Living in a time of contraction: random notes from a corner of rural Wales

In the Co-op supermarket, people’s trollies containing fewer processed foods than hitherto. More vegetables, fruit, bread, less confectionery and cake. That’s what it looks like. Also signs of supply strains, good quality fresh produce shifts fast, and there isn’t enough for everyone.

Quiet roads outside commuting times. In the evening I can drive 10 miles back from nearest town without seeing another vehicle. We only drive when we have to.

Raising money for good causes. Less easy than it was, but then I am not very persuasive. Not much spare cash around.

Empty shops. Llandovery, several miles to the east, reflects the lack of local spending power. Even the pound shop has closed, the convenience store across the street, the seconds clothing shop near the (too expensive) car park, a good bakery and patisserie, HSBC bank, the local museum. The Post Office is scheduled to close. The closures have come at a time when people can afford to travel less, when subsidies are being pulled from bus services, when in our part of the world road maintenance spending is to be cut by a third.

Official policies continue to favour centralisation, but they are behind the curve of reality. Most politicians still seem to be living in the expectation of renewed economic growth which will pay for yet more centralisation.

However, we have already monetised previous voluntary, unpaid activities, such as care of the elderly and childcare, to boost Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures. There is not much left to monetise, so it was no surprise that in the Budget last Wednesday the Chancellor freed pensioners to spend their funds just as they like, instead of having to buy an annuity, or enrol in a tightly regulated income drawdown plan, the situation until now. Some new pensioners will be cautious, no doubt, but there are bound to be others who are tempted to spend – and that spending will inflate GDP. But is it wise in the long term? What happens when the spendthrift retirees run out of money and are subsisting on the new universal pension of about £7,300 a year, at today’s prices? Will that level of state pension be affordable? Will it be allowed to diminish in real value, so that pensioners sink into real poverty?

Short-term thinking has got us into a real mess. We are entering the era of resource limits without a strategy for fair distribution, without even a strategy for informing people about the likely trajectories of decline.

But then, for those who have scrambled to the top of the crumbling pyramid, the fate of the people below them is not always an important priority.


Centralisation Shifts Costs onto the Public

Who benefits from service centralisation?

Usually the costs are just shifted from the organisation doing the centralising onto the people who use the service, for example in costlier travel and more time spent in transit, individualised burdens with impacts that are insufficiently understood.

Here is an example from rural Wales:

Zero Hours Contracts: Divisive and Exploitative

by Pat Dodd Racher

Zero-hours contracts bring short-term benefits to employers but remove income security from those workers unfortunate enough to have to sign them. Those workers are growing in number, heading rapidly towards 250,000 in the UK. By the fourth quarter of 2012, 200,000 employees had been hired on zero-hours contracts, meaning they have to be available for work when required but are not guaranteed any work, or income.

This regressive phenomenon reminds me of the plight of landless farm labourers after the appropriation of communal lands by rich individuals by means of the Enclosure Acts. Without land and dependent on irregular wages, country dwellers flocked to work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution.

A big difference now is that workers on zero-hours contracts do not have permanent, paid jobs to go to. Like unpaid interns, they are casualties of economic contraction. The 200,000 on zero-hours contracts in the latter months of 2012 were a quarter more than the 161,000 recorded a year earlier, and approaching three times more than the 75,000 reported in the final three months of 2005. An estimated 23% of employers with over 100 staff are making use of zero-hours contracts, according to a report in The Guardian* in April 2013.

Mark Mitchell, chief executive of recruitment firm Meridian Business Support, had a letter published in The Sunday Times business section on April 14th 2013, headlined ‘Zero hours give bosses vital flexibility’. Mr Mitchell said that “as long as both the worker and employer are content, the model is beyond reproach”.

He did accept some downsides, notably that jobseekers “hoping for regular income and work patterns do not always get them” but defended this in the interests of the flexible labour market.

This type of contract does give employers bucket-loads of flexibility, but workers do not know from week to week whether they will earn anything at all, and thus they cannot make financial plans and risk not being able to support themselves or their families unless they claim state welfare benefits.

Zero-hours contracts are being used as a loophole to escape the Agency Worker Regulations. These are European Union regulations which came into force in the UK in October 2011, and which require staff supplied by agencies to be given the same pay rates, hours, annual leave, breaks and rest periods as workers who are directly employed. All the time that zero-hours arrangements are legal, employers are likely to use them because they cut costs.

They probably don’t do much for staff loyalty, but employers do not seem bothered, probably believing that there is no shortage of new recruits.

Mr Mitchell believes that the numbers with zero-hours jobs will grow and grow, as employers respond to auto-enrolment into workplace pensions (being phased in between 2012 and 2018), and to real-time PAYE notification to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (from April 2013), by cutting back on job contracts offering specified pay for specified hours, and replacing them with the obligation to be available for work, in return only for pay when the employer wants work done.

Employment on this uncertain basis is a step back towards a past we thought had been left behind, a past of serfdom and slavery, a past in which there is no social contract and in which workers are depersonalised units of cost.

The media, argued Mr Mitchell, “does not fully understand Britain’s economic reliance on the agility and dynamism of the labour market. Small businesses need flexibility to be able to grow”. It would not be so bad if the flexibility were shared, if banks said “repay your loan when you can”, if suppliers said “use our materials and pay us when you feel the time is right”, but it is only the workers who are being forced into ‘flexibility’.

In some respects zero-hours jobs are more exploitative, albeit less physically cruel, than some manifestations of slavery. Slave owners had to house and feed their slaves or they were not capable of working, but modern employers have no compulsion to ensure their workers have a roof over their heads and food in their homes. Is this the society we really want? Or is it the latest manifestation of the attitude that there is “no such thing as society”?

* ‘Big rise in firms hiring staff on zero-hours contracts’, by Phillip Inman, The Guardian, April 2nd 2013.

Radical Retreat: LSE Tamed by Transnational Powers

by Pat Dodd Racher

A long email from the London School of Economics arrived yesterday afternoon, complaining about the BBC’s decision to show undercover filming by a ‘Panorama’ team in North Korea. The team was accompanying members of the Grimshaw Society, which is linked to the LSE’s Department of International Relations. The missive seemed to assume that I, as an LSE graduate, would be ‘on their side’. Instead, it reinforced my view that the LSE has, perhaps irrevocably, abandoned its founding mission.

For several years it has seemed to me that the LSE has become an educational arm of global business, and no longer prioritises the purpose of its motto ‘Rerum cognoscere causas’, to know the causes of things.

The LSE was founded by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Graham Wallas and George Bernard Shaw, all members of the Fabian Society, in 1895. The society was then (more than now, I would argue) a well of political ideas with a focus on social justice achieved in non-violent ways. H G Wells, R H Tawney and Annie Besant were all among the members, powerful intellects who challenged traditional notions of the social order.

Nowadays the LSE seems to represent the global leadership class, rather than challenging it. There are individual academics who interrogate dominant understandings of social justice, but the school is now well and truly part of the Establishment.

Back to the email. One paragraph read: “While this particular trip was run in the name of a student society, the nature of LSE’s teaching and research means that aspects of North Korea are legitimate objects of study in several of our academic disciplines. Indeed, LSE academics work on aspects of many politically sensitive parts of the world, including by travel to those locations (sic). It is vital that their integrity is taken for granted and their academic freedom preserved. The BBC’s actions may do serious damage to LSE’s reputation for academic integrity and may have seriously compromised the future ability of LSE students and staff to undertake legitimate study of North Korea, and very possibly of other countries where suspicion of independent academic work runs high.”

What’s more important, I thought, the possibility for a handful of academics to visit the world’s more unpleasant corners, or the potential for millions of Britons to learn something of the hardships afflicting the impoverished masses of North Korea, hidden from the rest of the world? In a closed society like North Korea, independent journalists are as welcome as a plague of bird flu. There are tourist trips – Beijing-based Koryo Tours runs several – but by all accounts visitors are very carefully managed.

LSE’s three most important higher education partnerships, according to its website, are with Columbia University in New York, Sciences Po in Paris – and with Peking University in Beijing. I wonder if the loud protestation of “deception” from LSE has Beijing as its target, rather than Pyongyang? China is North Korea’s nearest and largest ally, and so LSE may be very keen for more students and research contracts to come from China.

The students on the trip, none of them innocents abroad because the Grimshaw Society is for students of international relations, knew that undercover journalism would be one outcome. They knew the journalism would reach the public domain.

Sir Peter Sutherland, LSE’s Irish-born chairman of Council, has been particularly forceful in condemnation of the BBC. Sir Peter is a mover and shaker in globalisation, international finance and free trade, and while he is eminently distinguished in all these fields and more, from my perspective his position at the LSE signals a shift towards academia more as a branch of commerce. Sir Peter is chair of Goldman Sachs International, and a member of the steering committee of the Bilderberg Group, which is composed mainly of leading politicians, business chiefs and government technocrats, and holds private conferences to discuss global issues. He was chairman of the board at oil-and-energy company BP until June 2009, and in February of that year left the board of the state-rescued Royal Bank of Scotland Group after approving former chief Fred Goodwin’s £700,000-a-year pension.

One highly influential post he held between 1993 and 1995 was as director general of GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which became the World Trade Organisation in 1995. Before that, his roles included European Commissioner for Competition and chair of (later bailed-out) Allied Irish Banks.

Sir Peter’s positions at the intersections of industry, finance and government cast a glow or a shadow, depending on your point of view, over the LSE. Either way, the Fabian experiment in education for social justice is now a poster child for the power of Business Rampant.

At least, that’s how I see it.

The View from Mullion Cove: Mrs Thatcher and My Diary

by Pat Dodd Racher

May 3rd 1979. The date of the late Baroness Thatcher’s entry to No. 10 Downing Street prompted me to look up the diary I kept at the time. Flicking through the pages, I came to August 28th 1980:

“At home (the UK) more than 2,000,000 people are registered as unemployed. Mrs T says she will not alter policy. I think MLR (minimum lending rate) must come down, and incomes must be subject to a policy – i.e. maximum increase of 10% for 1981, with concessions for the lower paid. An increase in child benefit and long-term social security, also in retraining schemes and investment aids for ventures with long-term potential for increasing employment –

  • Recycling plants
  • Repair shops
  • Manufacturing from organic renewables (wood, fibres, leather, etc)

We have to rediscover pre-Industrial Revolution technology and update that. The emphasis must be on cutting the cost of living and educating the public to accept that much spending is merely conspicuous waste. “It keeps people in jobs,” they will counter.” I didn’t have an answer to this accusation at the time. It’s not that logical to complain about high unemployment and then argue for lower consumption. Looking back, Thatcherism might have worked better if programmes for sustainable industries had been introduced during the 1980s, but all we got was Big Bang, and unregulated, very unsustainable greed in the financial sector.

Other topics to hit the diary in June, July and August 1980, just over a year into Mrs T’s premiership and when I had two small children and a full time job on British Farmer & Stockbreeder, were the shipyard strikes in Gdansk, Poland, by workers intent upon setting up independent trades unions, which led to the rise of shipyard electrician Lech Walesa and the Solidarity union. Today, it is hard to reconcile Mrs T’s support for Walesa – she visited him in 1988, shortly before the ‘Iron Curtain’ dissolved into holes and then rusted away – with the damage she deliberately inflicted on British trades unions, but Solidarity was a weapon against Communism, which for her was the death of Enterprise.

Nearer to home, at Reed International where British Farmer was based, there were union troubles aplenty. The National Union of Journalists demanded a 26% pay rise, a closed shop, a 30-hour week, longer holidays, jobs kept open during prison sentences, time off for ‘trade union training’…. “Completely unrealistic,” I wrote. This over-the-top demand probably marked the end of the good times for employees, because for the rest of the 1980s there was more fear than enthusiasm, fear of redundancy, of demotion, and of numbers, of the numbers in the monthly trading accounts which were used to make journalists very well aware that they did not bring in the money, but were costs. It was the rise of the Audit Culture.

Before that set of NUJ demands, we enjoyed good pay and were given the expenses to get out and about to do our jobs. We did not regurgitate press releases, but in later years that was often the default option.

Elsewhere, President Tito of Yugoslavia died, setting in train the events leading to the break-up of this amalgam of Balkan territories. Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington state in the USA “with the force of 100 Hiroshimas”. That’s what I heard then, anyway. The Russians were bombing Afghanistan, American hostages in Iran reached eight months in captivity, US cruise missiles were coming to Berkshire. At home, “strict monetarism is forcing firms into liquidation. The strong £ restricts exports, inflation damps home demand, stocks of goods accumulate, interest rates are too high for safe borrowing. Short time, closures, lay-offs – the spiral intensifies”.

On July 10th, I wrote that “more than 1,100 manufacturing jobs have been lost in Britain this week – every week of this year, according to the TV programme I am watching, about companies going bust. This year about 6,000 firms are likely to have to close.” I went back to the refrain I have been uttering ever since: “We need people trained in repairs, adaptation, recycling…. We are on a small planet and have to make our resources last.”

Events even indirectly associated with trade unionism were discouraged. In July I went to the Tolpuddle rally in Dorset, to commemorate the Tolpuddle Martyrs, farmworkers who were transported to Australia in 1834 for daring to form a friendly society and worker’s union.

“The main issue at the rally seemed to be Dorset Council’s plan to completely scrap school meals. Jim Callaghan (the former Labour prime minister) and a bevy of secret service men were there. The police directing traffic were positively discouraging about us attending the rally. We weren’t allowed to park by the road, even though it had been closed to through traffic. A policeman on a motor bike kept whizzing up and down just to make sure. We had to park two miles away, in Athelhampton.”

One individual event I have remembered ever since was a brush with possible death in Mullion Cove at the end of July. I was down in Cornwall, visiting farms, and one evening headed for Mullion Cove to take some photographs. “The tide was right in, the sea a churning cauldron. I wanted to photograph some spray, so walked out onto the jetty – unwisely. A vast wave was sweeping towards me. I clung on to the railings as it broke over me. Open sea on one side, swirling harbour on the other – both dangerous. Mullion Cove is a tiny harbour between craggy, cave-ridden cliffs. The rollers were booming against the cliff base, an awesome sound.”

Well, I did not drown in Mullion Cove, but the destructive power of the sea strikes me as a metaphor for the philosophy of Thatcherism: wave after wave of demolition, a free-for-all which flattened the flood defences of community solidarity. ‘New Labour’ softened the impact between 1997 and 2010 but with borrowed money, and now the poor are being forced to pick up the tab.

Jimmy Savile, courtrooms and notions of ‘them’ and ‘us’

First discover hidden bias, secondly dismantle it

Institutionalised class and power differentials give entrenched authorities an advantage that is not interrogated sufficiently. Joe P from the down-at-heel estate, who left school at 16, has a part-time labouring job and no savings, is unlikely to win legal arguments against opposition with unlimited funding.

Bias in favour of a particular set of understandings helps to explain why some people are believed more than others.  Thinking of the Jimmy Savile case, a TV celebrity enmeshed in several power networks, we have learnt that young boys were not believed, girls ‘at risk’ were not believed, hospital patients were not believed, and patients in a secure mental hospital didn’t raise complaints because they already knew they would not be believed. That’s why they were chosen as victims.

Choosing who you pick a fight with is just as important as what you pick a fight about. Our culture conditions us, as a society, to respect people who have attained positions of power and responsibility, a conditioning which makes the achievement of social change difficult because networks of authority act to reinforce their own advantages. Power networks are similar to families in that members tend to believe others in the same group more than those from groups who live differently and socialise differently. People in power networks also tend to have access to many more resources than Joe P.

Reflecting on a judgement in London last week, in which an amateur blogger lost a libel action against a local authority chief executive, the outcome did not surprise me because:

  • The council had voted to fund the chief executive’s action, so it was effectively an individual versus an institution — the institution which runs the county where the blogger lives.
  • The judge, an acknowledged expert in media law, concluded that the evidence provided to him by public officials was more convincing than the evidence of one amateur blogger.

I am not commenting on the judge’s decision, which is of course explained logically and in great detail, and given the facts presented to him makes sense to me as a reader unacquainted with all the fine points of the case. Instead, I am commenting on the social context in which we all make decisions. Do we make enough effort to discover our biases and then to deconstruct them?

The mid-20th century American social critic and author Vance Packard (1914-1996) wrote in The Hidden Persuaders,[1] referring to an experiment reported in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, that “people’s memories were ‘significantly better’ in recalling material that harmonized with their own political viewpoint or ‘frame of reference’. There was a clear tendency for them to forget the material that didn’t harmonize with their own preconceived notions”.

The need to engage with people who are, on the surface, unlike ourselves is fundamental if we are to understand each other better. As Sir Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, at a private White House lunch on June 26th 1954, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”.  How much more democratic it would be if we could achieve a political system in which there is far more jaw-jaw taking place outside the courtroom, and in which there is greater emphasis on reaching consensus. Here in the UK we are too adversarial, in politics, in law and in business. To become more co-operative, we first have to start dismantling the biases which perpetuate notions of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Pat Dodd Racher

[1] Page 152 of the 1962 Pelican edition. The Hidden Persuaders was originally published by David McKay in 1957.