The battle to protect workers' rights is only beginning

The Lib Dems' intention to block the worst of the Beecroft report does not diminish the urgency of t

Claudia sits in the sunshine after work. Sitting in jean shorts and covered in freckles, she doesn’t look much past her teens, but she’s been working as a cleaner at St Georges University for over a year. Her cleaning company Ocean recently told her she’d be doing the same job on fewer hours, cutting her wages with just a few weeks notice and laying several people off. If the government goes ahead with new proposals to change employment rights, things are going to get a whole lot harder.

“I don’t really know how the process works,” Claudia smiles shyly, “No one ever told me I had rights.”

Claudia hasn’t heard of the government’s Beecroft report, but you can bet her employers have. The venture capitalist and Tory donor’s fifteen-page report calls on the government to rip up historic protections for British workers. The most controversial proposal gives bosses the power to be able to fire “without giving a reason”. But that's not the only joy. The report also wants to cut the amount of notice a company has to give before laying off large numbers of staff by two thirds, and scrap equal rights for agency workers working over twelve weeks. Staff could also face new unaffordable fees for employment tribunals.

The entire report says more about power than it does about economics. If this was just about improving labour market flexibility, we’d be having a conversation about how to remove people who are incompetent from the top as well as the bottom. But it will always be people like Claudia with fewer qualifications, less literacy, worse resources and lower political clout that take the hit. The financial crisis might have been caused by people with power, but very few faced dismissal as a result. Beecroft will never know what it feels like to fall to the very bottom, and a worker like Claudia will never know what it’s like to influence employment law.

“It seems that day by day the law is furthering rich people,” says Alberto Durango, a cleaner from the IWW union who is helping organise the cleaners in St Georges, “We are like products for a company trying to reduce costs. They are firing people and reducing the conditions of people who have been working for them for years and years… with no unfair dismissal that would be much easier.”

Nor does Beecroft’s report seem to be based on evidence. It’s a struggle to find any facts or figures in the unreferenced document, which often seems to speak more from prejudice than intelligence. Certainly when I talk to the small businesses in my ward, I have never heard the inability to fire people raised as a problem. The complaint is not that there are too many staff serving, but that there are too few customers in the shop buying. The deputy prime minister says that Britain already has one of the most flexible labour markets in Europe. Take away job security at a time like this, and people are likely to cut back spending even more.

The left needs to tell a different economic story. To do that honestly, we must look at long-term reform as well as short term spending. Some of Beecroft’s proposals make sense – asking workers to make an affordable contribution to employment tribunals, taking serious action to help both sides resolve disputes faster with time limits – but we need alternative proposals too. Germany might offer some inspiration. There, greater engagement with workers helped negotiate shared hours down with far fewer redundancies. Worker representation on the boards of companies helps hold bosses to account as well as employees. The Rhineland could teach us more about the kind of capitalism we want than the USA.

Right now the left isn’t taking Beecroft's report too seriously because the Lib Dems don’t support it and it wasn’t in the Coalition agreement. But the pressure to implement this reform will grow. Tory backbenchers and party funders are desperate for growth, and as long as they’re not prepared to invest their way out of the recession, this is the only option they can see - even if it doesn’t have an evidence base. The worse the economy does, the louder the clamour will get. For the sake of economics as well as the livelihoods of people like Claudia, the left should be ready to take on the fight.

 

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.