Organising in the workplace must be central to our reshaping of mainstream politics, argues Lindsey German
There will be no avoiding Brexit over the next few weeks as we head towards the next stage of the political crisis which has gripped the British ruling class since it was defeated in the 2016 referendum. Negotiations with Brussels, deals and votes in parliament, demands for another vote, anguish over the Irish border, all look set to keep it in the headlines.
But it is already clear that for probably the vast majority of people the issue of what happens with Brexit is not at the top of their list of concerns. Two studies published last week point to why this might be the case. The 2017 Skills and Employment Survey, a government-funded study of about 3,300 people conducted every five years, shows that British workers are under more pressure at work than at any time in the past 25 years. They are working harder than ever but, at best, are running faster and faster but just standing still. Productivity is lower than in any other G7 country because there is a lack of investment in machinery and skills training.
Nearly a third of those surveyed said they worked at very high speeds all or almost all the time, and nearly half said they had to work very hard and meet tight deadlines. Incredibly, 90% of teachers and 70% of nurses said they were required to work very hard, and that they always or often came home from work exhausted.
The second set of figures only reinforces these feelings, because there is no respite when you leave work. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has estimated that the amount of unpaid household work carried out in the UK is worth £1.24 trillion a year. The value has grown by 80% since 2005.
The unpaid work includes childcare, laundry, cooking, but also driving to work and those lengthy periods on computers when you are sorting insurance, or banking, or paying your bills having read your own meter. The majority of this work is carried out by women, already at a disadvantage in the labour market, and under increasing pressure over their unpaid work in the home as well.
These are the figures which underline the reality that the vast majority of us experience in our daily lives. And it is a miserable, unhappy picture for many, often leading to stress and illness.
The only bright spot in this picture is that the Skills and Employment survey shows a higher level of job security than previously. With unemployment lower than at any time since the 1970s, people are less anxious about losing their jobs. However, a minority said they were very anxious about their hours fluctuating and therefore having reduced pay. These will be people on zero hours or other insecure contracts.
There are very high levels of people in employment in the UK today, women as well as men. But they are struggling with huge increases in work at home and in employment, increased burdens through cuts in caring and other facilities, increased surveillance at work, and low wages.
Labour’s plan for a People’s Brexit – if it began to deal with some of these problems – would be highly popular. But it would have to challenge the power of the employers and their friends in government and media who have presided over this acute worsening of living standards.
One pointer in how to do that were the strikes and protests at McDonalds, TGI Fridays, Wetherspoons, UberEats and Deliveroo. They were highly successful and raised all these issues on the picket line and in the media. It showed how workers can begin to challenge the narrative of drudgery at work and begin to take control of their futures.
We should challenge the idea that politics is about the Brexit deal. It’s about how we end the misery of work for millions of people. And some of the people in the worst paid and insecure jobs are getting organised – not a moment too soon.
The privatisation of protest
There will be a big demonstration for a ‘people’s vote’ next weekend – because obviously the people voted the wrong way last time. I was fairly sickened to read that the great and the good – Delia Smith, Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and David Miliband – are digging into their copious coffers and coming up with £1k each to fund coaches from outside London for the protest. These people see demonstrators as a stage army, there to pressurise government in support of the extreme centre, to be brought on the streets when convenient but at other times denounced as a rabble or extremists for doing so. As someone who was part of organising the biggest demo ever in British history, I don’t think this has much to do with grassroots campaigning or with how you effectively build a movement.
Our transport was not arranged centrally with rich benefactors (we never had too many of them) but by local people – trade unionists, socialists, Muslims, Christians. Taxi drivers from Preston drove protestors to London when coaches were full. It was all paid for by mosques, unions and individual donations. Campbell, Mandelson and Miliband were of course some of the main architects and defenders of the Iraq war. They ignored that demonstration but now demand we revote. Perhaps they should reflect that there might not have been a Brexit vote if politicians hadn’t lied over that war, contributing in a big way to the contempt in which so many of them are held today.
Spies and lies
The whole Russian spy thing is a bit of a mystery to me. There are of course Russian spies, engaged in all sorts of espionage against other powers. They are certainly capable of killing their own and other nationals, of kidnapping and of cyber-attacks. But I find it all a bit one-sided. Every government has its spooks – in Britain we even have a TV series about them. We know that these spies too kill, kidnap, torture and do all sorts of terrible things in the name of national security. As for interfering in elections, well the CIA has been doing that for decades, even annulling their results when it doesn’t suit, as in Chile in 1973. And Britain’s secret services were involved in the coup against Mossadegh’s government in Iran in 1953.
It’s a thoroughly unpleasant and unnecessary business all round. But it seems some people are happy to suspend disbelief of our government. Yet don’t we know from everything in Le Carre to the Jason Bourne films that the secret services are engaged in all sorts of illegal acts and do not tell us the truth. That’s all of them.
Time to call an end to wars from Afghanistan to Yemen
The news that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul should be the point at which Britain stops selling arms and dealing with the Saudi regime - and supporting the filth war in Yemen. Let’s not hold our breath. Dissidents are ok in regimes that our government doesn’t like, but not when they challenge our biggest customer in arms sales.
I protested at a press conference for Khashoggi last Thursday outside the huge Mayfair palace which is the Saudis’ London embassy, replete with machine-gun-toting guards. I send my solidarity to all those doing so in much more dangerous circumstances than me.
I was back in Downing Street on Friday to hand in a letter demanding the end to the war in Afghanistan, now 17 years old and having failed in every single one of its aims. Back in 2001, I spoke in Trafalgar Square on our first big demo against the war and said this would be ‘war without end, in the name of fighting terror’. And so it has turned out.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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