If Dave and Georgie Porgie are wringing their hands this weekend, Ken McMeikan, Len McCluskey and Rupert Murdoch must be rubbing theirs with glee.
The Government has had such a torrid week of behind-the-sofa cringe-making embarrassment that no one seems to have felt the need to examine the facts behind the stories.
Mr Murdoch, who could be forgiven had he fallen out of love with his London newspapers, must be delighted with them. With the Sunday Times sting on Peter Cruddas and the Sun's 'Who Vat all the pies' campaign over the price of a cornish pasty, the Murdoch press set the agenda for a week that saw the Tories in free fall.
And in the middle of all that came the tanker drivers' strike vote. That should have created an opportunity for statesmanlike leadership and common sense, but instead brought on a display of breathtaking ineptitude and reverse ferreting that left the impression that the Government was not simply out of touch but out of its tree.
Leaving aside Mr Cruddas and his appalling braggadocio, SubScribe is going to focus on the 'important' things in life: pasties and petrol.
The Sun has gone to town on the pasty tax with its Marie Antoinette imagery (including helpful hints in case its readers doesn't know who she is or what she said) and its crusade for the working man. Those toffs in Downing Street don't have a clue. Good, honest, poor working folk like their pies and sausage rolls and those know-nothings with their £250,000 dinners are upping the price by 20%. It's a scandal.
War was declared. Osborne was questioned about his Greggs habit (it seems he hasn't got one), Cameron told us he'd bought a pasty from a kiosk at Leeds station that turned out to have closed five years ago. Oops, said the Downing Street spinners, it wasn't Leeds, it was Liverpool; well it's all oop North, in't it? And then, God save us, we were treated to the sight of Ed and Ed from the other side queueing up in Greggs to buy job lots of sausage rolls.
Meanwhile the Sun's red T-shirted brigade were out and about in Trafalgar Square trying to give away Greggs pasties, then a buxom Marie Antoinette headed for the Treasury to dole out more calories and saturated fat, and finally today there is a coupon in the paper that can be exchanged for a pie or pasty in Morrisons.
Have you noticed the word that features frequently in the paragraphs above? It starts with a capital G. And so does this campaign.
Greggs' stock had been rising all year in a most pleasing way, thank you very much. Then came the Budget bombshell. The City took one look and decided it would do the baker no good at all. The shares dropped 5% in a day and carried on falling.
The Sun's campaign was a godsend and Ken McMeikan, the chief executive, embraced it enthusiastically, starting petitions in his shops, giving interviews, appearing on YouTube and, most of all, seeing his shopfronts blazoned across every newspaper and TV bulletin. And the price of all this publicity? A few free pasties for the Sun to give away.
The Sun argues that the nation's workers are entitled to a hot pie in the middle of the day without paying tax on it. After all, they aren't taxed on the sandwiches or doughnuts they buy from Greggs. A cold sausage roll is exempt; so why not a hot one from the same shop? Sounds reasonable.
The Government's response is that everyone will be paying less income tax and the money to fund the cut has to be found somewhere. You'd have to eat a gazillion sausage rolls a year to be worse off. Back bounces the Sun with an avatar for the 21st century to replace Blair's Mondeo Man. This version earns £19,000 a year, eats a hot pasty every other day, smokes ten fags a day and drives 7,000 miles a year in his Ford Focus. Thanks to Mr Osborne, he will lose £191.52 a year - while the caviar-munching champagne class will be quids in.
Of course, it's not only Greggs customers who will be affected. If you buy a bit of hot chicken at Tesco or a polystyrene cup of soup at Waitrose, or a panini at Costa you will also have to pay more than you are used to. They may not have quite the same 'hard-up workers' appeal as that Greggs pie, but they're all in the same boat.
We're all used to being asked 'eat in or takeaway?' and accept that we will pay a different price depending on whether we choose a paper bag or china plate; if Greggs decided to charge more for hot food to cover the cost of running the heating cabinet we'd swallow that. We can therefore clearly cope with different price structures for the same item, so why - apart from the Greggs share price (now in gentle recovery) and a bit of Tory bashing - are we getting so heated about sausage rolls and pasties?
If you want a hot snack at lunchtime you could wander down the high street and go into Pete's Plaice, Joe's Pizzeria, Betty's Burgers. In every such establishment you would pay VAT. So why should Greggs be any different? Why are we defending this big (and getting bigger) organisation when it is simply being put on the same footing as McDonalds, Colonel Sanders, Dominos?
The Sun may like to portray itself as the worker's friend, but it may also consider the pie tax an easy stick to use against Cameron while buffing up News International's tarnished relationship with the public. The Government has made a complete hash of getting its message across; but that doesn't mean it's necessarily the wrong message. A little bit of impartial scrutiny rather than partisanship from all the papers would not go amiss.
Running on empty II
Which brings us to the other communications fiasco: the petrol non-strike.
This time the winner from the governmental shambles is Len McCluskey, the Unite general secretary who has managed to escape the union leader's traditional pantomime villain role, courtesy of the ridiculous behaviour of the British people and those we elected as our leaders.
At the beginning of the week, the Mail had the whole script nicely worked out according to the stereotype:
Motorists are being held to ransom by 1,000 militant tanker drivers who yesterday voted for a national strike
No room for doubt there, then. Those nasty reds have crept out from under the bed.; a few people are going to make everyone's lives a misery . Well yes, when you look at the number, it does seem small. But the union held a proper vote and achieved a commendable turnout - over 70% in all but one of the seven companies balloted. There were 2,062 drivers eligible to vote, 1001 backed a strike. Not quite half, but the day we get a Government elected with the support of 48% of the electorate will be one to remember.
Even with the votes in, the union didn't give the required seven days' notice that it intended to strike. There was just a general assumption that it would be over the Easter holidays - and we all know the shenanigans of advice, counter-advice, panic, pandemonium and, for one woman, near tragedy that ensued.
We saw pictures of queues, men flogging jerry cans, signs saying 'no fuel', and plenty of mockery of the Tories, but what about the basic dispute. What was it all about?
For a start, how much are the putative strikers paid? £45,000 was the figure most often bandied about. Wincanton is said to pay its drivers that sum plus overtime, but it seems to be one of the top payers.
Ads for ADR drivers with the paperwork that allows them to transport hazardous goods suggest that they can earn between £9 and £14 per hour. It seems the usual working pattern is four 12-hour days on followed by four off, so for a 48-hour week the annual basic pay seems to be about £35,000.
Have you read anything anywhere that spells out the working pattern? There have been plenty of Q&A panels, but none seems to have addressed the basic pay, terms of employment, holiday entitlement, pension arrangements.
The big issue has been safety. But still there are big blank holes on pages where there might be some explanation of what training drivers are given, how this has been truncated - if, as the union claims, it has. What are the rules on how long a driver can sit in his cab? How many miles can he drive? Has any newspaper enlightened us? All we have seen are generalisations about contracts being squeezed and greater pressure on drivers to 'turn and burn' - whatever that means - and drive faster. The latter being an interesting concept in a speed-limited vehicle. Are they driving like idiots at 56mph down country lanes then?
So forgetting all the politics, including Mr Miliband's silence on the issue - maybe the etiquette of not speaking with your mouth full of Greggs sausage roll - there are two points I'd like explained.
First, did anyone really think that there would be a strike over Easter? If I were running this dispute I wouldn't ask my members to walk out on what I guess should be the most lucrative overtime weekend of the year; I'd let them fill their boots to prop up the bank balance and endear myself to the public by not interrupting the Easter getaway. Then I'd call the drivers out in just in time to disrupt the return to work and school. It would be interesting if the papers could tell us what the overtime payments are for the Easter weekend and how many drivers, if any, will be on the roads.
Second, in a dispute about safety, how can it be that the Government is relaxing the rules to ensure that fuel gets to the petrol stations by the weekend? Either it is safe for drivers to be on the roads for eleven hours or it isn't. You can't just up the limit from nine hours for political expediency. What sort of example is that showing the employers? Are the drivers agreeing to this? And if so, why? And why has no paper done anything more than report the suspension of the rule without questioning it?
I was hit by a lorry on the M25 at 9 o'clock on a Friday night; the driver had been through four countries that day. I'm surprised that tanker drivers work 12-hour shifts and slightly alarmed that they spend nine of them on the road. I don't want to see them driving for 11 hours on any day, but especially not in the very week that parents are piling their families into the car for long journeys on unfamiliar roads.
liz gerard, March 31, 2012
Thank you for sticking with it to the end. Please do share your thoughts below. And please take a look at the other posts. They are all media related.
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