The Other Side of the Coin: Oxford’s Overlooked Living Wage Problem

Jacob Armstrong, former OULC committee member and Chair of the Oxford SU Living Wage Campaign, sets out the next steps in fighting for the Living Wage in Oxford.

Few students are not familiar with the comments Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson made over the summer regarding executive pay and free speech at Oxford. Regarding the former, Richardson admitted that she earns “a very high salary compared to our academics – our junior academics especially, who are very lowly paid”, but said that the £350,000 figure reflected the “global marketplace”, in which these rates of pay were necessary to attract the best talent.

We, as individuals and campaigners committed to ensuring our economy serves the community, cannot dismiss any disproportionate rates of pay as a reflection of market conditions. Richardson’s pay is widely scrutinised, and rightly so, but we are often quite long-sighted. We fail to notice the imbalances which affect those workers we interact with every day, as well as the effects of the local marketplace on those on the lowest pay. The university is by no means such favourable place for a lot of cleaning, catering and maintenance staff who serve the university and our colleges.

Oxford has often been named the most unaffordable city to live in in the UK, and the lowest paid workers in our university do not receive a wage which reflects the cost pressures they experience. To put it bluntly, they receive poverty pay.

This situation is becoming less and less tenable. Oxfordshire County Council has revealed that it is anticipating extreme difficulty providing housing for workers in coming years. In a recent article in the Oxford Mail, it was suggested that bosses “might need to look beyond the country to towns like High Wycombe to find enough affordable housing for the influx of extra workers” required to meet increased demand in health and social care. The recruitment of workers to provide cleaning, catering and maintenance services to our university and colleges is arguably affected by similar conditions.

It is imperative that employers keep up with escalating costs by paying a living wage which reflects these pressures. If not, it will be difficult to recruit and retain staff who provide essential services in our university and colleges.

As it stands, the university pays the national living wage as calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and has been accredited as an employer by the Foundation since April 2015. Eleven constituent colleges are also now accredited, but the picture elsewhere in the university is somewhat murkier. According to the Oxford SU Living Wage Campaign’s most recent complete research figures, pertaining to Freedom of Information requests from the last financial year, thirteen colleges pay the national living wage but are not accredited by the Foundation, offering no guarantee that workers will be paid this wage in the future. Three colleges do not pay a living wage at all; for a further three, the information received was not sufficient to establish the facts.

While accreditation is an important step we as students and members of the community should recognise and celebrate, it is not a stable solution given the local picture. The living wage calculated by the Living Wage Foundation for Oxford is over 9% higher than the national figure, at £9.26 compared to £8.45. This is a figure which will be revised when the Living Wage Foundation announces its recalculated wage on the 6th November.

If local cost pressures continue unabated, the gap between these figures is will widen. We desperately need to put more pressure on members of the university’s executive, and lobby the authorities of our own college, to develop a fair strategy on pay and the living wage.

 

Communitarianism: the Overlooked Ideology

Jake Davies explores the ideology of communitarianism, the effective opposite of libertarianism insofar as it puts the community’s interest before the individual’s in the economic and cultural sphere, and why it is important for the Labour movement to understand.

The belief that a straightforward left-right binary does not adequately capture individuals’ political views is not original – one need only look at the popularity of the online political compass as evidence – yet it is far from widespread. Most people today still give themselves political labels that apply to a single continuous spectrum, and in doing so obscure far more of politics than they illuminate.

To give a concrete example, YouGov conducted an oft-cited survey of the British electorate in September 2016 asking voters to describe where they see themselves on the political spectrum. A sizeable 45% of all respondents, and over half of the females asked, put themselves in the political centre; only 25% of voters described themselves as centre left or left-wing, versus 30% who believe they are centre right or right-wing.[1] As a consequence of surveys like these, political pundits and pollsters continue to assert the importance to electoral victory of winning over the centre ground.[2]

Yet there is one major problem with this analysis. It assumes that the 45% of Brits who define themselves as centrist share a coherent ideology that political parties can tap into. In reality, this centre ground will contain both hard-core Europhiles aching for a second referendum on our membership of the European Union and current/former UKIP voters who see themselves as neither left nor right. [3] In essence, two fundamentally different groups that any political party would struggle to reconcile. Yet as long as we continue to conceive of politics as occurring on a single spectrum, they will remain lumped together to the detriment of these voters and everyone interested in understanding politics.

What this means for communitarians

The response to our flawed conception of politics should not be to ditch political labels altogether. Rather, we should encourage the use of more nuanced labels that illuminate the range of political ideologies in Britain instead of concealing them.

This approach is particularly important for communitarian voters who are perhaps most likely to feel unrepresented by the left-right binary. Although holding highly distinctive views on economic and social issues, they tend to describe themselves as politically centrist out of disaffection with both the mainstream left and right, thereby obscuring their particular worldview behind the vacuous concept of the centre-ground.

Broadly speaking, communitarians are left-wing on economics, favouring redistribution of wealth and more state control in the economy, and right-wing on social issues: they are sceptical of mass immigration, are strongly patriotic, and oppose liberalisation of drug laws. As explained later on, communitarianism is a coherent and valid ideology, and it is certainly not akin to centrism. Its existence, however, is rarely acknowledged by political commentators or activists.

This poses a problem for all parties, but it is perhaps most acute for the Labour Party, 30-40% of whose support base could be described as communitarian, with these voters most liable to switch to the more socially right-wing Conservative Party in an age when issues of culture and identity are becoming as salient political cleavages as economics, if not more so.[4]

Up to now, many voices within Labour have regarded the recent trickle of communitarian-minded voters to the Tories, evidenced by Labour’s loss of seats like Mansfield for the first time ever in the 2017 General Election, as owing to the Conservatives’ communicative success. It is said that these voters, while holding left-wing or progressive views on economics, have voted against their own financial interests because they have been won over by Conservative rhetoric on immigration, patriotism etc. and that the way to win them back is to make the left-wing case on social issues more vocally or more appealingly. Underlying this argument is the view that such voters are inconsistent in their beliefs as they are left-wing in some areas but right-wing in others, and that winning them over to the left on social issues should come naturally. This attitude misunderstands the coherence of the communitarian worldview.

To be clear, this author is not suggesting activists should stop trying to win round voters to their side of the argument as evidently people change their mind on political issues all the time. Yet they should also recognise that some people may not be converted because they possess their own genuine ideological convictions, which at the very least have to be properly acknowledged by the left instead of blaming their failure to win them over on the opposition banging the drum more loudly.

The communitarian worldview

So what is communitarianism all about? At its simplest, it can be explained with reference to how a person with communitarian convictions would respond to Margaret Thatcher’s infamous line: “there’s no such thing as society.” The communitarian would side with a mainstream left-wing individual in rejecting this claim from an economic viewpoint. Both people agree that unfettered economic freedom damages the public sphere, say with the example of negative externalities arising from car pollution, and that restricting individual liberty is justifiable to achieve some societal conception of the greater good.

Yet when it comes to social issues, the communitarian finds themselves at odds with the leftists who promote a far more individualistic politics in which social bonds, otherwise known as tradition, are seen as stifling the freedom of the individual.[5]

One example of this divergence between communitarians and leftists on social matters is over immigration with communitarians invariably favouring immigration controls while many on the mainstream left support open borders. For communitarians, the argument for unrestricted immigration too often focuses on the freedom of the individual to move to wherever they want without a concomitant discussion of migrants’ responsibility to the community they join. Indeed, much of the present resentment about migration to Britain can be traced to the concern that people are allowed to come here and enjoy benefits conferred by society without being required to contribute in return, something which offends the communitarian belief in individuals working to advance a shared conception of the good.

The debate over immigration also invariably entails different conceptions of the nation, with some left-wing supporters of open borders presenting what Dr. Hugh Burling calls a “shopping mall” view of the national community as home to a random collection of people with no shared values, norms or identity.[6]

To be clear, there are plenty of other arguments in favour of open borders which do not rely on such extreme individualism, and the above discussion is not sufficient on its own to dismiss the case for them. However, what it should highlight is the prevalence of individualist assumptions at the forefront of much left-wing discourse and the potential this has in alienating the many Labour and non-Labour supporting communitarians in the country, a key but little understood part of the electorate.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/10/britains-political-tribes-hinder-labour-chances-of-winning-coalition

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/28/jeremy-corbyn-policies-yougov-centre-ground-labour

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/05/ukip-supporters-less-rightwing-than-tories

[4] This is at least the argument advanced by the likes of David Goodhart in his book The Road to Somewhere (2017)

[5] See, for example, Michael Merrick – Ch. 16 of Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics (2015)

[6] https://the-quadrangle.com/2017/03/13/open-borders-iii/

 

The New Feminist Agenda

Rachel Collett, Women’s Officer for MT17, reflects upon the relationship between the Labour movement and modern day feminism.

In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, we witnessed the largest single-day demonstration in US history: the Women’s March. With crowds of 500,000 people marching in Washington, and an estimated 5 million worldwide, women protested in solidarity with each other against the racism, misogyny and homophobia that his presidency condones. In the spirit of inclusivity, we said a collective ‘NO’ to a President we fundamentally did not want, and stood up for democracy and human rights everywhere. More recently, women also came out in solidarity against a similarly misogynistic mogul Harvey Weinstein. In the spirit of our sisters that came before us, we are showing that we will not stand for these infringements on our rights and the progress we have made.

But, in the coming years, how can we continue to move forward in an age where it is acceptable for men such as these to become President or run companies? We need to ensure that our protests become actionable, and we put an end to a long history of patriarchy. It is hard to believe that in the twenty-first century such attitudes still exist, and men can still get away with these reprehensible actions, but if there is one thing we need to hold on to, it is positivity and hope. Women’s issues are being brought to the forefront, and the fight is stronger than ever. People from many different diverse groups, representing many different ideas were brought together back in January 2017, and the importance of intersectionality was shown to be of paramount importance. The abuse hurled at our own Diane Abbot for being a black woman, and Laura Pidcock or Angela Rayner for being working class shows this clearly. By acknowledging this, we must use the collectivism seen then, and the solidarity as women across the globe stood up and said #MeToo, as the momentum for a new brand of feminism.

As a collective, we as women – and indeed alongside men – need to continue the motivation to overcome the misogyny of powerful men like Trump and Weinstein, as well as the patriarchal forces that support them. Without holding a teleological view of history, we are arguably in the best age for women – we have the vote, have more women in business and politics than ever before, and the pay gap is slowly but surely closing up. Yet, there is admittedly a long way to go, and we must not be contented or give up in the face of threats like this. It will be a long fight, and as Theresa May has ultimately failed in leading this fight, it is up to Labour to be at the forefront.

Even though the Labour party has never elected a female leader, we have done much to forward women’s rights and stand for equality. Starting with the suffrage movement, we have continuously championed women’s rights and produced strong female politicians. In light of this, we need to follow in Labour women’s footsteps and battle both the institutional sexism that unfortunately still exists, as well as the misogyny that many women experience every day. Electing a female leader, committing to a 50/50 parliament, and doing more to encourage young women and girls to be involved in politics will strengthen the party and lay a great foundation for tackling the sexist problems we face in 2017.

Mary Beard’s talk about women and power suggested that one of the reasons Hillary did not succeed over Trump, and why our own Theresa May is not taken seriously, is the imaginary ‘glass ceiling’ we still set for ourselves. The ‘exterior’ image of women in power is one which has more impact than we think. Normalisation of the negative idealisation of women in these public spheres is key; not just Labour but society in general needs to do everything to empower women and girls. If there is one thing we have learnt from our Suffragette sisters, it is that deeds speak louder than words. Now is the time to move away from pernickety feminist debates and use the Women’s March as an example to put everything we believe into practice. As our Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities said at Conference 2017, we are phenomenal women. Now is the time to tackle the sexism which is so pervasive and so normalised in society.

 

THE CO-OPERATIVE PARTY: 100 YEARS OF CO-OPERATION

Former BAME Officer and Social Secretary for OULC, Brahma Mohanty, gives us his thoughts on the illustrious history of The Co-operative Party.

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This October marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Co-operative Party: borne out of the Parliamentary Committee of the Co-operative Union of 1881 and founded by co-operative societies to seek fairer and more equitable treatment for co-operative enterprises, and elect co-operators to Parliament. Since 1927, the party has had an electoral pact with the Labour Party and candidates selected by the membership of both parties and with selected candidates standing under the ‘Labour and Co-operative Party’ banner, with members barred from joining any other political party apart from Labour and the SDLP in Northern Ireland. Today, it is technically the ‘fourth largest party’ in the House of Commons with some 27 MPs amongst the Parliamentary Labour Party, and with representation at every level of national, regional and local politics. Notable past and present Co-operative politicians include current Co-operative Party Chairman Gareth Thomas MP (Harrow West), Stella Creasy MP (Walthamstow), Seema Malhotra MP (Feltham and Heston), recent Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election victor Gareth Snell MP, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, the Baroness Royall of Blaisdon and former Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls.

The party’s hallmark of ‘co-operation’ can trace its roots back to mid-nineteenth century Rochdale, Lancashire, where members of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers laid down the set of principles (known as the Rochdale Principles) which co-operatives all over the world continue to adopt to this day. From a rented store in Rochdale (today the Rochdale Pioneers Museum), 28 workers (predominantly weavers) banded together to sell food items they could not otherwise afford in the face of poverty induced by the increased mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution. Within ten years, the movement had yielded up to a thousand such co-operatives throughout the country. By the start of the First World War, the movement had grown in both membership and trade but with the introduction of conscription, and the effect on stocks and supplies and even staff, the societies began to suffer, even being required to pay further profit taxes (though co-operatives essentially made no profits). This would lead to a motion being tabled at the 1917 Congress in Swansea where 104 retail societies called for their concerns to have direct representation at both the national and local government levels and thus on 17 October 1917, the Co-operative Party was born. Up to four MPs had been elected to Parliament by 1922 including A.V. Alexander who would take on the Labour whip.

Such was the close association between Labour and the Co-operatives that an electoral pact was reached between the two (by way of the Cheltenham Agreement 1927). The pact saw benefits for both sides allowing Labour to successfully recover as party of government post-Second World War through election of 23 Labour and Co-operative MPs, and aiding Clement Attlee and the Labour Party to a landslide victory in the 1945 General Election (with the 12% swing remaining the largest ever in British electoral history). Fortunes would fluctuate in the following decades with most significant decline in 1983 following the Foot-led Labour’s heavy defeat in the 1983 General Election. Things would improve by 1997 when all 23 Labour and Co-operative candidates were elected to Parliament and with Labour forming a government, the Co-operatives had their first Cabinet members since A.V. Alexander with Alun Michael and Ed Balls.

As the party approaches its 100th anniversary, the alliance with Labour remains stronger than ever with a commitment to “politics for people”, amongst other policies advocating the rights for those receiving care, their families and carers themselves to assume a more prominent role on the boards of private companies providing social care services As recently as February of this year, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell spoke of the importance of co-operative principles in a fast-developing ‘platform economy’ dominated by apps such as Airbnb and Uber in that “the power these changes in technology give us all is the ability to pool our collective talents and skills to produce wealth not just for a tiny handful at the, but for all of us”.1 A Labour government would be “completely committed to fixing our rigged economy and promoting the co-operative ownership of the wealth we produce” with the proposal of a new National Investment Bank central to providing funds to co-operative enterprises and promoting innovation.

In these turbulent and uncertain times for the UK economically, politically and socially, the principle underlining the alliance between Labour and the Co-operatives is critical now more than ever before. This should be a key component of Labour’s ambitions to govern as they seek victory in the General Election on 8th June. As Jeremy Corbyn has stated, “the co-operative movement is a force for human emancipation here in the UK and around the world” and that a Labour government should be driven by “co-operative principles of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity”.2

To join the Co-operative Party, visit: https://party.coop/

References.

  1. https://party.coop/2017/02/17/john-mcdonnell-pledges-to-fund-a-new-generation-of-co-operatively-owned-ubers-and-airbnbs/
  2. https://party.coop/2015/09/14/8679/