Stand By Me: Who Supports The Workers Now?

10/10/2016 16:40
Neil Jones/PA Wire

"A change is gonna come" rifted the PM this week, in Birmingham, evoking memories of the legendary Sam Cooke. The Tories are the supporters of "working class people." We'll see, but one must borrow from one of Sam Cooke's most famous covers and ask in reply: who will stand by the workers now?

First, the case for the Government. The Conservatives have been (very) good at creating jobs, relatively poor at creating well paid work and utterly hopeless at defending workers' rights. The Conservatives also set out their stall for a "hard Brexit" this week and we can look forward to stringent new immigration controls which will mean that it will become harder for many foreign workers to find jobs in the UK.

More particularly, the direction of travel over the past 5 years has been away from protecting workers' rights and towards favouring business. Corporation tax was reduced to 20% in the last Parliament and further reductions are indicated. At the same time, the qualifying limit for unfair dismissal was increased from 1 to 2 years; Employment Tribunal fees were introduced which have slashed the number of ET claims by 70%, and the Government has put the Trade Union Bill 2016 on the statute book with the aim of curbing strike action through ballot turnout thresholds. These are all "business friendly" iniatiatives but they somewhat belie the claim that the Conservatives are the party of the worker. That said, the appointment of Matthew Taylor to head-up a review on worker status and the "uberisation" of the UK economy is a progressive and welcome move http://www.cityam.com/250477/theresa-may-appoints-blair-policy-expert-review-employment

What about Labour? Their recent record is even more chequered. A half-hearted campaign in support of continued membership of the European Union might prove to be one of history's bigger betrayals of workers' rights. Most of the workplace's "progressive" legislation over the past 20 years has come from Europe: equality legislation, working time rights even (dare one say it) TUPE. Now, none of these rights will be guaranteed. More fundamentally, Labour simply does not "get" the UK's flexible workforce. It does not understand that most agency workers, for example, are women and they choose agency work because of its flexibility and (in many cases) higher hourly rates of pay. The party of the NHS failed to read (as I did) the response to the Government consultation in capping hourly agency pay in the NHS: there were literally hundreds of very personal case studies by nurses on how they depend on agency pay to meet their weekly bills and childminding commitments. Labour doesn't get that the future direction of the UK workforce will be bottom up, not top down.

But enough about the workers. What about poor, beleaguered business? The policy reactions from the CBI and IOD this week were unusually sceptical. Many businesses fear a "hard Brexit" and being shut out of the single market. The pound is plummeting. Amber Rudd has floated the idea that businesses will have to list all foreign workers: https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/home-affairs/immigration/news/79644/amber-rudds-brother-condemns-denigration-foreign-workers. The City is terrified at the prospect of losing EU passporting rights for financial service transactions http://uk.businessinsider.com/britain-and-the-city-of-london-could-lose-eu-passport-rights-2016-9?r=US&IR=T The tech businesses in London's Silicon Roundabout do not want Tier 2 visa controls imposed on European nationals. Ultimately, poor growth will result in fewer jobs and lower wages. We should be trying to liberalise the UK workplace not erect trade barriers. A Government ideologically committed to a hard Brexit risks a generational rupture with business.

In the autumn of 2016, we have reached the stage when, for the first time, no political party in the UK properly represents either the workers or businesses. In an article about the workers it is only right to conclude with Lennon (John): Nobody told me there'd be days like these. Strange days indeed. Most peculiar mama."

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