The left-wing case for a flexible labour market

Labour market flexibility, if harnessed properly, can be a force for individual and collective good, says Gillian Econopouly.

The economic tumult of the last several years has profoundly shaken the UK and its workforce. The public has witnessed bailouts of major banks, the disappearance of much-loved brands from the British high street and what feels like an unending string of financial collapses and high-level resignations in major organisations, from the media to professional services to public sector bodies like the police. 

Headlines aside, on an individual level, thousands of UK workers have faced redundancy, seen household incomes squeezed by several years of pay freezes or even cuts, or simply held onto jobs they would prefer to move on from but are too nervous to leave, given the economic climate.  

It is no wonder that parties on all sides of the debate are desperately seeking growth wherever it can be found.

But however grim the latest GDP figures, this troubling state of affairs does create an opportunity – and an imperative – to look closely at what we are already good at, and develop this further to the benefit of the entire country. 

And something we should recognise more explicitly as a strength is our flexibility. 

Although as a country we feel pretty battered and bruised in economic terms, the UK’s labour market has actually fared much better than most of our European counterparts in recent years. One reason is because we have a wider variety of ways for people to access work and remain active in the labour market, rather than becoming inactive and losing their skills and confidence in the process. 

There are also more options for employers to take people on and maintain those jobs. According to the CBI, some 83 per cent of employers believe the UK’s labour market flexibility helped stem job losses in the recession, and more than a third of employers used flexible options to keep their firms going. In fact, the OECD employment outlook also showed that UK employment fell much less than expected given the drop in GDP.

So there are advantages to flexibility, but the left has often been hesitant to discuss the subject candidly due to fears of creating a race to the bottom or the erosion of hard-won workers’ rights. These are important concerns and require careful consideration. But we must engage productively with the flexibility debate so it can be properly managed to yield benefits at both the individual and macro level. 

The left’s vision of a successful labour market has traditionally focused around employment – permanent jobs and a fixed workforce. And unless it occurs inside of an employment relationship, we have shied away from talking too much about flexibility, as it has sometimes become almost synonymous with insecurity or worse, the exploitation of vulnerable workers. There is a similar habit when it comes to people working for themselves. Often we associate the words "false" or "forced" with the term "self-employment", thus casting the entire concept into a negative light. 

What has been missing from the debate until now is a willingness to take apart the wider concept of flexibility: to consider its component parts and understand which of those offers the best combination of benefits for the individual and wider economic growth. We need a more nuanced understanding of what labour market flexibility can and does mean.

There is clearly a world of difference between the types of flexibility at different ends of the labour market. It makes little sense to compartmentalise highly-skilled freelancers who actively choose self-employment with low-skilled workers who are, for example, instructed to set up as "self-employed" yet do the same job as their full-time, employed and unionised colleagues. The two share only the same label – not the same labour market profile or characteristics. 

There is no room for exploitation of individuals in a modern, well-functioning UK labour market, through forced self-employment or any other means. And whilst there will unfortunately always be some companies who attempt to take advantage of the system, the answer to this is robust enforcement, not doing away with other types of flexibility. 

Labour market flexibility, if harnessed properly, can be a force for individual and collective good. We must use it to help those who want a permanent job to secure one; and understand that particularly among higher-skilled workers, self-employment can be a positive choice which helps businesses to grow. 

And we must recognise that whilst many do, it’s no longer every worker that wants a full-time, permanent job: the labour market has moved on, and so must we. 

This piece was originally published in the Fabians pamphlet New Forms of Work, available today.

Self-empolyment is more than just blogging in your pants and eating lots of biscuits. Photograph: Getty Images

Gillian Econopouly is the former Head of Policy at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle