Friday, 25 July 2003


Tribune column, 25 July 2003

 I’ve just been informed that I'm going to be laid off. No, not by Tribune (you'll all be pleased to know), but by one of my other employers, The Guardian, for which I work casual shifts on the comment page.

There won't be any work for me, I was told, in September or October.

I'm hardly heartbroken: I've plenty of other work, and I think the Guardian will have me back. What gets me, however, is the reason I'm being laid off: the legislation passed by Tony Blair's government that gives workers the right to appeal against unfair dismissal after a year of continuous employment.

Worried by the prospect that the legislation will be used by a large number of casuals to claim permanent jobs – we are hired by the day and have no security of employment – the newspaper's management (like that of several other papers and magazines) has decided that no casuals should be allowed to work 12 months in a row. The rule now is that, once a year, every casual has to take two months off – and my time is up. Although that isn't a major hassle for me, hundreds of others whose sole source of income is casual shifts are having to take a substantial annual pay cut or find work with other newspapers or magazines.

It makes no difference if we protest that we have no intention of taking up our rights to employment protection or if we insist that we actually prefer our casual status to permanent employment: we're simply told that company policy is company policy.

Even signing a legally binding waiver – "I promise that I won't claim a proper job", or words to that effect – is not an option these days: that is one of the things that has been ruled out since 1997.

A defender of the legislation would argue that our problem is down to the attitude of management, and there is a lot of truth in this.

On one hand, they are undoubtedly trying cynically to resist giving permanent positions to a few people who have been casuals for ages and are to all effects and purposes doing a permanent job, but without the rights. On the other, they are working on the assumption that casuals are queuing up for permanent jobs, which is patently not the case: if they trusted their workers more, they would find that the catastrophe they fear isn't round the corner at all.

But this is not the whole story. The union most casuals belong to is the National Union of Journalists. And, like most unions, it is historically committed to decasualisation as a policy – and refuses to recognise that there is a problem with it.Its priority remains to get permanent jobs for the small number of its casual members who want them, rather than defend the now much larger number of casuals who prefer to remain that way. The argument that the union should be backing both groups falls on deaf ears.

Why this is I'm not quite sure, but the attitude at NUJ headquarters seems to be that casuals who don't want permanent jobs are suffering from some kind of petty-bourgeois false consciousness. The advantages of staying casual – that you can pick when you work and when you don't, and that you don't get saddled with all the dull administration and the culture of "presenteeism" that are the staffer's lot – simply don't register.

Now, I'm aware that employers using casual labour to evade their responsibilities are, in the grand scheme of things, a bigger problem than well-paid casual workers who value autonomy above security having to adjust their annual routines. There is, however, an important point of principle here that goes far beyond the little world of newspapers and magazines.
The "labour-market flexibility" this government enthuses about is largely a matter of employers being allowed to operate hire-and-fire policies. But some sorts of labour-market flexibility are good for workers – and unions should recognise it.

In a time of full employment and labour shortages, such as our own, many people recognise that the demand for their labour is such that they can earn a decent living without having to buckle under to the demands of a proper job. Working freelance or casual is not necessarily second-best to permanent employment: it can be a positive choice that gives you more control over your everyday life.

There is a simple solution: the government could legislate to reinstate the provision allowing casuals and short-term contract employees to sign a simple form waiving their employment rights. Something tells me that the unions would recoil in horror at such a move.
But has anyone got a better idea?

Friday, 11 July 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, July 11 2003 

I spent an afternoon this week poring over the report of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee on the decision to go to war with Iraq, and I agree with those commentators who dismissed it as an inconclusive document that does nothing apart from guarantee that the row over government dossiers on weapons of mass destruction will rumble on well into the summer.

There are still four possible scenarios for what will happen next, just as there have been since the row began (which as I remember was pretty much on the day of publication of the first dossier last September, which was widely criticised at the time for being old hat).

The first, which seems to be to remain perfectly plausible even though most people I know greet it with loud guffaws every time it is suggested, is that evidence soon emerges – in the shape either of the weapons themselves, of production facilities or of a credible witness from the very top of Saddam Hussein's regime – that Iraq really did have ready-to-use WMD at the time the dossiers were compiled.

In this case, both the government and the intelligence services will be off the hook, though there will doubtless be claims that the evidence is inadequate or even forged, and there will remain the suspicion that the evidence available to the government at the time it decided to go to war was flimsy in the extreme.

(There will also remain the strong argument that a country’s possession of weapons of mass destruction is not in itself an adequate reason for other countries to invade it, but that’s another question.)

The second scenario is that it turns out that the intelligence services told the government they were pretty certain that Saddam Hussein had ready-to-use WMD and the government acted in good faith on that advice – but, er, actually, ahem, whoops, Saddam didn't have WMD or at least didn't have them in a usable condition. In this case, the story is one of intelligence failure, and heads should roll in MI6 and GCHQ, though the chances are they won't.

The third scenario is the real killer for Tony Blair - that it transpires that the intelligence services told the government that they couldn't really be sure about Saddam's WMD capacity but the government decided it needed cover to invade Iraq so sexed up the evidence. In this case, heads not only should but would roll in government, and it’s difficult to see how Blair himself could survive.

The final possibility is that nothing very conclusive emerges from the whole affair, at least in the near future. Nothing much in the way of Iraqi WMD, no credible Deep Throats from Saddam’s inner circle, the funnies or Number Ten, no smoking-gun memos – just an ever-growing pile of circumstantial evidence, single-sourced gossip and inspired conjecture that turns the start of the war against Iraq into one of those stories that never dies, the assassination of JFK de nos jours.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s worth putting a small bet on scenario four. My guess is that the sequence of events in the run-up to war went something like this:

First, the Bush administration made it clear to the Brits by the beginning of 2002 at the latest that it was going to take out Saddam come what may for a whole string of reasons – his connections with terrorists, his military capacity, his continued defiance of the west.

Second, the Blair government, having at first been sceptical about this policy, came round to the idea of removing Saddam – but only if it were not done either unilaterally or without a credible and legal casus belli.

Third, the British and US governments decided on the basis of (largely accurate) intelligence reports that the hardy old issue of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was still the best way to broaden international support for an ultimatum to Saddam.

Fourth, as US rhetoric and military deployments became increasingly bellicose during 2002, Saddam dismantled his WMD factories and stocks, with the result that neither the readmitted UN inspectors nor the spooks managed to find anything.

Fifth, the rest of the world announced it was unconvinced by the argument that WMD provided a good reason for urgent action against Iraq and refused to back a second UN resolution.

Sixth, the US and Britain – faced with the alternative of stepping down and ceding Saddam a major victory – went ahead regardless and invaded.

Now it could be that I’ve got this completely wrong. The point, though, is that it’s one of several plausible narratives in which (a) every one of the UK players can claim to have acted in good faith throughout; and (b) every one of them can be accused by any other of consistent incompetence and procrastination. Which is a recipe for this one to run and run.