Why the political class has, once again, entirely missed the point
October 28, 2009
I am angry. Angry enough to write an excessively egotistical headline implying I know more than an entire class of people, which is a very socialist thing to do. On the other hand, this post will be socialist in tone if not in content, so consider the headline a warning.
The BNP’s appearance on Question Time (this is the point in the sentence when your mind goes, ‘Gah, another BNP-QT article’ and your pointer goes toward the X in the top right; stay with me, it’ll be worth it) was, despite reports to the contrary, an enormous victory for them. It doesn’t matter that he was made to look a fool by mainstream politicians. It doesn’t matter that he was made to look a fool by members of the audience. What matters is that he was made to look a fool by the very people his party is claiming are responsible for ruining the lives of the people who vote, or are thinking of voting, for him.
This has been recognised by his party, although thankfully they’ve decided to opt for infighting rather than using the outcome of the programme as a political tool. The most telling comments, the most abusive remarks, came from what the BNP’s legal officer dubbed the ‘ethnic middle class’. Pejorative nomenclature aside, it was clear that the members of the audience attacking Griffin were not bus drivers or cleaners, but with pronunciation, attire and demeanour that clearly marked them as bourgeoise.
While we were cheering on the gentleman who made the South Pole quip, the BNP’s target voters would have noted that someone wealthier than they was telling a political representative whose opinions they may’ve partly shared that those views were too ridiculous to be even debated properly. No attempt was made by anyone in the audience or any of the other panel members to get at the underlying reasons why people are backing the BNP. Immigration in this context is a sideshow; the bizarre racial theories Griffin has from time to time espoused providing a warped intellectual backing for a party that wishes to focus on a symptom rather than a cause.
Immigration may ostensibly be the BNP’s raison d’etre, but it does not constitute sufficient reason to explain their apparent rise in support. If the BNP was led by and favoured policies that benefitted aristocrats while retaining their racial purity dogma, they wouldn’t have won the votes that gave them two MEPs. Rather, the reason why their support has risen is to be found in part in another big news story of the now, the Royal Mail industrial dispute – a dispute Griffin specifically mentioned he wished to discuss.
It’s very much a dispute between different visions of public sector provision, that of the Communication Workers’ Union and that of Peter Mandelson. The CWU argue that the reforms the Royal Mail is imposing on them will dramatically decrease the quality of life of their staff, as well as negatively affecting service provision. Mandelson’s proxies in the Royal Mail management say that these reforms will result in the service costing the taxpayer significantly less money, ensuring that the only part of the business the taxpayer needs to subsidise is the loss-making final doorstep delivery stage.
The CWU have repeatedly raised the issue of Granny Smith, and the impact of these changes on her. Granny Smith is a mythical figure meant to represent the interests of the postal services’ end users, the public. She is the most archetypal of the vulnerable members of our society who rely on the postal service; the little old lady who depends on the post as her only means of communication with the outside world. Many postal workers seem to feel that the personal touch provided by a regular postman doing a regular round is crucial to ensure proper service for their end users.
The problem, of course, is that Granny Smith is a hypothecated ideal consumer who does not represent any research into the needs or experience of the postal services’ customer base whatsoever. As someone who’s used both mailing houses and the postal service for putting out literature, the Royal Mail does not have a particularly low omission rate and in fact tends to be a good deal more expensive. The opponents of the CWU know this, and they also know that asking the taxpayer to pay for a service at anything over the market rate represents a subsidy to that service.
I suspect that in Peter Mandelson’s heart of hearts (making the fairly bold claim that he has a heart) he feels that asking the taxpayer to, in effect, subsidise the members of the CWU in terms of their employment experience is immoral. It is; the union is unaccountable to members of the public in the manner of a democratically elected government, yet aims to have a greater influence on public policy than the government of the day. The Royal Mail is still in the public sector, and therefore has a moral duty to provide the most cost-effective service this possibly can to taxpayers.
The problem with this is that the jobs that are likely to be produced as a result of this cost/benefit calculation are almost certain to be awful; low-paid, high intensity work with little job security. As the postie in the above-linked article mentions, they will not be enough to sustain a family on. They will end up being the preserve of the young and of transient labour. The public service ethos of the Royal Mail will undoubtedly be destroyed; with far fewer career postmen and a much higher turnover of staff. However, the overall result will be a net good to the taxpayer.
As a liberal, I believe that the state should provide a social security net to prevent people from falling into absolute poverty, but I don’t believe the state should subsidise its employees’ employment experience, beyond the minimum required by law. Public services are there for the people, not the employees. In essence, anything else is a lifestyle subsidy: on the CWU model, you can have the experience and warm cosy feeling of public service while still earning enough and working at a level where you’re comfortable in your job. This is an experience the taxpayer is paying for.
We therefore have two strong arguments against the CWU’s request for ‘decent jobs with a decent salary’: a union should have no more influence on public policy than the electorate, and subsidising public service jobs above the market rate is immoral in a liberal society. The taxpayer should not be paying to fund lifestyle choices, and this includes employment. These arguments appear to have been taken up by the political establishment, with no major party not including privatisation of public services (which exposes public service workers to market forces, lessening the power of the unions – you can strike forever against the state, as it can’t go bust) and public sector efficiency drives in their policy platforms.
The link between these arguments and the BNP’s rise in support is that this leaves the working classes in a position wherein the market rate for most low-skilled jobs is so far below the standard required to maintain a decent standard of living in the UK, and the work required is so onerous, that the average working class family is no longer economically viable. Without state subsidies for jobs, working-class people can no longer make a decent living in the UK. This is because low-skilled work is in so little demand that the market for it has collapsed. Therefore, the economy in large parts of the country is dominated by the public sector, seemingly in an effort to disguise the fact that it is no longer economically viable for quite so many people to live in particular areas of the country.
This is a bizarre contradiction at the heart of public policy in the UK: while ostensibly the political class is working to make the public sector more efficient by introducing market forces, it is simultaneously shielding much of the country from them. This is because it is politically impossible to tell a significant chunk of the population that they are no longer needed. However, it isn’t necessary for them to do so, because culturally the rest of the population has been telling the working classes that for some time.
When was the last time you heard anyone in the media celebrating low aspirations? Is it not telling that much discussion around education reform revolves around countering such apparently lowly ambitions? The flip side of our celebration of celebrities is the condemnation of those at the bottom of the ladder; the least like our new idols. The last show that had the temerity to suggest that a bourgeoise lifestyle might not be the best thing to aspire to was Rab C Nesbitt. Throughout our popular culture resounds the message that being working class is useless, a message hammered in by an education system that prizes ambition above everything else.
What about the people left behind, who’ve already gone through the education system and not succeeded? They’re useless to the rest of us; requiring standards of living beyond their means of support and offering no useful skills in return. They’re constantly told that they’re worthless by the rest of society, and bear the brunt of the Government’s hypocrisy in terms of not subsidising low-skilled jobs in public service but providing increased opportunities for white-collar workers in those areas of the UK with little economic purpose.
They’re the bottom of society, and they’re not going to take it any more. They’re the BNP’s core vote, and in failing to address any of their concerns on Question Time, the political class has handed the BNP a victory.
I’m not convinced that the political class does have any answers to this problem. But they better come up with some soon.