Tony Traub reviews Get it Together: Why we deserve better politics by Zoe Williams (Hutchinson, £14.99)
Zoe Williams is a progressive journalist with the Guardian. This book is a very worthwhile contribution to the debate about the present state of British society and an urgent call for action.
The author firstly poses the question of why the things that people take for granted (decent education, decent and secure jobs, decent housing and a good NHS) are no longer seen as automatic for the majority of young people coming through the system.
Jobs are now very insecure. Wages have stagnated at every point. Employers see how long they can get away with keeping graduates as ‘volunteers’. As Williams says, “it appears that the rules have changed. Some people blame the baby boomers, some blame immigrants and everybody to an extent blames the politicians but none of it sticks. She makes the point that politics in last decade or so has gone sharply to the right and this leads to some weird conclusions. For example, it could be that we need ‘growth’ (but what use is this if it just gets usurped by the top elite?). It could be that businesses are ‘wealth creators’ and must be lightly regulated, otherwise they may take all the wealth with them. But go where? Financial services are ‘wealth creators, and produce nothing. But what if business is ratcheting down wages and paying minimal taxes? However, markets are everything and we must not frighten them (perish the thought).
Williams exposes some misconceptions people have about poverty. To some people, poverty is an end in itself and a spur to progress. As Tory ideologue Keith Joseph once said,” making the rich poorer does not make the poor richer, but it does make the state stronger and turn UK into a totalitarian mess”. She makes some other very worthwhile points about how the debate on poverty is framed so that the poorer section of society are marginalised.
On health, Williams makes the assertion that as long as she can recall, politicians have been claiming the NHS is safe in their hands while privately planning to privatise it. She ridicules the Blair government’s target culture, “as everybody concentrated on the target rather than the treatment” She also condemns the Private Finance Initiative deals (initiated under Blair) which have loaded debt on to future generations. In 2012 the Health and Social Care Act was passed. It relieved the Health Secretary of his responsibility for the nation’s health. Williams points out that £13bn worth of contracts have been put up for tender. £2.6bn has already been delivered to profit-driven companies and £1.5bn has gone to companies with links to Tory politicians. One third of NHS walk-in centres have been closed, and half of all ambulance stations earmarked for closure. 144 lords and 81 MPs hold shares in the same companies that are bidding for NHS contracts. She then describes the iniquities of the US healthcare system – the system is so wasteful but at the same time so ineffective.
Williams goes on to discuss inequality and the social problems caused by the huge gap in wealth. Inequality is not bad just because rich people get richer and poorer people don’t. Rather, it is because of the power relations and makes people roll over to the whim of the employer, no matter how outrageous. She also discusses the fall in organised labour and how this has resulted in a stagnation of wages as well as a worsening of conditions. In 2005 the GMB union lodged an objection to the fact that AA call centre employees were being treated like battery hens. Employees were tagged to make sure they spent a maximum of 82 minutes away from their computers in a given day. Since then these sort of conditions have become standard throughout the industry. In addition, zero-hour contracts have become much more common: there are 1.4m throughout country. The issue of care workers and low pay is discussed. Because the sector is so female dominated the issue of equal pay doesn’t apply. The sector is dominated by private equity firms which walk away with any profits.
Williams exposes how the sell-off of national assets has not resulted in greater ownership. In 1979 we owned all our shared utilities (electricity, gas, water) and 40 per cent of the population held shares in UK companies – now 12 per cent own shares and the rest own nothing. She also shows how the whole PFI business is scandalous and lands the tax payer with a huge burden for a long time to come. With the railways, the charges levied by the government to the train companies for using the track were £3.9bn in 1994 and had gone down to £1.6bn in 2012, effectively another subsidy.
The whole business of awarding contracts (outsourcing) must be made more transparent. We should know by right that £82bn was spent over the course of the 2010-15 Parliament on outsourcing to private sectors, that is 42% central Govt spending, 30% local government and 13% on healthcare. A good point made is that in most sectors, there are four or five dominant companies, in some sectors only two or three. Half the population feel there is no transparency in the way these contracts are awarded.
Williams concludes with a rallying call for action. One proposal she makes is for a basic Citizens Income. This is where every citizen receives an unconditional income from the state that affords a decent, dignified life. She counters the standard right-wing argument that this would lead to people working less. In a study in Canada where people received this income, the only people whose hours decreased were new mothers and teenagers. Williams says our society should be able to cope with this small loss in production.
On housing as well the author concludes that radical action is necessary as it is clear that the market has failed to provide adequate solutions for the desperate needs of people. Williams says people should join the various campaigning groups on all these issues, for example join UK Uncut if concerned about tax avoidance or Generation Rent if you care about housing. However she is not a socialist and therefore nowhere advocates the challenging of the overall state structures which underpin capitalism.
William’s writing style is such that the reader’s attention is maintained through the book. She draws a lot from her own personal experiences so the book is not another dry study of the issues involved. The quality ty of research is high which is evident throughout. She also laces it with some good humour, much of it self-deprecating.