Sunday, 8 September 2013

Demonising Part-Time Workers

They call it a recovery. The OECD has raised its forecast of UK economic growth from 0.8% to 1.5%. This follows on from the British Chambers of Commerce who've floated a similar figure. While economics wonks are muttering "caveats, caveats" the Daily Express have had no hesitation proclaiming "Britain's economic recovery is now in overdrive". Resting arguments on evidence might be out of sorts when it comes to punditry, but as someone who thinks commentary should fit the facts and not the other way round it would be dumb to deny the numbers are, handily, falling like pennies from heaven for our clueless, beleaguered chancellor. Befitting their stupid epithet, the Conservative Party will hail this from now until election day as proof their economic policy works. The small matter of three wasted, stagnant years falls down the memory hole every time positive economic news is broadcast.

The problem for the Tories is they know the recovery is entirely lop-sided. It's a question of "growth, whose growth?" And it is going to be a massive electoral headache for them. Forget the silly season capers, the vast majority of people will be no better off - indeed, many will be worse off - by the time polling day comes round and those people in the marginal seats, those undecided swing voters, will cast their ballots with their purses and wallets in mind. The question then who has the most compelling answer. This is natural Labour territory - expect more of this, and awful party politicals set in supermarkets and train stations. But it is entirely the right thing for Labour to lead on. It's an issue that absolutely everyone without megabucks can relate to.

How can the Tories counter it? I think they will take a twin track approach. They can tackle Labour head on by proposing a big increase in the minimum wage (but this will be resisted from within by die-hard Thatcherites), and claim that everyone will be worse off under Labour. Again, another one for the memory hole.

Another tried and tested tactical gambit is divide-and-conquer. Every government of the last 30 years have tawdry track records in this regard. But our Tory-led coalition have ramped divisive rhetoric up to epidemic levels. As long-term unemployment has risen, and with five people chasing every vacancy, the government-orchestrated campaign against job seekers has tried to position unemployment as a moral failing. The penny pinching off housing benefit recipients in social housing talks about fairness for people who rent or pay a mortgage, while people so afflicted queue up for food banks. The same goes for their assaults on social security for disabled people. Their Work Capability Assessment would be tragicomic, if dodgy decisions hadn't led to people dying. But it doesn't matter, softened by a mix of propaganda and perceptions that appear confirmed by everyday experience, most working people have gone along with the Tories and Liberal Democrats revamped division of the poor into the deserving and the undeserving.

Tories never have a problem with the politics of envy if it's directed toward poor people. However, now Labour are groping toward a position that could restore confidence in social security consistent with its living standards rhetoric, divide and rule has limited purchase. Unless you can find a new group to demonise. And the Tories think they've hit upon a new one.

About a quarter of all workers are now in part-time jobs - a record number. 80% of the 587,000 new jobs created since June 2010 are in sectors where wages are low. Furthermore, most of these millions of workers "feel trapped". In short, a significant strand of job creation entails taking a job, and cutting it up between two, three, four people. Naturally, with large numbers of part-time workers having to have their income topped up by the state the Tories scent a new class of the "undeserving". According to DWP documents seen by The Graun, unless you have bona fide responsibilities that do not allow you to work full-time, the Tories believe part-time workers who receive some social security assistance are not working enough. Therefore, if you're deemed to be a 'shirker-worker' who gets by on 18 hours/week thanks to various forms of income support, in future you can expect to be called into the JobCentre for an interview to have one's work habits examined and be issued with mandatory training. If you don't, you can bid farewell to your tax credits.

As one chap put it to me on Twitter, the Tories are lower than a Dachshund's knackers.

Tory MPs might think it's easy to grab a few more hours of work here and there. After all, they all seem to segway into directorships and consultancies with ease. But for real people for whom their employer tends not to be an old school chum, it is incredibly difficult to ask for more hours when bosses say there are no more hours to be had. You know this, I know this, and practically every single person employment - whether part-time or full-time - knows this too. But best not let this inconvenient fact of economic life trouble the government benches.

We have then three strings to their living standard's bow. Raise the minimum wage. Make hay with the "cost" of Labour. And demonise part-time workers. Unfortunately for the government, the last string could very well snap and their arrow fall, only to embed itself in their foot. And it's the prospect of taking a massive electoral hit that provides this latest DWP cloud with its silver lining. It has taken 30 years of beggar-my-neighbour bilge and erosion of working class identity and consciousness to get to the point where the scandal of the Work Capability Assessment and the bedroom tax became politically possible. Their acceptance is premised upon their affecting relatively small and relatively marginalised groups of people. However, part-time workers receiving some kind of benefit are far, far larger. They are, or at least were, part of the 'deserving poor', of those doing the Tory thing of helping themselves and escaping the imagined mass underclass that haunts the conservative imagination. To begin an unprecedented demonisation of such a large section of 'decent' working people and promise to put many millions through the humiliation of an employment audit is an ambition too far. Their reasoning - that part-time work is the result of people not working enough - does not and will not chime with the everyday experience of working people. They know how it is.

The Tories can try, but Dave may as well hand Number 10's keys over to Ed Miliband now.


Peter Labour Socialist said...

Their strategy moreover so fails to see the bigger economic picture, even from a business viewpoint. The easiest way to provide extra labour to employers when the next boom finally arrives is to have a pool of part-time workers ready trained who can increase their hours. If the Tories could end the sharing of work that part-timing generates, they would merely increase the pool of long-term unemployed - people without a recent work record to make them of interest to employers.

Anonymous said...

"in future you can expect to be called into the JobCentre for an interview to have one's work habits examined and be issued with mandatory training. If you don't, you can bid farewell to your tax credits."

Do they have bullet proof glass in job centres?

Phil said...

Good point, Peter. Of course with zero hour contracts being so prevalent over long periods of time hours can fluctuate with the contraction and expansion of the economy. Unless Labour get elected and the contracts are abolished as promised.

And yeah Anon, IDS must really hate job centre workers. A grudge hanging over from his ever so brief period of unemployment?