Hay in the Barn

Glen Newey

Winston Churchill once addressed the nation's workers in a radio broadcast, 'listening to me in your cottages'. In Tory 'one nation' lore, the mystical bond between the mighty and the patronised unites the toff in his hunting lodge with the peasant in his hovel, a Hovis fantasy that redacts plain facts of modern life. Still, you can't say the Conservatives don't do their bit for the unemployed. Since Theresa May sacked him as chancellor, George 'we're all in this together' Osborne has scraped a crust by working six jobs, including £700,000 on the black-tie dinner-yack circuit and £650,000 for a one-day-a-week gig as a consultant for BlackRock, plus his new (salary undisclosed) quasi-sinecure editing the Evening Standard – on a journalistic CV that includes rejection by the Times and the Economist, and freelancing for the Telegraph’s gossip column. David Cameron meanwhile has been busy putting 'hay in the barn' with speeches at £120,000 a pop.

In election manifestoes as elsewhere, Toryism has somehow to keep up the ‘one nation’ balls without letting slip that it's a racket. Damian Green, the work and pensions secretary, told Newsnight that he thinks zero-hours contracts are popular, quoting a figure used by government sources to the effect that 70 per cent of workers on the contracts are 'content' with them. There are now 910,000 ZHCs in the UK labour market, up from 110,000 in 2005. Green has said that he finds casualised work on the Uber model, and companies’ ditching of strong and stable employment – with such frills as regular hours, holiday, maternity and sickness pay, insurance and pensions – 'exciting'.

His excitement may not be shared by workers whose precarity leaves them open to bullying. An Acas report last year noted that ZHCs may 'contribute to a climate conducive to negative behaviours, including bullying'. Acas took 20,000 calls in 2015 on workplace bullying, covering 'horrifying incidents including humiliation, ostracism, verbal and physical abuse'.

It might be thought that May doesn't need to try too hard to pose as the workers' friend, given that the Tories are set to romp home in the election. But she is probably playing a longer game: dragging Labour Brexiters, and those who've already used the gateway drug of Ukip, permanently into the Tory camp. Hence the pitch to 'ordinary working-class people' in her conference speech last October. This has an element of divide and rule. May's successor as home secretary, Amber Rudd, proposed forcing employers to keep lists of foreign workers, a measure described even by the Ukip MEP Roger Helmer as 'fascist'. That policy died an early death after public outcry, but other measures have been enacted and remain in force.

Cameron's government, in which May served for six years, introduced a £1200 fee for workers seeking redress in employment tribunals, which cut cases by two-thirds, and four-fifths in sex discrimination cases. Workers on company boards, an idea May floated last July, has morphed after yelps from the CBI into something more patrician – a designated workers' representative from among the existing bosses on the board. The Trade Union Act 2016 imposes new restrictions on strike ballots for workers employed in 'important public services'. At £7.20, the much-trumpeted National Living Wage stands at all of 50p above the minimum wage. (Osborne gets around £1692 per hour for his gig at BlackRock.) The minimum wage inspectorate, needless to say, can't do its work for lack of resources.

Perhaps as a sop to backwoods squirearchs who find all this love-bombing of the workers disturbing, May has also decided to appease the community of fox-hunters by unbanning their sport. The countryside has indeed been taken as a microcosm of the one-nation idyll, with the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. With help from his Liberal coalition partners, Cameron binned the Agricultural Wages Board in 2013, putting an end to sickness benefits and graduated pay scales for farm workers. The move was justified by the cover-all plea of cutting 'red tape'. Still, for some, there will always be hay in the barn.


  • 17 May 2017 at 6:37am
    Graucho says:
    As Bevan once said "Why look in the crystal ball when you've got the book"

  • 17 May 2017 at 12:42pm
    tenyards says:
    All government figures related to zero hours contracts need to be treated with the greatest scepticism.
    Until 2014 the National Office of Statistics always used to quote two figures for zero hours contracts. A figure derived from a survey of employees and a figure derived from a survey of employers. The employers figure was always approximately double the employees figure.
    Prior to the 2015 election the Tories claimed that the employers figure was only greater because most people had more than one zero-hours job and during the election Cameron was allowed to get away with repeating the lower figure without comment.
    Back in the real world, at about the same time, I asked a group of 18-19 year old students, most working as well as studying, if any of them were on zero hours contracts. None of them thought they were. I then explained how a zero hours contract worked and asked again. Ninety per cent of the students said that was exactly how they were employed.
    Add in that most big companies know that being a zero-hours employer is a potential PR disaster giving, them every incentive to conceal their methods and the true figure for people employed on zero hours contracts, or variants designed to conceal the true nature of their employment, is likely to be in excess of three million and rapidly rising.

  • 17 May 2017 at 2:36pm
    Stu Bry says:
    It's remarkable how little attention has been given to the Tory announcement that they would raise the minimum wage in line with median wages rather than to Osborne's target of £9 by 2020.

    Even with a deludedly optimistic 5% annual increase that is only £8.68 by 2020. That works out as £632 to a full time worker.

    Far more likely are 1.5% to 2.5% rises which are below inflation. Things are going to get ugly.

  • 18 May 2017 at 9:34am
    Stu Bry says:
    Tory internal polling must be predicting a landslide if they are confident enough to release this manifesto.

    The social care proposals in which people will run up massive debts to private care providers (with no incentive to cut costs) then have the sum removed from their estates gets worse the longer you think about it. It is a completely regressive method of taxing inherited wealth and is essentially yet another individual to corporate transfer of wealth.