Bog roll, buses & the Estonian president: Why we need to resurrect Tony Blair’s “Respect Agenda”

Those who know about the former Estonian president Lennart Mari may remember the incident involving a public toilet: returning from a state visit, President Mari was met by journalists, whom he asked to accompany him to the airport’s lavatories, which were stinking and broken. Referring to the country’s communist past, Mari said “These are the remains of a previous epoch, which we must get rid of as soon as possible“.

I was reminded of Lennart Mari when I recently used the toilets in a well-known supermarket. The cubicle lock was hanging off and the whole area in dirty disrepair. Later in the day I passed another supermarket in a wealthier area, and decided to compare. The facilities were spotless, the bog roll soft and plentiful.

This is just one example of how British people with average incomes are treated with everyday disrespect. For example, people who regularly go to work on the same bus as me often hear the announcement “the destination of this bus has changed”, which means “it says ‘London Bridge’ on the front but we have now decided to kick you off on Moorgate”. Barring malfunctions, this doesn’t happen on trains, but then richer people use trains.

One of the problems associated with unemployment is the damage it does to self-esteem; but for many people, esteem-corroding contempt is part and parcel of their jobs. The bakery that employed my mum stopped paying her at closing time, but expected the place to be cleaned when the customers had gone. People on zero-hours contracts are expected to be flexible to an employer who is not flexible to them.

Little surprise, then, that worrying numbers of British people have anti-business attitudes: most people say that “big business benefits owners at the expense of workers” and “management will always try to get the better of employees if it gets the chance”. Almost two-thirds of voters want the government to be “tougher on big business”.

Tony Blair’s “respect agenda” focused on anti-social behaviour. We need a new respect agenda, to give people respect in their working lives and to build workers’ respect for business as a result. Some companies already have policies that treat employees as if they matter to the success of the business; from First Group who have an employee on the board to Sainsbury’s who give all staff a bonus when things go well. Because people who feel respected work better, these businesses tend to get better results.

But how can policymakers kick-start a better working culture?  We have recommendations, including:

  • A commission to work with employers, investors and other stakeholders to find ways to promote ways of doing business “as if the workforce matters”;
  • Industrial and infrastructure policies with clear objectives to create well-skilled, well-paid, well respected jobs in all regions (which investors are already asking to finance);
  • Requirements that agencies who deliver active welfare programmes will find people jobs with decent pay and conditions, and progression opportunities.
  • Increasing the minimum wage to a Living Wage, with employers helped to afford this by instituting a more progressive National Insurance regime.

Compared to most other developed countries, the UK has an economy characterised by low-paid, low-skilled, low-productivity jobs that suppress both our economic strength and our self-respect. “These are the remains of a previous epoch, which we must get rid of as soon as possible”.