Selina Todd (2015) The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class.

selina todd.jpg

I liked this book, it’s about us, the working class often portrayed standing outside history books adding a bit of colour to the stories of kings and governors, quietly happy to die for their country, or the working class portrayed as a Lemuel Gulliver lying down in the long grass and falling asleep and being tied down by Lilliputians who make theatrical speeches he doesn’t understand but he does what the little men, the 1% of the population want him to do, anyway. That’s not the case. If the working class were Gulliver he’s prone to poke himself in the eye. Tie down one foot and chop off a leg and dance the hornpipe. As Selina Todd makes clear the working class are not a uniform body. What they have in common, what we have in common is our relationship to the means of production. The working man needs to work to survive. Elite groups do not. Class is about who is holding the stick, how big is it and how hard are they going to hit us?

If you look at relationships this way things become a lot clearer. Take Teresa May, for example, a sluggish economy, just over 1% growth, because of the managed industrial decline of industry in the last fifty years we have non-jobs and the highest personal-debt ratio in Europe, common people are struggling,   Britain is dependent on selling its goods and services to the largest trading block in the world and if the EEC doesn’t want them, well, what stick is she going to hit them with? We import more than we export. We are a debtor nation.  Withdrawal, the longest suicide note in history springs to mind.

In the Afterword, Selina Todd quotes John Maynard Keynes, on the 2008 crisis applies equally here. Capitalism relies on ‘the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.’

She could equally well have quoted Owen the narrator of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist from almost 100 years ago:

The question is, what is the cause of the lifelong poverty of those who are not drunkards and who DO work? Why, if all the drunkards and wont-works and unskilled or inefficient workers who could be by some miracle transformed into sober, industrious and skilled workers tomorrow, it would, under the present conditions, be so much worse for us, because there isn’t enough work NOW, and those people by increasing the competition for what work there is, would inevitably cause a reduction in wages and greater scarcity of employment. The theories that drunkenness, laziness or inefficiency are the causes of poverty are so many devices invented and fostered by those who are selflessly interested in maintaining the present state of affairs, for the purposes of discovering the real causes of our present condition.

Todd charts the high points of the People, the working class after the Second World War up to around 1970 and the advent of neoliberal policies designed ostensibly to revive the economy but took money from the poor and gave it to the rich. Trickle-down-economics and the ideology or Thatcherism, everyman for themselves finds expression in quixotic Think tanks like The Centre for Social Justice which is the kind of sham that had Boris Johnson standing beside a bus and promising to spend £150 million a week on the NHS when we left the European Union. The sham of The Taxpayers Alliance, which demands value for money, which sounds laudable, but they don’t mean their money, they mean poor people’s money. The working class won the Second World War, but lost the ideological war and are now paying for that failure, but which is marketed as a success. We know, of course, right-wing neoliberals with double-barrel names don’t read books like this, but they do write government policy.

Here are some common myths Todd deals with.

Myth 1: The economic crisis was caused the welfare state.

What history reminds us is that targeting welfare at the poorest is not the answer. Instead we need wealth to be redistributed more equally.

Myth 2: We can only solve the economic crisis by all working very hard.

‘Hard work has never solved poverty. If it did, then no one would have been poor during the three decades after 1945, when work was more plentiful than before or since.’

‘Rather than dividing people between those who are and aren’t members of “hardworking families” we should ask why anyone should have to work at all.’

What Todd is saying here isn’t that much different from those on the far right, charting the rise of the robots and the mass unemployment which will ensure in the next ten years and whose talk once more turns to citizens being allocated an allowance.

Myth 3: Working-class people’s opportunities are blocked by women and immigrants.

‘By focusing on migrants, we move our gaze from the real culprits: employees and politicians, who turn migrant workers into cheap and exploitable wage slaves.’

‘If migrants are wrongly blamed for the economic crisis, so too are women…Far from “choosing” to go out and earn [pin] money rather than have babies, many women go out to work to support children, unemployed husbands or partners, and parents who, in old age, face poverty. In 1996, 67% of mothers with dependent children went out to work, by 2013, 72% of them were doing so.’

Myth 4: Social mobility, promoted by selective and private education, can solve inequlity.

‘It’s ironic that a political consensus exists that post-war Britain was a meritocratic society, given how clearly erroneous that claim is.’

‘A society as technologically advanced as ours, as rich in natural resources and wealth, could and should be committed to providing all children with the best possible start in life, not just a handpicked few.’

‘Since 2010 spending of education has fallen at the fastest rate since the 1950s.’

Myth 5: People’s greed and selfishness prevent us from creating a different sort of society.

‘What we have to do now is to start working out the first steps towards revealing an alternative way to live better than neoliberalism…class testifies to inequality and inequality has not worked or any of us.’

‘economic growth does not improve quality of life, but economic redistribution can and will. Britain was healthier and happier place in the post-war years because there was some re-distribution.’

We need to trust ourselves to find a more democratic and transparent way of creating an equal society.

We can do this because we’ve done it before.

We need to question why work is at the centre of our lives. There is no reason why so many of us should have to spend most of our lives working in jobs that achieve little or nothing…no reason why we should not be able to undertake meaningful work, organized for the benefit of society and not the 1 percent who live off profit.

Class, as a relationship of unequal power, shapes British society.’

The important thing is to recognise the shared experiences and build on it, not quibble over semantics.

If the past teaches us anything it is this: if the people want a better future, we can, and must, create it, ourselves.’

 

 

 

Alan Johnson (2014) Please Mister Postman. A memoir.

postie

I’d a vague notion of who Alan Johnson was. I read this book because I wanted to chart his journey from ordinary working-class bloke—when the book begins, ‘a seventeen-year old shelf stacker at Anthony Jackson’s supermarket on the Upper Richmond Road in East Sheen’— to becoming an MP in the Conservative government under Thatcher, or John Major. I couldn’t remember which Prime minister it was. Alan Johnson became a Labour MP and severed in the Cabinet under Tony Blair. Same difference some of you might say. The journey is still the same one. But back then as he shows time and time again we had vague notions about equality. Government wasn’t entirely a more-it-tocracy increasingly serving the rich and their own interest. Economics wasn’t entirely about funnelling money from the poor to the rich under the pretence that it made the country stronger and more self-sufficient. The difference between Labour and Tories couldn’t be reduced to a simple equation of sacking as many workers as possible, make the remainder work harder to increase productivity and sell, pass the parcel of the company on, as quickly as possible to get an increased profit for the rich without the holes in the balance sheet and in people’s lives showing. Labour were for more and better government. Think about it for a second. Labour grew out of trade unions demanding rights for workers. It’s easy to forget that with this lot going to the same public schools, the same Oxbridge education and hob-nobbing with the Tories. Same old Tories, then as now, but we at least had a partial alternative.  The Tories were for less of everything, light-touch regulation and less being spent on things that didn’t and no longer matter to rich folk. Common things like having a home, being able to heat it and having food on the table. These were to be left to the market.

So I got it wrong he was in the different carriage of a train and got off at different station. Alan Johnson Labour MP. But here he is. ‘It’s Christmas Eve 1967. A Saturday. Four o’clock in the afternoon. I’m waiting for Mike.’ Mike’s married to Alan’s sister. An all-round good guy who likes a good drink. Back then drink driving was a laughable offence of finding your car key and being able to open the car door, rather than a criminal offence. Everybody did it. It never did you any harm school of tough love. Mike’s loveable, but his sister Linda is a little mum, their own mum, Lilian May Johnson, born 1921 had died 1964. Mike was his hero, but Linda provides the quiet corner of his life in which he can stretch and grow. Alan isn’t just a shelf-stacker. He writes songs, has started a band and hopes to hitch on the sixties zeitgeist and become a pop star.

The future Alan has planned out hits a speed-bump. He meets Judith Elizabeth Cox. He’s seventeen. She’s an older woman, twenty-one, with a child to another man. Melodrama. Not really. They are young and in love. They get married. Linda’s pregnant three months after the wedding. Thoughts of being the next Rolling Stone get shoved aside. He needs a steady job and a council house for his growing family.

Alan Johnson become a postman. He cycles from his digs in Notting Hill to Barnes Green, one of the smaller postal delivery routes in London. He’s a natural, it’s a steady job, a lot of ex-forces personnel. No corner cutting. No excuses.  The mail gets delivered come what may. He’s found a vocation. Something he’s good at.  But the money’s not too good. Overtime is the answer. Postman can work night and day, their job never ends (or so it seemed then).

Fast forward a few years. Alan’s got a council house in Slough. A little green were ten council houses nestled.  He can’t quite believe his luck. He can still cycle to work in Slough. Their neighbours are posh, the get-up-and-go type. And they do. When council houses are given away by the government they take theirs and move on. So does Alan.

Alan becomes a union rep. It’s not something he’s thought about a great deal, but he like to read and think. Only a fool can see that the workers were being screwed. It wasn’t all politics. Working class men had their clubs and after they put the politician in themselves to bed they had a shindig. Characters like ‘Big Joe Menzies’ a former railway worker from Perth, were both an inspiration and a role model. He tapped into reservoir of people that had worked with their hands and workers with fine minds that wanted to serve others like them.

Alan finds he’s spending more time on his union duties than on his postman’s job. He keeps working. He need to keep in touch with his colleagues. Their gripes are his gripes. Their causes his causes. He finds a sponsor and is promoted to full-time union officer. He travels the country. He’s a natural union rep as he was a postman. It’s a good combination, but his marriage suffers. He divorces. But life’s on the up and up.  But there’s a reminder that life isn’t something you can plan. Mike, his sister’s husband and one of his best friends, loses his job, admits he’s an alcoholic and hangs himself. Sobering.

But the years ahead with Cameron and his cronies gaining the levers of power are even more so. This book is a reminder that we once did things for ourselves, paid a decent(ish) wage, took pride in our work and did it well.  Perhaps that is the lesson that needs to be re-learned. No more to the robber-barons of government share issues, like the selling off of the post office, and an increasingly large share of any enterprise to the bloated and rich that produce nothing but stir the pot of the poor and take the honey. Alan Johnson’s memoir, it seems like Dickensian times now, rather than then.

Linda Tirado (2014) Hand To Mouth. The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World.

linda tirado

I’ve been thinking of writing a book about poverty, and the cancerous growth of agencies as middlemen that add nothing but misery, leaving the rest of us to deal with the hidden costs. It’s too big a subject. You start getting lost in minutiae. What does it mean in a changing world, for example, to be working class? What does it mean to be poor? These are relative concepts. I once asked my former best mate Liam what the girl he got off with the night before was  like. He started off by telling me she was quite nice. Then he told me she wasn’t really that nice. By the time we got to the truth we were both howling with laughter. Well, I was. Linda Tirado tells us how it is.

She does a good definition of poverty, choosing ‘between the terrible option and the dreadful option’.  That could be choosing between paying your rent or eating. Walking to work when walking back will mean missing the start of the second split-shift of the day in the other job and getting sacked. For Linda Tirado Living Hand To Mouth is a metaphor for the way she lives, but one that can also be taken literally. Tirado was in an car wreck and her mouth was smashed up. It left her in constant pain and in need of dental treatment, which she couldn’t afford. It also left her the stigmata of a poor person’s teeth, which she covered up with her hand and made her unable to eat in public or, funnily enough, tell jokes, because we signal the punch-line by laughter and, with her teeth, she wasn’t willing to do that, show herself off, like a freak.

Another mark of the poor is polyester.   If you wear a uniform and its made of polyester, you can be pretty sure that you are poor. Check your wardrobe.

Tirado tells us that roughly one-third of Americans are like her and can be classified as the working poor. Poor people talk. Nobody listens. That’s not politics. That’s life. But she’s not talking about other people. She’s telling the reader about herself, her experiences. ‘I made a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter in the long term. I will never not be poor.’ Poor people play safe. We have that cigarette or that drink, things within our grasp. It’s easier that way. There’s no makeover show -discounting the lottery, which is a regressive tax anyway – no holiday from being poor.

‘We start the day with a deficit.’ But sometimes that deficit is not enough to get Food Stamps or help with the rent and it’s never enough to get Health Care. Tirado is good on being the wrong kind of poor. It is not a crime-yet. But on a daily basis the law favours the rich. The poor are always suspect.  She doesn’t want to overthrow the rich, but she just wants them to be more considerate of poorer people, which is a polite way of saying be fair guys. In other words she does want to overthrow the rich. She wants those to have bleak lives to have a bit more. I’m with her on that one.

‘Poverty,’ she says ‘is when a quarter is a miracle.

‘Poor is when a dollar is a miracle.

‘Broke is when five bucks is a miracle.

‘Working class is being broke, but doing so in a place that is not so run down.’

A miracle for me is if our political masters gave a shit. Change is a revolutionary idea.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole