Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: November, 2013

What Mr Miliband may learn from a week among the mangles

It is  time for Ed Miliband  to spend a week working in Weston’s Laundry. My father regularly  consigned members of the royal family to once renown  north London sweatshop to understand what working life was all about. It might not do the Labour leader any harm either.

In most respects Edward is coming along well; making inspiring speeches, matching David in the opinion polls and showing the mettle of a future leader. But he has got carried away recently on the subject of the living wage.

I am sorry to cast aspersions on the idea of the living wage which is a commendable attempt to deal with the problem of low pay dished out to 22% of the working population in the North East  in shops, hotels, care homes and laundries.  But I fear it has been taken up as a motherhood and apple pie idea by politicians  as a way of avoiding  their responsibilities.

What would Mr Miliband find out from his weeks operating a mangle? My guess is that most of his fellow workers  would say  they would like a pay rise but that  they receive the going rate for a day’s work and that they would not get paid better in any other comparable job. They know the value of a job and they don’t want the laundry to go out of business.

 Mr Weston would say that he gives the highest priority to looking after the staff  but that it is cloud cuckoo land to increase wages by about 20%. His business could not bear the extra expense and that if he passed the increase on his customers, they would take their shirts down the road to Birds Laundry instead.

Mr Miliband would point out that living wage employers have better motivated staff, higher quality work, reduced absenteeism  and lower turnover. He would  quietly add the Exchequer would benefit  by  saving  £46m  in welfare benefits  and gaining a  useful £92m in extra tax and national insurance contributions. He would argue persuasively that  the living wage is on the yellow brick  road to a high pay, high skill economy which is the only way forward for an advanced economy.

It sounds a great idea for a socialist leader as it  deals with the so called cost of living crisis and revives the economy at the same time. It sounds too good to be true.

Despite the inducements that a future Labour government might provide by way of tax relief to get small employers to sign up, I cannot see small charities like the one I run or many small businesses being anywhere near able to afford it. And this grieves me as charities have always placed great value  on paying  their staff fairly.

The influential Cambridge economist, Ha-Joon Chang points out that large swathes of the U K economy are no longer subject to the push pull of market economics that still operates in the laundry business. The banks, utilities and railway companies have ‘market power’ and can raise their prices because we have no choice but to purchase their services. They could introduce the living wage but sadly  they seldom seem to use their profits to increase wages.

When Mr Milband has completed his week in the laundry, I will commend to him Anthony King and Ivor Crewe’s wonderful  new book, ‘The Blunders of Government’, which I am giving everyone for Christmas.

King and Crewe make the point that bright policy initiatives need to tested far more widely by those who know a thing or two about how they play out in the real world. The Child Benefit Agency, for example, might not have been set up in quite the same way if single parents had been involved. Labour’s  idea of tampering with tax regimes and micro managing the pay packet to get us all on to a living wage is a nightmare that has all the makings of another blunder.

The trouble is that we are moving into a politics of hints and nudges to put the world to rights. Putting green taxes on our energy bills must have seemed a painless way of subsidizing the badly needed alternative forms of energy. But the policy  has  rebounded  and is likely to be abandoned any day now. If government believed in green energy , why didn’t it fund home insulation and wind farms  directly in the first place?

Although Newcastle City Council has taken a brave lead in adopting the living wage, it is unlikely to achieved elsewhere  by exhortation. It will only work if employers adopt the scheme across the board and, as we know, Mr Weston is reluctant to do so.

Why doesn’t Mr Miliband look back on the great achievement of his predecessor, Mr Blair ( who also shortened his first name to appear to be  a man of the people), in introducing the national minimum wage. It was achieved by legislation that was controversial at the time but accepted by all parties today.

The minimum wage (  £6.31 an hour)  is now considered to fall short of what is required by the proponents of the living wage ( £7.65 ) so one obvious way forward would be to hike up the statutory minimum wage. This could be a more effective way of reviving the economy than giving the money to banks through quantitative easing.

 If Mr Miliband is in charge after the next election, then I hope he will have the courage to make the living wage, or whatever terminology might then be used, mandatory. If it really does have the benefits he sees in it, it will be worth the pain. That really would be leadership.

Whilst I am giving advice, as a father to an Edward who is invariably called Ed by his friends, I also urge Mr Miliband to use his full name which conveys authority . He need not worry about what the workers in  Westons Laundry will make of his name as  the laundry  went out of business many years ago.

 George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene



How a handful of people can challenge the rest of the world

This summer a group of pilgrims walked from Iona in Scotland to Downing Street, passing through Hexham and Newcastle on the way. As I read an account of their journey last week, I had a deep sense of disappointment that I didn’t join them.

I could plead that the demands of a more than full time job prevented me from undertaking the two month required for the full walk. But the pilgrimage did go past my front door and I should have managed a day or two.

The Pilgrimage for Peace and Social Justice was to focus national public attention on the government’s intention to spend up to £100bn renewing the UK’s Trident nuclear missile weapons system. Why don’t we care more about holding nuclear weapons?

As you read this column, a Royal Navy submarine is on patrol somewhere in the Atlantic with 40 thermonuclear warheads that enables us to maintain “continuous at sea deterrence”. Against whom?

We can work up a sense of outrage about chemical weapons, especially when held by foreign powers, and not be at all bothered about the illegality and inhumanity of our stockpile of nuclear weapons which kill indiscriminately and leave radioactive  fallout across national boundaries for years afterwards.

For some people, the moral issues alone are sufficient for nuclear weapons to be banned. Even the pragmatists amongst us must now ask why they are needed in the post cold war politick. Are the warheads still targeted on Moscow?

It is not as if the weapons will be quietly retired as they become obsolete. The point of the pilgrimage was to draw attention to the government’s plan to build a new generation of submarines, missiles and warheads to replace the current fleet sometime in  2028.  The design work has already begun at a cost of £3bn and the final decision to commission the weaponry will be made in 2016. The estimated cost of a new system is £100bn. It will  defend us for a further 30 years.

The Conservatives remain committed to the “full protection” provided by nuclear weapons and castigate any alternative as dangerous and utopian. The Liberal Democrats incline towards a cut price version with fewer submarines and the Labour Party, which still remembers its painful unilateralist stance in the 1980s,  sits on the fence. Opinion polls show that electorate couldn’t care either way.

There is now a fast and furious debate about HS2 – just look at the letters page in the Journal – which costs half the price of a new submarine kit. To my mind, the economic case for HS2  is hard to prove either way but the case for abandoning nuclear weapons is a no brainer.  But whilst HS2 may be derailed because of escalating cost, the Trident replacement programme is exempted from the strategic defence review and from all consideration of austerity measures. It is sacrosanct.

There is virtually no debate about nuclear weapons even though they raise   fundamental  issues of life and death and the future of the planet. We appear to only get up het up when our back yard is threatened by a railway line or a wind farm.  Why do we ignore the larger issues?

There is an august body, the British American Security Information Council , reviewing the options and due to report sometime soon – but there is no public clamour apart from the brave people, mainly Quakers, walking from Iona to London this summer. And I was unable to get out of my armchair.

I did forsake the armchair on Monday afternoon, on a rare day off from Shepherds Dene, to see the much applauded film Captain Phillips in which the eponymous captain is taken hostage by Somali pirates. I was looking for some entertaining escapism but was not sitting on the edge of my seat for the entire 90 minutes as everyone else appears to have been.

As the film  is showing for another week, I should not spoil the story for you. But I can  reveal that the moral of the story is that the  American navy will always  keep the high  seas safe. If the Navy is in a tight corner, those intrepid Navy Seal teams will come to the rescue. Once the Seals emerged from their blacked out cars and boarded their camouflaged aircraft, I knew the film had only one ending.

In fact, the attempts by the world powers to control the Somali pirates  have had  mixed results.  The World Bank estimates that about $400m was paid in ransoms off the Somali coast between 2005 and 2012. The brave and possibly reckless Captain Phillips must be the exception as piracy has more often been dealt with by brown envelopes.

In a week when  the American security services were revealed to have been tapping Angela Merkel’s phone, along with nearly everyone except David Cameron, there was something terribly old fashioned about military action  and heroism on the high seas  reminiscent Captain Hornblower.

Captain Philips seems likely to sweep the Oscars just like  Argo did last year.   Argo was based on the true story of how the Americans spirited embassy staff out of Tehran disguised as a film crew. It  was an enjoyable film but not good enough to  receive such a  large haul of awards. (If you want to see a factoid film this week, try Philomena )

We all like to believe that the cavalry will come charging over the hill; that  goodies will win and the  poor half starved  Somalians will be punished.  We do not like to delve into the real world of wide scale surveillance or face up to the terrible issues faced by possessing and renewing nuclear weapons.

If we are not more critical and  outspoken, we will  be committed to a new fleet of submarines pointlessly patrolling beneath the waves until the middle of the century.

As the anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Next year, I will not have the excuse of a full time job. It may be time to go  on a long protest walk at last.


George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene