Harold Wilson was no liberalising reformer | Letters

Anne Perkins paints a misleading picture of Harold Wilson when describing him as the PM who presided over great liberalising reforms that paved the way for modest decriminalisation of homosexuality and ended theatrical censorship (Labour needs to rethink Harold Wilson’s legacy, 10 March). These two reforms were achieved despite and not because of Wilson.

In the case of fully dismantling theatre censorship he fought a rearguard campaign in cabinet to urge continued bans on stage of portrayals of living people. On homosexual law reform, Wilson rejected home secretary Roy Jenkins’s proposal that the government should facilitate a private members bill. The governing motive for Wilson’s campaign against the decensoring of the stage was revealed when the lord chamberlain’s papers on theatre censorship entered the public domain. The PM objected to seeing himself impersonated on stage in Stratford East’s proposed adaptation by Richard Ingrams and John Wells of their Mrs Wilson’s Diary in Private Eye. The lord chamberlain sent the PM the farcical script and he loathed it. Most other cabinet members were unconcerned.

Only when Callaghan succeeded Jenkins as home secretary was the languishing censorship bill revived. Callaghan persuaded the PM that to ban plays that portrayed living people in them was a non-starter. A liberal Wilson? Hardly.

Nicholas de Jongh

London

Re Jeremy Hayes’ letter referring to his memory of Harold Wilson and the Open University (12 March), what better example of women being written out of history? The OU was entirely the brainchild of Jennie Lee. No wonder I (age 86) and others have just signed up to the Women’s Equality party!

Pat Grosse

London

Join the debate – email guardian.letters@theguardian.com

All generations must fight inequality | Letters

Alan Milburn’s warning about a “permanently divided” Britain along generational lines (Report, 3 March) will need to be heeded by those who have a voice that will be heard: the baby boomers and the over-50s. Those of us among the generation of 1960s protesters who sympathise with the plight of Generation Y must speak out. After all, they are our children or our children’s children. This would not be a patronising stance but the realisation that we are the generation that all governments listen to and fear the most at election time.

The absence of the voice of protest by the young against their situation is not due to apathy but to the extreme difficulty of collective protest when saddled with an average graduate student debt of over £30,000, working on a zero-hours contract or internship and without the prospect of raising the deposit to buy their own house. For those of us who can afford to think less selfishly about our automatic entitlement to a freedom pass, winter fuel payment, free TV licence and other concessions, now is the time to remember how we once protested for change and progress. The young will always be with us and today they need our support.

Huren Marsh

London

Any student of history can research familiar figures (embodied in fiction like Dick Whittington) who made fortunes, and just as many who lost them and did not attain a better standard of living than their parents. It is worth pointing out that the sense of entitlement to a better standard of living for each generation is one based on the ideas and achievements of the post-war consensus in which many of us grew up.

Strong unions assured decent pay and job security. The state provided access to free university tuition and cost of living grants, the expanded public sector provided access to healthcare, transport and local welfare and provided a route for the offspring of the working class to enter middle-class occupations.

In addition, a progressive taxation system ensured a better distribution of wealth. There was also a sense of respect for public service and a feel for the collective good of society, which transcended the predominant individualism of today. It would be sensible to analyse the current crisis in these terms rather than trying to encourage a blame and envy culture between generations.

Linda Proud

Derby

Your article and editorial (A deepening age divide, and the growing pains of Generation Y, 12 March), though timely and welcome, address a problem that doesn’t only affect Generation Y. There are many of us in Generation X, the forgotten generation, who are similarly affected. Thanks to stagnated wages over the years, and if we’re not lucky enough to have parents who can afford to give us a leg up, we’re in exactly the same boat. But any token efforts to solve the housing crisis like Help to Buy are usually limited to the under-40s, and even if a miracle happens and we save a large enough deposit to buy at the rapidly growing property prices, how many banks will approve a mortgage for a first-time buyer in their 40s?

More needs to be done to help the have nots, reduce inequality and improve social mobility, no matter what their generation.

Neil Edwards

London

A report on the “absurdly high” pay for UK bosses (5 March) is followed the next week by “UK faces permanent generational divide”. We read that inter-generational inequality is to bring social corrosion and an existential crisis. By focusing on the generations rather than the vastly inflated remuneration of the CEOs whose income is 100 times that of their average employees is to miss the point.

Changes to tuition fees, job insecurity, pensions in free fall, benefit cuts, property prices and the lack of affordable housing are all due to Conservative government policy. Please do not lose sight of who the real culprits are.

Anne Kelly

Carlisle

The generation gap is, of course, just one example of the way in which our politicians, elected by a minority, exploit differences in society to sustain their own political careers. Age, class, education, occupation, locality, health, wealth, nationality, ethnicity, ability, attractiveness, usefulness, gullibility, political ideology, personal insecurities and financial circumstances are all used to justify exclusion from mainstream society. Some observable problems (eg homelessness) are usually caused by a multiple of exclusions. Others (eg Brexit), politicians create themselves.

Martin London

Henllan, Denbighshire

Alan Milburn makes important points about increasing generational inequalities. What he fails to explain is how being a “tsar” within the framework of a government that contains the likes of Iain Duncan Smith is helping to address the issues.

Keith Flett

London

At the core of the housing issue for Generation Y is the ideological preoccupation with ownership, a toxic myth reflecting uberclass expectations.

Predictably, the present government is infected with this. It describes £250,000 new-builds with mortgage support as affordable first-time buyer properties. This is at best disingenuous, at worst dishonest. The maths is simple: 20% mortgage guarantee reduces the cost to £200,000, requiring a deposit of £20,000 and a mortgage of £180,000, which in turn requires a household income of £60,000. According to government statistics, only 16% of households have such an income, and it is reasonable to assume that the majority of them already own. So, essentially, there are no first-time buyers who can afford these houses.

The basic need in early adult years is secure, affordable tenure, in other words rented accommodation. There are many ways of providing this. A credible start could be made by the repossession of improperly acquired ex-council houses from right-to-buy tenants by buy-to-let landlords.

There is another solution. The bedsit. Across the land there are many, many thousands of older couples and singles struggling to retain and maintain houses that are too big for them; those same older people are often isolated and lonely. The bedsit option solves their material and social needs, while meeting the financial and residential needs of the young. Far from being a novelty, this is how most of us crumblies started our adult lives.

Stewart Dakers

Farnham, Surrey

Join the debate – email guardian.letters@theguardian.com

The Guardian view on gun control: good came from the evil of Dunblane | Editorial

It is 20 years since Thomas Hamilton walked into Dunblane primary school carrying four handguns and murdered 17 people, 16 of them children only five years old. The response to this atrocity, from the heart of the British people, was two laws which between them banned the private ownership of handguns altogether. The year after Dunblane there were 59 killings with handguns in Britain; in 2014 there were only 29. Compare this with the situation in America, where, in 1996, 13,252 people died of firearms injuries, and last year 13,393 did. Two weeks ago a woman in Florida who believed passionately in the right to bear arms was shot as she was driving, from the back seat of her car by her own four-year-old son. But the stupidity of America’s gun laws goes far beyond the absurdities of this incident. The rate of gun homicide in the US is around 30 times that of every otherwise comparable developed nation. Yet every attempt to limit the supply of guns in the States is foiled by the money, the passion and the delusions of the gun lobby. It is enough to reduce a decent and responsible president to tears.

There seem, then, to be two principled approaches to the problem of armed criminals. Either the criminals should be disarmed, or the forces opposing them should be better armed. But close examination of the facts shows that neither of these mechanical solutions will work very well. Banning guns does not by itself disarm criminals. Even before Dunblane, most gun crime in Britain was committed with illegal weapons, and since then the use of replica guns, which may or may not have been modified to kill people, has soared. But on the other side of the Atlantic, more than half a million guns are sold in the US every month and this figure spikes every time there is a threat of new laws to control firearms. Nothing will calm the fears of gun owners – yet their fear has not made them any safer and this gigantic arsenal has done nothing to reduce the rate of homicide. Neither approach from principle delivers all it promises, but the American individualistic method delivers far, far less.

Although the American approach is driven in practice by fear and by the tireless commercial work of the gun lobby, it does illustrate one important truth: that law enforcement cannot be left entirely to professionals – a law-abiding society is one where everyone has a stake in the enforcement of laws and believes them just. The police are helpless if they have not earned the trust and confidence of the communities they police. The challenge for the British police, especially when dealing with gun crime, is to maintain the confidence of the communities where young men are most tempted to use or even illegally to acquire guns.

What the confusing statistics really show is that the problem is not what bullets do to their victims, but how guns work on the imagination of their owners. The great popular revulsion after Dunblane, captured by the Snowdrop campaign, stripped much of the glamour from handguns in this country. A real gun is a piece of lethal machinery, not a totem of power or invulnerability. By forcing them off the market the British state has done the right thing, even if it has not solved the problem of violent crime. Let toys for boys really be toys. Fewer people are killed that way.

The Guardian view on zero-hours contracts: the wrong road to a successful economy | Editorial

The rise of zero-hours contracts in Britain, reckoned in the latest survey published last week to cover 2.5% of the workforce, is beginning to look less like a response to an uncertain economic recovery and more like a new business model. Depending on the method used, the number of people working on these hyper-flexible arrangements is somewhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million. But if there is uncertainty about the exact numbers – partly a reflection of the continuing lack of a clear definition of a zero-hours contract – there is no doubt about where they are used: larger employers in hospitality, food processing, social care and the NHS.

But they are also spreading, geographically out of the south to the north, particularly the north-west, and from part-time work, often casual, to full-time employees – and into new areas like further and higher education. Precarious employment, work with no guarantee of hours or income, is no longer just a short-term answer for uncertain employers that helps to keep people in work and off benefits. It is becoming integrated into the economy. The question of what to do about it is more complex. As research for the professional human resources body, the CIPD, has shown, some workers prefer zero-hours contracts to anything that demands greater commitment on either side. The biggest group of workers on zero-hours contracts may be students who like hyper-flexible contracts because they mean that work can be fitted round studying. Some other groups – parents of small children or others with caring responsibilities – find them useful too.

At the end of last year the government introduced regulations that appear to ban the worst kind of zero-hours contract, where the employer can demand availability without guaranteeing any work at all. These so-called exclusivity clauses are now technically illegal: but only technically – redress has to be sought through an employment tribunal (at a cost of up to £300) and with no guarantee of compensation because the claimant has to show they have suffered loss of future earnings, something that is impossible by definition for anyone on a zero-hours contract.

Last week, New Zealand’s centre-right National government, backed by a unanimous vote in parliament, banned such contracts altogether. There may be less to this than meets the eye. The prime minister John Key has successfully pitched his tent across the centre ground in a way that has reduced New Zealand Labour, according to its critics, to a party of empty gestures. But it is not yet clear what the real implications of the ban will be: as the British TUC argues, there is more than one way for employers to duck their proper obligations like sick pay, paid holidays and parental leave. Agency work, for example, often carries no protection. False self-employment is increasingly used to deprive workers of hard-won rights. Most trade unions would prefer a smarter approach that would protect a wider range of workers. The TUC wants employers to be obliged to give all new workers, on day one, a written statement setting out the terms on which they are employed and limiting the time a worker can be employed on zero-hours contract before they are guaranteed a minimum number of hours.

Any government serious about building a low-welfare, high-wage economy, as George Osborne claims to be, would also be serious about promoting and protecting workers’ rights. In his last budget, he pulled a major surprise to lend some credibility to his pose as a workers’ champion by increasing the minimum wage, even if he went on to sour the effect with his assault on tax credits. This week, should he choose to, he could make less ambiguous progress. The chancellor could take a lesson from his ideological cousins in New Zealand and start to do something determined about regulating unacceptably exploitative contracts.

Cheap, easy-come, easy-go labour deters investment in training and other productivity measures, undermines loyalty and corrupts the relationship between employer and employee. Next week is not just budget week, it is also the government’s moment of decision on the trade union bill as it completes its progress through the Lords, This is a mean-spirited, unfair bill which will, among other measures, severely hamper the capacity of unions to work on behalf of their members. No workers’ champion can be opposed to the employees standing together to get a better deal for themselves. Without drastic modification of the union bill, the Conservatives’ vaunting claim to be the party of the workers is hollow indeed.