By Phil Jones
What is the Johnson government’s vision of the UK economy? How do they view the world of work? And have they given us a sense of what either might look like?
The economy – perhaps, but work – not really. The closest we get to an answer in terms of policy pledges is Sajid Javid’s spending review. The chancellor pledged £13.8billion expenditure on public services, a less than subtle overture to the end of austerity.
Of this, however, we should be sceptical. Though the figure sounds impressive, the IPPR referred to the pledge as a ‘mirage of figures’ that does ‘not reverse a decade of austerity and chronic under-investment in our society and economy’.
The mirage metaphor is apt. In the desert, a mirage tends to hide a more brutal reality from the viewer. This reality can be seen in Britannia Unchained, the radical libertarian manifesto written by a number of cabinet members – Priti Patel, Liz Truss and Dominic Raab, which offers the clearest vision of what the Johnson government might do to the economy and workers in the event of ‘no deal’.
The manifesto’s key aim is to make British workers as productive as their Asian counterparts, citing Singapore and Hong Kong as prime examples – two economies where labour rights and regulations are far less comprehensive than those enshrined in EU law. Restrictions on the working day and child labour protections, for instance, are significantly less stringent. Conveniently eliding these facts, the authors argue that the difference between these economies and the UK’s is simply a matter of hard work. They worry that all ‘evidence points to a decline in the work ethic in Britain’.
While a comparison between workers in Britain and the Asian tiger economies is disagreeable in itself for various empirical and moral reasons, it is worth picking apart the arguments they make, not least because many are based on mistruths or a complete lack of evidence. They argue that in the 21st century, ‘fewer Briton’s work’ and that ‘those who work put in fewer hours’. They put this down to individual choice, the fact that ‘too many people in Britain… prefer a lie-in to hard work’.
If you look at the first claim historically, then it is simply not true. Since the 2008 crisis, the unemployment rate has pretty much been dropping year on year. It is now, apparently, the lowest it has been since 1971. In fact, we put in some of the longest working hours in Europe – something that Lord Skidelsky’s recent report underlined.
This raises another important point: the authors’ claim entirely depends on what you class as ‘work’ and, more importantly, who does the ‘work’. To pick one author amongst many others, Nancy Fraser has convincingly shown that ‘care’ should be seen as a form of ‘work’ that rises significantly during periods of austerity when public provisions are taken away. Because it is disproportionately carried out by women and does not directly produce money, we tend to see this activity as outside the remit of what ‘counts’ as ‘work’.
Their second argument – that British workers choose to ‘put in fewer hours’, again relies on a mistruth. While unemployment is apparently low, underemployment is increasingly high. Available data shows that between 2008 and 2019, underemployment has doubled, rising from 2 million to 4 million people. A report by the Living Wage Foundation states that ‘270,000 people have less than 16 guaranteed hours of work per week but want more’. Casual contracts are becoming baked into the market, with over 9 per cent of the adult population regularly working on flexible labour platforms. If workers are indeed putting in fewer hours it’s because there is not enough decent work to go around, not because they ‘prefer a lie-in’.
But if workers did simply ‘prefer a lie-in’, who could blame them? The UK labour market currently does not have much to offer. A 2018 ONS study on expectations for earnings amongst 16 – 21 year olds lays bare the disappointing reality. Young people were asked how much they expected to earn by the age of 30, and these aspirations were contrasted with the actual average earnings of 30 year olds today (See below chart).
The study found that half of 16 to 17-year-olds expected to earn £35,000 by the age of 30 if they’d achieved a degree and £25,000 if they did not have a degree. The reality is, drawing on data from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE), that the average salary of a 30-year-old is £23,700 (2018 figures).
There is also a contradiction between the goals of Britannia Unchained and the ‘no deal’ strategy that gets them there. If what these authors want is productivity levels reaching those of Singapore, a deeply dubious ambition I should add, then ‘no deal’ does not appear the best way to achieve this. For these authors, idleness means reduced productivity; far more pertinently however, Brexit means reduced productivity. Tej Parikh, Chief Economist for the IoD, claims that ‘With political risks clouding business decisions, firms have lacked the confidence to invest in the equipment and technology that drive efficiency gains in their organisations’. And if ‘no deal’ advocates think that productivity will simply pick up once we have left the EU, then this forgets, perhaps wilfully, that leaving without a deal will only add to the uncertainty that drives down investment.
The goal of Brittania Unchained is to jumpstart the UK’s ‘lazy’ workforce by reducing worker’s rights and protections, producing a productivity miracle like nothing our island has seen before. But the strategy that gets them there, a ‘no deal’ Brexit, may turn out to frustrate this goal in ways the authors are blind to.
Phil is a PhD researcher at the University of Sussex focusing on cultural representations of the digital economy. Alongside his report on employability for Autonomy, he is currently writing a book about tasking and crowdwork.