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pension rights reduced or removed altogether for employees in firms with just five workers, gangmaster licensing repealed, TUPE rules hobbled and the Agency Workers Directive dumped.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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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

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