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Does 'Good' Work Pay?

26/07/2017 12:48

After the shock of the General Election result, the horrors of Grenfell Tower, and against the backdrop of the ongoing Brexit negotiations and Cabinet infighting - politics has once again been upended. The opposition have smelt blood. First on the list of demands has been an end to so-called austerity, not least for hard-done-by public sector workers. Jeremy Corbyn has accused the government of exhibiting a 'lack of touch with reality' in its refusal to pay public sector workers more money. Those brave fire-fighters who fought the terrible blaze in Kensington surely deserve more? As do those doctors and nurses working tirelessly as the NHS collapses under the strain of the sick. Those greedy tube-workers might drive us to distraction with their constant striking, but surely we can find more for demoralised teachers now that schools look like they might not be starved of funding after all?

This might sound fair enough. Badly paid public sector workers do deserve to be paid much more. And now is a good time to wring concessions from a government struggling to command authority in parliament. Northern Ireland has already benefited from the Tories' disarray with the government's promise to meet the costs of abortion for those women still forced to travel to England; and there's the £1 billion bung that will fund much needed infrastructure in the province - something the government's critics would welcome if it wasn't a concession won by the much maligned DUP. The trouble is it is one thing to call for an uplift in public sector pay when it is capped at a miserly 1% and - for all your talk of the prime minister lacking a mandate - you remain leader of a divided opposition. What about the majority of the British public who don't work in the public sector? How much should they get?

What about those working for the BBC? Graham Norton and Claudia Winkelman are public sector workers but, far from defend them, the Labour leader has called for pay restraint. 'We have said again and again that there is a problem with excess pay and we need to address that', he says. Indeed the Labour manifesto proposes a cap of its own that will slash pay so that nobody can earn more than a ratio of 20:1 of the salary of the lowest paid employee. Having a go at Gary Lineker (£1.8m) isn't the same as supporting the down-trodden. On the contrary. Corbyn's support for what he has previously referred to as a maximum wage does nothing to improve anybody's standard of living. Indeed it makes that a much less likely prospect by undermining the logic for anybody demanding more. Why set a limit at all? Why can't we all be rolling in it like Chris Evans (£2.2m) or - if that is too outlandish - why can't the average worker at least aspire to be on a par with those wrongly-resented London Underground workers?

If you're thinking that this is just an old socialist exhibiting the politics of envy you'd be wrong. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, and former head of the No.10 policy unit under Tony Blair, was commissioned by the government to write (and has recently published) the Good Work report. 'All work in the UK economy should be fair and decent with realistic scope for development and fulfilment' it says. People should be treated fairly and have the opportunity to progress; work should make them feel happy and contribute to the wider 'wellbeing' of society too. 'Pay is only one aspect in determining quality work', says the Review, 'for many people fulfilment, personal development, work life balance or flexibility are just as important'. No doubt, but don't be fooled by the soothing tone and the downgrading of the crude business of making money.

More commonly known as the Taylor Review, it is largely concerned with re-'aligning' people's diverging ways of making a living. But here too the alignment is in a downward direction. Those who have struck out on their own and started their own businesses, for instance, are not to be encouraged but reined in for fear that their efforts are not sufficiently exploited by the taxman. Taylor is alarmed to discover that increasing numbers of workers are getting above their station and imagining themselves to be 'genuine' business-people. Such enterprising and initiative-taking upsets the plans of Taylor, and others, with designs on the world of work; and threatens the budget for the welfare system which must be propped up at all costs.

The truth is that Taylor is far more at home coming up with ways to protect the 'vulnerable workers' of the gig economy than he is backing the ambitions of 'bogus' non-worker workers with some get-up-and-go about them. It is, of course, the case that a minority of people are struggling on short-term casual contracts that suit their employers more than they suit them. But this one-way flexibility that some experience is not an argument for more top-down restraint - the state is no guarantor of a better deal for workers, vulnerable or otherwise. Those on the receiving end need to organise and fight - with a bit of solidarity from the rest of us - for a much better deal, whether that's more pay or better conditions.

The miserable levelling-down and equality of low expectations offered up by Corbyn and by Taylor should be rejected. We all deserve better than that.

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