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3:  Now Charlie Swigs and Tony Spins . . .

Molly Scott Cato

How could a nation with such a  radical tradition as ours have  been brought so low? It was John  Ball, a leading Lollard preacher and  prime mover of the Peasants Revolt,  who wrote ‘When Adam delved and  Eve span, who was then the gentle- man?’ Yet here we sit, slumped on our  Linda Barker sofas, a new one every  year to keep up with furniture fashion,  and working all the hours God sends  to pay for them. Meanwhile the bulk  of the value we generate through our  work is creamed off to generate that  infamous shareholder value.

The quotation is important because it  indicates that it was in this country  that radical voices were first raised  against the unfair distribution of both  work and money. We did not need  Marx to produce his surplus value  hypothesis. This understanding had  already been around for 500 years by  the time he produced Capital.

Never mind the addition of ‘New’ —  it was ‘Labour’ that was always the  problem. In the days of John Ball  most people in this country were  peasants. They owed some duty of  labour to the local landowner, but this  did not define them. They were able  to grow food for their own needs  (what is now termed ‘self-provisioning’) on their piece of land and raise a  few pigs and chickens, grazing them  on the common land which the  community shared. This tradition  ended with the Enclosures, when the  landowners managed to force peasants  from their land, replacing them with  more lucrative sheep, thus also  creating a labour-force for the newly  industrializing cities.

The trouble with a Labour party, New  or Old, is that it defines people in  terms of their labour-power, accepting  the stealing of their right to provide  for themselves, and of the land which  enabled them to do this. The Green  Party challenges both those historical  injustices. We would introduce a  Citizens’ Income — a share of the  national wealth for each person as of  right, to allow them to meet their  basic needs. This would cut the link  between labour and survival which  creates so much stress and anxiety.

We would also tackle the gross  injustice of the distribution of land, 10  per cent of which still belongs to  descendants of the Plantagenets as a  result of the Norman land grab  following 1066. The Green Party’s  proposed Land Value Tax is initially  intended as a replacement for Council  Tax and will shift the balance of  taxation away from income (the result  of our labour) and towards assets.  Because the tax will be due from all  land, whether or not its present  owners are using it productively, this  will end the museumisation of the  countryside and allow land to pass  into the hands of those who will use it  as Nature intended — for producing  food.

Labour’s emphasis on Hard-Working  Families is a clear attempt to cement  the link between work and well-being.  The message is that those who work  hard deserve to provide for their  children, and this work is defined  within a labour market, so that  mothers, the disabled and now the  incapacitated are all required to labour  if they are to be supported. The battle  lines are drawn between ‘lazy’ Europeans, who still support a social contract  where their right to support is due to  them as citizens, and the industrious,  morally superior Anglo-Saxons, who  know they should work for their daily  bread. Niall Ferguson, a prominent  apologist for the new economic and  political imperialism and Professor of  History at Harvard, made just this  case in a recent article in the Telegraph  called ‘The atheist sloth ethic, or why  Europeans don’t believe in work’.  Ferguson makes a disturbing link  between hard work and religiosity, but  omits to draw attention to the more  important point that workers in  continental Europe continue to  outstrip UK productivity rates.

We may also see a connection between this renewed emphasis on the  moral need to work and the appalling  news from the Pensions Commission  that we may have to work five or  more years longer than we had  planned. Am I being too cynical in  wondering whether we might find in  The Peasants’ Revolt the beginnings  of an explanation for the panic over  the pensions crisis and the desperate  attempts to force more and more  people — mothers, the disabled, the  incapacitated — back to work? The  original cause of the Revolt was the  huge loss of population following the  Black Death some 30 years earlier.  This caused major demographic  changes and altered the balance of  power between workers and those  who exploited their labour, allowing  labourers to negotiate effectively for  higher rates of pay for the first time.  Plummeting birth-rates across industrialized societies may have a similar  effect over the next few decades.

So let us not be deluded by the  narrow range of choice on offer from  Adair Turner; as former head of the  CBI it is clear which side of the  debate he is coming from. We will not  be forced to work longer hours to  generate greater profits for shareholders. Instead we will demand our basic  right to have our needs met and to  have a fair share of our country’s  wealth and the value of our work.

Molly Scott Cato

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