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pension rights reduced or removed altogether for employees in firms with just five workers, gangmaster licensing repealed, TUPE rules hobbled and the Agency Workers Directive dumped.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 Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.

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Is our obsession with class is propping up the powerful?

Are we really all middle class now? Lynsey Hanley finds has fresh ideas about old ideas in Respectable: the Experience of Class.

Class is no longer banished from mainstream discussion, but it remains an uncomfortable topic for most mainstream media. The background to this is straightforward. The media all too often discriminate on the basis of parental wealth rather than talent: from unpaid internships to expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications, the routes into the industry are difficult to traverse without parents able to offer financial support. But most of us want to believe that our successes are personal achievements: that if we do well, it is because of our own ability, intelligence and determination. To realise that actually, you have queue-jumped, in effect, because of your parents’ bank balance: well, that would provoke insecurity and defensiveness. And so journalists and columnists are often disinclined to understand why society is stacked in the interests of some, but not others. Even raising the issue of class is felt as a personal attack.

That is one reason Lynsey Hanley is such a crucial voice. When she writes about class, she is writing about lived experience. Her new book, Respectable – the belated follow-up to her seminal Estates, published in 2007 – is a powerful investigation into the psychological impact, and cost, of shifting from class to class. She compares it to “emigrating from one side of the world, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life”. The case study? Hanley herself. The Personal Is Political would be as appropriate a subtitle for this book as any other.

Respectable compellingly (if sometimes erratically) weaves autobiography with academic research. Hanley grew up on a council estate in Chelmsley Wood, a 1960s ­new-build area of Solihull, in the West Midlands, a few miles from Birmingham. Her childhood, she says, would once have been labelled “respectable working class”: far removed from middle class but not “quite classically working class either” – rather, “foreman class” or “skilled tradesman class”. It feels wrong to infringe on Hanley’s right to self-define, but she does seem to have a very restrictive view of what being working class entails, so much so, that she isn’t entirely convinced she belongs. There has long been a clash between those who define class as a cultural identity and those who believe it has more to do with economic relationships (and those who think it is a combination of the two).

At Hanley’s school, “people didn’t do A-levels”. The high achievers ended up at the gas board or the Rover works and the word “university” evoked “something as distant as Mars”. Her school had 600 unfilled places, “effectively . . . abandoned by the community as much as by the local authority and by central government”. Hanley has always felt like an outsider: she struggled to make friends, found the limits of what was expected of someone from her background suffocating, and when – against the odds – she made it to sixth form, it seemed “one minute I was struggling for air, the next I felt as though I’d entered a large bubble of pure oxygen”. She looks to academics to help explain experiences she found difficult to navigate at the time. Her sense of isolation, for instance, can be illuminated by the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s exploration of “the ‘hermetically sealed’ nature of working-class culture in Birmingham”. The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, is her Bible; she feels he “could have been writing about my own childhood”.

Aged 17, Hanley was juggling five ­A-levels with four jobs: working at Greggs, selling Avon products, delivering newspapers and “making cakes and chocolates and selling them door to door”. But she became a professional journalist. When she was a teenager she visited Aldi to buy margarine and glacé cherries; now she comes back with “cold-pressed rapeseed oil and Pinot Noir”. She says “lunch” where she used to say “dinner”.

This is a well-crafted book full of insights. Hanley is determined to challenge the assumptions of left and right. She refers to socio-linguists such as Basil Bernstein, who examined how middle-class forms of communication were given preference over working-class expression but not because they were innately superior. Those who made the leap from working class to middle class found themselves assimilated by the new world. Many found it increasingly difficult to relate to the world they grew up in, and the people they grew up with.

Hanley thinks the approaches of both left and right to social mobility are problematic. Whereas the right uncritically worships the idea of “social mobility” – of parachuting the “lucky few” into the middle class without challenging the structure of society – the left, she says, believes that “social justice and social mobility are mutually exclusive”. In other words, she is questioning that old socialist maxim: “Rise with your class, not above it.”

Hanley assails those – including me – who place support for populist anti-immigration movements in a broader social context. She believes that we are downplaying the extent of racism in working-class communities, reducing it to fears over housing and jobs. We are robbing people of agency by letting individuals off the hook for their prejudices, she argues, stressing the casual racism she encountered on a daily basis. Disturbingly, she found that racism was often seen as a “sign of respectability”. She remembers sentiments along the lines of “Only common people hang out with darkies” and so on. My parents met through the Trotskyist movement; my father eventually became a white-collar local authority worker, my mother an IT lecturer at Salford University, and I was always by far the most middle-class of my friends. I’m not going to wish away the casual racism I encountered growing up in Stockport (and I’m white), but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Hanley’s argument. Why is there an anti-immigration party with mass support now, yet there wasn’t one in the 1950s, when bigotry was far more open and widespread? Surely something has changed, and rising job, housing and general economic insecurity have had a role to play? And will a strategy of criticising people for voting Ukip – or even for the far right – win them over?

My main problem with Hanley’s book is this. Those of us who want to transform society so that it is not run as a racket for a tiny elite need to build a broad coalition. I’m a political activist who writes; Hanley is someone writing about reality as she has lived it. But her book surely challenges attempts to build unity between the working and middle classes. She writes of how middle-class people both hog and deny their “social and cultural capital”, and believes that those who argue in favour of a “99 Per Cent” under attack by an elite help entrench middle-class privilege. The middle classes pretend they have the same interests as the working class, while using their sharp elbows to keep them down.

I wonder if there is a third way. Abolish unpaid internships; introduce scholarships; invest in education at an early age; automatically enrol the brightest working-class young people into top universities; deal with social crises, such as the lack of affordable housing, which help destroy opportunity for the less privileged; have a proper living wage. And so on. But if those who believe in social justice fail to build a coalition of supermarket worker and schoolteacher, cleaner and junior doctor, factory worker and university lecturer . . . well, we will fail. From the low-paid against the unemployed, to private-sector against public-sector worker, to indigene against immigrant, there are enough divisions exploited by the powerful as it is.

Nonetheless, Respectable is of vital importance: a searing indictment of a chronically unjust society in which our opportunities are granted or denied from the earliest of ages. The book may not offer clear prescriptions, but it is incumbent on all of us to fight for a just and equal society – one that currently does not exist. 

Owen Jones’s Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class is newly republished in paperback by Verso

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley is published by Allen Lane (240pp, £16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism