Vermin, faulty!

It is quite right that professional nasty gobshite, Katie Hopkins has been roundly criticised for her vile article about sinking boats full of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe. The use of dehumanising language to describe the people on the boats, like cockroaches, has a long and inglorious history, most infamously and disastrously realised in the Nazis’ view of the Jews and other “untermenschen”.

However, it surprises me that this approach is not taken properly and more generally. Dehumanising people is bad in itself. If you believe in human rights at all, they are not something that can be selectively applied or disapplied by counting some people as sub-human. Even if you do bad things or are a bad person, you remain a person, not vermin, and others who share a common label with you, whether they be African migrants or Jews don’t become subhuman because what you have done is bad.

So, it rather surprises me that even today, among people who agree that Hopkins was awful for the views she vomited out in the Sun, it is perfectly acceptable to continue to describe at least a third of one’s fellow Britons as “lower than vermin”. Indeed, so acceptable that the Guardian actually sells T-shirts with this slogan on it.

What I am referring to is the following quote, routinely repeated nearly 70 years later from Nye Bevan on the eve of the founding of the NHS:

“That is why no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.”

Considering that the speech was made only 3 years after the end of WWII when the true horror of dehumanisation should still have been fresh in the experience of most people, it can’t be claimed that this was a mere rhetorical flourish, no more than Hopkins can be excused for merely using “colourful” language. Of course, Bevan probably wasn’t arguing for a final solution for the Tory problem, but if dehumanising is bad in itself, the purposes it is used for can never be lofty enough to justify it. 

My modest proposal is that if anyone believes, as Ed Miliband says, “Britain can do Better than this”, they need to start with accepting that those who disagree with their plans are not evil and are not lower than vermin. Is that OK?

Zero or Hero?

Today’s big idea from Ed Miliband (although he has been going on about it for a while) is to “ban” Zero Hours Contracts (ZHCs), or to ban “exploitative” ZHCs, or rather to give people on ZHCs the right after 12 weeks to have them converted into a “regular” contract. On the face of it, this sounds great, after all, when Jeremy Paxman asked David Cameron during his live interview last week whether he could live on one, the answer was “no” so, as Milband said, if it’s not good enough for him why is it good enough for anyone?

However, as so often, the important part of this is the detail and how it relates to reality. One of the aspects of ZHCs which is often cited in their favour is that they provide workers with flexibility – they are able to take or refuse work that is offered and therefore have some control over their hours. So someone on a ZHC could take extra hours if they were offered during term time and do fewer hours during the school holidays if they had children to care for, or if they were a student, they could do more evenings during term time and longer full days during the holidays. Only around a third of those on ZHCs according to surveys would like more hours and a slightly higher proportion work full time. It is not clear how providing the 700,000 or so on ZHCs with the right to convert them into a “regular” contract (however that might be defined) will do anything for the two thirds who are generally happy with the hours they get or indeed tend to those who would like more hours being able to get them.

So, perhaps the thing to look at would be the extent to which ZHCs are “exploitative”. There are a number of ways of looking at the issue of exploitation by means of ZHC. The Labour proposal seems to be deliberately vague on this. One would be to say that ZHCs are by definition exploitative and so should be banned entirely. But, even if some people are exploited by employers using ZHCs it is not clear that all are. Were it such a clear moral issue it would be surprising if we found that say, Labour run councils or Labour MPs would employ anyone on such contracts. Yet they do.

So, exploitative ZHC must mean something slightly different. When discussing the issue what almost always comes up is the core of the question Paxman put to Cameron – could you live on one? That boils down to whether someone on a ZHC earns enough on a regular enough basis to be able to live. How many hours one works and how consistently over time is clearly an important part of this, but more important is how much one is paid for the hours actually worked. The examples usually given of workers being exploited on ZHCs are of people being paid minimum wage or thereabouts. However, if you are earning minimum wage and doing the average 23 hours a week that those on ZHCs do, converting your contract to a “regular” one may help you to smooth out the difference between the weeks when you work 18 hours and those when you work 28 hours but it won’t make your average of 23 hours pay a week any greater. If what you earn for those 23 hours is inadequate it remains so regardless of contract type. Recently I saw that Next was recruiting for staff on regular fixed hours contracts paying minimum wage for 11 hours a week for one or two specific fixed shifts. Those jobs would not be affected by the proposal but would be just as hard to live on as a ZHC delivering similar hours. While Ed Miliband also talks of raising wages, this seems to be by the magical means of “predistribution” without any real thought as to how or why employers might do this, or indeed whether they would be inclined to do so.

If it is unclear what is meant by “exploitative” it is also unclear whether the promise of a “regular” contract for those doing regular hours for 12 weeks addresses such exploitation even if we leave aside the issue of how much someone on a ZHC is paid. In his speech, Miliband identifies the budgeting problem that those on ZHCs face – not knowing from one week to the next (or from one day to the next in some cases) how much you will earn. But, if someone is on a ZHC and getting regular hours, or at least having regular core hours, they won’t have that uncertainty and moving to a “regular” contract won’t be of particular benefit. It is the people who have irregular hours and an employer who won’t tell them from day to day whether they will be needed who will find ZHCs harder to live on. So the proposal doesn’t solve the more obvious and real problem.

I should declare here that I write with a personal interest as I have myself been employed on what is basically a ZHC for the last 4 years. True, I earn rather more than minimum wage as an experienced lawyer and most of my engagements with clients for work are for a month or more (I have done a few hourly paid stints but they’re not the main part of my work). However, this is really mainly a matter of degree. With long term monthly outgoings like mortgage/loans, utilities, council tax etc if there is no work in a month’s time, I need to dip into savings, overdrafts, credit cards to tide me over to the next piece of work. In extreme circumstances I’d need to put the house on the market, sell my car or (as OMB suggested when I had a three month gap between engagements last year, sell my stuff at a car boot sale). I start with more assets and savings than most on minimum wage ZHCs but face the same issues if I’m workless (and in practice have less of a welfare safety net until I’ve exhausted those assets).

Yet in practice I have been able to live on a ZHC and it has, despite gaps when I haven’t been given work and so haven’t been paid, ironically, been no less secure than my previous recent experiences of “regular” contracted employment. Twice in the three years prior to starting my ZHC I was made redundant from permanent full time contracts when there was not enough work. Each time it took months to find new employment. From a personal perspective, working somewhere where I know that it is in my employer’s interest to find me new work (they also don’t earn if I’m not working) rather than it being in their interest to get rid of me if there’s no work is not a bad situation. Were my ZHC to have been converted into a regular contract last year, I’d potentially have been made redundant during the three month gap I had and would have then had to look for new work. Although I missed out on a redundancy payment, instead I was placed with a new client who I’ve since been with on a rolling monthly basis rather than having to start from scratch. I’m genuinely unsure whether I would want a traditional permanent contract again.

Perhaps the best approach would be for Labour to define exploitation rather than use it loosely to demonstrate it’s caring side – it is hard to argue against exploitation but the rhetorical advantage of using the term shouldn’t distract from the serious business of policies that actually address the problems identified and experienced by people. Exploitative employment contracts could be defined as ones where the average weekly income over a certain period fell below the full time Living Wage and they could be amended by law to take them over that level. This would create a sort of Minimum Wage Plus so that everyone who worked more than a certain number of hours in a week could be guaranteed to be “able to live on it”. Needless to say, while this would be effective in ensuring that everyone who worked could afford to live on their income it would make it very expensive to employ people part time, whether they were flexible or not, so there would be many fewer part time jobs and a few more full time ones. Another policy would be needed to support those who were thus rendered unemployable. Alternatively, we could ditch the emptily emotive concept of exploitativeness and the equally empty focus on ZHCs and let people get on with their lives as more and more have in fact managed to do quite well as the country has recovered from recession whether they are in the small minority on ZHCs or not.

We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas

The other week I was browsing in a bookshop and picked up We Are Not Ourselves as I hadn’t read a novel for a while. However, the cover blurb’s description of it as a detailed account of living with Alzheimer’s Disease suggested it would probably be a bit of a depressing slog of a book to read during my commute so I put it down again. Nothing else caught my fancy, but as we were leaving, I saw that Mrs B had bought a copy and so I gave it a second chance. I’m glad I did as it is a fantastic book and, after Terry Pratchett’s death today and a report on local TV in Yorkshire yesterday of a man in the early stages of early-onset dementia doing a long-distance bike ride to raise money into research into the condition, a topical one.

The book tells the story of Eileen Tumulty, the daughter of hard-drinking Irish immigrants to New York from the 1950s through to the present day. Growing up in a degree of poverty and having to grow up fast to manage the failings, emotional and material, of her parents, she becomes a nurse and rises into senior management, conscious of the opportunities denied her but determined to escape the deprivations of her childhood and to own her own home in a nice area and for her children to be able to go to the colleges that would let them into the more elevated professions. She dreams of shedding her Irish surname by marriage to someone more American and less encumbered with their “old country”. Yet, she meets and falls in love with Ed Leary, a neuroscientist from a similarly Irish background but whose parents, three generations into their time in the USA still hadn’t bought a home.

Ed is a serious and intellectual man, at odds with the materialistic culture of America and at times, Eileen.There’s a scene of the two of them early in their marriage going to see the window displays at Christmas at the department stores on 5th Avenue which Eileen finds magical as a symbol of a world of luxury, the nearest to which she got as a child was her mother working in one of the department stores only to return home gradually descending to drunken dereliction. Ed spoils it for her by railing against consumerism in an earnest tirade. His research is a success and his academic career flourishes to the point where he is offered a lucrative job with his own lab at a pharmaceutical company, holding out the prospect for Eileen of the life she dreamed of in suburbia. Which Ed dashes with his idealism by rejecting. Again, some years later he is offered the job of Dean of his faculty, but rejects it to focus on providing the best teaching for his students.

Over the next few years Eileen sees Ed as becoming crankier and meaner, less caring of her dreams, but all of a piece with the idealistic stubbornness that she’s always known and loved in him. It is only later, when she looks at his behaviour over a longer period through her nursing eyes that she worries for his health and gets him to be checked by her doctor. He’s then referred to a specialist who diagnoses Alzheimers when Ed is 43. The shock here is that he is not shocked and there’s a realisation that the crankiness and his obsessive sticking to routine and not making changes like taking other jobs were likely to have been Ed’s own ways of self-treating a condition which he was scientifically trained to identify.

This is part of the genius of the book and the reason why the jacket blurb was unhelpful. The main account of Ed’s Alzheimer’s is, in my opinion, the perhaps decade with which he is living with it without anybody else knowing or suspecting it. It is harrowing, but in retrospect. Even knowing that is a major part of the plot, the pre-diagnosis section reads as just part of the story of Eileen and Ed’s lives. Most of the remaining third of the book goes through the rapidly accelerating decline of Ed’s faculties and Eileen’s ability to care for him. Having to juggle all this with the minutiae of ensuring that they maintain sufficient medical insurance cover to care for Ed also, for an English reader, reminds us of the benefit of the NHS. Interestingly the shift from Ed’s illness being private to him to being something known by others is accompanied by an almost imperceptible shift from looking at the events from Eileen’s perspective to that of her son, Connell, who by that time is in High School and is just about to graduate when finally Ed dies.

Looking back on the book, for me, it is not so much about Alzheimer’s and its inexorable decline to death but about life. The lives of Eileen, her parents, Ed, Connell, their neighbours and friends. I don’t cry often, but had to fight the urge while on the train towards the end of the book as Connell, a year after Ed’s death, reads a letter written to him by Ed while he still had the capacity to do so about being his father and what fatherhood meant to him. I hope never to have to write anything similar for OMB but also hope that if I did I could do it with similar love, dignity and eloquence. It is a great and important achievement in a book nominally “about” early onset Alzheimers for it to be most affecting as an account of people and their relationships. It reminds us that Ed is the man who Eileen loved (and who loved her) and the father who loved Connell, and not just the container for a terrible disease.