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 Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.