2000s >> 2003 >> no-1181-january-2003

Greasy Pole: Plain Words

Nobody in their right mind – that is to say nobody who has an inkling of how this social system operates –would have been impressed by the assurances that the Bain enquiry into the firefighters’ pay claim was really “independent”. (There are a number of words in this article in inverted commas. This may irritate some readers, much as it does the writer. The purpose is to encourage scepticism about the use of such words.) As a start, let us assert that the whole concept of “independence” is false, just as the popular idea of a “fair” wage, a “deserved” pay rise are false. These are delusions resting on the assumption that wages are fixed by how useful the wage earners’ work is and that somewhere and somehow out there there is a wage which is “fair” because it exactly reflects that usefulness, or how strenuous someone’s work is and how it compares to other, similar, jobs. There is no way that any enquiry, no matter how “independent”, could make any sense of this, no way it could untangle such a mish-mash of delusions.

So they don’t try. Enquiries into wage claims have a number of other uses. Firstly they are often a ruse by which employers and governments representing the employing class to postpone the time for a decision, allowing them to strengthen their defences. When the firefighters called their first, two-day, strike they were denounced by ministers from Tony Blair downwards for acting with unreasonable haste when they should have waited for the Bain report in the confidence that it would be “fair” to them because it was “independent”. The firefighters were right to be sceptical because what Bain had been set to do was to lay down the case for a lower pay rise while the Fire Service was “modernised” – in other words while it co-operated in cutting its work force.

Firefighters and Bankers

There was much anger during the strike because of the feeling that the firefighters’ pay did not properly reflect their “worth”. In fact this anger, although it was supportive of the strikers, was misplaced. Wages do not rely on the worth of what a person does. If they were measured in that way firefighters and nurses and sewage workers, instead of bankers, currency dealers and royals, would be turning up for work in Rolls Royces. The only way to make sense of this apparent anomaly is to recognise that all wages are essentially determined, at any one time, by the relationship between the forces of supply of, and demand for, the labour power of the workers concerned. If the demand for nurses’ working ability outstrips the supply of it (always providing that the nurses assert their bargaining power) their wages will rise. If the opposite applies there will be a downward influence on their wages.

This reality is often used to justify companies offering big money to their higher management. “We have to do this,” runs the argument, “in order to attract people of the right calibre to run this great company of ours.” And it is used when MPs are debating whether to accept a proposal (from another, but rather different, “fair” and “independent” enquiry) to give themselves the kind of rise firefighters can only dream about, to attract highly qualified and capable people away from industry, commerce or the law or wherever to govern this great country of ours. This was how it was put by Robin Cook, Leader of the Commons, on 5 July 2002 when the Members were discussing (it was hardly a debate) the suggestion that they award themselves a 42 per cent rise:

“I do not think we impress the public if we set too low a value on our own worth . . . if we believe our work here is important we should not shrink from putting a proper value on it.”

This was not the kind of argument which the government would allow for the firefighters. And it was not how Bain saw the situation:

“Even allowing for the risks and dangers of the service, firefighters compare well with similar jobs in the public and private sectors . . .When holidays, pension arrangements and job security are taken into account, they are even better placed. This is borne out by the recruitment and retention figures, which show large numbers of applicants for each Fire service vacancy, even during a period of steady economic growth.”

In other words, the firefighters’ claim was undermined because the supply of their labour power outstrips the demand for it.


There is, however, a contradiction here, which goes some way to illustrate the implacable way in which the wage labour economy of capitalism works and the cynicism of the system’s rulers. Because if there is one job in which there is a surplus of supply over demand, it is that of an MP. To begin with there is the matter of the number of candidates standing for each seat; lots of competition there. In the 2001 general election it was a rare constituency which had less than five on the list. Seven or eight was not unusual. There is no record of any heckler suggesting that, as there was such competition in the matter of aspirant MPs, whoever won the seat should take a cut in wages. Then there is the fact that, at least in the bigger parties, there had often been a fierce struggle to get the nomination in the first place, with a large number of runners whittled down to a short list.

This process was illustrated in the case of Ted Heath, who after the 1945 election scratched around from one seat to another in Kent before he was adopted for Bexley. The Tories in Ashford rejected him because he would not agree to give up his command of a Territorial Army regiment and to refuse the offer of a ministerial job in a future government. (The successful candidate later told him that he lost the vote because he turned up for his crucial interview on a Saturday morning improperly dressed, in a dark blue suit and a stiff collar. Heath grumpily recalled that he did not then possess either article.) At Rochester and Chatham they said they wanted an MP who would make it into the Cabinet and “I am afraid,” said the Tory chairman, “that we do not think that you will ever hold an office of any kind.” At Sevenoaks it was rather simpler; Heath turned up late and made a bad speech.

Heseltine and Clark

Michael Heseltine had to show willing by contesting some safe Labour seats – Gower and Coventry North – before he got the chance of a safe seat at Tavistock. Even then the decision hung in the balance because he upset the straighter-laced Tavistock Tories when a men’s fashion magazine he owned – Town – featured that month an Ursula Andress lookalike on its cover. After he had won the nomination he heard from some women that they had voted for him because they liked his wife’s hat. When Tavistock disappeared under the knife of the Boundary Commission in 1970 he failed to get the nod at Mid Oxfordshire, where he was not even short–listed and then Mid Sussex before the Tories of Henley took him – and perhaps his wife’s hats – to their bosoms.

The odious Alan Clark tried to get himself selected from the late 1960s, trawling through what he called “a Litany of constituency names” in his notebook before he succeeded in Plymouth Sutton. This success required his attendance at a cocktail party with his wife – sorely tried, ever supportive as Tory wives are supposed to be. Let us hope they let him off lightly in the subsequent question-and-answer session for it must have been a grave affront to the conceit of that callous, arrogant man who seemed to despise and hate a considerable mass of the human race including – especially including – those in his own party. “That shower” was how he described the Tories at Ashchurch. “Imprisoned . . . by their own guilt” was how he saw the local party executive at Langstone. For the Tories in Plymouth Sutton he reserved some special venom: “Total shits . . . no purpose in life other than to bicker and back bite – degrade everything above a certain level of mediocrity.”


It is not only in the matter of failing to accept that their wages should be set by the forces of supply and demand that MPs fail to keep to the standards they try to set down for the rest of us. Nick Raynsford, the minister responsible for the Fire Service, is a man who has outraged some of his former admirers who never thought him capable of the breathtaking cynicism he displayed in his transformation into an ardent Blairite. He was notably brutal and overbearing in his verbal assaults on the firefighters. A recurring theme of his comments was what he saw as the FBU’s refusal to move to “more streamlined, focussed and flexible” working arrangements. Coming from an MP, that was a bit rich. The House of Commons cannot move to its business, which is supposed to be so vital to the interests of us all, without the security of a load of archaic symbolism and rituals – like bowing to the Speaker, going in procession to the House of Lords after someone in knee britches called Black Rod has knocked three times on the door of the chamber – or perhaps he is called Black Door and knocks on three rods – unable to do anything unless the Mace is in its place on the table, never using each other’s names because they must address people they know to be ruthless scoundrels as “Honourable Members”, never calling anyone a liar because they can only refer to “misleading the House”. For outdated practises the FBU has nothing on Parliament.

We can stumble around this maze of apparent contradictions, blind alleys and deceit (which is what wage negotiations often do) for a long time when the matter is essentially simple. This social system depends on wage labour – on the exploitation of one class by the other. The “worth” of what we work at, what we produce or organise, is simply not in the equation of how much we are paid. Neither are “justice” or “fairness”. These are concepts introduced to cloud over the basic fact that capitalism exists in the interests of only the ruling class and that obscure language is too often used to that end.

Leave a Reply