The five-month investigation into alleged bullying by Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab will not have come cheap. Probably hundreds of thousands of pounds have been paid out to a top barrister and his firm, coming up with the mildest of all the possible ‘guilty’ outcomes.
But in the discussion of the Raab case the Labour leadership have signally failed to comment on the elephant in the room – the fact that workplace bullying doesn’t just happen behind closed doors in Whitehall, it’s an epidemic impacting on the lives of a huge section of the workforce.
The Neoliberal Roots of Workplace Bullying
The crisis at the CBI, the intense and long-overdue upsurge of criticism of Ofsted and the resignation of the Deputy Prime Minister, are all linked. They show how workplace bullying, which often overlaps with misogynist bullying of women, has become normalised as neoliberalism has pressurised workers’ rights in the drive to squeeze the workforce in search of higher profits and reaching absurd targets.
In schools and colleges, there’s a process that demoralises teachers on a vast scale – it’s called INSET (in service training). Often teachers in schools that have been given a bad Ofsted grade have to listen to hours of offensive drivel, costing thousands of pounds paid to external ‘consultants’, generally former teachers and principals who have escaped from the classroom.
Among the gens from my final five years of teaching were ‘Get those weak teachers off the bus!’ (i.e. try to drive out people with poor observation grades) and ‘Don’t resist the churn.’ The ‘churn is the throughput of people leaving because they can’t stand it any more. This went alongside gems like ‘get those people who pretend to be depressed active, get them doing physical exercise to liven them up.’ And ‘if you have a staff who are happy and enjoy their work, you are doing something wrong.
Happy teachers lead to ‘coasting’ schools and colleges where the culture of continual ‘improvement’ is not properly respected.
The culture that Ofsted and its defenders continue to promote is one that inevitably engenders an atmosphere of bullying. One of the TUC’s definitions of bullying includes ‘Setting a person up to fail by overloading them with work or setting impossible deadlines. Which effective includes many thousands of teachers. The current criticism of Ofsted stems from the suicide of Ruth Perry, a primary school principal from Reading. But this case, one of several suicides attributable to Ofsted, is just the tip of the iceberg of human misery caused by the Ofsted system of grading, which has now become embedded in many employment areas, for example hospitals, care homes, GPs etc, the huge swathe of employment covered by the Care Quality Commission, which has adopted the Ofsted grading system. All of these areas pressurise workers to meet targets, which are often arbitrary and impossible to attain.
Ofsted turned the screw in 2006 when Tony Blair got interested in education. Its key move was to change grade 3 – ‘satisfactory’ – to ‘needs improvement’. Grade 3 schools and colleges can expect regular Ofsted reviews of their ‘progress’, the evidence of which has to include what they are doing to ‘improve’ teacher performance.
In numerous firms, but also in the NHS, the same hectoring culture of setting impossible targets exists. The culture of targets shifts the responsibility for failure or alleged failure downwards. Again this can be seen clearly from school inspections. Ofsted doesn’t grade individual teachers, although inspectors might have an informal chat with teachers after an observation. But Ofsted grades schools and colleges, not teachers, and that means first and foremost the principal and senior management team. If a re-inspection gives them a 4 – ‘unsatisfactory’ – the principal and senior managers will be replaced, and the career geese which lays hugely rewarding golden eggs will disappear. So the responsibility for bad Ofsted inspection grades is passed downwards. Manages blame teachers, and that leads directly to onerous observation practices and detailed surveillance of teachers’ work.
The culture of impossible targets, the language of which is imported from American human resource departments, exists throughout the public sector. But bullying of course includes all manner of harassment and undermining, and overlaps of course with sexual harassment, one of its main forms.
Bullying and harassment exist throughout workplaces because they are hierarchical institutions with enormous power in the hands of senior managers. Top down power structures inevitably lead to abuse. In the neoliberal epoch where losing a full-time job can become a personal or family catastrophe, maintaining workplace discipline often relies on the fear instilled by bullying managers.
This has always existed in capitalism (and before of course), but it is greatly intensified particularly in the present neoliberal period. Getting as much as possible out of workers for the least amount of money possible is imposed on managers throughout the system.
In many firms and neoliberalised public services bullying is promoted by ‘one-to-one’ meetings with senior managers, in which workers every few weeks are expected to explain what they have been doing, and very often what ‘improvements and ‘targets’ they should be set. In this way workers are forced to participate in their own deepening exploitation.
Of course the lives of full-time teaching and the NHS staff would seem like luxury for many zero hours contract workers. Being constantly available to be called in to work, but with no guarantee of work or payment, is a form of bullying. Being phoned at 5am to come into work, and then being told there is no work and sent home – that is bullying on a massive scale. As are all the practices which deepen the sense of insecurity and fear among workers. Have you noticed how fast postal workers seem to walk nowadays? Have you noticed how large Parcel Force delivery vans no longer have a complement of two drivers, so that the delivery of heavy parcels relies on one worker to lift them all, as well as being constantly stressed over trying to park a large van legally.
One of the most horrible aspects of companies in the neoliberal period is how in a period often weak trade unions, workers are dependent on the good will of senior manages for promotion and even reasonable references if they leave.
It is this system of extremely powerful managers and powerless workers that sets the stage for sexual harassment on a huge scale, fuelled by misogyny and a sense of impunity. Accusations of rape and stalking at the CBI, the very organisation which represents employers and seeks to promote ‘best practice’, is symbolic of the atmosphere which exists, particularly, according to online commentators, in City financial firms, where nearly all the most powerful jobs are in the hands of men, but which employs many thousands of women. As one senior woman financier put it to the Financial Times:
The City is peppered with men who have fundamentally sexist attitudes…It’s a bleak place for a senior woman.
And doubtless an even more bleak place for the many thousands of women who work in the City as secretaries, personal assistants, document controllers etc.
In the wake of the ‘Me Too’ movement, the accusations against Prince Andrew, as well as business leaders, show that now – little by little – the sense of men’s entitlement is being challenged.
The Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment case is an extreme example, where actors like Sean Young accused him of blocking their careers because they turned down his sexual advances. In the more mundane world of employment in Britain, a bad reference (or no reference) can cost a worker years of employment that impacts their life for many years.
There’s a nasty little tactic that managers use, one I experienced several times as an NUT rep, and that is to define the conflict between a bullied worker and her manager as a ‘clash of personalities.’ This tactic is directly aimed at getting the discussion out of the realm of bullying and blaming both sides – often the worker for not understanding the pressures on her boss in terms of targets to be achieved. This is the human resources tactic of ‘conflict resolution.’
The Need for Stronger Trade Union Organisation and Anti-Bullying Measures
Looking at bullying through a neoliberal prism should not be interpreted as thinking there was a halcyon period when there was harmony on the factory floor, in the warehouse and in the office. Of course it wasn’t like that, but often there was a strong trade union presence, of shop stewards or other reps to counter management’s foremen and ‘middle managers.’ Management aggression could be countered by rapid walkouts, which would be illegal today. In the car industry in Britain, the site of dense trade union organisation and militancy in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, numerous strikes and walkouts were over the introduction of new working practices – bullying. It is only by rebuilding trade union organisation, and by clearly identifying bullying and sexist practices, that the huge tide of workplace bullying can be challenged. But here and now, as more and more unions take up these issues, the fight to get management agreement on anti-bullying and anti-sexism codes of conduct can provide a focus for the whole issue of bullying at work to be raised and fought.
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