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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Jeremy Corbyn has lost his NEC majority - and worse could be to come

The NEC promises to be a thorn in the Labour leader's side.

Jeremy Corbyn has lost his majority on the party’s ruling national executive committee, after a longstanding demand of the Welsh and Scottish parties sees the introduction of two further appointed posts on the NEC, one each of Kezia Dugdale, leader of Scottish Labour and Carwyn Jones, the Welsh First Minister and leader of the Welsh party. 

It means that, unlike during his first year as leader, Corbyn will not have a majority on the NEC. Corbyn acquired a small majority on the party’s ruling body at last year’s Labour conference, when Community, which represents workers in steel and the third sector, was voted off in favour of the BFAWU, which represents bakers. Added to the replacement of Hilary Benn with Rebecca Long-Bailey, that gave Corbyn a small but fairly reliable majority on the NEC. (It also led to Bex Bailey, the diminutive rightwinger who sat as Youth Rep, being dubbed “Rebecca Short-Bailey” by Corbynsceptic trade union officials.) 

In practice, the new NEC is now “hung”, as Corbynsceptics sacrificed their new majority last night when they elected Glenis Wilmott, leader of the European parliamentary Labour party, as chair. Corbyn’s opponents judge that controlling the chair, which rules on procedure and interpret’s the NEC’s rules, is worth more than a majority of one. 

Divisions will hinge upon the NEC’s swing voters – Alice Perry, who is elected by councilors, Ann Black, elected by members, and Keith Vaz, the chair of BAME Labour, and the new Welsh Labour representative, appointed by Jones. Corbyn may, therefore, have cause to regret fighting quite so hard to resist the changes this time.

“All we’re asking is that we should have the same rights as Jeremy, who appoints three,” Jones told me on Monday. At an acrimonious meeting at the NEC, Jones – who has been campaigning for the change since he became leader and has already been rebuffed back in 2011 – told Corbyn that the Welsh leadership had been kept waiting “too long” for the same rights as the Westminster party. Jones, unlike Dugdale, remained neutral in the leadership race. He explained to me that “I’d expect [London] to stay out of our elections, so you’ve got to return the favour”. 

Dugdale takes a different view, and, I’m told, feels that Corbyn’s allies in Scotland have been manoeuvring against her since she became leader. She has appointed herself to sit on the NEC, where she will be a consistent vote against Corbyn.

But worse may be to come for Corbyn in the trade union section. An underappreciated aspect of Labour politics is the impact of labour politics – ie, the jostling for power and members between affliated trade unions. What happens at the Trade Union Congress doesn’t stay there, and there has long been a feeling, fairly or unfairly, that Unite – Britain’s largest trade union – throws its weight around at the TUC. 

A desire to “cut Len down to size” is likely to make itself felt in Labour.The merger of Unite with Ucatt, the construction union, takes Unite’s share of the seats on the 33-person NEC to five including the treasurer Diana Holland.  Although Unite’s total membership is larger, it affliates fewer members to the party than Usdaw, the shopworkers’ union, and the GMB do. Usdaw is a reliable block to Corbyn on the NEC and the GMB is at odds with the leadership over Trident and fracking. 

All of which means that Corbyn’s path to wide-ranging rule changes may not be as clear as his allies might wish. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.