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

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.