Opinion

John Bird: From Lenin to job justice via pensions. There's power in numbers

With trillions invested in pensions worldwide, how about we harness some of this wealth to improve people's lives?

According to a recent UBS-PwC report, the combined wealth of billionaires globally – those whom we loathe increasingly, it seems – stands at a record £4.5tn. Now that sounds like a vast amount of money. We don’t actually have any trillionaires yet, but who knows, there are some on the way and Jeff Bezos is leading the pack.

But collectively, if you combine all the mums’ and dads’ pensions, and your own, the world’s pension assets are worth at least £28.7tn in OECD countries. And perhaps it’s closer to £50tn worldwide, if you listen to Radio 4’s Money Box. That is the biggest amount of money – bigger than the  combined GDPs of the USA, China, Germany and the UK.

Wow! Wow! Wow!

This week celebrates – or mourns, depending on your political posture – the Bolshevik Revolution. That was a clear show of what happens when a minute party the size of a ninth-division football team supporter base gets its hand on a bigger force. A powerful force in terms of Russia at the time; an army of men.

The Beatles, wow! From nowhere to somewhere, because loads of people (perhaps some 500 million, to date) went out and bought their stuff

Combinations create new directions! Combinations push the world forward or backward. Why was it that they deported the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Australia in 1834, who had the bleeding cheek to combine together to get a better deal from their employers, the Dorset farmers, who were riding roughshod over poor farm labourers?

Combinations frighten the life out of the powers that be, as they did 100 years ago. And what Lenin managed to do was convince enough soldiers – ‘Peace, land and bread’, one of the greatest slogans ever – to come over to their revolutionary programme. The Arab Spring was a combination, and shows where they can lead. The Beatles, wow! What a piece of combination that was. From nowhere to somewhere, because loads of people (perhaps some 500 million, to date) went out and bought their stuff. Sir Philip Green and his Topshops, Jeff Bezos and his behemothic Amazon, Steve Jobs and his mammoth Apple.

Now they do go on about the gap between rich and poor, and many of you are very concerned about it. But just think, sitting behind you, mum and dad, is this vast bunch of cash that dwarfs all others pots of wealth in the world.

What about turning all of that money, or a good slab of it, into socially useful money? As I said in a House of Lords debate on intergenerational fairness last month, and as I’ll say whenever I get the chance: “Don’t get depressed. Get behind that big amount of cash and turn it to social good.”

Another brilliant 19th-century thing was a different form of combination. Combining purchasing. That’s co-operatives. Bulk buying, bulk savings, pennies put together to create something bigger, stronger.

How did Nye Bevan get to create the NHS in the face of vicious opposition from the British Medical Council, a kind of trade union for well-heeled doctors? By getting some education. Paid for by the farthings (a quarter of an old penny), halfpennies (two to a penny) and pennies (240 in an old pound) from his pit branch union’s membership.

The real juicy bit is if we can get our hands on some of the pensions, then we can designate them for the new jobs, the new skills

Of course, we live in a bit of a quandary. Mum and dad and your pension need to make a shed load of interest in order to keep you comfortable in their (or your) dotage, though there are ways of getting t’riffic returns by social investments in new social justice jobs for all.

So the powerful minnows in today’s modern world, if you talk about combined resources, are you and me – so long as we combine. So long as we work together, in unison, to kick 10 colours of shit out of a capitalism that pursues self-interest at any cost.

Capitalism that’s only interested in cheap jobs that produce slivers of profits from millions of transactions, but fails to bring justice jobs. ‘Job justice’ needs to be justice through work. But the real juicy bit is if we can get our hands on some of the pensions, then we can designate them for the new jobs, the new skills; not the flipping of hamburgers that many seem to want to put the poorest among us to do. And that’s not just bad for your complexion! Flipping hamburgers largely leads you to further flipping.

The power of numbers is always being shown. People write books about it, even though they don’t know what causes it. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point explains what happens when a bunch of young, inner-city kids fall in love with Tommy Hilfiger, designed for the Manhattanite yacht set. A real posh form of wear. And yet the inner-city kids and their cohort start buying the colourful, madly decorative Hilfiger stuff, and the obscure yachting clothing company has never looked back.

They bought the stuff in increasing numbers and demonstrated what Lenin could do with numbers, what Crocs could do with plastic shoes: things go viral!

I remember a big day, the 1972 miners’ strike. The miners were losing to Ted Heath’s government. They tried to stop a place in Birmingham called the Saltley Coke depot. It was strategic. But the miners were losing. Until that is, 25,000 engineering workers from the Birmingham area arrived to join the picket line. The strike over, the miners (at least, that time) had won. You can’t stand up to big numbers.

Big numbers of customers leave Woolworths and – boom! It’s all over.

People power. With their £4.5tn, the world’s billionaires may well rule over a kind of roost. We know that the world’s eight richest people have same wealth as the poorest 50 per cent. And yet behind them, behind it all, is the power of us. The consumers, who can choose to go elsewhere.

And behind that? The power of the pensions. Combination for social justice sounds like a good rock to fight on.

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