Feel-bad folly

June 21, 1996

Centre-left academic Peter Robinson tells Lucy Hodges why Tony Blair is storing up trouble if he fuels middle-class angst about job security whipped up by the media.

New signs of a government public relations campaign grinding into gear were evident last week as William Waldegrave, chief secretary to the Treasury and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, challenged Labour's thesis that we are all - even those of us in work - becoming more insecure and anxious about our jobs.

If you remember, Labour's Social Justice Commission told us that the global revolution of finance, competition, skill and technology meant the notion of a job for life had disappeared. "Employment insecurity affects us all," it said in a report.

Will Hutton in his book The State We're In and now in his TV series provides more ballast for the argument. "Only about 40 per cent of the workforce enjoy tenured full-time employment or secure self-employment, roughly equal to J. K. Galbraith's 'constituency of contentment'," he writes. "Another 30 per cent are insecurely self-employed, involuntarily part-time, or casual workers; while the bottom 30 per cent, the marginalised, are idle or working for poverty wages."

And so, we have it. A divided Britain in which job insecurity is a reality for 60 per cent, in which the infrastructure of the welfare state is collapsing and crime on the increase. Who would not feel insecure, given this evidence? Enter Mr Waldegrave to cast doubt on the doom mongers. Labour and Mr Hutton, the new editor of The Observer, have got it wrong, he says. Far from things getting worse for most people, particularly for the serried ranks of middle England where the swing votes lie, they are improving. To support his argument he quotes two impeccable centre-left sources: Joseph Stiglitz, chairman of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, and Peter Robinson, research fellow at the London School of Economics's Centre for Economic Performance.

A noted academic from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Professor Stiglitz cites figures for the period 1993 to 1995 showing that there are plenty of good jobs being created in the US. Contrary to what some people say, America is not becoming a nation of hamburger flippers. Two-thirds of jobs created since 1994 have been in occupations paying above the median wage.

Likewise in Britain, says Waldegrave. Since 1993, as many as 21 per cent of jobs created have been in professional jobs with average earnings 1.7 times the average. In the same period 24 per cent of the jobs have been created in managerial and administrative occupations which pay 1.5 times the average. Moreover these jobs are not all part-time or temporary, as the Labour/Hutton thesis would have us believe. Sixty per cent of the new jobs in Britain are permanent and 53 per cent are full-time. In addition, the vast majority of those with part-time jobs had them because they did not want or were unavailable for full-time work.

Waldegrave and Stiglitz have political axes to grind. Waldegrave is suggesting that the Government is responsible for the growth in "good'' jobs just as Stiglitz is inferring his master Mr Clinton should take the credit for the same trend in the US. Which is a bit rich, says the man who is a full-time academic, Peter Robinson. He describes himself as "a centre-left LSE Fabian type" and was surprised to find himself quoted by Waldegrave on Radio 4 last week. The increase in such jobs is a long-standing trend in the US and in Britain, he says.

Although Mr Robinson's work was used to boost Conservative Government arguments, it was not intended as such. Robinson's aim is to get at the truth. It is a postwar phenomenon that white collar jobs have been replacing manual ones, he says. In 1951, for example, only 15 per cent of jobs in Britain could be called professional, managerial and technical. By 1991, one-third fell into this category. The contraction in manual jobs was similarly noticeable. In 1951 more than half of jobs were manual. Forty years later the proportion had fallen to a third.

"It is not clear that the decline in the share of manual employment accelerated significantly in the 1980s," according to Robinson. "Rather the trends present for some time simply continued." Such trends are to be seen in other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. They suggest there has been no growth in the proportion of "bad" jobs - ones which are temporary, part-time and low-paid - only in "good'' jobs - ones which are full-time, permanent and well paid.

Similarly, the growth in the share of part-time work in the British labour market has been evolutionary, says Robinson. In 1951, only 4 per cent of British workers were part-timers. Ten years later it was 9 per cent, and in 1971 it was 16 per cent. By 1991 the figure had reached 22 per cent. The fastest growth during this period was in the 1960s.

When Hutton's book came out, Robinson combed through the text to work out how the author had arrived at the 30/30/40 split of those at the bottom out of work, those in the middle in insecure and those at the top in good, stable jobs. He confirmed the divisions and then went back a decade to see if things had become worse. "If you go back to 1984, you find very little has changed."

What has changed is that unemployment has got worse, and wage inequalities are now much greater. However, that is not what Hutton is saying. His book describes a situation in which the majority of workers are worse off than in 1979. That thesis is not borne out by the facts, according to Robinson.

Robinson is wary of using apocalyptic words like "revolutionary" to describe what goes on in the economy. "The changes we have seen in aggregate have been quite modest," he says. "We have been trying to compare ourselves with a golden age that didn't exist." It was not true in the 1950s and 1960s that everyone had a job for life. In fact people moved around between jobs almost as much as they do now.

The only really sharp break in trends since 1979 when Mrs Thatcher came to power has been the growth in self-employment, from about 7.5 per cent of workers in 1979 to 13 per cent in 1990. The sharp increase in self-employment distinguished Britain from other comparable industrial countries.

But it would be wrong to see that growth in self-employment as being about "bad" jobs, because some self-employed people, such as barristers, earn good money and have considerable job stability. Others, such as cab drivers and managers of corners shops are less fortunate.

Since the facts are clear then - the majority of people are not less secure than they were - why is this idea of middle-class angst gaining ground? The answer, Robinson thinks, lies in the media which has been very sympathetic to stories about greater insecurity. "Clearly, the newspaper industry went through its own mini-revolution in the late 1980s and the BBC has gone through dramatic change in the last few years," he says. "So the media has seen more change than most other areas of industry."

Robinson himself is on a short fixed-term contract - virtually the only contracts offered for research staff in universities - which means he suffers some insecurity but his income is in the top quarter of earnings. His example serves to show how difficult it is to squeeze people into categories.

The fact that Labour leader Tony Blair has jumped on the theme disturbs him. Talking up the insecurities of middle England is dangerous, he thinks, because it makes it difficult for a Labour government to turn round and ask Basildon man to fund improvements in the welfare state. "I can see the short-term political advantages, so that they can pick up these important marginal seats in the south where a lot of middle-class people have felt hard-done by with the collapse in the property boom and the recession.

"My fear is that, if Labour won the election it is precisely the relatively comfortable middle-classes to whom it will have to turn around and say 'you are the people who will need to fund the welfare state', and convince these people that they should bear the burden of improving public services."

That is what happened to Bill Clinton after winning the 1992 presidential election. He talked up the fears of middle America with a pitch which was the same as New Labour's. Having exploited such anxieties, it was difficult when he took power to do anything for the poorer groups whom the Democrats traditionally look after. The voters who put him into office were not minded to put anyone else's needs before their own. Hadn't they been led to believe their own suffering was more pressing?

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