The Lib Dems' attack on workers' rights is a betrayal of their history

The tragic irony of Lloyd George’s successors pushing through regressive Conservative legislation.

You don’t have to look too hard at the record of this Conservative-led government to find examples where right-wing ideology and purblind prejudice have trumped reason and evidence in the formation of policy. Dismantling our National Health Service through financial competition, when all experts favour closer integration and collaboration, is one glaring and destructive example. Another is the crumbling foundation stone on which the government’s failing economic strategy is based: that public sector cuts will incentivise investment by the private sector. Seven hundred billion pounds of capital and assets hoarded in banks and corporate balance sheets is one evidence-based yardstick by which we might measure the margin of error of that call, though a more human scale might index the months of misery endured by the young unemployed of Britain as they wait for an upturn in our economic fortunes. However, I’m tempted to suggest that the most egregious example came yesterday, when Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat minister for employment relations, announced that she was cutting the minimum notice period employers have to give before making large-scale job cuts from 90 to 45 days.

This idea was first floated earlier in the year by Conservative donor Adrian Beecroft, in his slash and burn report on employment law. Beecroft infamously concluded that "employment law and regulation impedes the search for efficiency and competitiveness" and suggested that long established protections against unfair dismissal should be scrapped, parental leave and flexible working curtailed, pension rights reduced or removed altogether for employees in firms with just five workers, gangmaster licensing repealed, TUPE rules hobbled and the Agency Workers Directive dumped. Rather than recoiling from this shameful list, Tory minister Mark Prisk boasted that 17 of the 23 recommendations were already being implemented, though Vince Cable sounded a note of sanity in declaring it "complete nonsense to think that if labour rights were stripped down to the most basic minimum, employers would start hiring and the economy would soar again."

The Business Secretary pointed to evidence that Britain already has one of the most flexible labour markets in the developed world, a fact borne out by the OECD’s assessment of employment protection, which shows that British workers enjoy significantly fewer rights and statutory protections than their international counterparts.

Employment Protection in 2008 in OECD and selected non-OECD countries*

Scale from 0 (least stringent) to 6 (most restrictive)

And perhaps the Business Secretary’s influence can be seen in today’s decision to implement Beecroft’s recommendation on cutting the 90 day rule, insofar as the BIS Impact Assessment does concede that Britain has "one of the most flexible labour markets in the world according to the OECD’s employment protection index." However, Cable’s writ clearly doesn’t run too far, certainly not far enough to head off Tory-led determination to curtail workers’ rights. And thus the same Impact Assessment finds a way past the evidence to conclude (without supporting data of any kind) that "the UK performs relatively less well on the component of that (OECD) index that relates to collective redundancies and there may be room for greater flexibility here."

That greater flexibility entails making it easier and cheaper for employers to sack workers in batches of a hundred or more, by reducing the notice period, and thus the amount of time employers have to pay workers whom they intend to fire, to 45 days. This, like Beecroft’s other recommendations, is meant to "promote growth". But read the report in fine detail and you will struggle to find any empiric or even consistent anecdotal evidence to support this conclusion, as even BIS concludes the data is mixed:

Some UK employers have argued that the current regime for collective redundancy consultation is harming their competitiveness on a global level. They state that it is much quicker to restructure in other, competitor, nations, both within the EU and beyond. However, further discussion in focus groups with employers suggests this is not a universal view, and that in fact many view the process as easier in the UK than the rest of the EU.

Er, so which is it? They don’t say. But as someone who has worked for multinational companies with operations in counties across the world, I can tell them for free that everyone knows it’s far easier to lay people off here than it is in France or Germany, Belgium or Italy. In fact, as the OECD says, it’s easier here than just about anywhere apart from the US. And thus the only thing than can explain this change is not evidence, but ignorant prejudice: they think they know in their guts that British workers are a drag on our economy – amongst the most idle in the world, as another Tory publication recently described them – and that transferring yet more powers from labour to capital, from workers to corporations, will shake them up and render more dynamic our failing economy.

So, there you have it: another triumph of ideology over evidence for Tories who are determined to drive through every last post-Thatcherite prejudice they stored up and brooded on during their time out of office. For me, as a Welshman, the tragic irony of Lloyd George’s successors pushing through such regressive Tory legislation is rich indeed. Do Swinson and Cable not recall with pride that theirs was the party that first introduced unemployment insurance or the Whitley Councils on employment relations? Can they really say they are equally proud, almost a century later, to now be reducing workers' rights? The Welsh Wizard must be spinning in his Gwynedd grave.

Business Secretary Vince Cable with employment relations minister Jo Swinson. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

Photo: Getty
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Stop talking about Douglas Carswell's personal vote. He won his seat because of Ukip

Carswell's personal vote is spoken of fondly in Westminster. There's little evidence it actually exists. 

You cannot talk about Douglas Carswell for long in Westminster without hearing about his “personal vote”, the supposed popularity with which he is uniquely blessed and without which, whichever party he was currently a member of would certainly have lost.

That issue is front and centre now that Carswell has defected, this time quitting Ukip to sit as an independent. That leaves May with the question of whether to let him back into the Conservatives again.

There are lots of political reasons why that probably isn’t a great idea – it would annoy Conservative MPs who have stayed loyal, for one thing – but what if there is an electoral reason? What if Carswell’s personal vote is so large that he has to be accommodated?

Well, I’ve been looking at the numbers, and the long and the short of it is that talk of Carswell’s personal vote is mostly talk.

The idea that Carswell has a personal vote seems to rest on two, incredibly shaky foundations. The first is that he is uniquely popular in Clacton. I’ve visited Clacton, albeit some time ago, and it’s clear that, for all he doesn’t live in the seat, Carswell works it fairly hard and is respected for doing so. There were far more people who saw him as someone who put a shift in than when I did the same exercise for Zac Goldsmith.

But being respected for working hard and being a decent bloke isn’t the same as a personal vote. I found about the same level of gratitude towards Carswell on the doors as I did for Jeremy Corbyn in Islington North. Corbyn actually lives in his seat, unlike Carswell, and is widely agreed to be an exemplary constituency MP. But despite that, and despite being chair of the Stop the War coalition, he suffered the exact same Labour-to-Liberal-Democrat swing against him in 2005 as every other Labour MP in a seat of those demographics did. Being appreciated by the voters isn’t the same as the voters being beholden to you. (Just ask Winston Churchill.)  

That’s the anecdotal stuff. It is true that Carswell increased his share of the vote and had a swing towards him in 2010 after his first term as an MP. There are a couple of things to note here: the first is that when Carswell ran for the seat of Clacton (then called Harwich), the Conservatives were led by Michael Howard, when he ran for re-election, they were led by David Cameron. Cameron had quite a big effect on the Conservatives’ electoral performance. They gained more parliamentary seats in 2010 than they did at any other election since 1931. There is a politician with the initials “DC” with something to brag about, but it ain’t Douglas Carswell.

It is true to say that Carswell slightly overran the national swing and the nationwide increase in the Tory vote from 2005 to 2010.  But that was true of all but one of the 26 Conservatives who won seats from Labour in 2005 and contested the same seat in 2010. Psephologists call this the “sophomore swing”, and most politicians seeking re-election for the first time benefit from it, slightly overperforming colleagues who have served for longer.

Carswell’s performance was boosted by favourable boundary changes in which he lost Labour-leaning wards and gained Conservative-tinted ones, but he still finished middle of the pack, with the seventh-best swing. The biggest second-term swing was that secured by Peter Bone, who won his seat of Wellingborough by 687 votes in 2005 but had a majority of 11,787 in 2010, though like Carswell he benefited from favourable boundary changes. The best performers in materially unchanged seats: Justine Greening, Stephen Hammond, Philip Hollobone, and Philip Davies.)

Carswell also underperformed most of the 2005 Conservative intake on his first go-around, so his slightly larger than average 2010 performance may just have been reversion to the mean.

As for his heroics under Ukip colours, his seat had the most Ukip-friendly demographics of any constituency in the country, and he still managed a less impressive increase in his share of the vote than Mark Reckless, his fellow defector, pulled off in the Rochester and Strood by-election. In the following general election, he also suffered a bigger fall-off than Reckless did. (The Ukip vote in Clacton fell by 15 points, and by 12 in Rochester and Strood.)

So if you’re a frugal marker, you can make a persuasive case that Carswell has no personal vote at all, though I personally would shy away from that. It feels more likely to me that he has a small personal vote of about 0.5 to 1.5 per cent of the vote – which is more impressive than it sounds. Around 67,000 people vote in Clacton, so that’s still potentially a thousand people who would vote for Carswell regardless of his party. That’s not bad as it goes.

 But that highlights the slight pointlessness of the debate about “personal votes” – even a really impressive personal vote of say, four per cent would only be about 2700 votes in Clacton. That’s not something you can win a parliamentary seat with or anything like it.

All of the evidence suggests that he has kept his seat thanks to the popularity of the party leaders he has consistently undermined and worked against, be they Michael Howard, David Cameron or Nigel Farage, not from his own appeal. If he retains it now he has left Ukip, it will be because it was in the gift of Theresa May. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.