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.

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12 Responses to “Why the political class has, once again, entirely missed the point”

  1. Alix said

    Great post, especially this:

    “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 something that I, like every other hignorant Londoner, only realised after moving north. But to this tiny part of the problem, at least, there is a solution, and it’s regeneration.

    The problem is that “regeneration” is currently a thing the government does, rather than an economic process that can be triggered and nurtured. The govt hands out “regeneration budgets” to RDAs who spend it, madly, on businesses that already have a certain level of turnover (I think it’s £10k). And also, like the Romans, on items of civic bombast.

    What’s needed, as I understand it, is (1) drastic devolution of revenue and expenditure, along the lines the party already supports (2) reducing regulation and taxation on new businesses and (3) tearing up the planning laws so that everything currently in the south-east that really doesn’t need to be (i.e. warehousing, agricultural processing) moves away and provides jobs elsewhere.

    With more favourable planning law and regulation, plus a direct democratic say over local business expenditure and, hopefully, the cultural shift towards localism that would go with devolution, more of these places would have a better shot at becoming economically viable again.

  2. Alix said

    I’m so sorry, I appear to have ranted at extraordinary length about something a bit peripheral on your blog. Note to self, only do that on one’s own blog.

  3. declineofthelogos said

    No offence taken, of course! Your reply does represent a potential solution to the problem. I have worries about regeneration as a philosophy, however; I’m still not entirely convinced that the current human geography of the UK could be economically optimal. Should we spend money on the regions in proportion to their population, or on their intrinsic physical economic usefulness?

    The traditional industry of Newcastle came about because of the proximity of a significant number of coal mines and the transport opportunities afforded by the Tyne. Once the resource was extracted, the city became less economically viable. Current policy is to remedy this by altering the human geography; the attempt to create a cluster of expertise that the ‘Science City’ initiative represents has been successful at bringing additional investment and employment to the city. This is not to mention the amounts spent on cultural improvements, a key trend in regeneration efforts across all of post-industrial Britain.

    Enhancing local control over central funds will of course help, but it won’t necessarily answer the question of whether the businesses that are located in the city might not be better off elsewhere. That is the key obstacle to regeneration, and one which purely human factors – relatively low business start-up costs, more lax local planning laws and so on, can only go so far to affect. Much as it pains me to side with the Policy Exchange on this one, we really need to reanalyse how we use the regions.

  4. Karl Beecher said

    Good article, Adam. I agree when you say that political class concentrating on the BNP’s racism and immigration spiele is essentially a mistake. It seems when the far right comes along they always reach out to the downtrodden of society and provide them with a scapegoat; which one is almost immaterial. I’m sure we all know of past cases; in this case it’s “the liberal do-gooders are giving away all your hard-earned money to immigrants etc.”. People want answers as much as anyone else, but if only the BNP are providing them with their own abhorrent brand of answers why shouldn’t they start to believe it? I see similar problems in the USA. In both countries politicians really need to listen to the population and provide them with real answers.

  5. Jennie said

    “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.”

    One of the concurrent problems with this is that many of those doing that type of job and trying to survive on that type of wage are now graduates, because EVERYBODY goes to uni these days (I speak as a barmaid with a post-graduate degree).

    I’m not dumb enough to vote BNP though.

  6. Our definition of a ‘decent standard of living’ is very different from our grandparents or parents. The combination of escalation of what ‘normal people’ get with international competitive pressure on wages means we will never square this circle without looking at this issue.

  7. declineofthelogos said

    Karl – indeed. Real answers are difficult to come by in a climate in which the old socialist solutions are rightly held to be immoral. I’m trying to find a way of expressing potential answers that doesn’t sound Stalinist.

    Jennie – this is very much the case. Doing incredibly tedious work right after graduating was a soul-destroying experience for me; one made worse in retrospect by the knowledge that I may’ve denied a job to someone who needed it more than I.

    Annabel – that’s true, but I would find it illiberal if we started trying to proscribe the sorts of lifestyle people can try to lead. The key may be reducing income inequality, to lower the top standard of living in order to commensurably reduce that of the accepted standard of those further down the ladder. However, again, I can’t think of a liberal way to do that – there’s no moral way to proscribe how people should live with respect to this issue.

  8. I was not advocating prescribing (or proscribing) a life style – just saying that ‘decent standard of living’ is an accelerating standard.

    My grandmother had no electric fridge or hot running water for most of her life but did not regard herself as poor. Now we regard those two items as basic, but many people regard not having at least one foreign hoilday as an indication of ‘poverty’.

    People can of course lead (within the limits of the law) any lifestyle they chose, but we should be aware that ‘decent standard of living’ does not mean the same thing to everyone.

    Perhaps we need to define our terms? Are we talking relative poverty, absolute poverty and by what measure?

    I am not denying there is a problem, just trying to figure out the scope of people not earning ‘a decent living wage’.

  9. declineofthelogos said

    I apologise if I came across as assuming you held that position – it was certainly not my intent.

    In the context of this piece, we’re not necessarily talking about poverty, but rather the impact of income inequality and cultural & political bias away from low-end employment on particular sections of the electorate. It isn’t necessarily poor people who vote for the BNP – rather people who feel that society as evidenced by government and in the media is working against their interests. ‘Decent living wage’ is a phrase used by the CWU in conjunction with ‘Decent jobs’, and I’m arguing that the diminishing supply of low-skilled jobs that satisfy both these criteria is a factor in the rise of the BNP.

  10. No worries, but I do think we need to figure out what to do about the gap between expectation and reality – suppose we all decide to join the BNP if we are not millionaires – landslide for them! Not good.

    We need to find a way to give those workers skills that compete successfuly in the international wage economy so they are not ‘deprived’ or ‘hard done by’.

    The problem is we need to join up a lot of dots to do that and we don’t seem to be good at that sort of thing – we would rather blame someone than sort a problem out…that is what makes the BNP so popular – easy targets for blame…

    Also, I do think it is not reasonable for someone to leave school with no marketable skills and feel hard done by if they don’t earn much money…there are another set of dots we need to connect – personal effort/investment and reward…I am all for helping people to develop their skills, find a useful role, improve their lot but I am not so sure about paying people inflated wages so they don’t feel ‘under valued’. That would only increase the rate of outsourcing to China and India!

  11. Karl Beecher said

    “I’m trying to find a way of expressing potential answers that doesn’t sound Stalinist.”

    Sure, and so are the BNP: “…old-style socialist methods of
    redistributing income down the scale turned out to have harmful effects…” and “…the BNP will use non-destructive means to reduce income inequality…” are quotes from the BNP. Unsettling perhaps to hear this rhetoric, which you and I would both agree with, from them.

    Quite apart from the immigration drivel, the BNP speak plently on issues like economics that people are genuinely interested in and want to hear debated, and it often overlaps with public attitudes, e.g. support for co-operatives, stopping factory farming, opposing private laissez-faire control of the economy etc. But the political and media classes keep refusing to engage them on this, and it’s not helping.

  12. ATFlynn said

    What a great discussion, and what a great time and place to start. Only today is it announced that Brussels and the European Union are about to humiliate the whole of the Taxpaying population of the whole of Europe. And do any of you think that the LibLabCon Trick will stand and defend the Sovereignty of Gt. Britain ?? They can’t wait to hand it all over to a bunch of unelected ******.
    Boy do I get angry at the way the Establishment stick together like *** to a blancket, when they are creating such a gigantic fraud.
    But there is an answer. As yet, try as they might,
    the door is still open for every Employer and every Employee, to change the way they work and are paid so that they can quite legally avoid paying any direct Taxation to Westminster. The thing to do then, is to build an alternative system of Public Service Funding, based on the County Council structure. Using the Parish and Town Council, to set the rate of Taxation and collect the revenue, which is then passed on to the County Council to distribute to the District Council so that the Services can be kept running and, the Pensions and NHS, maintained, it will be possible reduce Public Service Revenue by at least 50%. So a budget of just a little more than £300 Billion, almost as it was in 1997, would be the order of the day. Oh, and by the way, I do have a large International Bank, waiting to fund this idea if only I can get it off the ground.
    Please let me know your thoughts on this, I do not claim this is perfect, but it is a point we could start from. Regards, ATFlynn, “Norfolk’s Mutineer”

    I almost forgot! Last April, I addressed the South Norfolk District Council and proposed that Norfolk take control of its own Economy and received much applause. I have also had more than one meeting with Daniel Cox, Leader of the Notfolk County Council on this subject and the idea was received with much sympathy. ATF.

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