Harriet Williamson, The Independent
In a leaked recording, Liz Truss, the Tory leadership candidate and bookies’ favourite to be the next prime minister, can be heard attacking British workers. She said they needed “more graft” and suggested they lacked the “skill and application” of rivals abroad. When asked about the comments, Truss replied: “I don’t know what you are quoting here.” This is despite her own campaign team describing her words as “half a decade old” just hours earlier. If we cast our minds back 10 years, to the publication of a book called Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, co-authored by a number of Conservative politicians, including Truss, there’s a very similar narrative at play. Britannia Unchained dubbed UK workers among “the worst idlers in the world”.
So, we might surmise, Liz Truss thinks working people in Britain are lazy. We just need to apply ourselves more. Our skills aren’t up to scratch. Well, I have news for the woman most likely to become the next occupant of Number 10. The issue here isn’t a lack of “graft”, it’s a country that’s set up to work in the interests of a powerful and wealthy minority. It’s poverty pay, it’s wages and benefits that don’t keep pace with inflation – remember that 42 per cent of people on universal credit are in work, and that Truss has always voted against raising benefit payments in line with prices. It’s a shortage of graduate roles, and a lack of investment in training and upskilling.
It must be so much easier to blame working people though – people who can’t put their Amazon Prime subscription or their council tax bill on taxpayer-funded expenses. People not raking in an annual salary of £155,817.
Even before the leaked recordings were revealed, we had a pretty good idea of where Liz Truss stands. Her plans to cut pay for public sector staff – including teachers and nurses, the very people we hailed as “key” workers during multiple Covid lockdowns – outside the wealthy southeast are indicative of the value she places on ordinary working people.
Truss has also promised to introduce legislation targeting “militant action” by unions. As I wrote yesterday, by “militant action”, she means strikes, which are meant to be disruptive, because if they weren’t, there would be precisely zero point in them. The right to withhold your labour alongside your colleagues, after negotiations have failed, is something that all working people must see the value in protecting. Unions and collective workplace action is vital for giving working people a voice. It’s how we gain a seat at the table, along with bosses. It’s about agency and negotiating power in a world that is far too often set up to benefit those at the top at the expense of everyone else, something that has become increasingly clear as energy prices are set to decimate our finances and obscene profits are handed to shareholders.
Truss’s disdain for workers seems mightily clear. But this isn’t specifically a Truss problem – it’s a Tory problem. The Conservative obsession with personal responsibility, Thatcherite individualism and how you should be able to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” boils down to two things: contempt for the working class, and the belief that if you’re poor, it’s your own goddamn fault. It’s easier to debunk this now, perhaps more than ever. It’s not your fault, nor is it mine, that our gas and electricity bills are predicted to hit an average annual cost of over £5,000 by April next year. It’s not because people don’t know how to budget or are lazy or spend money on the small joys that make life worth living or demand their wages keep pace with inflation. You can’t “personal responsibility” your way out of being essentially held to ransom by the greed of private utilities companies. It would be nice to think so. Indeed, it would be easier.
Perhaps we should give Truss the benefit of the doubt about her years-old comments, but I don’t think so. Her performance in the Tory leadership contest, for the benefit of a deeply unrepresentative 0.3 per cent of the population eligible to vote in it, gives lie to that. Truss’s remarks are a symptom of a wider issue, namely the way those in power look down on the people they’re supposed to serve. More “graft”? Tell that to the people “grafting” in multiple jobs and still needing benefits to top up their incomes. Let’s call this what it is – a war on working people.
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