An open letter to Oliver Letwin

Dear Oliver Letwin (there’s a distinct possibility that you’ve got titles but it would only make me angrier looking them up so I’m not going to bother),

I’m not really sure what they teach you at Eton so I thought you could use a bit of education about some of the things you’ve been spouting this weekend. Specifically the area you seem most ignorant on is the possible beneficial role of introducing fear as a motivating factor in the (public sector) workplace. Now, you are involved with a party that sees introducing quack panels to bully the mentally ill in an attempt to produce savings from supposed “scroungers” as a good thing,  a party who think that the disabled should be left to lie in their own waste inspite of not being incontinent because you don’t see spending money on night care as viable, and a party who are systematically removing the access points to higher education for the working class, so I’m guessing that no amount of ethical reasoning is going to lead to a sudden realisation that you and the vast majority of what you stand for is morally bankrupt. To this end I though it might be more effective to look at the science.

We’ll start with some simple behaviourism. Without any kind of ethical analysis whatsoever, one of the most basic conclusions of behavioural science is this: positive reinforcement (rewards) are pretty effective in altering behaviour, whilst punishment is not. We can build on this further to look at the biology of why this might be the case – the real effect which stress has on they body and its ability to cope. Basically, we are programmed for a very physical fight-or-flight response to stress – an evolutionary nod to the days when stress involved a rival band of warriors or an angry bear rather than the patronising denigration of one’s professional role, job insecurity and a galling daily realisation that the super-rich have no grasp on the realities we work so hard to deal with – and this means that when the body is under stress, the brain sends a message to the adrenal glands (just above the kidneys) to release hormones into the blood stream which have two key effects on the body which are potentially damaging if sustained in the long term. Firstly, heart rate and blood pressure are raised, and unneeded energy (glucose) etc are released into the blood stream. This leads to excessive wear and tear on the circulatory system, and potentially life threatening problems such as an increased vulnerability to heart attacks and stroke. If you’re worrying how this could impact on you yourself Mr Letwin (see my earlier note about titles), then perhaps you could make sure you are getting use of that fabulous tennis court I hear you have massively stung the tax payer for repairing, or perhaps some strolling around your million pound tax payer supported house. Money counting? I don’t really know how your average ultra rich and powerful old Etonian kicks back. Obviously for those of us in the public sector who have tried to spend their lives improving society for the better these kinds of resources aren’t generally available although I suppose one can always go for a jog past the (closed) leisure centre.

Anyway, I’m going off topic. The other key problem with stress and the body (and probably the one which will be more interesting to you as I’m getting the strong impression that overstretched public sector workers being more likely to suffer heart and blood conditions as a result of your aggressive policy ideas would be something you would see as not your problem) is that it is also expensive (ah, money – did I get your attention there?) in that by prioritising the fight-or-flight response there is a diversion of resources from systems which the brain assesses as being non-essential – and the most important one of these is the immune system. By putting people under long term stress you are weakening their immune system daily which means illness and absenteeism. Absenteeism costs money, and in a climate where cover is not available or paid for has a knock on effect on the productivity of the workers who don’t happen to be ill on any one day because they are trying to double their workload without doubling their resources. Are you understanding what I’m saying here? It means that the public sector will actually become more inefficient. Now, putting my ruthless tory hat on to try and understand your viewpoint I’m guessing you’d enjoy trying to smash union legislation to sack the sick, with no acknowledgement of the role you have played in their outcome. That can only really have two consequences – either you replace them with people who lack the years of experience of those sacked, in which case you are down-skilling your workforce, or alternatively, and more probable in the climate of cuts you and your associates have forced through under the rhetoric of inevitability, you just don’t replace them. While you may have the view of public sector workers as some sort of elastic substance which you can stretch and stretch with no real consequence, this isn’t really a rational or scientific view of human capability. We are not magic robots.

I’ve spoken to you about how a culture of workplace fear can have a direct biological impact on the capabilities and efficiency of the workforce. The other issue you clearly haven’t researched is the psychological impact. The lowered immune system and physically draining state of being bullied (en-masse, as seems to be the plan) in the workplace has a big impact on one of one key influences on human performance – self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a personal cognitive assessment of how well we can cope. Bandura and other behavioural psychologists have shown in various studies that we should not underestimate the power of the mind – athletes who have seen clips showing highlights of previous performances will do better than those shown failures, for example, and people with a strong sense of self-efficacy are the best at recovering from a range of physical illnesses, including cancer. So, when you attack and undermine the professional image of public sector workers, whilst also threatening their job security, you are effectively psychologically enhancing the likelihood of failure.

Now, I’m guessing that rather than an actual interest in how various changes can enhance the public sector workforce, what you were actually trying to do is infuriate the unions further in order to increase the likelihood of a general strike. Your party has been under attack lately for a distinctly unhealthy relationship with the media (no great surprise for a lot of us), and you’ve more than likely decided to take the gamble that you can try to get the public back on board through a big scapegoating campaign in which the very workers who put their life’s work into trying to make a better society are fed through the media as the enemy and you and your millionaire friends yet again are painted as the saviours of the very people you are stealing from. I said I wasn’t going to go into morality but can you really not see how wrong this is? You are playing with fire, and you are underestimating how angry we (not just the supposed militant fringes, but all of us) are getting. We are ready for you, and you will not get this through without the fight of your life.

Rhiannon Lockley


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