In the run-up to the 2015 General Election Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne was photographed in a factory or on a construction site wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) with such regularity and clear enjoyment that it was both ridiculed and celebrated. Whilst neither the first nor the last politician to do this, the high visibility jacket became an icon of both Osborne’s reign and his championing of huge techno-industrial projects such as Crossrail. Osborne of course resigned alongside Prime Minister David Cameron in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum of June 2016, new Prime Minister Theresa May replacing him with Philip Hammond. A small but significant change in direction was noted in July 2016: “Senior Treasury source tells me there will be no more photo-ops with hard hats and yellow high-viz jackets now Philip Hammond is Chancellor”, Sky News’s John Craig tweeted. It was, at least a little bit, the end of an era. In this blog post I explore some of the purposes and meanings of politicians dressed up in PPE. I describe some of the distinct PPE poses and gestures, consider what they make visible and what they occlude, suggest that politicians are not playing the worker, but rather playing the senior manager, and consider the literalism of “visibility” and its correlate, transparency.
When a politician poses in PPE there is often an implication that there is something inherently hilarious about certain types of manual labour, particularly when undertaken by a supposedly highly educated person. The humour rests in the unlikeliness of the scenario; it also suggests a worldview wherein it is hard to conceive that a politician might in fact have had experience on construction sites, in factories, or in mining, for instance. This is a striking set of affairs with respect to, for instance, the modern Labour Party, we could note. Mainstream politicians frequently and variously invoke or claim to speak on behalf of workers, the working class, and “hard-working families”, yet the nature of that work is seldom represented or given space in such politicians’ discourse. When that work is spotlighted, the politician’s highly visible jacket displaces the worker, whose own labour, voice and agency is, if not entirely invisible, undoubtedly occluded. Politicians on the campaign trail are often photographed pulling pints behind a bar or serving ice cream cones: those who are normally served become, temporarily, the servants. Unlike for a real worker in the service industry, incompetence is indulged: it’s humorous, rather than serious, when the politician makes a mess of it. The humour of the situation indicates that the politician remains in charge, but there is also an implication that the work itself is trivial: who cares if a pint is incompetently pulled, pipes not properly cleaned, or a cask incorrectly changed? Who cares if a brick wall is incorrectly laid? Who cares if the building collapses?
Bar workers also clean floors and toilets, but politicians are seldom photographed doing this. Bar workers also process invoices, fill in timesheets, manage intoxicated people, predict and accommodate their colleagues’ reasonable and unreasonable behaviour, and worry that their next fortnightly rota might not be compatible with their college studies. All of this is work, but not all of it is made visible, and not all of it readily rendered visually explicable. Photographic representations of work tend inherently to emphasise or exaggerate certain physical tasks at the expense of others. “Paperwork” is, however, for example, still real work. Emotional labour does not easily lend itself to pictorial representation, or rather, perhaps, we have chosen to foreground certain types of pictorial representations which do not lend themselves well to depicting emotional labour. Micro-hand movements whilst hunched over a screen are central to much work; such gestures, perhaps, inherently lack theatre or animation. Managing a diary, tasks, clients and deadlines: the bar worker and the bricklayer alike all make use of smartphones, tablets or computers at work. The absence of this from the typical photographic representation of such work sometimes makes it appear more different, and more “physical”, than other types of work.
Hence, these poses by politicians displace workers, trivialise those workers’ work, and foreground the physical at the expense of the nonphysical. But it would be a mistake to characterise them as invalid representations of work. Casting certain types of work as overly-different to other types of work is constitutive to creating a typology of work. In a 1995 paper entitled Making Work Visible, sociologist of labour Lucy Suchman notes that “representations of work – whether created from within the work practices represented or in the context of externally-based initiatives – are interpretations in the service of particular interests and purposes, created by actors specifically positioned with respect to the work represented”, and that “representations of work are not proxies for some independently existing organisational process, but are part of the fabric of meanings within and out of which all working practices are made”. Representations may be partial, flawed, misleading, normative or idealised: none of this stops them being meaningful representations. As representations of political work, these poses are meaningful and coded. I suggest that politicians in PPE are, largely, not posing as workers, but posing as (senior) managers. In this, they are both reinforcing a logic of managerialism in politics and the legitimacy of conceiving of the state as a business, whilst also reinforcing the legitimacy of managerial conceits and dispositions in general.
What sort of poses are available? Politicians can pose laying bricks, or perhaps operating a nail gun. Sometimes the politician is talking with a worker, sometimes they are talking at or over the worker, and sometimes straightforwardly ignoring the worker. The worker can sometimes be further identified by the grubbiness of both their PPE and their work clothes, in contrast to the usually immaculate PPE and business clothes, typically shirt and tie, of the politician. The posed-with worker can sometimes be identified by their lack of PPE, or their non-standard or customised PPE, or their T-shirt, or hoody, or jeans beneath the PPE. Politicians also pose on or around tanks, fighter planes, and other military vehicles. The donning of (and again, usually immaculate) protective gear is standard. The business suit can be replaced with the casual, jacketless and tieless unbuttoned shirt, chinos or even jeans, the whole ensemble concealed partially or fully by, for instance, helmet and flak jacket. Expected dress for professional men is more amenable than expected dress for professional women to being worn underneath military protective gear, reinforcing the sense that women are not expected to be in a military environment. Similar poses and roles from the construction site or factory are witnessed in the military scenarios: the operation of equipment or machinery, elaborating a point with exaggerated but commanding hand gestures, pointing, or engaging in banter with the workers/military personnel. The tone can be jokey yet aggressive, and almost inevitably nationalistic. Factory or construction site poses entail similar machismo. Again, the garments fit more easily over conventional professional men’s clothing than they do for professional women’s clothing and furthermore there is frequently a lack of availability of protective clothing in the correct size for shorter and slighter people. As women politicians are statistically more likely to be short than men politicians, this clothing size issue disproportionately affects women politicians. Women politicians can sometimes appear childlike because they have been forced to don hard hats or high visibility jackets much too large for them, again reinforcing the sense that they are not meant to be there. Women’s workwear is routinely less robust or adaptive than apparently identical items for men. Work trousers or boiler suits for women can have less pockets, or fewer reinforced areas, and whilst men’s work trousers might have a cavity for a knee pad insert, the women’s equivalent sometimes has none, requiring the (less satisfactory) wearing of external kneepads with external elasticated straps. Gendered work wear reproduces the notion of male as default. Politicians donning PPE are seldom exposed to real workplace risk: nevertheless the ill-fitting or substandard garments with which women politicians are more likely to be provided reinforces the sense that they are less capable. All of this wouldn’t matter so much were it not the case that such work wear has become a visual metonym for skilled labour, and PPE central to a ubiquitous representation of political work. By representing skilled labour by a high visibility jacket a particular type of physicality is foregrounded. By contriving a situation wherein women more frequently than men are obliged to wear missfitting garments, the Osbornian pose reinforces the notion that physical labour is for men, and more significantly, political work is for men, or, political work is manly work.
The pristine state of the politician’s high visibility jacket is not a sign of the inauthenticity of the event, however. Rather, it is a reminder that they are visiting. The jacket is not dirtied because the politician is passing through the workplace, rather than labouring in the workplace, even if they are temporarily appropriating the vestiges of labour. Managerial culture is defined by viewing, not labouring: managers oversee, audit, pass-through, visit, point at, circulate, and control, and most of all what politicians are doing when they wear high visibility jackets and hardhat is adopting the poses of the senior manager. Senior managers also pose in high viz, laying bricks, pulling pints, but also overseeing, pointing, controlling, and indeed when senior managers pose as workers they are very much controlling the workers. Several poses are possible for the politician-manager: striding forcefully, elaborating a point with exaggerated but commanding hand gestures, often with the fingers splayed, or pointing into the distance, and/or to something out of the camera’s view. This last, pointing, gesture puts on display an essential part of being a manager: surveillance and comprehension. The act of pointing does not display curiosity or confusion, but rather awareness and ultimate control. The senior manager is not asking a question in order to be enlightened, or deferring to the expertise of others, but rather they are reasserting their dominance, demonstrating their uniquely all-seeing position. The point, and the spread hand, perform ownership. The high visibility jacket as worn by a skilled worker functions to minimise danger to them by maximising their visibility. As worn by a politician or manager, there is a shift from visible bodies to visible work: the high visibility jacket makes management work visible. In the corner of many senior managers’ offices, or on a hook on the back of the office door, are casually but strategically placed garments: a high visibility jacket and hardhat. It’s not that that senior managers don’t really visit construction sites, for instance: they really do. The issue is, rather, how does managerial authenticity result from ultra-visibility?
A sign outside a construction site that proclaims “No PPE, no job” frames workers’ safety as the ultimate responsibility of the worker, not the employer. Simultaneously, such a sign can be pointed at, quite literally, by management, as evidence that they are safeguarding workers and in compliance with legislation. The fluorescence of the PPE does not necessarily serve to make the worker safer by making them more visible, rather, it makes visible that legislation has been complied with. The high visibility jacket can become a technology of compliance, and the visibility of high visibility jackets in a workplace can become the same thing as the assurance of safety. That there are some precarious workers, notably in the “gig economy”, such as delivery couriers, who do not have legislated PPE or even sometimes a uniform, does not undermine this point. In certain circumstances, the jacket actively draws attention to, or makes visible, the precariousness of the wearer. In December 2008 the Justice Ministry purchased more than 10,000 high visibility vests and jackets with “Community Payback” written on the back for offenders to wear whilst carrying out unpaid work or community service as part of their punishment, including the approximately third of whom who undertake their placements in charity shops, day centres for elderly or homeless people, or working with adults with learning difficulties. “The public expects to see justice being done, and this is what the jackets achieve”, noted Justice Minister David Hanson in response to criticism from probation officers, churches and charities that the jackets were humiliating, demeaning, and had led to offenders being abused by members of the public. Justice being seen to be done is here accepted as a legitimate and indeed meaningful desire. Justice being seen becomes punishment being made visible. Then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith further described the scheme as “opening up the criminal justice system so that the public can see the tough consequences for those that break the law”. Given the irrelevancy of a high visibility jacket to workplace safety whilst volunteering in a charity shop, and given the recorded incidents of violence directed towards offenders in high visibility jackets, we see the total inversion of the jacket’s function, from a thing that increases safety to a thing that undermines safety.
Opening up things so as to make things visible to the public: this is the language of transparency, which holds that disclosure is inherently virtuous, and that sharing or circulating data is intrinsically empowering, regardless of the content of the data, and regardless of the methods or consequences of how the data is generated or coded. As cultural theorist Clare Birchall explains, in supposedly opening government and the public and private sectors to public scrutiny, transparency encourages citizens to be entrepreneurial with data but also demands that they be vigilant at exactly the same time that forms of scrutiny and oversight traditionally undertaken by the state are either diminished, outsourced or privatised. Transparency is hence invariably neoliberal, transferring responsibility from the state to the individual. Transparency furthermore distrusts that which is not visible, which has the consequence of distrusting that which cannot easily be rendered visible. “The imperative of transparency suspects everything that does not submit to visibility”, philosopher Byung-Chul Han notes in his 2015 book The Transparency Society. Under transparency, all must be altered such that it can be (immediately) seen and all that resists this is marginalised or problematic. The rise of the politician in PPE coincides with the popularity of “hardhat tours”, backstage or behind-the-scenes revelations of a public works project, or the renovation or expansion of a train station, as well as other types of behind-the-scenes tours of usually private areas of facilities such as museum stores. Transparency as a type of accountability or a democratising desideratum is rendered literal in the removal of or bypassing of opaque physical structures, walls replaced with glass to allow peering-in, or walls and barriers bypassed through behind-the-scenes tours. Hardhat tours aspire not just to reveal usually concealed structures and practices, but furthermore to reassure and co-opt publics through a very literal type of visibility and accessibility. That people need to be literally shown things in order to trust in them perhaps highlights an absence or crisis of trust: transparency emphasises that accountability comes through revelation, implying that both people and things can’t be trusted to be opaque, secret, esoteric, private or devolved. Absence of trust demands we should be able to see everything, and literalism demands that what is to be seen is all that there is.
The figurative and the literal intertwine in transparency talk: being see-through and seeing-through becomes moral imperatives. Why do we insist on a system of signs that is so relentlessly literal: being seen in high visibility clothing is surely parodic in its literal enactment of the edict that it is as important to be seen to be doing something as it is to do something? Why does such a crude and literal association of industry with (moral, political) industriousness persist? George Osborne has, as principal proponent and enforcer of Tory austerity, made millions of people’s lives less healthy and less safe. His association with safety equipment and clothing in the workplace is only contradictory, however, if we conceive of him to be playing the worker. If we consider him to be playing the manager, or playing the Chief Executive, his poses are more consistent. According to the BBC Parliament Twitter account, Edward Heath in 1970 was the first British politician to pose in a hard hat. This predates by four years the second Wilson government’s Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, introduced by Secretary of State for Employment Michael Foot in March 1974. For what it’s worth, I haven’t found any pictures online of either Harold Wilson or Michael Foot wearing hard hats either around the time of the introduction of the Act or at any other time. The image that I did find, of (by then) ex-Prime Minister Wilson visiting the Jurong Industrial Estate, Singapore, in 1978, is nevertheless interesting because it indicates that the factory visit poses we are familiar with today were then well understood, but just didn’t always demand the politician donning protective clothing. PPE clearly exists, because a factory worker is wearing it. She is being fully ignored by Wilson, who is himself grasping an object, offered to him by a gesticulating senior manager, in a suitably authoritative way, grasping here being a variant on the pointing-as-control pose. In the 1970s, hard hats and high visibility jackets were not the visual metonyms for health and safety at work that they are today, we could conclude. Perhaps also, in the 1970s there was the expectation that following the factory tour there would be a meeting between politicians and senior managers (or even union representatives!), where substantive discussions took place between people wearing suits. One suspects that Osbornian visits often lack this substantive meeting, and consist solely of the highly visible high viz photo opportunity. Representing work is all that is required. A culture in which a PowerPoint presentation doesn’t summarise a report, but rather, is the report. Transparency culture loves dashboards, which are claimed not to display a set of real-time performance indicators, as in audit culture, but rather, to efface the indexicality or mediation of performance indicators, providing instead a real-time view of how things really are, instantaneously, all the time. Being in control means being seen, being there, being highly visible, and nothing more. It is this insubstantial representation-as-control which the politicians ape, a shiny, reflective, highly visible fluorescent bluster.