (circa 30%) seen in Greece and Spain and the fact that their societies have not imploded, despite obvious strains. The cynical conclusion of the European austerity experiment is that we can accommodate high levels of unemployment, particularly if the effects are ameliorated by part-time work and the black economy, and if the consequent wage repression is ameliorated by in-work benefits (i.e. fiscal transfers from some workers to others). The result is an increasing concentration of wealth at the top (and an aversion to taxes on property) and an increasing diffusion of work (and wages) at the bottom. In such a society, it becomes critical to ensure that everyone buys into the idea that you must work, and work relentlessly hard, even if your work adds little real value. What cannot be tolerated is people opting out of the labour market, which is what a "skiver" is doing, as that would put upward pressure on the price of workers and hand leverage back to organised labour.

This neoliberal anxiety appears to have infected most of the Labour party. Diane Abbot, "one of the Labour party's most senior leftwing figures", according to the wilfully dim Patrick Wintour, has decided that we need to clamp down on fried chicken shops, brand materialism and Internet porn, all of which are apparently undermining stable families. Harrumph. Abbot is a middle-class conservative who has long traded on her supposed radical roots as a black feminist in the 1980s, though she subsequently lost a lot of credibility by sending her son to a private school ("As a young leftwinger I never thought I would see the point of school uniform, but you get less of that pressure to have this designer brand or the other" - she seems to have forgotten the economic and cultural significance of costly school uniforms in the history of selective education). I particularly loved her comment that "For too many children, fast food is not a treat but a dietary staple". Presumably she thinks fish and chip shops are a modern invention, only patronised on high days and holidays.

Then consider this: "There are these young mums that do not necessarily read to their children, they do not take them to the library, but they think they are good mums because their children are dressed in brand names from top to bottom, and that is because their narrative for being a good mum comes from the media". Abbott obviously does not mean to include those media that eulogise reading and campaign against library closures, i.e. the media she consumes. Her comments are a straightforward class attack - you can easily imagine them coming out of the mouth of a Tory. Among the working class it remains true that clothes are a key expression of relative wealth and being well turned out is still seen as virtuous. It is only the better off who habitually wear "distressed" clothes, because they have enough other signifiers to indicate status. But the real message here is about uniformity, how school uniforms prepare you for the bland uniform of work, and how that uniformity in turn narrows your horizons. It is a middle class trope that fashion brands are the antithesis of individuality, but it's a working class experience that the acquisition (and repurposing) of brands is empowering. The relentless attack on "chavs" a few years ago for appropriating Burberry was an example of these two worldviews colliding in naked class hatred.

It's unrealistic to expect Labour to start questioning the basis of work and its allocation across society when their electoral prospects are still so dependent on the uniformed masses of "alarm clock Britain", but it's surely not too much to ask "leftwingers" to stop talking bollocks.

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