AS basic freedoms start to creep back, the vested interests are starting to agitate for a return to mandates, controls and authoritarianism. The predictability is sickening.
To paraphrase Orwell, it is worth remembering that in terms of lockdowns all animals are equal but some are more equal than others. I have defined four classes of working people for whom the experience of the last 20 months has been very different.
Civil servants and vast swathes of the public sector (including academia)
These people are going to look back on the pandemic with fond memories of happy times. Working – kind of – from home with no supervision, no irksome commuting and no tedious time-keeping. Flexitime on steroids with a guaranteed salary and an enviable pension in prospect, boosted by massive savings on season tickets. Basic indisputable logic affirming Wright’s rule of public service: given a choice between prioritising the needs of the public and the needs of themselves, public servants will choose themselves every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Clearly their response to a proposal for a return to a widespread WFH policy will be: Bring it on! It’s the only safe and responsible course of action. Protect the NHS and all that.
The professional class, able to work from home
Most of my family, friends and acquaintances fell into this group, unlocking a presumed connection between work and place, and finding innovative ways to carry on. Internet technology was key. Those with mild introvert tendencies and independent natures adapted remarkably well, and appreciated the benefits of losing that irksome commute. Others, including myself, who thrive on the physical company of others detested the experience. Many in management roles soon started to develop misgivings about the impact on productivity and the implications for commercial viability. Surviving the aberration and engineering a return to normality was a common aspiration in this group.
Furloughed workers, unable to work at all
As of August 2021, approximately 11.6million jobs involving 1.3million different employers were furloughed in the UK. Only three acquaintances of mine fell into this category. But I noticed that they had one thing in common: a big fat smile. ‘Being paid to stay at home. Does life ever get any better than that?’ one remarked, clearly more than satisfied with the money-for-nothing arrangement. Hard to argue with, although I did wonder whether he would have a job to go back to when the madness ended. And what he would think about the inevitable tax increases if he did.
All the rest
It is this final group, unsung heroes so often taken for granted, that really interests me. These are the largely anonymous workers who keep society functioning. Their jobs simply cannot be carried out remotely. Examples include truck drivers, supermarket workers, rubbish collectors, postmen, farmworkers, dockers, utility technicians, delivery drivers, front-line emergency workers (including nurses), all manner of self-employed artisans and many others. No cosy working from home in pyjamas and no opportunity to embrace all the leisurely joys of furlough. Just dragging themselves out of bed every day and working hard for modest returns but scant appreciation. I doubt whether many in this class will look back on the pandemic with fond memories.
So what has been rootling around in the back of my mind since the easing of restrictions in the summer of 2021 has been the thoughts and emotions of these guys. Especially since Boris Johnson’s puerile speech at the Conservative conference on October 6 when he declared: ‘We are dealing with the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society, the problems that no government has had the guts to tackle before.’ He went on to promise ‘a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy’.
In normal times, this kind of language would be written off by Joe Public as the usual, meaningless political BS. But we are certainly not in normal times especially in terms of differentiated pay, benefits (especially pensions) and working conditions. A chasm has opened between low-paid workers in the fourth category and the others, led by the elites in the first category.
Johnson would do well to appreciate that, and should be praying that his words do not come back to haunt him this winter.
Because if I was a rubbish collector on modest pay, I might be tempted to decide, ‘If you have the guts to promise everyone a high wage, Mr Johnson, I have the guts to hold you to that promise, up to and including indefinite strike action. And if you don’t like the outcome, you can try working shifts on the bin truck.’
What makes these robust thoughts even more likely is the dire economic storm clouds coming up rapidly on the horizon. These issues were explored by Ryan Bourne in the Telegraph on October 14 in an article headed ‘Britain’s age of austerity is far from over’.
Bourne’s succinct article considered the current set of economic factors and unprecedented levels of public (and private) debt to develop a realistic conclusion that is completely at odds with Johnson’s bombastic optimism. Hard times are coming and as usual it is the lowest-paid who will feel the most pain, especially families struggling to feed and clothe their children and keep them warm. Combine that daily challenge with a righteous sense of grievance that some have worked long and hard through the pandemic while so many others have put their feet up at taxpayers’ expense, and I suspect there is a febrile brew cooking up across the nation.