Botzarelli’s Third Law

There’s a lot of talk these days, particularly with respect to politicians and public figures about authenticity. What does it mean? I’m not sure it means much more than just acting normal. What does that mean? This is where my Third Law comes in to help.

“Almost everybody thinks their life is normal. Not that it is the same as everybody else’s but that it is ordinary. And almost everybody is right when they think that.”

Of course, some people have completely unusual and obviously extraordinary lives. Some of them can’t really avoid this – for example, the Royal Family are born into very peculiar circumstances which they have little real way of changing. But even they don’t have to be so different in their private lives as can be seen by the sheer cringeworthy embarrassment of the details of Charles and Diana’s accounts of their relationships or on a happier note, the very natural way in which Princes William and Harry talk of the Queen as their grandmother. Others choose to design extraordinary lives for themselves, particularly professional celebrities who deliberately turn their lives into public soap operas with differing degrees of stage management and artifice. Some are better at this than others – Jordan is the consummate professional at this, as are the Kardashians. Peter Andre and Kerry Katona on the other hand can’t stop being themselves or letting this break through the facade of PR gloss. 

But, once you get onto pretty much everyone else, the reality is that behind closed doors their lives (rather than the jobs they do) are ordinary to them. Whether you are very wealthy or desperately poor, most of the time I don’t think you spend a lot of effort ruminating on that but on the relationships you have and the pleasures and pains that life visits on you in reality. Life would be largely intolerable otherwise. We all get ill, fall out with people, fall in love, fight, get bereaved, worry about our children, laugh with friends, enjoy our leisure activities and all the other petty things that make up ordinary everyday life. If someone we are close to dies the grief we feel is not greater or less if they or we are rich or poor. The joy of the Kolkata street children on winning a game of cricket improvised on a street with a running sewer is not different in kind to that of the Etonian hitting the winning runs against Harrow at Lords.

None of this means at all that there aren’t differences and that we shouldn’t try to improve people’s material position or support the vulnerable. Rather that it is dangerous to start to think of there being only one way of being authentic and normal and that those whose lives are not like ours are somehow not normal or could not understand ours just because we refuse to understand theirs.

If you observe Botzarelli’s Third you can avoid the peril of seeming odd because it is the key to how to act normal. People who have to try to act normal almost invariably come across as odd. You can only act normal if you are a very good actor and few really are – in Jon Ronson’s book, The Psychopath Test, he interviews a psychopathic prisoner who comes across as incredibly normal and reasonable, but it is that which is the real giveaway. Everyone else, in attempting to act differently in presenting themselves as themselves will just emphasise what others might already have thought made them a bit unusual. That’s why the more poor Ed Miliband tried to look and sound what he had been told was “normal” the less like himself and the more peculiar he looked and sounded. And its why the actually quite odd Boris Johnson can “get away” with looking and sounding odd because he doesn’t seem to try to be any other way and it is hard to imagine him in private stopping looking and sounding like an overgrown and unruly schoolboy. It’s also why I think it’ll be a mistake if Jeremy Corbyn really does spend a lot of time trying to persuade people he really does love Britain in his first Labour Conference leader’s speech later today rather than just shrugging it off.

Don’t act normal, just be.

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Too Shy Shy

I didn’t write much about the General Election campaign beyond a comment on Labour’s Zero Hours Contracts proposals. I’d felt for a long while that somehow, despite Ed Miliband’s oddness he was probably going to hobble somehow into Number 10 and that if he did, he’d probably be weak enough not to do anything too radical or harmful – most of his policy announcements or statements of general philosophy were pretty vapid and consisted of criticising the effects of market based policies but only replacing them with a temporary fix to hit a particular failing rather than to strike at the cause of that failing (eg by fixing energy prices- hastily amended to read retrospectively as capping them when in fact they fell regardless of intervention and those who’d fixed their rates ended up paying more than those who stayed on variable tariffs).

Since the surprise result last week of a clear Tory majority there has been a lot of speculation about what went wrong. Why did the polls stay level pegging even up to the eve of the election? Innumerable Labour MPs and pundits suddenly announcing that they knew their campaign and leader were duds all along (which struck me as deeply unfair – if they thought that, why not do something about it rather than let poor Ed, an obviously decent man, carry the can before circling to fight over the remains?).

The most interesting line has been about the phenomenon of the “Shy Tory” to explain why there were many more Conservative votes in fact than would have been predicted by the opinion polls. The first General Election I could vote in was in 1992 where the Shy Tory first came into view. I’d been a rather lackadaisical student Tory activist and my recollection is that nobody even in the student Conservative Association thought Major had much chance (perhaps skewed by fruitlessly trudging the streets of safely Labour Oxford East, perhaps because the Association’s membership included more right wing luminaries like Mark Reckless) so the overall result was a surprise.

The day before the election, on my train home from London I had the chance to read an interesting (if very long!) statistical analysis of opinion polling for the last 50 years of elections compared with the actual votes. I recommend reading it if you have time. The striking conclusion that it came to was that in 10 of the previous 12 elections, the opinions had understated the Tory vote share (now 11 of the past 13). It doesn’t go into the psychological or political reasons why this might be the case in any detail but rather looks at the methodology of polling (which was changed after 1992 because of how wrong it had got that result). Most strikingly of all, on its final page it suggests a Tory lead of 6 points for 2015, which is pretty much spot on. After reading it I was tempted, in the face of everything else coming out of the media, to put a bet on a Tory majority (which would have stymied it!).

From a personal perspective I can well see that there may be a Shy Tory effect. Those who read this blog regularly or know me well in real life (and in some cases describe it/me as rabidly right wing- though I’d prefer to think I’m at least reasonably measured and rational about it!) will not perhaps see me as particularly shy. However, I tend not to talk politics much with people I don’t already know well. At least not on a party basis. Curiously, I’ve found that often if you just talk about particular things that are happening or could be done, the discussion is more interesting and friendly. Until the point at which it transpires that what you’ve just said is Tory policy. Whereupon it gets taken down for being a sham or a front for some corporate conspiracy theory or a misdirection away from something else. Which makes further discussion redundant.

I was rather mortified last week when Mrs B told me she’d told the mum of one of OMB’s school friends, who I get on with well and who is also a local Labour councillor, that I’m a Tory member (fortunately she didn’t seem to hold it against me!). Even good friends of mine will accept it only generally in the context of it being an eccentricity that years of friendship makes just about tolerable. Memorably after the 2010 election one friend said she’d assumed I was a LibDem as it was as right wing as would fit with her idea of people she’d spend time with. So, I didn’t join with the rest of my facebook timeline in bombarding everyone with political messages (largely Labour, some Green) ahead of the election or indeed gloating about the result afterwards. It just isn’t worth the bother.

I think the phenomenon of Shy Tories will continue to exist until either there is an acceptance that not everything (or even most things) which might be proposed by the Tories are by definition evil or uncaring, or when many of those things are accepted and proposed by others so that you can support them without having to mention or be one of the Tories (the Blair effect). The reality is possibly that at least some Tories aren’t so much shy as just more introverted than those who want to shout their moral crusades on marches and placards, sound off on social media campaigns or to dominate a dinner party or pub night by chivvying everyone up to agree with them. We can find the campaigns run by The Sun and the Daily Mail to be cringeworthy without having to support those they are aimed against or be drawn into defending them and their proprietors.

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.