July 19, 2018

For a Labour politician, listening to James Bloodworth’s UnHerd audiodocumentary, How dead-end jobs killed small-town pride, and reading his book, Hired, can be both depressing and uplifting experiences.

Depressing, in that they stand as brutal reminders of the realities of today’s employment in places often patronisingly described as ‘left behind’. Uplifting, in the way they give voice to the voiceless and, in ways politicians have failed to do, drill into the collapsing esteem offered by much modern work. They address the inhumanity central to contemporary capitalism, where employers, unscrupulousness agencies and landlords, among others, compete to drain dignity from the lives of our fellow citizens.

Bloodworth’s research speaks to a modern, often ignored, sense of humiliation conditioned by the work people do and the lives they live as compared to the ones they aspire to – indeed were promised – by generations of politicians. It reveals shameful employment and living conditions which shape how people see their relationships, bodies, diets, and others – among them politicians and immigrants. This bends into an anguish that consumes the country.

The concern is not with work itself. Bloodworth’s interviews reveal that meaningful work can offer a sense of dignity, solidarity, and identity. The problem is the degradation of work today; the type of labour performed. So why, given its history, does Labour have so little to say about this?

One obvious reason is the genuine lack of understanding of the modern world of work among the political and policy technocracy – a problem way beyond the class composition of MPs. We debate labour market statistics rather than the character of the labour performed. This was not always the case.

The Left appear to have lost the ability to recognise and respect the dignity provided by meaningful work

Fifty years ago, the magazine New Society identified what it called a new ‘Oxford School’ – figures on the Left  such as Hugh Clegg and Allan Flanders – heavily involved in post war reconstruction and the evolution of social democracy.

For decades, the group remained highly influential in developing Labour Party thinking on economic and industrial strategy, pay policy, employment law, trade union reform, economic democracy and much, much more. The central task was to build institutions to moderate unequal power relations at work; to civilise capitalism. Critically, this search to humanise work was built not just on textbook modelling or economic algebra but on extensive research into the practical realities of the world of work – literally the day to day study of human labour and how it was, and could be, deployed.

Years ago, the world of work dominated industrial sociology, industrial relations and labour economics; today, apart from a couple of noticeable exceptions, the systematic study of employment conditions is absent from the academic world, especially within our business schools.

Just as academic economists failed to anticipate the 2008 meltdown, today’s academic and think tank community model rather than study employment relations. In so doing, they cannot comprehend the crisis in the character of work that consumes many of our communities – physically festering miles from where the liberal technocracy resides.

Coincidentally, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Donovan Royal Commission into the world of work – a report built on the research and insights of this lost generation of labour thinkers and politicians.

Today, it is left to enterprising young journalists like Bloodworth to study and ethically challenge the realities of modern employment. Yet for Labour the problem is deeper; it is more ideological.

Under New Labour the dignity of work was not an issue. On the one hand, for Tony Blair new ‘knowledge work’ meant an end to the ‘old’ economy and ‘old’ Labour. For this Left futurology, dehumanised physical toil was to be a thing of the past, seen as technologically obsolete, so why confront it? Instead the famous slogan “education, education, education” captured an economic policy that focused on human capital to ensure people were equipped for this new world.

The famous slogan ‘education, education, education’ captured an economic policy that focused on human capital to ensure people were equipped for this new world

In contrast, across the road the Treasury assumed declining real wages across western market economies given globalisation. Yet the task was not to regulate the labour market, for this would further price people out of work, but rather to secure tax credits to supplement the disposable pay of workers funded by a never ending growth engineered through a compact with the city.

Both views, although noticeably different, cohered to resist any attempts to contest the character of work performed. Political attempts to regulate and dignify labour were consistently resisted or diluted; indeed nothing was really achieved after 2001. Meanwhile, tax credits allowed employers to free ride; wages flat-lined and work intensified at the expense of genuine technological change and good work.

Today, despite a radical veneer, much fashionable thinking on the radical left directly follows from the New Labour years. Once again we appear beholden to a post-work futurology written from urbane steel-and-ivory towers which would have us sidestepping the political imperative of improving the quality of work in order to demand full automation and Universal Basic Income – tax credits on an epic industrialised  scale.

Political attempts to regulate and dignify labour were consistently resisted or diluted; nothing was really achieved after 2001

Once again, labour market realities are wished away by utopian technological assertions. The ‘bullshit’ jobs we see today, the ones we failed to confront earlier, are now simply deemed worthless. Yet how does this help those suffering from modern labour market humiliation? Does it not mean we disrespect their suffering?

Meanwhile flowing from this diagnosis, to make matters even worse, and again in a very similar way to New Labour,  a radical rethink of the very purpose of the Left, and who it represents, is taking place. Paul Mason spoke to this when he wrote about the “new core of the labour project“; one that “must be based on the realisation that labour’s heartland is now in the big cities. Among the salariat and among the globally orientated, educated part of the workforce”.

In short, the Left is rethinking its political demographic and the working class is once again on the wrong side of history. It now asserts that through combinations of automation, Millennial drift into the cities and the progressive effects of higher education that the base of the Left now lies not amongst a proletariat but rather with an educated, networked youth. To quote Mason once again: “labour is the de facto party of the urban salariat. Its heartland is Remainia“.

The Left is rethinking its political demographic and the working class is once again on the wrong side of history

Who and what is responsible for the rise in authoritarian populism? The political philosopher Michael Sandel offers a compelling argument. Across the globe, progressive politics is in retreat; it long ago collapsed into a soulless managerialism. It must rebuild its ethical core including how it understands the meaning and dignity of work in the lives of the people it wishes to lead. Yet from New Labour to today, the way that much of the Left considers work and labour can reinforce this very detachment and in so doing help build the very forces that they seek to resist – the far right.

It is not just about job loss or the unfairness of a wage crash it is about humiliation and respect, hope and despair. The authoritarian Right scavenge on the rage that these forces can ferment, while the Left appear to have lost the ability to recognise and respect the dignity provided by meaningful work.

Hired suggests that once again we need to put the study of work and human labour centre stage. To begin with, 50 years on from Donovan, Labour could do worse than form a new Royal Commission but not just on the on the future of work but also its character and the role it performs in our lives. That would be a real start.