Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Lucky strike?

The right to strike is a crucial tool in the armoury of anyone who sells their labour.

It’s been a few years since I went on strike. Before you picture a militant firebrand, weather-beaten by picket lines in the 70s and 80s, I’m actually only in my late twenties. But I’ve already taken part in industrial action on a handful of occasions. As a civil servant, I currently work for an agency of the Home Office which means I’m represented by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). On Friday, PCS announced that they would be joining the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the National Union of Teachers, and the University and College Union in a day of industrial action over changes to public sector workers’ pensions on Thursday 30 June.

I’m sympathetic to industrial action where it’s appropriate and justified – my politics are very much on the left after all. My decision to strike along with many other colleagues on 30 June is far from a knee jerk reaction however. There have been plenty of strikes called by my union that I haven’t supported, but this is different. It’s all very well working until I’m 90 or so – I’m resigned to that anyway. But for the government to change the pensionable age for people after they have joined the pension scheme? It’s just not on.

My mother is in that category of women who will be most affected by the changes to the pension age. Born in October 1957, she’ll be forced to work until she’s 66. Being the sort of person who enjoys work I don’t suppose she’ll be too worried about the extra six years that the state requires of her. Even so, she’s not been planning for this sudden change in her financial arrangements all her life – and given that the Coalition’s brought forward Labour’s plans it’s even more of a shock. Just as well my stepfather is a financial adviser. 

"Organised labour can and should use their legal right to withdraw their labour in a focused way when it’s the only tool at their disposal."

So why strike? The “it won’t change anything” argument is, to put it simply, hollow. I’m taking action not just in my own interests, but in the interests of my parents’ generation too. Organised labour – whether union members or not – can and should use their legal right to withdraw their labour in a focused way when it’s the only tool at their disposal.

The government have made it quite clear that they aren’t interested in negotiation, and what’s more, they’re hell-bent on undermining public sector pay. Looking at the bigger picture, the stagnation of the last year or so may be a good thing, given the gap “which was apparent eighteen months ago”. But even so, I haven’t had a pay rise for two years, and that becomes harder to bear as the cost of living goes up – particularly in London. 

"The reality is that a huge number of public servants are earning nothing like the sums at the higher end of the spectrum – or anything like what David Cameron or his millionaire wife earns/"

Yet we’re still “all in this together” according to David Cameron, who continues to use every opportunity to bleat about public servants earning more than he does, when he’s not trying to relaunch the Big Society. The reality is that a huge number of public servants are earning more like the average £23,660 – nothing like the sums at the higher end of the spectrum – or anything like what he or his millionaire wife earns.

Why get bitter about all of this? I don’t plan on being a civil servant for the rest of my life. But when I took this job, I signed up to a package. It included certain stipulations around pay, pensions, terms and conditions, and now the income that will provide me with the basics when I’m dribbling into my soup is being seriously undermined.

I’ve kept my side of the bargain by turning up for work and doing my job to the best of my abilities. The government hasn’t, and they’re even trying to take away the democratic right to strike when union members justify it. I’ve every right to be angry.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

What does the 'Dunkirk spirit' mean today?

A reflection on what the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ means in 2011, with a fair bit of personal knowledge and experience thrown in for good measure.

What does the ‘spirit of Dunkirk’ mean today? It’s a question that Matthew Cain tried to answer in his film for Wednesday night’s Channel 4 News, but in which he sadly failed to capture the true significance of the event itself. The inspiration for the report was English Heritage’s excellent new ‘Operation Dynamo‘ experience, which opens to the public in the underground tunnels at Dover Castle the end of this week. It tells the story of this fabled milestone in the Second World War, and I was lucky enough to be able to preview it at the weekend.

Operation Dynamo was in fact the codename given to the evacuation of some 338,000 British, French and Belgian troops from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, France, between 26 May and the early hours of 3 June 1940. The troops had been cut off by the advancing German army during the Battle of Dunkirk in the Second World War. And the operation to remove these troops from what Winston Churchill called a ‘a colossal military disaster’ was planned deep within the chalk cliffs underneath Dover Castle in Kent. Headed by Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the operation infamous for the ‘little ships’ – a flotilla of 700 merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft and lifeboats which brought the soldiers across the English Channel.

Why do I know all this? My first job after leaving university was in visitor operations at Dover Castle, and a big part of my role was to undertake guided tours through these very tunnels. It’s a place close to my heart, not least because it was a very enjoyable first career job. The castle has played a very important role in British history over 2000 years, due to its strategic importance on the south east coast. They didn’t call it the ‘key to England’ for nothing. Historical tracts aside, I can also remember the na├»ve but jaw-dropping questions of American cruise-ship tourists from the two years I worked down there. And, seven years since leaving the castle, I still know a lot of the staff. It’s the sort of place people don’t want to leave, and for good reason. Who wants to work in an office when you can explore a magnificent historic site all day long? 

The problem with becoming so emotionally attached to somewhere like Dover Castle is that you become quite defensive of it. In fact, I love the place.

But the problem with becoming so emotionally attached to somewhere like Dover Castle is that you become quite defensive of it. In fact, I love the place. I found myself annoyed by Cain’s report’s with its confusing references to the ‘new museum’. It implied that the tunnels themselves were some sort of fabricated entity without a back story. Yes, Operation Dynamo relies very much on audio-visual technology, as do many museums and attractions to provide effects, show films or present graphics. It’s the best solution to EH’s dilemma on how best to present the story of Dunkirk. As the curators used to tell us, it’s not easy preserving authentic artefacts and exhibits deep underground, even though the extensive air-filtration system hasn’t been switched off since 1942.

And although Cain’s film did acknowledge the significance of the tunnels as part of the Dunkirk story, it didn’t appreciate the full story. The tunnels have existed as an underground army barracks during the wars against Napoleon, as well as a field hospital and joint command centre. The complex even served as a rudimentary nuclear bunker up until 1984 when the Home Office finally decommissioned them (many of the files are still classified on this particular era). There’s even an abandoned BBC studio down there, but that’s a story for another time. Dunkirk may well have been the Dover tunnels’ finest hour, but it was just part of a long story stretching back nearly 200 years.

But I speak not as a flag-waving zealot for the castle’s role in past military ‘glories’ but as someone who’s been fascinated by the social history of places like this. Cold, damp, dark, over-heated and dusty, it can’t have been fun for the uniformed services working down there. Each member of staff was assigned to their own individual area and under strict instructions not to talk to anyone not on their section. There were representatives of the Army, Air Force, Navy – including the Women’s’ Royal Naval Service in the plotting rooms (of which I had the pleasure to meet a long-retired representative of once), as well as Post Office technicians and some civilians. And despite the military environment, in a strange sort of way, it encouraged some sort of egalitarian values and a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’, long before our current government attempted to hijack the expression. Many of the people who worked there were just ordinary people from the surrounding area, with families of their own, not forgetting an large absent male population away fighting on the front line. 

The spirit of Dunkirk is a parable for ordinary people enduring challenging circumstances or tragedy and coming out the other side

The spirit of Dunkirk is undoubtedly part of our national psyche – a parable for ordinary people enduring challenging circumstances or tragedy and coming out the other side. And if anything’s truly representative of Dunkirk, it’s the ordinary soldiers themselves and the people who helped bring them home from the challenging confines of the Dover tunnels. Whether the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ really does exist 71 years on, I don’t know for sure. But it’s as part of our culture as sliced bread, red telephone boxes and queueing for just about everything. And if you want to learn just a little bit about who we are as a nation, you’ll learn a little bit about our shared history in this quite unusual setting. It’s something you won’t get through a website or sanitised TV documentary.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Labour's good society: moving beyond the state?

One year on from a general election defeat, is Labour finally signalling a new approach to the state, and the prevailing orthodoxy around the provision of public services?

It's an important question for a party that is searching for a credible response to the deficit, while the coalition uses every last opportunity to attack the last government for “this mess we're in”. Despite Labour riding on the crest of a wave in national opinion polls regularly showing a four or five point lead, many on the left are anxious for Labour to deliver a new narrative. Concepts such as the 'good society' – first mooted a few years ago - and 'Blue Labour' more recently – are being bandied around as possible replacements for the New Labour view of the world.

Chuka Umunna, Labour MP for Streatham

I'd arranged to meet Chuka Umunna, the charismatic Labour MP for Streatham in Parliament's Portcullis House to get an idea of where the Labour leadership is 'at' on these ideas. Half-expecting to find our interview cancelled at the last moment [Umunna was promoted to Shadow Business Minister the day before] I'm relieved when the man himself appears. And he's even prepared to share his chocolate wafer with me, while we discuss what Labour's really thinking about the 'big society', recently relaunched by David Cameron for the fourth time.

It's no accident that Umunna has recently been promoted to a key role on Labour's front bench, only months after being appointed to Ed Miliband's inner circle, initially as Parliamentary Private Secretary. Umunna appears to be genuinely passionate about a new way of thinking, and it's the sort of upbeat, optimistic tone which is very much present in Ed Miliband's speeches.

Our conversation begins with the historical perspective, always an encouraging starting point when considering the future. Umunna outlines the two differing approaches that the Labour party had taken in the latter part of the twentieth century with regards to delivery of its policies.

“As a party, this period in opposition gives us a chance to rediscover our soul and what our underlying principles are behind the programme to cut” says Umunna.

“From 1945, when the Welfare State and the National Health Service was born, until the mid-1990s you had a Labour party which believed in the state as a vehicle for positive change - a period in which the state was incredibly active and controlled everything not far from where we're sitting right now.

“From the mid-nineties, the party sought to show the British public that we'd made an accommodation with the market, and we became a lot more market-driven than we had been before. But we still continued to use the state” - Umunna refers to tax credits and other innovations as a vehicle to redistribute wealth, measures that became synonymous with Gordon Brown as Chancellor, an unambiguously pro-state politician. “It improved the lot of the people that I represent”. That includes me as Umunna's constituent, so I can see where he's coming from.

Then there's this idea of 'One Nation Labour' – which Umunna says he very much identifies with and peppers our conversation with, using it to define his vision of what the Labour party should be about.
This new thinking doesn't just appear to be a reaction to David Cameron's Big Society, of which Umunna says there is “some merit”, but is more of a reappraisal of what Labour's attitude to governing should be.

You might notice that we've been here before. Surely New Labour was itself an attempt to govern through the politics of consensus? And the term 'One Nation' is something that traditionally associated with the Conservatives from the post-war consensus period – Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, let alone Benjamin Disraeli (who coined the term) even further back in time.

Regardless of the origins of these terms, there is a clear recognition by Umunna that New Labour sometimes didn't fully understand the consequences of its actions in power.
“The Labour Party was insufficiently social, and insufficiently democratic – dismissive of the ties that bind and the community bonds that exist throughout society”
“For a social democratic party - and I do believe that the Labour party is that – we were insufficiently social, and insufficiently democratic.” Referring to both the state-centric and more market-friendly approaches to government in the later half of the twentieth century, Umunna is frank about where Labour went wrong.

“We were rather dismissive of the ties that bind, and the community bonds that exist throughout society. So the state was rather overbearing or patronising if you like, to some extent encouraging a dependency culture” - and we're not talking about benefit scroungers here.

The issues are obvious on Umunna's doorstep. “In Lambeth, we have a massive third sector in terms of the quantity of groups, rather than how big they are. But they are all quite dependent on commissioning from local and central government. Umunna regrets that while it was in power, Labour didn't promote alternative forms of ownership.

“We saw the receipts of our embrace of capital, but there were problems. We didn't do enough to promote models that encouraged co-operative ways of working, or social enterprises that were self-sustaining."
“The market was just concerned with the bottom line – increasing the share price and the dividend payback, and was quite dismissive of anything that got in the way. It led to people being treated like commodities.
“The market was just concerned with the bottom line – increasing the share price and the dividend payback, and was quite dismissive of anything that got in the way. It led to people being treated like commodities.

Unsurprisingly, Umunna is undoubtedly a passionate advocate of 'mutuals', the sort of structure that has traditionally been the preserve of building societies until many turned into banks in the 1990s. He speaks enthusiastically about his own campaign for the re-mutualisation of Northern Rock, still in state hands after being nationalised in February 2008.

“Financial services should be the sector you start with, but it was a missed opportunity for the last Labour government. We didn't institutionalise social democracy by promoting these things.”

What else could be mutualised? “Imagine if the train you got to work was mutually owned. You only have to look at the much higher level of satisfaction with people who use building societies compared to banks. They're better run for a start”. It's an appealing prospect for those who mourn the passing of British Rail and yearn for a more accountable, publicly-owned railway.

“The challenge for us going forward is how we build that build that good society and and rebalances the relationship between the individual and the market.

Umunna talks about a better capitalism, reflecting Ed Miliband's speeches of late. “In 2003, productivity grew at twice the rate of wages. But wages have since stagnated, which is why we've had such an increase in household debt. People want to sustain the same lifestyles. Meanwhile, the top 1% have, in Umunna's words “flown away to a different planet, so for most people capitalism isn't delivering enough any of the time”.

“Taking it back to first principles, my politics comes from the belief that we are mutually dependent beings. Yes, we want to flourish and achieve as much as we can as individuals, and for our families too. But we aspire beyond that, to being ambitious and aspirational for the communities that we live in. You can see that where we live in Streatham. Umunna points to the many street parties held in the constituency for the royal wedding, which happened “not because of some doe-eyed adulation, but people wanted to associate and mingle.”

“What people value more than anything and what makes them happy is the time they spend with their friends and family. And you can't attach a value to association and togetherness”. Umunna defines “our communitarian values” as Labour's terrain. “The Tories don't have any of the answers on all of this, and we need to explain why it's our lawn, and why our concept of the good society is different to their concept of the big society.

“But it's not just Thatcherism with a nice smile – there is a deeper challenge. 
“The Tories want the state to get out your hair, but we see the state as your friend, not as your boss.”
“The big difference is that they want the state to get out your hair, but we see the state as your friend, not as your boss.”

I get the impression that Umunna is attempting to get to the heart of what the relationship between state and citizen should be – or at least ask some crucial questions about it. While other left-leaning parties seem to be fairly certain of the balance between the role of the state and the role of communities, it's not clear whether Labour has come to any conclusions just yet. And it may have another four years to work out the answer.

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