If Sir Keir Starmer ever feels ‘the hand of history on his shoulder’ it will most likely be a hand holding him back. Bad enough being in opposition with scant access to mass media, far worse when the best you can do is deliver your speeches to a COVID-free empty room. He still has to deal with a mutinous crew for whom doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result remains the measure of socialist purity.
It’s always said that charisma is vital for today’s leaders if they are to connect with voters. Being ‘charismatic’ means enjoying a mutually invigorating relationship with your audience. They respond to you, feel that you are speaking for them. A mysterious process of reciprocal reinforcement takes place. Tony Blair enjoyed more than his fair share of it, and it helped him win three elections in a row. There were serious efforts to tackle child poverty. Public services were improved. Voters believed he and New Labour wanted what they wanted, besides good public services, a good job, a nice house, a car. Their aspirations were the Labour Party’s and he would help them succeed.
Boris Johnson, with a pocket full of captivating slogans – levelling up, taking back control - has it too. And he too evidently chimes with voters. His transgressive remarks signal he would not look down on them or accuse them of racism or bigotry. Keir Starmer commands the socially distanced Chamber of the House of Commons as he once commanded the court room, but struggles under present circumstances to form that vital relationship with the general public. He has yet to be rewarded with a ‘People’s Princess’ moment and to connect emotionally.
Then there is the vision thing and communicating it. There are two problems here. First, Jeremy Corbyn definitely had a vision but it was not the vision the voting public or many in his Party shared. Second, Oppositions' big ideas, tend to be taken over and fed into government rhetoric or simply derided. Yet, these problems are also opportunities.
One opportunity came out of the shenanigans involving Angela Rayner: a Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work. If the best the Conservative Party can manage in the Queen’s speech is a reheated version of their own failed skills training paid for by loans the financially insecure are unlikely to take out, then the political terrain is not as fully occupied as it might seem. Upskilling is, of course, important. Government pays lip-service to creating ‘quality jobs’. But there is much rhetoric rather than action. And fear that quality jobs are a distraction from quantity of jobs. They aren’t.
Rayner will now ‘shadow’ a number of ministers across government departments and will have the opportunity to promote a policy of ‘Good Work for all’. She faces an open goal. Skills and Apprentices are located in the Ministry of Education under the blunder-prone Gavin Williamson. The Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, Therese Coffey, is on record as proposing pensioners should pay national insurance. And right-wing Etonian Kwasi Kwateng leading Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy presents a tempting target.
The experience of COVID has changed public thinking about the value of different forms of work. This is to Ms. Rayner’s advantage. The public is now more aware of the profound injustice of the social and economic value of jobs bearing no relationship to pay and rewards. NHS workers, social carers, bus drivers appeared in a new light as ‘essential workers’, some outstandingly courageous.
Work today is more precarious and pressurized than thirty years ago. Even pre-COVID some 30% of jobs were insecure. The development of the gig economy has suffered minor setbacks but persists. Many of the millions in self-employment end up with an income below the minimum wage. Elsewhere, particularly in NGOs and better paid jobs, the expectation of unpaid overtime goes unchallenged. To be in work is not to get out of poverty as government ministers repeat and as those resorting to food banks illustrate. The economy suffers. Low investment, poor people management, poor pay and low productivity go together.
Angela Rayner has a strong body of innovative thinking and research to call on. At a recent on-line St. Mary’s University conference on workers’ rights, celebrating the 130th anniversary of the first papal encyclical on the world of work, the economist Will Hutton described the growth of private equity company and the Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACS). Alongside the ephemeral working relationships of the gig economy such new ephemeral forms of ownership and financing have been springing up. The real owner of a SPAC is deliberately obscured like that of a Panama-flagged ship. Employees literally have no idea who they are working for. Transparency is needed for more than countering tax avoidance. But there are also companies acknowledging serious social responsibility which are willing to broaden their purpose beyond profit. But they are still few. Labour could promise to support the growth of such initiatives by promising changes in company law.
Angela Rayner has available , for example, The Good Work Plan produced by the respected policy strategist, Matthew Taylor, formerly head of No. 10’s Policy Unit, and commissioned by the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. The plan was published by the May Government in December 2018, but it has gathered dust under Boris Johnson. Work should offer fairness, respect, team work, voice, representation on boards, work-life balance, opportunity to develop and use skills to the full and consideration for mental health. In short, wellbeing , sense of purpose, an overall movement from worker as Fordist automaton to a creative autonomy within the workplace with control over work- life balance. Turning purposeful ‘Good Work’ into a public policy objective, as an integral part of reducing unemployment, has been bruited for years but still not implemented.
Put this all together and radical reform of the world of work should be par excellence Labour’s vision thing. The Labour Party needs to be the Party identified with the Future of Work. In the fast advancing world of AI and with the push of new technologies to combat Climate Change, creating ‘Good Work’ requires radical change and innovation in economic thinking across a wide front. Going to the country with a clear strategic vision for the future of work would be swimming with the tide of public concerns, would mean working with Labour’s traditional union backers and would appeal to both youth, women, low income workers, and ethnic minorities. Focusing on work avoids the false binary choice between bringing home traditional Labour voters or the Party for the middle-class, for graduates, youth and the big cities.
Far from demotion, the leader of the Opposition has given Angela Rayner the opportunity to be at the cutting edge of Labour’s renewal and fight-back as a visionary Party of the future. She should seize it with both hands.
See TheArticle 13/05/2021