Looking ahead: what Class did next
Hello and welcome to the Director’s blog. I’ll be committing my thoughts and views here anytime I’m enraged or enthused about issues like inequality, class, housing, employment, economic and social policies and alternative policy ideas.
As you’ve probably experienced, getting a new job requires having to explain to everyone where you’re going and what you will be up to. Telling people you are the new Director of a left-wing think tank prompts both entertaining and telling responses; these are my some of my favourites:
“Wow,” said my left-wing friends, before moving on to complaints about house prices, childcare and the political system; and the expectation that my new position will mean I can sort all of these things out.
“Huh?!” came the response from family members and my threading lady, along with questions about what a think tank is, what Class is, and what a Director of a think tank does. Think tanks are a mystery to many people; full of policy wonks that sound posh and use technical language, and for the most part only speak to each other. Class is distinct from other think tanks – as you would expect given our name. Our close links with ordinary working people grounds our thinking in reality. I intend to use this link as much as possible – after all, numbers can only tell us so much.
“Doh!” said some of my political junky mates. This final sentiment is a sign of the times. The rationale goes something like: we’re going to have at least 10 years of Tories, so why would you align yourself with the left?
Actually I believe this is a particularly interesting time to be leading a left-wing think tank focused on economic and employment issues (but then I would say that!). The world economy is in turmoil again, more mainstream economists are waking up to the need to end austerity measures; yes we have a left leader of the Labour party but we have a shortage of left voices in the media, there is a London Mayoral election in May and, of course, possible Brexit. The growing spin – from the misnomer of the ‘National Living Wage’ (i.e. an increase in the minimum wage NOT an actual living wage) to the promise of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ while reducing government funding to Northern councils – also requires constant vigilance and analysis. Simply put, there is a lot of debate to be had, awareness to be raised and policy ideas to be proposed.
A new start demands a lay of the land. Three statistics summarise today’s economic and social woes, and it is these sorts of numbers, alongside testimonials of those on low incomes, that I’d like to come back to in the future as a barometer of whether we have witnessed progressive change over time.
Starting on a positive note, average real earnings finally grew in 2015. This upturn in wages has been a long time coming but is certainly not the be-all and end-all. Average wages may finally be making a slow recovery but over 2015 the number of zero-hour contracts also grew – by 19%. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 744,000 people reported that their main job had a contract without a minimum number of hours. The 2.5% increase in average real earnings also hides the growing inequalities in income and wealth. The High Pay Centre found that in 2015 the typical value of a FTSE 100 chief executive incentive award increased by nearly 50% of salary since the previous year. I’ve been harping on about inequality for years, and while I’m pleased that the topic gets much more attention than a decade ago, I’m frustrated that policy makers have failed to act. As such, the gap between the haves and have nots is set to get wider with the negative socio-economic impacts growing in response.
This is the cost of a garage in Chelsea, London. This statistic symbolises ludicrous house prices in London but also demonstrates the North-South divide. While this garage is valued at £360,000, homes in Liverpool are going for £1 in a desperate attempt to regenerate abandoned neighbourhoods.
This is the increase in the number of children and young people who contacted Childline to talk about suicide between 2010/11 and 2013/14. Nelson Mandela famously said that "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." That is why I chose this statistic on mental health among young people in the UK, which is symptomatic of the changing financial situation of families, increased social pressure on children and young people and the education system. Shamefully, the UK recently ranked near the bottom of an international child happiness survey. Add to this growing youth violence in London, almost a third of those on apprenticeships failing to complete their placements and a doubling of 13-19 year olds admitted to hospital for eating disorders between 2010/11 and 2013/15 and you can clearly see there is a huge youth challenge.
Of course this list is not exhaustive and there are many other helpful indicators that could be used, but we all know that the litmus test for any society is not its debt levels or Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Some would also add 38% - the proportion saying they plan to vote to leave the EU according to the most recent YouGov poll. For me this vote is essentially about immigration – which makes me thoroughly depressed. Not just because I see this fixation as the consequence of fear-mongering and decades of misinformation on why people find it hard to get decent jobs, but because it means we can’t have an honest and well-rounded view on whether the EU is good for the UK. Class plans to shed more light on this issue over the next couple of months, so stay tuned.
Ultimately the rot in our economy that came to light during the financial crisis has simply been papered over. We’ve been like frogs in gradually warming water, who don’t realise they’re about to boil because the process happens incrementally. Class is committed to throwing pebbles to alert the frog to danger.