The Liberal Democrats’ latest U-turn: equal pay

Theresa May to scrap compulsory gender pay audits, which Liberal Democrat manifesto promised to impl

Liberal Democrat MPs are increasingly well-practised at eating their words. The latest reversal is over equal pay audits.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, will announce later today that plans to force companies to disclose how much they pay men and women are to be scrapped. Instead, companies will be asked to narrow the pay gap – one of the worst in Europe – through voluntary efforts.

It comes as no surprise that a Conservative-led government has opted to scrap this clause in the Equality Act – it is unpopular with big business. But it does fly in the face of a Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge to introduce fair pay audits for every company with more than 100 employees. This went further than Labour's draft legislation, which limited the measure to companies with more than 250 employees.

It will also be a humiliating climbdown for the Lib Dem Lynne Featherstone, junior minister for equality, who said in June 2008 that the legislation did not go far enough:

A voluntary audit system for private industry is hardly worth the paper it's printed on. We need to know when the government actually plans to step in if progress isn't made.

The government's failure to grasp the nettle of private-sector pay will provide little comfort to the enormous numbers of people who are still being discriminated against in the workplace.

Featherstone has not issued a statement in the response to the new move.

Not only is this an about-turn for the Lib Dems, it is a huge step backwards in the fight to equalise pay. Women in the UK earn, on average, 21.4 per cent less than men. A recent study estimated that, at the current rate of change, pay would not be equalised until 2067. It is clear that we need to take positive action to speed this process along.

Gender equality groups such as the Fawcett Society have consistently pointed to the UK's culture of secrecy around pay as one of the reasons that the gap persists. In Sweden, when transparency measures were introduced, the gender pay gap has narrowed greatly.

Speaking to the Financial Times this year, Harriet Harman explained the thinking behind the compulsory audit:

It is all too easy for people to say there is unfairness in pay but not here, and it is very important – knowledge is power – for people to see the pay gap in their workplace.

Though the voluntary measures that will replace gender pay audits have not yet been spelled out, it is probably safe to assume that the bite has been taken out of the act altogether.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.