There’s a book I’d like to send to Theresa May: ‘Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain’. The Prime Minister might not be minded to devour a left-wing journalist’s charge sheet against Tory Britain but she ought to.
James Bloodworth, the author, took a series of zero-hours roles, from Amazon grunt to Uber driver, to see what the ‘gig economy’ is really like. His account makes for grim but necessary reading and takes us behind the breezy, banterful facade of hipster capitalism, where we find exploitation, cynicism, and a cold, mechanised view of those who do the least rewarding jobs.
Bloodworth’s book gives an insight into deindustrialised Britain, depicting how once-proud mining towns and manufacturing hubs are now forced to beg for scraps of unstable drudge work. His account of an Amazon distribution centre reads like a chapter from Brave New World that Huxley tore up as too implausible. Bloodworth details the petty tyrannies: body scans and personal searches to go to the lavatory, creepy corporate newspeak and impossible targets. Wages go unpaid and diligent staff are jettisoned to avoid giving them a contract. A disciplinary system sees workers ‘released’ (fired) after accumulating six points. Workers can get ‘pointed’ for almost anything: missing targets, arriving late because Amazon’s own bus broke down, and being off ill (even with a doctor’s note). One woman was in a car accident, hobbled into work anyway, only to be sent home – and pointed. ‘You’ll just have to self-medicate because we need you here,’ a supervisor told recruits.
Serving as a care worker gave Bloodworth an insight into punishingly low pay, elderly clients left in soiled nappies, and dangerous haste around administration and recording of medicines. As he finds himself shifting from grotty to grottier bedsits and even sleeping rough, he is confronted by the joyless horizon of post-recession Britain: no more mills but just as dark and satanic. The only positive side effect of this new lifestyle is that he takes up smoking again.
Bloodworth is the most dangerous kind of Marxist – a Marxist with a point. His polemic exposes the failings of Conservative policy. True, it has lifted the worst off out of tax, overseen (modest) real income growth among the poorest, and reduced income inequality to a three-decade low. The Spectator‘s editor, Fraser Nelson, often reminds us of the Cameron-Osborne ‘jobs miracle’; Bloodworth uncovers sectors where the sea is not parting but drowning workers.
There used to be a party that represented labour and its loss is felt like a keen ache throughout this book. Maybe one day it will find its way back. That’s where Theresa May comes in. Last June, she beat Jeremy Corbyn among C2s by seven points and trailed him with D/Es by three. If she could nudge these numbers a few more points in her direction, she would lock Corbyn out of Number 10. That means living up to the One Nation rhetoric she arrived on. Expedite and expand the Taylor Review’s conclusions to give zero-hours workers the right to a stable contract, timely notice of shifts and an hourly rate double the minimum wage for work beyond the agreed rota.
The Tories must also stop union-bashing. Unions drive up workplace standards and lessen the need for state intervention. Yes, some are run by mad Trots but moderates like the GMB, USDAW and Community should be engaged with. If the government wants to take on Corbyn, it should also boost health funding, build more affordable homes, introduce a German-style property speculation tax, and levy land-banking. Funding poverty alleviation and more apprenticeships with a wealth tax on the super-rich is also a must.
Robert Peel’s Conservative Party was not put on this earth to make life easy for jet-setting billionaires even if it has spent much of its time acting like it. When Peel resigned, he told the Commons he would leave a name ‘execrated by every monopolist who… clamours for protection because it conduces to his own individual benefit’ but one ‘remembered with expressions of good will in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labour and to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow’. That, and not a fetish for oligarchs and cheap labour, should be the Tories’ guiding philosophy.
As a good socialist, James Bloodworth would be horrified to serve as handmaiden to a wave of working-class Toryism. Theresa May should horrify him by picking up a copy of Hired and learning from it. Whatever you do though, Prime Minister, don’t order it from Amazon.