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pension rights reduced or removed altogether for employees in firms with just five workers, gangmaster licensing repealed, TUPE rules hobbled and the Agency Workers Directive dumped.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 shadow welsh secretary and Labour MP for Pontypridd.

Getty Images.
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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.