Book Review: Our House

Our House, the twelfth book by Louise Candlish, was published in 2018 and was well-garlanded following publication, not least being selected as the British Book Award’s 2019 Crime and Thriller Book of the Year.

Set in the fictional London district of Alder Rise, which may or may not be the Herne Hill of the author’s own residence, or perhaps somewhere just a little further south-east, it features Fi and Bram Lawson, a forty-somethings husband and wife with two young children living in upwardly-mobile suburbia whose outward appearances, as is well established in literature, are not as they seem (and which is very well-captured on the hardback cover of the UK version). The house of the title is the source of the couple’s invisible wealth but visible relationship stresses, as well as the device around which the plot revolves: we learn in the first few pages that the house has been sold without Fi’s knowledge with the guilty party apparently her husband; the questions that remain are to do with the whats and the whys which are successively peeled back in the novel’s pages as the two relate their post-event stories of their rapidly-evolving relationship in the first place via a podcast called ‘The Victim’ and secondly via a Word document which, we quickly learn, is a self-confessed suicide note. These are interspersed with brief, in the moment, accounts of Fi’s developing horror as what has happened to her becomes evident, alongside comments from the Twitterati listening along to her podcast.

Now, I don’t read a lot of crime stuff but this looks to me to be well set-up as a highly plausible cautionary tale about property and aspiration as well as being probably somewhat unusual in the genre in that the thriller aspects lie not in uncovering the identities of victim and perpetrator but in the explanations of their behaviour. It’s certainly a page-turner and this is a tribute to the gripping descriptions of the initial set-up as well as the step-by-step reveals of how the main characters have got to this point. The ending, containing also a moral message albeit somewhat confused in a contemporary setting, is quite breathtaking and which will leave the reader with a strong sense of melancholy. Ultimately, this is a novel about how little we too often know about those with whom we set up our lives, not least in the light of the ‘laws’ of attraction between people, where Candlish has some interesting things to say; and it provides some interesting contrasts between our tendency to share so much of our lives online, increasing our own vulnerabilities, and the ease with which fraud can take place both in the property sense and in terms of the ease with which men and women can choose to cheat each other.

There are, however, several difficulties, betraying the period of writing coinciding while the author was partially out of contract and, perhaps, with her mind on other issues. The book is under development for a four-part TV series now in production for ITV and due to be filmed this summer; and it will be interesting to see how the scriptwriter resolves these for TV.

Leaving aside some of the plot twists, which owe a remarkable amount to chance, this ought, firstly, to be a character study. Our sympathies may – and indeed should – shift as the accounts slowly reveal motivations and explanations; voice and the reliability of witness are important elements of a good crime novel. However, the characters are not only shallow in their obsessions but also rather shallowly drawn to the point where the reader realises that they actually care rather too little about either one. This makes it impossible for those sympathies to develop, or to shift. That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t occasional elements of real pathos affecting not least Bram, or sadness about poor choices affecting not least Fi, or a sense of bewilderment about their inabilities to communicate with each other. Secondly, the set-up of the novel ought to see it evolve as a psychological thriller; certainly it has some psychological elements but it contains too little in the way of the sustained sense of threat which would contribute to our growing understanding of why they act as they do (and which underpins the YouTube video made in support of the publication). This is partly a function of the author’s rather weak characterisation – had these been drawn deeper, psychological terror could have take a stronger root – but it also reflects the manner of the telling of the tale: step-by-step reveals told in reflective flashback do miss the terror of the motivations for actions as described in the moment.

The structure of the tale is somewhat odd. It’s not that the book is, at 435 pages, too long – although that is one criticism that has been levelled at it but which I suspect stems more from fans of a genre in which pace and mystery is key. Fi’s ‘The Victim’ podcast, however, stretches out over three hours. Now, I absolutely defy anyone to listen to a three-hour podcast – I top out at about an hour and it takes a lot for interest to be sustained over much more than about forty minutes. However ‘interesting’ other people’s ‘true-life’ stories are to fans of this sort of thing, I simply don’t believe that Fi’s podcast would still have listeners at the two-hour mark, let alone three. Bram’s Word document, we learn towards the end, has been written over a period of six weeks surely qualifying it, at least in literary terms, as the longest suicide note in history. The problem is not that these as vehicles for a tale are poor in themselves – they demonstrate an eye for a structural hook – but they are clearly inappropriate vehicles for the amount of detail the author wishes to convey. Additionally, at key points in the text, Twitter threads developed from the listeners’ comments could have acted as a kind of Greek Chorus, prompting deeper reflections in the reader, but they are used more to generate light relief and, while the author might have had a bit of fun with them, they turn out to be rather tiresome, adding simply too little.

Additionally, the essential set-up for the novel’s denouement also contains weaknesses – it’s not actually clear why Bram chooses ultimately to go through with his scheme – while the key event in the middle of the novel is poorly described and, as a result, somewhat hard to visualise. These are rather basic plot development faults which an author of this experience ought to have ironed out by now.

We are left with a well-conceived tale which has an interesting twist in its conclusion and which spirals outwards from a very well-conceived, imaginative starting point. The middle of the journey – the story’s engine room – is, unfortunately, not as well captured as it ought to have been and this leaves it with an absence at its core which is as full of emptiness as the couple’s obsession with property rather than with each other. As much as concern about property ownership might have lain at the heart of Candlish’s purpose in developing and writing the work, the nature of the development between the praiseworthy start and end points leaves the reader with a sense of disappointment.

A song of our times

I tweeted earlier this week, after Dolly Parton received the Modena jab that she had also helped to fund, that Jeffrey Lewis, the New York artist, had covered and updated The Ramones, ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ for our times (and shortened it – at least in terms of time: Jeffrey does have the ability to spit out lyrics in very short order while playing a guitar – an immense skill for someone like me who can (only) do one thing at once). Faced with being awake at an entirely atypically early hour, and in honour of it being a ‘Bandcamp Friday‘, I thought I’d spend the time scribbling out his lyrics. So, here they are:

I Wanna Be Vaccinated

I’m making an appointment for the Covid drug

I wanna be vaccinated

It’s been a year since I gave my friends a hug

I wanna be vaccinated

Living in dystopia is losing all its charm

I’m sick of rising numbers, paranoia and alarm

So hurry, hurry, hurry and just stick it in my arm

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

I never see my family or attend a movie theatre

I wanna be vaccinated

But that now all seems normal and that makes it even weirder

I wanna be vaccinated

Let seniors and essential workers get it in advance

Then although I’m scared of needles, man, just give me half a chance

I’ll be rolling up both shirt sleeves and be pulling down my pants

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccinated

<key change>

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccinated

I wanna stand around with friends and look like a Ramone

I wanna be vaccinated

If you’re an anti-vaxxer, Cool! you can stay at home

I wanna be vaccinated

Science is the coolest thing about the human race

So let’s keep spreading the safety and keep picking up the pace

‘Cos I miss having a life and I miss having a face

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccin-a-ted

That line about anti-vaxxers just makes me smile! A somewhat better effort, I think, than Dolly’s ‘Don’t be such a chicken squat. Get out there and get your shot’ (from The Guardian article in the first link). Though full applause for Dolly, all the same.

If you can’t pick up the tune, it is, of course, to this absolute and indeed now visionary classic:

Jeffrey’s version, recorded in his ‘Pandemos’ series, is still not out yet (hurry, hurry, hurry!) but you can pick up a copy of ‘Keep It Chill (In the East Vill.)’ – an earlier lockdown special and with *a lot* more lyrics- at his bandcamp. So do stop by and at least hear Jeffrey’s style.

Like all net-based platforms, Bandcamp is not immune from criticism but, in music industry terms, its fair trade music policy does mean much more of what you pay them for your music goes direct to the artists – typically 80-85 per cent. On ‘Bandcamp Fridays’ – like today – that share rises to 100 per cent. So go on – give it a go. You can try (sometimes selected songs, sometimes the whole work) before you buy, so you have nothing to lose – and struggling artists have everything to gain.

Right. Now off to make a mug of coffee. And then brew some beer.

Spring at low tide

Here we are already – the last day of February. It’s been a fairly tough month with consistent high winds, including a couple of storms that have seen winds of 80+mph here on the Range, with an impact including the destruction of the roof of a neighbour’s polytunnel (pic may be to follow) as well as large amounts of rainfall that have left the ground saturated and animals struggling – though the regular deliveries of hay to the neighbour’s sheep seem to have provided ample compensation for grass that is still brown and lacking in nutrition.

It can’t have been pleasant to be out in, though – and hats off to all the crofters in Iochdar that are out in all weathers, checking on and feeding animals. I don’t have animals (even if we do seem currently to be minding a couple of woolly escapees from a neighbour) so, with lockdown on top, I’ve anyway been staying in – although the lack of posts this month perhaps points to a volume of work (and I have indeed also been busy).

Yesterday and today, though, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was the first day of spring, with a warmth to the sun, the sky a healthy tint of blue and the wind dropping below 15mph. Yesterday lunchtime was a low tide – not quite at its lowest but pretty much so ahead of what will be spring tides tomorrow and Tuesday, and it gave us a good chance to get out and blow a few of winter’s cobwebs away. Here’s a selection of snaps taken just about half an hour to an hour after low tide and when we could walk out a long way before hitting the water, where the soft sands of Mol Mòr give way to a more clay-like texture and to limpet-covered rocks that probably don’t get their share of Vitamin D.

Paired-up Herring Gulls (still on the lookout, just in case)

Sanderling in flight

Hollows in the sand, sculpted by the waves

A natural reflecting pool

Surf crashing on the rocks off Rubha Hornais

And back home where Spring is, well, springing

Plenty of time for more bad weather yet – no chickens being counted here and, if it’s true that March comes in like a lamb but out like a lion, there’ll be plenty more to keep the crofters occupied and their minds on their animals.

Uber is, after all – and as we know – an employer

This morning’s Supreme Court judgment that workers employed by Uber are, in fact, workers rather than people operating on an entirely bogus self-employed basis is welcome. Uber has been getting away with this kind of regulatory arbitrage for too long and the unions – both mainstream (GMB) and grassroots (the app drivers union) – as well as the officers and representatives, and members, responsible for bringing it to the very top of the UK court system deserve praise and congratulations.

The simple lesson is that unions work – do join one.

The Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers are workers because:

  • Uber sets the fares and the drivers have no say
  • the contractual terms under which they work are dictated by Uber
  • while drivers are free to log in and out of the app as they choose, their choice of whether to accept rides is constrained by Uber
  • Uber exercises a significant degree of control over how drivers offer their services via specifying age, colour and condition of their car; as well as the route they need to take to carry the passenger. The approval ratings system also has something to say here, too
  • Uber restricts communication between passenger and driver to the minimum necessary to perform the trip; Uber handles all the co-ordination between driver and passenger.

As a consequence of these facts, the Supreme Court agreed with the conclusion of the original employment tribunal that Uber drivers were ‘workers’. The Supreme Court also ruled that Uber drivers were working whenever they were logged in not, as Uber had argued, whenever they accepted a trip request. This important finding in relation to the operation of the working time regulations means that Uber drivers are entitled to the minimum wage in respect of periods when they are logged-in to the app but not engaged on trips. Uber, while now licking its wounds, is clearly thinking about what to do next.

The UK court decision came shortly after a Dutch court decision ruling earlier this week (in Dutch) that employees there of Deliveroo, the courier-based food delivery operator, were also employees on the grounds of the control to which they were subject while at work administered through the (in)famous company algorithm which allocates tasks and which controls ‘the line’ between the production of food and the couriers bringing it to customers’ front doors.

It’s also an important tribute to the work of the UK court system – the lower level specialist courts (the employment tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal) got this decision entirely right, as did the Court of Appeal. Uber has lost at each of the four stages of the UK court system, and all three of the appeals (on how each lower court had applied the law) that it was permitted to make. The decision of the UK court system is, as a result, entirely clear – and this will be important in the future.

This is indeed welcome news for a Friday – but, on Saturday, the hard work comes.

Firstly, the UK court decision is that Uber drivers are ‘workers’ – a slightly strange ‘halfway house’ in UK law which distinguishes between employees on the one hand and self-employed people on the other and, in the middle, the self-employed who are offering their services as part of a business carried on by others. The ACAS website has a helpful summary of the differences between the different classes but, essentially, while ‘workers’ are entitled to some rights of employment, they are not entitled to all and, importantly, they are excluded from unfair dismissal laws, from protection against redundancy and from paid sick leave and parental leave. Furthermore, those employed on zero hours contracts, working ‘as and when’, are frequently classed as ‘workers’. Those gaps (still) need closing.

Secondly, as my colleague Steve Jary, National Secretary for aviation and defence for Prospect, tweeted this morning: the absence of the long-awaited Employment Bill on workers’ rights after Brexit may now be shortened and may well include a clause reversing this judgment. Court decisions are an important source of protection when it comes to rights – but they are only ever interpretations: statute law always comes first and will set aside court judgments. We know that the Director of Labour Market Enforcement Strategy – a government office in charge of investigating compliance with labour market laws, chiefly in connection with the informal economy – is already suggesting action on app-based businesses, which gives a direct feed into whatever the government intends to do about this. We can expect the government to be taking an interest not least because one of the stated reasons for Brexit is that the EU’s regulatory approach is ‘too precautionary’ (£) and that, not least in new economy sectors, businesses need to be ‘set free’ from regulation to innovate further. This is where the clarity of the Supreme Court judgment is really important – there is no ‘confusion’ here for which legislation is necessary in order ‘to clarify’.

Furthermore, Prop 22, a pro-platform ‘gig economy’ law which was consulted on in California in last November’s US elections was passed with support from Uber, Lyft and other platforms in a campaign costing them collectively north of $200m. The venture capitalists funding these platforms – which are perennial eaters of money – have deep pockets in pursuit of monopoly rents and we can now expect similarly intensive, and expensive, lobbying efforts to be made here too to ensure the Employment Bill reverses the decision. Uber will come out of this fighting – and the other platforms will join it.

Thirdly, platform companies are at the forefront of a ‘new world of work’ in which their workers are the guinea pigs. What working conditions are ‘enjoyed’ by platform workers today will, over time, become the new standard for workers in conventional companies elsewhere. This is not only a question of legislation but active defence and pushback in practice. Aspects of working life through the pandemic – with greater use of surveillance software on computers to check what workers are doing while working at home – is one aspect of this while another is to ensure that there is a ‘right to disconnect’ – a right to downtime and non-work time. This is crucially important as the pandemic has trapped us into an existence in which we not only live at home but work from there and, indeed, get our meals delivered there, too.

Finally, there is also a warning for trade unions here, too. It’s not enough to win court judgments – active mobilisation of the workers involved is also extremely important: indeed, the two must go hand-in-hand. This goes well beyond exhortations to join a union and traditional organising efforts. These are fundamental – but, to coin a phrase, they are only ever the basis of trade unionism and they are not enough by themselves. This is about hearts and minds and engagement around actually doing something. It’s quite painful for some of us to realise that the logic of collective action (Colin Crouch) is not all about orienting people towards ‘the agreement’ (Hugh Clegg) but, actually, about the logic of mobilising workers to strive for something; nevertheless, this is an important realisation which must be made. Mobilising is about workers getting out and doing something together, not about joining a union with the promise that something might happen (tomorrow, later) to improve your terms and conditions if more of you join. Gains won in courts, and in agreements, must not only be defended but advanced and ‘staircase’ agreements (reached with a view to establishing an agreement in an employer with a view to improving it) will not function unless workers are not only organised but mobilised; not just collectivised by being brought into the union but actively engaged in entrenching gains and then extending them. Mobilisation is where grassroots unions score heavily – though it is clear also that winning Supreme Court cases is likely to require the support, not to say advice, of a mainstream union.

In short, this is a great win – but it is absolutely not the beginning of the end. The hard work must start now.

EDIT 22/2/21 to put right the previous version’s incorrect inference about drivers’ entitlement to the minimum wage; and to correct the name and affiliation of the grassroots union involved in bringing the action.

Book review: Four Futures

This slim volume (150 pages) is a joint product, published in 2016, between Jacobin magazine (for which the author, Peter Frase, is an editor) and Verso Books. The book contains scant biographical details about Frase and neither does the author’s own website say too much (the ‘about’ page merely contains quotes from three well-known intellects and philosophers); but Jacobin I do know a bit about: being ‘reason in revolt’ and ‘a leading voice of the American left’ it may claim, but it has published theories denying that the Srebrenica massacre was genocide and falling for the conspiracy theory that the camps run by Bosnian Serbs were exaggerated in the effort to gain sympathy – comprehensively debunked by Peter Maass and by Adnan Delalić during the entirely justified furore over the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Peter Handke.

Imperialism (not only of the US) remains a problem but the desire to see my enemy’s enemy as my friend (as I heard articulated at meetings in London in the 1990s) is an over-simplistic cliche while it is perfectly possible to take a standpoint which both accepts that the actions of the Bosnian Serb militias were genocidal while leaving the individual free to criticise imperialism in general. The ethnic division of Bosnia as promoted by the Dayton Agreement (and, presumably therefore, at the instigation of US imperialism, in this view) has left the country not only divided and sclerotic but has also established perennial fault lines which, until they are finally addressed, continue to leave the country permanently prey to being placed in a choke-hold by ethnic extremists. The gains from that to monopoly capitalism are not obvious and, furthermore, they have, at the very least, been somewhat slow to emerge. It may still be a bit too early to tell (at least in historical terms), but it has now been 25 years since Dayton.

There are of course known links between imperialism and capitalism, so this introduction to my review is not so much of a digression – Frase’s book is sub-titled ‘life after capitalism’ and his ‘four futures’ does some thinking about the alternative organisation of life and work in a post-capitalist context: two favourable and which put people first; the other two more favourable to hierarchies, or elites. A lot of thinking has been done post-2008 about whether we are in a post-capitalist state and, if so, how we define the tools and measures of economic management in view of establishing a fairer, more sustainably secure society. The starting point of this brief contribution is that, if we are not already in a post-capitalist state, the combination of rapid automation and increasingly scarce resources at a time of intense climate change will soon put us there.

What works well is Frase’s linking of theoretical thought with totems of popular culture, including TV and literature. The bringing together into one volume of speculative thought about very different futures linking four concepts of abundance, scarcity, hierarchy and equality in different combinations also has substantial merit. The first chapter explores a post-work scenario prompted by advanced robotisation at a time of an increasingly predominant universal basic income; the second a rentier economy based on the prevalence of intellectual property; the third climate change amidst scarce resources; the fourth our domination by rich hierarchies.

What doesn’t help is his choice of format: the brevity of the individual essays setting out the four different futures means that his choices take on, necessarily, a selective and somewhat random appearance; illustrative rather than explanatory; and occasionally oddball rather than pervasive. His arguments run the risk of being superficial and, while the format mostly works in enforcing a straitjacket of clarity on the thought process, Frase is not free of sections of prose that strive for intellectualism but which actually turn out to say very little. I’m always wary of taking quotes out of context but if anyone can explain what this, in the comparatively lengthy introductory chapter, means, I would be grateful:

Science fiction is to futurism what social theory is to conspiracy theory: an altogether richer, more honest, and more humble enterprise. Or, to put it another way, it is always more interesting to read an account that derives the general from the particular (social theory) or the particular from the general (science fiction), rather than attempting to go from the general to the general (futurism) or the particular to the particular (conspiracism).

p. 27

For a minute, I thought I had already advanced into a future in which even our prose was being written by robots.

The chapter dealing with abundance and equality, while looking at the principle of universal basic income, ends with a lengthy and rather odd celebration of alternative currencies (while the notion that robots will take all the jobs is in itself controversial); the chapter on intellectual property doesn’t reference the right of creative artists to earn from their creations; and the chapter on climate change has an odd belief in the ability of markets to drive socially-useful gains, prompted (apparently without a trace of irony) by the differential pricing scheme for car parking operated in Los Angeles in which more popular times of day for parking attract higher prices. Additionally, the effect of this in allowing the rich to park where they want when they want, and without any consideration of the effects on the elderly and the disabled, seems to have bypassed Frase completely.

The chapter on hierarchy and scarcity, while looking at the issue of ‘exterminism’, takes on much stronger relevance at a time of the pandemic than Frase could have foreseen before publication, but focuses only on individual examples of state agents taking out people and makes no mention of eugenics, which has quite a history in the US, for example in the US prison service. Writing at a time of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have better insight into the chilling examples of precisely the issues that Frase was considering – earlier this month, the British Medical Journal was editorialising on the ‘social murder‘ that the response to the pandemic represents globally, led by the US, Brazil, Mexico, India and the UK (which together account for one-half of the world’s deaths from the virus); while we also have other examples of forced sterilisation operations on women held by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in Trump’s America. There is, as we know, nothing new here – yet Frase makes no mention of any exterminist actions that have a class-based focus. Neither do the chapters referencing work and UBI make any mention of trade unions – which is odd, even in a post-work scenario – or, alternatively, any other form of the collective organisation of people in response to threats to them.

As Frase concludes, our future is likely to contain individual elements of all the four futures he sets out – although, as of now, some elements do look more a part even of our present than others. Ultimately, we are likely to need new names for systems in a post-capitalist world that were themselves developed in response to the problems set out by industrial capitalism (one reason for not mentioning them by name here). The key debates set out out – over robotisation, universal basic income, sustainability and climate change amidst increasingly scarce resources – are far from resolved and will continue as we define our future. We need only to think about the issues caused by tensions over availability of Covid-19 vaccines. But it is in the area of hierarchies – or elites – and our response to them that Frase’s book has, unwittingly, most resonance as well as, critically, being the one which, in our pandemic current, is thereby responsible most for dating his contribution.

Western Isles back in full lockdown

As of first thing yesterday morning, the whole of the Western Isles has been placed in Tier 4 – full lockdown – as a result of the rising number of cases not only on Barra and Vatersay, in the south, placed earlier into Tier 4, but further, isolated clusters arising in Stornoway centred on the hospital, in Benbecula and in South Uist.

All very necessary, of course, but it does mean the furthest I’m likely to be travelling for the next few months is the 5 miles to the Co-Op. And back. Travel will return, eventually, as a result of restrictions being eased in time but, for now, the longer lockdown goes on, the less likely I am to want to go anywhere at all. This is an interesting echo of the time before the military came here, when minor roads were tracks, before the causeways, before electricity and other utilities, when travel was much more difficult and, as a result, much less possible. Partly, this is in turn a reflection of the substantial distances involved: forget the number of people for a moment, the distances across the island chain are simply vast: to get from Barra and Vatersay, in the south, to Stornoway, the ‘capital’ up on Lewis, is – literally – a day-long journey: a road trip of 139 miles taking, according to a popular online distance service, no less than 5 hours and 57 minutes. And that’s provided you can time your trip with the two ferries you need to catch: more realistically, setting off just after breakfast on Monday (at 9.45 am), you would get to Stornoway at lunchtime. On Tuesday. And neither is it possible to fly from either end to the other, unless you take a substantial detour down to Glasgow.

It’s no wonder that there are rumblings of discontent about the extent to which a single Council area can effectively ensure the democratic representation of people on the southern Isles. Anecdotally, there is also evidence of a complete lack of information ‘up there’ about the institutions and services being provided to people ‘down here’; something which Covid-19 has done much to entrench in justification for councils’ desire to save money amidst reports pointing out the evident pressures. A single council covering such a distance, not least in these times, is evidently likely to suffer not only from issues of connectivity but also of understanding and awareness.

Issues such as these, marked and highlighted by Covid-19, are likely to continue long after the virus.

In the meantime, here at the end of January, the only journey I’m likely to be following is that of the sun as it ‘travels’ back across the sky – one of the points of inspiration for the timing of Shetland’s Up Helly Aa fire festival, the bill for which was still posted this week in Lerwick’s Market Place, commemorating this year’s (long-cancelled) festival.

With this in mind, here’s yesterday’s post-sunset view (taken out of the office window at 5.15), with the setting sun having ‘travelled’ across the road to set behind the lowest of the farm outbuildings on the extreme left:

And, in contrast, here’s the picture on 21 December, with the sun’s trajectory causing it to disappear to the left of the roof of our neighbour’s house, the view above extending just off the right hand side of the image below:

While we can’t journey ourselves, such obvious signs of progress, and the promise of warmth and positivity and better times to come, with the sun now between one-fifth and one-quarter of its way back from the depths of mid-winter, are a very welcome natural sign that these days too shall end.

The battle over working time

I think it’s fairly obvious by now that the reason why the EU working time directive, and its application in UK law, was not on Hannan’s list was that it’s so very obviously at the very top of it he hardly thought it actually needed to be mentioned.

The assertion late last week by Kwasi Karteng, Secretary of State for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, that the government had no plans to dilute workers’ rights was believed by no-one, for reasons not least of all that Kwarteng was co-author, along with a number of other leading representatives in this Vote Leave government (Priti Patel and Dominic Raab among them), of Britannia Unchained. This was a call written back in 2012 for an end to the UK’s ‘bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation’ and (in)famously described UK workers as:

Among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.

Karteng’s non-credible denial was rapidly followed yesterday by confirmation in parliament that the government is, indeed, looking at scrapping some EU labour laws, including a ‘relaxing’ of the working time directive. Another lesson in the ‘never trust a Tory’ narrative.

In the midst of a pandemic and post-Brexit uncertainty – is, of course, scrapping workers’ rights can scarcely be much of a priority. Working class families are struggling with huge numbers of issues, including insecurity at work as a result of employment laws failing to keep up with the pace of change in employers’ exploitation of them, while still (in substantial numbers of cases) occupying positions as keyworkers keeping this country going. Furthermore, ‘building back better’ post-Covid-19 requires the sorts of consensus-building exercises and extending involvement to workers’ organisations that, actually, comes as second nature in Europe proper but which is clearly entirely foreign territory to this government. By definition, scrapping workers’ rights does not embody much in the way of consensus building.

Other than that, however, I wanted to make two (main) points.

Firstly, Karteng points to ‘being struck’ by ‘how many EU countries – I think it’s about 17 or 18 – have essentially opted out of the working time directive’. This is of course rhetorical nonsense: ‘countries’ cannot ‘opt out of the working time directive’ – EU health and safety laws have general application across the EU and are not available on the pick’n’mix counter. (As indeed should social and employment rights not be either, although that is a slightly different argument.) What he does mean is that member states are allowed to deviate from bits of the working time directive where – crucially, but which is frequently forgotten – this is with the agreement of the individual worker (calling to mind here the blanket forms issued to employees, especially new recruits, and where coercion rather than ‘agreement’ has been the keyword). Alternatively, this can be done – other than in the UK – where there is a collective agreement in place. With the specific maximum 48-hour week limit in mind (the working time directive being about much more than just that), there is a qualification which must be met about the protection of the health and safety of workers being guaranteed. This is all covered summarily, and very usefully, in Opting out of the European Working Time Directive, a publication from the European Foundation from 2015 and bits of which Karteng – more probably an adviser – seems to have read.

In particular, pages 4-5 of the document summarise the positions across the then EU. Broadly, it is not possible for workers to opt (or be opted) out of the provisions across Scandinavia, southern and south-eastern Europe (other than Bulgaria) and Ireland; some, limited opt-outs are available across the swathe of central Europe; while broad opt-outs are (or were) the case in the UK, Cyprus, Malta, Estonia and Bulgaria.

Consequently, the number of opt-outs are (surprisingly) not as many as Karteng would like to portray and, actually, they encompass those among the peripheries of the EU. So, it will not be as easy as all that to remove these protections without triggering a response in kind from the EU as regards the tariffs it will be able to impose, under the free trade agreement agreed and signed before Christmas, where the UK departs from EU norms.

I suspect that Karteng knows this very well and that this exercise is a little bit of testing the waters to see who is listening (the EU will be, of course) and thus to see what he may be able to get away with. But it won’t therefore be much, except at a price: the UK can only depart from EU norms under the agreement in limited, and heavily circumscribed, ways: the price of negotiating with experienced, expert negotiators. The phrase ‘rule taker, not rule maker’ springs to mind as regards the UK’s post-Brexit future – while that, of course, for any number of reasons including among Brexiteers themselves, is simply unsustainable in anything other than the short-term. Again, I suspect Karteng is also very well aware of this. Expect therefore more war, in private of course, within the Tory Party over the next few years. This testing of the waters is being done with that in mind, too.

Secondly is the issue of the direction of reductions in working time. Historically, working time fell for much of the twentieth century but, from around 1980 onwards, such a trend has slowed and even, in some cases, been reversed. There are a number of reasons for this, explained in depth in a very useful paper – The Why and How of Working Time Reduction – written by colleagues from the European Trade Union Institute (I believe an update will also be available shortly). Again unsurprisingly, hours (of full-time workers: the key to the Britannia Unchained phrase) are not lower than elsewhere: such hours are pretty standard but the UK ranked among the highest in the EU.

The working time directive is a health and safety law. It was proposed under a particular section of the European legislative framework allowing a majority vote by member states and its aim is to improve health and safety. Nevertheless, it also improves social rights in allowing workers the opportunity to control, in some small way, aspects of their working time and, thereby, to achieve some measure of influence with the employer as regards their work-life balance. All of this is, of course, why the Tories hate it and why the working time directive is at the top of the list for removal (pro tem: restriction). It also explains very well why it needs to be defended. At a time of the deunionisation of society in general – stout battles still taking place in certain sectors – we can expect to see such gains as were made in working time during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century reversed here too, deunionisation being one explanation for the gains having come to a halt.

As Brexiteers have already implicitly observed, this issue is one that underpins huge aspects of the future social organisation of this country. It concerns not only the decoupling of wages and productivity – with gains in national income not going to workers over the last few decades – but taken instead by capital owners in the form of corporate profits and shareholder dividends. It is not just that, to quote that phrase again, ‘productivity is poor’: it is, but quite clearly wages are even poorer and, in comparison, becoming increasingly so. We know from the theory that such a decoupling leads to rises in income inequality – something in which the UK is, shamefully, among the countries already taking a bit of a lead. But also, with fresh concerns of job loss through mechanisation and robotisation (on top of those lost in the destruction wreaked in hospitality and the arts and entertainment industry during the pandemic, as well as the loss of workers who have, simply, gone away), reduced working time in compensation for the impact of mechanisation on the jobs and security of workers has again come back on the agenda, as indeed has the idea of a universal basic income.

When we emerge from the pandemic, the quality of jobs will also matter and, in this respect, a National Recovery Council, as proposed by the TUC, has a clear role in building consensus and support for a better, more inclusive society. Furthermore, if the loss of substantially younger workers as pointed to by ESCoE is correct, increased mechanisation to deal with the loss of workers is one possible outcome. That may, in turn, raise productivity – but wages, and the labour share in general in terms which also encompass working time, need to rise too. Working hours in the UK are not low – but they do need to be lowered and there are thus many pressures building in that direction.

All this is why the Tories want to knock the working time directive on the head – and, furthermore, why they want to do it now while the pandemic is causing much of a distraction and when this lends itself, at a time of prospective rises in mechanisation, all too readily to people being regarded as ‘lucky to have a job’.

As always: Join a Union. And Organise.

Book Review: Private Island

As my previous review of Stuart Maconie’s Nanny State mentioned, this one by James Meek has been sat on my to-read shelf for far too long – since 2017, in fact (and in spite of the recommendation in my comments to read it. I did get around to it. Eventually.).

Maconie quotes lengthy passages from Private Island – and no wonder since this is the product of lengthy research, detailed and time-consuming interviews, preparation and observation, and, I suspect, a certain ability not to take ‘no’ for an answer. Private Island – subtitled ‘Why Britain Now Belongs To Someone Else’ – was published in updated form in 2015 and is the product of a series of essays written largely for the London Review of Books, for which Meek himself is still a commissioning editor. It is written in an appropriately literary spirit of enquiry and seeks to explore the privatisation dogma under which this country has laboured over the entire period of the forty years since 1979, with separate chapters focused on the mail, railways, water, electricity, health care and housing alongside a look at Thanet where Nigel Farage stood for Parliament, again unsuccessfully, in the 2015 general election.

Appropriately for a book published by Verso, Private Island wears its radical heart on its sleeve – the cover portrays a vulture, beak dripping red, hunched over this green and pleasant land – although the content is far from polemic. The cover nevertheless provides a suitable introduction to the theme since the decision at least to think about it came from when Meek was living in Kiev at the time the Soviet Union came to a crashing end (in 1991) and finding himself ‘Watching the vultures come to feast on the carcass of the world’s largest state-owned planned economy,’ while beginning to wonder ‘what had been done by politicians, economic theorists, lobbyists and business people in my own country’ (p. 2).

In the ensuing pages, none of these groups are spared, but all are speared with the calmly-stated wrath of Meek’s cool, factual analysis of the venal, self-interested, naive plays of which all were successively guilty at one point or other, coming together in a cabal of fundamentalist opposition to the public sector and, indeed, of the welfare state. Meek wonders not just why but how this was allowed to happen and, in lessons that also echo those of Britain’s failed relationship with the EU, the answer is not complex. We have been – deliberately – blinded to things that are of value but which are easily castigated because they are not obviously valuable, are sometimes guilty of egregious errors and are all too easily the butt of jokes (or jokey analysis which becomes a version of the truth). We have, as a result, had the wool pulled over our eyes by governments of all colours (including vaguely pinkish ones) and that has led us to where we are: an underclass getting further and further left behind as those that have gone ahead pull the ladder up behind them (about which Thatcher was astute in one critical respect), increasingly needing the benefits of the welfare state but ignored by political parties maintaining the illusion that the free market is the only answer. And to Brexit. Privatisation has been an utter, colossal failure both in terms of public policy and in terms even of its own agenda, as Meek sets out for example in the chapter on housing. Calling an end to it is thus long overdue.

The trick, however, is how we build back to what we have lost. The year zero fundamentalists of the Vote Leave illuminati now in control of the government might provide a few opportunities in this respect, as might the similarly corrosive economic effects of the pandemic. It would clearly be wise not to overstate the case – many of the Vote Leave fundamentalists see themselves as the true heirs to the Blessed Margaret while economic fundamentalists are still in charge of the Treasury (Sunak has ties to the small government economic liberalists at the Centre for Policy Studies, set up by Keith Joseph, one of Thatcher’s gurus) and the road ahead is firmly uphill, whatever the Pink ‘Un might have been saying this morning about the futility of austerity (the full original lies behind the FT‘s paywall). Too many of those in power are still in thrall to Thatcher’s legacy; and forty years plus of antipathy to the public sector is tough to overcome.

Current events, as always, provide game-changing points and there can be none clearer than this week’s social media-led furore over the free school meal ‘hampers’ provided (to children in England) by private firms, substantially Tory donor Chartwell UK. Charging the UK taxpayer £10.50 for items costing – at retail price – £5.22 is shameful profiteering in the first place. In the second, as Meek would point out, neither should it be surprising to any of us: this is what private firms do. They are there to make money and, by searching out the cheapest and the lowest cost, will thereby maximise the gains to themselves from profit that is already built in. It is no wonder that the ‘hamper’ looked so anaemic and processed to within an inch of its life: it might have fitted in with advice in which the government itself is absolutely complicit (the original food guidance is here, by the way) but it looks a long, long way away from the Eatwell Guide which inspired it. Child Island, indeed.

This particular story seems to have ended (for now) with the restoration of vouchers, but how many of us think that the public sector – freed from the profit motive – would have produced on its own account such a paltry ration? My friend and colleague Keith Flett is entirely right to point to the workhouse origins of poor law relief – and the notion of the ‘undeserving poor’ lingers in modern day parlance, too: check the comments of Ben Bradley MP (I’m not linking) – and it’s clear that we are likely to see a return to Victorian Britain (days of the sun never setting on the Empire etc. etc.) as a consequence of the current direction of government policy, if indeed we are not already there in several respects. The welfare state – against which privatisation was the response – was set up to do better than this: and it still would if given the chance. There should be no way in a rational society for private companies to be anywhere near providing free school meals for vulnerable children. It is a scandal that they are. Furthermore, we need to call it what it is: a private company charging the taxpayer £10.50 for something that taxpayers can buy themselves for half that is not just extraordinarily inefficient: it is guilty of ripping people off. Vouchers might be the obvious point of return – giving people dignity but also, critically, £10.50 of value for £10.50 of cost – but, otherwise, I’d have worked with a new poverty ‘czar’ that I’d appoint to come up with a proper hamper: Jack Monroe knows a thing or two (or even three), from own, hard-lived experience about eking out low incomes and still providing nutritious food. Hell, for the difference between £10.50 and £5.22, someone could even throw in a copy of one of her books.

This fairly lengthy digression illustrates well one of the three main points to emerge from Meek’s analysis: that the private sector should not be involved with things that are a matter of policy concern. This perhaps needs bottoming out a little – a positive sport-for-all policy probably shouldn’t imply a desire to nationalise the Premier League – but things like green energy, environmental health, public healthcare and housing, to name some other examples on top of children’s free school meals – are all, being matters around which public policy has an interest, issues that should rightly be reserved in principle to a rejuvenated public sector.

Secondly, that there has never been a proper debate about alternative ownership patterns is indeed a shame. There is a wealth of options in between a nationalised, dusty government department on the one hand and rapacious private ownership on the other; and these need to be explored (and in ways that, unlike the history of much of employee share ownership initiatives, has longevity) as a result of a desire to take things back public. And here I don’t mean the nonsense of it being fine for state agencies from countries other than the UK to take ownership of large swathes of our public services, a fact to which Meek also points.

Thirdly, the notion that taxes are lower when the costs of financing, for example, new power plants have been simply shifted on to the bills we pay for electricity is clearly the pursuit of a chimera (albeit one that has been remarkably convincing to large numbers of people – though there leads another lengthy digression). Proper accounting of what we, as citizens, are paying the state (or its privatised agents) to do on our behalf needs to be correctly done and then, perhaps, we might be in a better position collectively to undertake the critical evaluations that we need to make which will allow us to call this failed experiment what it actually is.

It is not too late to avoid the return to the evils of Victorian Britain which the welfare state sought to end. Buy Meek’s book (and don’t leave it lying a-mouldering on a book shelf for three years or more!) or pick up his analysis via the LRB website (links as above). But do choose to get angry about the facts about which the slightly dispassionate, matter-of-fact telling deployed here can sometimes mitigate against.

In closing, I note that December next year is the eightieth anniversary of the Beveridge Report which, during wartime, paved the way for the welfare state which the Labour government coming to power in 1945 chose, despite all the other calls on public finance at the time, to implement. If I was a young SPAD unable to believe my luck at being in Westminster (or in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast for that matter), I’d be keenly pitching a report which, in commemoration, sought to identify the five giants preventing people from escaping poverty and bettering themselves in 21st century Britain and on which governments coming to power in the years to come might build. After we are done with Covid-19, we are again in a position of needing to construct a future fit for heroes. The road from here might be uphill but, if they can do it, then so can we.

First shots fired in post-Brexit battle

On Wednesday this week, as Washington DC was preparing, on the one side, and not (on the other), for the substantially white privilege ‘revolution’ that did, in contrast, turn out to be of the televised type, the soon-to-be-Lord (Daniel) Hannan, Lima-born and raised and privately educated, published his list of regulatory ‘barriers’ that a post-Brexit UK could ‘disapply’ (trigger warning: post is on Conservative Home). These include (as listed):

  • Temporary Workers’ Directive
  • the REACH Directive
  • the End of Life Vehicles Directive
  • the droit de suite rules and other regulations that hurt London’s fine arts market
  • the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive
  • chunks of MiFID II
  • GDPR
  • the bans on GM.

Alphabet soup apart (and I’m not going to decode any of it here), this is quite astonishingly specific and betrays, in part, Hannan’s own petty concerns, some apparent pay-offs to mates and some things of which I suspect he actually has rather little working knowledge.

None of this is of course a surprise: the only surprise is that the Working Time Directive – setting out rest periods and prescribing minimum rest breaks and leave entitlement for workers – commonly thought to be the first target of Brexiteers, isn’t on the list (though Hannan clearly sets out that the EU directives he sets out are non-exhaustive, in which case the WTD surely hasn’t been forgotten). In a move that was clearly choreographed, Boris Johnson held a call with business leaders later the same day asking them to come up with ideas for changing the regulatory environment because ‘the UK would need regulatory and legislative change’ (no ££).

It’s clearly about time we had another ‘red tape challenge’: with two this decade (in 2011 and 2019) so far, on top of certain aspects of the 2012-2014 ‘balance of competences’ review, and the 2014 consulting on ‘gold plating’ the TUPE regulations, there is clearly a mini-industry (not least in media headlines) needing to be fed and sustained. Indeed, you’d almost think that asking the question, rather than coming up with anything practical to do, was the point. Businesses are, by the way, likely to use the opportunity to have a varied but wide-ranging moan over the costs of employing young women who then become pregnant – a somewhat flippant response, perhaps, but one which also has at its heart the implicit core of the problem as to why these ‘challenges’ continue to come around regularly with little apparent effect in practice: the costs to businesses of continual labour turnover as a result of poor employment policies are significantly greater than the costs of complying with regulations which actually raise labour standards; while the regulation that remains in place overwhelming has a clear, and useful, function. For all that it walks around with a target perennially pinned to its back, regulation not only protects but also supports ourselves as citizens in terms of our health, the environment within which we live and the cohesiveness of our society. That is why it is hard to get rid of, despite all the noise its reduction is able to generate.

It will be interesting to see who is listening to Hannan – who is, by the way, an adviser to the Board of Trade as well as President of the Initiative for Free Trade (a well-connected think-tank whose mission is to use Brexit to advance the case for revitalising the world trading system). If Hannan does get his way then, on the strength of this list alone, the Brexit that results will clearly be that of the elites.

Other than that concern, the central significance of Hannan’s post is that it highlights that Brexit will not be over for some time to come – indeed, that we are only at the beginning of a very long and hard road ahead. Given the current policy vacuum at government level, on top of the inability of Brexiteers over the last four/five years to indicate what Brexit should look like other than in terms of simple (‘side of the bus’) slogans, there is inevitably space for people like Hannan to fill with such concepts as deregulation (most obviously, but no doubt among others). Furthermore, the free trade agreement signed on Christmas Eve and the joint UK-EU commissions that it envisages gives plenty of space not only for debate over the tariff costs in terms of a UK which actively seeks divergence from European standards; but also in terms of how that agreement can be developed and improved upon not least in terms of supporting workers’ rights in ways that reflect social policy improvements within the EU. Additionally, while the free trade agreement might solve problems over tariffs, it is – as businesses are already starting to find out – the non-tariff barriers that the single market brought down that are the key to trading successfully. Here, not least in the context of deregulation, there is the rising amount of realisation (see here, for instance; or otherwise here) that, at least in this first week, Brexit actually means more red tape for industry, not less. On top of all this, and rather less prosaically, there is the notion of full independence for Scotland, on which this blog will no doubt have more to say, as well as the question of a united Ireland, the growing YesCymru movement and the existence of support for improved democratic representation within England itself. The price of ‘sovereignty’ is indeed likely to be a much smaller territory over which that dominion reigns.

All these are ways in which the future shape of the UK will be competed over as a result of the Brexit bow wave. Politically therefore, the notion that the word ‘Brexit’ can be avoided – in ways akin to Johnson’s own attempts this time last year to ban the word – is not only itself simplistic but also naive. Labour may not now need to define what Brexit means – but it does need to define what the UK should look like in its wake. The first shots in that war have, at the very least, been fired by Brexiteers which provides some cover for Labour being able to say the word again; and, most certainly, to ensure that the vacuum is filled not only by the likes of Hannan.

In the meantime, it is worth noting that such shots were fired to (not at!) an exclusively business audience. In the context, that’s probably unremarkable in itself – but I wonder how that will go down amongst new-blue voters in so-called ‘red wall’ seats? Was that really the Brexit they thought they were voting for, either in 2016 or in 2019? And did they really believe, in 2019, that they were voting for an end to Brexit?

Clocking big tech: the fight to own your data

This is the text of my autumn 2020 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect.

Prospect has been working with a coalition of unions, tech specialists and researchers to develop new approaches to how we take control of our own data.

In July the beta version of one of those ideas – the WeClock app – was launched but soon after Facebook decided to ban the app on its platform. After discussions with the app developers, Facebook has now reversed this decision.

At Prospect, we have long been aware of big data and the need to secure the interests of our members when it comes to all the ways that algorithm-based software can be used at work.

Desktop spying

Indeed, many apps seek to put a ‘spy on our desktop’ – and with more people working from home during the pandemic, the risk increases of employers also wanting to put a ‘spy in our homes’.

Google has invested billions in mapping the world and developing self-driving car technology, because it wants to be in a position to shape our technology choices when it comes to our mobility.

That means knowing where we go, how often we go there and how often (and where) we stop en route. This encroaches into our lives as workers as well as private citizens.

Facebook is not the only example – merely among the most egregious. Earlier this summer, the social media platform pitched that Facebook Workplace, its office collaboration project, would allow employers to control the content of group discussions by banning words such as ‘unionize‘.

It later had to backtrack after complaints by its own employees and the US trade union organisation AFL-CIO.

Knowledge is power

Not least when it comes to the workplace, the data on which our choices are based belongs to us – or should do. Surveillance software undermines that principle and its very existence raises the need for accountability and worker involvement in decision-making about its use. Data needs to become part of our bargaining agenda.

This battleground reveals the rationale for Facebook’s initial decision regarding WeClock: its whole reason for being lies in hoovering up our data about what interests us, analysing that and then packaging it to secure advertising revenues.

Start-ups like WeClock, which enables workers to log their own working hours and overtime to protect themselves from being overworked and underpaid. Crucially it leaves control of the data entirely in users’ hands.

As Christina Colclough, who led the team behind the app, observes, WeClock is a ‘self-tracking privacy-preserving tool we can be proud of’. The more apps opt for such an ethical approach, the more those users will understand what platforms like Facebook and Google operate. And the more people realise the importance of asserting their rights over their data, the more shaky these platforms’ way of operating becomes.

Facebook’s monitoring software, Workplace, is a key tool it can sell to employers facing worker recognition campaigns.

Online activism

I doubt we have heard the last of Facebook Workplace. Lobbyist and employer consultant Rick Berman says the pandemic has encouraged a ‘historic rise in labour activism‘.

He warns that employees worried about exposure to the coronavirus have taken to Facebook and other platforms to share their concerns, giving union organisers greater access to disgruntled workers.

Worker recognition campaigns in the tech giants and elsewhere are certainly growing in the face of increasingly precarious terms and conditions.

In ‘building back better’ after the pandemic, we need to encourage high-trust workplaces where managers are allowed to do their jobs by actively using their own people management skills.

Prospect will continue to articulate the need for better trust, accountability and transparency when it comes to monitoring and surveillance software in the workplace; and for data to become part of the bargaining agenda.

As our workplaces change, our core commitment to empower our members to realise those goals remains steadfast.