The history of work stands in Ed Miliband's way

The Labour leader would love to lay out his left-wing stall, but he is thwarted by the realities of capitalism

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One of my favourite pieces of pre-teen reading was Talbot Baines Reed's late-Victorian school story, The Fifth Form at St Dominic's. This was distinguished by an extremely subtle sense of humour. At one point, the group of fifth-form boys who edit the unofficial school magazine, The Dominican, learn to their horror that the prestigious Nightingale Scholarship has been won by a classmate suspected of having stolen a copy of the exam paper. How is the supposed triumph to be reported? Happily, an unpopular sixth-former has underperformed. The scholarship is duly recorded as having been "lost by Loman of the Sixth".

Fast forward to the electoral battleground of 2015: if the odds on David Cameron winning the next general election must still be fairly long, then those on Ed Miliband losing it must be uncomfortably short. It is not that Mr Miliband has an odd, adenoidal voice (a trifling distinction, I know, but it seems to matter to the electorate in the same way that Neil Kinnock's red hair and Welsh accent always counted against him); it is not that people suspect him of being unable either to live with his trades union paymasters or get by without them. Rather, it is that, however hard he tries to distinguish himself from the Cameron-Clegg axis, and however finely nuanced the policies designed to achieve this separation, 21st-century New Labourism is really only a slightly less awful version of what is already on offer.

This is Mr Miliband's dilemma. He would love to be able to strike out on a line of his own – so answering Andy Burnham's concerns this weekend about the direction of the party. And yet the impediments of a horribly inflexible fiscal system, and a global economy over which he has no control, constrain him in everything he does. It is dreadfully unfair on a man who would like to be a democrat but is intelligent enough to realise that, even as prime minister, he would only be an oligarch, whose destiny it is to preside over an increasingly servile state.

The idea of the "servile state" was first conceived by the Catholic propagandist Hilaire Belloc in a book of that title published in 1912. Belloc despaired of pre-Great War capitalism for its concentration of power in the hands of a few unaccountable commercial titans. He was equally suspicious of socialism, on the grounds that its collectivism was essentially bogus: in the end, everything would still be run by a tightly knit gang of back-stairs intriguers. Belloc's solution, dreamt up with his friend G K Chesterton, was an economic theory called "distributism", a mock medievalism designed to nurture the idea of individual freedom on the "three acres and a cow" principle.

The drawback of distributism, alas, was that the simple-lifers attracted to its rural communes turned out to be middle-class progressives. To an industrial worker, scheming to buy a new sofa on the never-never and a ticket for the latest Hollywood extravaganza, the whole thing was reactionary nonsense when set against the blandishments of the machine age.

This may seem quite a distance from Mr Miliband, but the challenge is the same. Somehow he has to convince the millions of people who vote Conservative, but are actually disadvantaged by doing so, that their economic, not to say moral interests are better served by voting for him. Belloc, at the time he wrote The Servile State, had recently retired as Liberal MP for South Salford, a fact that the equally unhappy Mr Clegg may like to ponder.

...

Meanwhile, a worm's-eye view of some of the consequences of the servile state was provided by last week's row over "zero hours" contracts, that enlightened practice – praised, naturally, for its "flexibility" by certain captains of industry – whereby employees have to be available for work but are not guaranteed any set number of hours. The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) has calculated that up to four per cent of UK workers could have been forced to accept such contracts, while 14 per cent of staff employed in these conditions told the CIPD survey that they did not receive enough work to ensure a decent basic standard of living.

When the social historians of the 2050s come to file accounts of the period 1990-2010, whole chapters will doubtless have to be devoted to changing employment patterns, and, in particular, the retreat of old-style paternalism before our modern belief that the precariously employed should be so grateful for any work offered them that the old codes of decency, civility and so on don't apply. The paternalist approach that characterised so many mid-20th-century businesses had its roots in an unspoken bargain.

My father, for example, arriving at the Norwich Union Insurance Society, as it then was, in 1937 on a salary of £45 per annum, had it made fairly clear to him that he would be bored out of his mind for the next 44 years. In recompense he could expect a job for life, a subsidised mortgage, an advantageous pension scheme and, above all, an employer who, in however narrow a way, bore a responsibility to the people it employed and the community from which they came.

Three-quarters of a century later, the thraldom imposed by the servile state is of a rather different kind, and abetted by a technological revolution which means that your boss can get at you whenever he or she likes. If there is one consolation, it is that at least a proportion of the UK workforce recognise this state of affairs for the swindle it is. US business sharks, as is regularly pointed out, get away with far worse owing to the existence of an aspirational myth whereby the boy sweeping the floor genuinely does believe that he could one day end up running the company.

On the other hand, you doubt that Mr Miliband will improve his prospects by pointing all this out.

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