John Lanchester has a long piece in the London Review of Books reflecting on Brexit. It’s worth making the time to read it in full but this piece struck a chord:
To be born in many places in Britain is to suffer an irreversible lifelong defeat – a truncation of opportunity, of education, of access to power, of life expectancy. The people who grow up in these places come from a cultural background which equipped them for reasonably well-paid manual labour, un- and semi- and skilled. Children left school as soon as they could and went to work in the same industries that had employed their parents. The academically able kids used to go to grammar school and be educated into the middle class. All that has now gone, the jobs and the grammar schools, and the vista instead is a landscape where there is often work – there are pockets of unemployment, but in general there’s no shortage of jobs and the labour force participation rate is the highest it has ever been, a full 15 points higher than in the US – but it’s unsatisfying, insecure and low-paid.
There’s work but it’s not like work used to be:
This new work doesn’t do what the old work did: it doesn’t offer a sense of identity or community or self-worth. The word ‘precarious’ has as its underlying sense ‘depending on the favour of another person’. Somebody can take away the things you have whenever they feel like it. The precariat, as the new class is called, might not know the etymology, but it doesn’t need to: the reality is all too familiar.
This is the story that the economic statistics don’t always show. Sure, the employment rate is at a record high and inequality has barely risen since the early 1990s but the experience of work has changed. The sense that somebody can take away what you have almost on a whim makes people feel less secure. Of course, it has always been possible to sack people and evict them from their houses but go back a couple of decades and it was a lot more difficult to do so in practice. Furthermore, people had more of a sense that they had some say in the matter and some form of redress against unfair decisions.
Many years ago, I read an article (I can’t remember where) applying the concept of property rights to jobs. It was an intriguing piece, arguing that organised labour had challenged the employer’s ‘ownership’ of a job. It was no longer his to do with as he saw fit, a part of it ‘belonged’ to the worker. This was certainly the case when it came to disposing of employees. Unions often resisted the right of employers to sack people. In some industries, such as printing, they even told the employer who to hire. The job was as much the ‘property’ of the worker as the employer.
To stretch the analogy even further, you could argue that there was even a sense of hereditary rights over jobs. Many of the large industrial organisations recruited from families. In the company I worked for at the end of the 1980s, entire extended families were employed. Fathers, brothers and sons as engineers or on the labouring gangs, mothers, sisters and daughters doing clerical jobs in billing or dispatch. Some of them rose through the ranks to become managers. It was very unwise to slag off a manager in public because you could never be sure whether or not the people you were talking to were related to him.
The longer you had worked for the firm and the better your reputation, the more likely it was that you could get friends and family members jobs as well. This didn’t do much for workforce diversity but it did give people a stake in the system. Loyalty to the company paid off in the form of patronage. Being able to get your son or nephew a start at the works reinforced the status gained from working for a recognisable company, like Ford, or a big utility like the local electricity board.
Something similar happened with housing. Go back 25 years and most people who didn’t own their homes lived in council houses. They had secure tenancies with fixed rents. Priority was given to people who had lived in an area for some time. You can argue about whether this was fair or not but, as with jobs, there was (and still is in some places) a sense that these homes belonged to people and to their families. They might not have been people’s property in the legal sense but their residents certainly had a sense of ownership.
Underpinning all of this was a lot of talking and listening. Paul Bivand and I were discussing this just after the referendum. There were joint committees of managers and trade union reps at national, regional, local and plant level. There is much talk now of Employee Voice but there was plenty of it in the unionised workplaces. The people sitting on these bodies came from the same backgrounds as those they represented. Sometimes even those on the management side had originally come from the shop-floor. In the company where I worked at the end of the 80s, on the joint committee for the London area, the management side was headed up by a staunch Labour supporter and the union side by a member of the Conservative trade unionists.
All this began to fall apart in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Liberal legislation is sometimes blamed but really it only played a minor role. The company where I worked, for example, was criticised by the CRE for recruiting from families. It had done it for so long that it barely occurred to anyone that the practice made it less likely that people from ethnic minorities would be recruited. That said, ideas of meritocracy and the drive for shareholder value would probably have done for such practices anyway. At the same time, union power declined, due in part to government policy but also to the disappearance of many of its strongholds as industries were restructured and jobs automated or offshored. All this happened remarkably quickly. Unions which had seemed all powerful a dozen years earlier were on the ropes by the early 1990s. As Paul Mason said, in his review of the Shane Meadows film This is England 90, a lot was about to change:
I recall feeling on that day that a lot of certainties were falling apart around me: the deference and hierarchy that had kept protests self-controlled, even during the fractious 80s. The social solidarity that enforced law and order in working-class towns, the maleness and the straightness of public life were fading; recreational drug use was flaunting its smiley face across mainstream culture.
This new fluidity meant that, when the economy recovered in the mid-90s, the labour market would become more stratified. The rungs on the earnings ladder separated rapidly, leading to sharp and rising wage inequality. It trapped the poorest but – as the free-market model found its stride – enabled the return of upward mobility by the 2000s.
If they’ve been lucky, the real Lol and Woody will be living in a nicer part of Sheffield having survived several episodes of layoff, retraining, outsourcing and offshoring. The real people I remember from the riots and raves of 1990 – mainly the clever non-graduates who populated the trade union movement – are now ward sisters, chemical engineers, shift supervisors in highly automated factories. Whatever the job title, most are working with a raw material that barely existed in 1990: digital information. The ones who didn’t escape will be living a life you know all too well from the benefit-porn documentaries: poor, hopeless and stuck; dazzled by the celebrity circus, perennially hounded by the DWP.
Many will no doubt take issue with this, pointing out that there has been no noticeable increase in inequality since the early 1990s and that, with the exception of the mid 2000s, real household incomes rose faster for those on lower incomes than for those in the upper deciles.
Chart via Resolution Foundation: Living Standards 2016
But while that is true, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The cost of rented housing has risen faster than incomes and the proportion of the population in council housing has shrunk. As Declan Gaffney pointed out a couple of years ago, the caseload for most benefits has fallen since the early 1990s while that for working age housing benefit has risen sharply.
Chart via Declan Gaffney
This chart tells the story of our times. The proportion of people on out-of-work benefits has been falling for the last two decades. The majority of people are now in some form of paid employment but these jobs are supported by tax credits and in-work housing benefit.
Furthermore, as the Joseph Rowtree Foundation found, a lot of people regularly move in and out of low paid work. Compared to most other countries in Europe the UK has relatively few people trapped in persistent poverty. This is because we share our poverty out more evenly. Most people don’t stay on a poverty-level income for long but typically around a third of the population will have had some experience of it during the last four years. It is no wonder, then, that people feel insecure.
This brings us to the nub of it. As John Lanchester said, the new work doesn’t do what the old work did. It feels less secure. Employment protection comes from the courts, if you can afford them, not from your own representatives. Employers may ask for your opinion and take an interest in your morale but they do so because they think it will improve productivity, not because of your bargaining power. The fact that an experiment in employee empowerment and a neo-Taylorist workplace autocracy can operate under the same corporate roof shows just how arbitrary people management policies can be. In the past, employers had to talk to worker representatives. Nowadays they do so because they think it might improve their profits. Tomorrow they might change their minds.
It’s the same with housing. The proportion of people in council housing and other social housing continues to fall. Even the secure tenancies that once went with council houses are now under threat. Those in rented accommodation have very little protection against eviction. To cover rent and bills, many find themselves relying on tax credits and housing benefit.
That sense of control, of ‘property’, over jobs and homes has gone, taking with it the sense of permanence and rootedness that employment once gave people. Nowadays there is the sense that it all depends on the favour of someone else and could all be taken away from you at any point. Even if you are in a permanent job, your employer could sack you tomorrow and you’d have to pay to go to court to sort it out. He might decide to abandon the employee engagement programme and introduce the Sports Direct approach to management. If you are on zero hours or agency employment, he might just stop phoning you. The landlord might evict you next week or the government might tell you the house you have lived in for years is no longer yours. Or it might decide to take away your tax credits and housing benefit. Just like that!
The point about all this is that it is someone else decision. The protection people might once have had, through their trade union reps or tenants’ associations, has either gone completely or is much less powerful than it once was. In short, there was a time when people had more control and a lot of them can still remember it. Whether the slogan ‘Take Control’ was a clever but cynical pitch, as John Lanchester says, or just a stroke of luck, it clearly struck a chord with people who have been feeling a loss of control for years.
It was when I read this piece by Lisa Mckenzie, a week before the referendum, that I feared the game was up. I grew up in Nottingham and I already knew from friends and relatives that there was a groundswell of opinion there in favour of leaving the EU. Lisa Mckenzie put these feelings in context. Voting for Brexit, she said, was the only way people who felt powerless could change anything.
[T]he EU referendum debate has opened up a Pandora’s box of working-class anger and frustration. It is clear that the Westminster politicos are quite unnerved by this. Even I am surprised by how the referendum has captured the attention and the imagination of the same people that only last year told me they had no interest in the general election “because ‘they’ are all the same”.
In the mining towns of Nottinghamshire where I am from, the debate again is about Brexit, and even former striking miners are voting leave. The mining communities are also worried about the lack of secure and paid employment, the loss of the pubs and the grinding poverty that has returned to the north. The talk about immigration is not as prevalent or as high on the list of fears as sections of the media would have us believe. The issues around immigration are always part of the debate, but rarely exclusively.
From my research I would argue that the referendum debate within working-class communities is not about immigration, despite the rhetoric. It is about precarity and fear.
Working-class people in the UK can see a possibility that something might change for them if they vote to leave the EU. The women in east London and the men in the mining towns all tell me the worst thing is that things stay the same. The referendum has become a way in which they can have their say, and they are saying collectively that their lives have been better than they are today.
Suddenly, people had power in their hands. The sort of decision that was usually reserved for politicians had been handed to the electorate. They could make a choice which would have a direct effect on the future of the country. That, only one month later, that choice has already lead to a complete change of government ministers and has had repercussions around the world, shows just how much power the voters were given. They voted so that something, anything, might change. Briefly, people who had seen their control over their lives ebb away were granted immense power. And they used it.
Whether it will make their lives any better in the long run remains to be seen. I think it unlikely. The damage caused by leaving the EU will almost certainly hit the poorer areas hardest. That said, I retain just enough optimism to hope that, rather than shrugging off the anger, our shaken up political establishment might pause and reflect. Rather than condemning people for doing something so destructive, shouldn’t we be asking why they were so angry in the first place?
On a similar theme to this, Anthony Painter has written a good piece on insecurity and the new world of work in which he draws on data from the British Social Attitudes survey. There are a couple of particularly interesting findings here.
Firstly, the study finds an increase in feelings of insecurity among older workers and those in more routine jobs.
The age difference might be because older workers can remember when they had greater job security than they have now and the younger ones don’t miss what they have never had.
Secondly, the sense of control over the organisation of their work has risen among professional and managerial workers but declined for those in routine jobs.
This reminds me of a discussion I had with Chris Dillow a while back on whether workplaces are more controlled and regimented now than they were 20 years ago. I suspect that your view of this will depend on the type of work you do and how many layers there are above you in the corporate hierarchy.
In general, though, these findings suggest that working class and older workers feel they have less control and security at work than they once did.