Why workplace democracy must be part of Labour's economic agenda

Strengthening workers' bargaining power can deliver fairer wages and more productive enterprises.

All orthodox economic commentary today is focused on the need for fiscal responsibility. Cutting the deficit is said to be a pre-requisite for growth. On the left, the argument is about short-term stimulus followed by longer-term prudence to get the economy back on track. Unfortunately, a small dose of Keynesianism, while welcome, will leave many of the problems that pre-date the crisis largely untouched.

First, governments of all political hues have failed to halt and reverse the enormous rise in income inequality that took place in the 1980s. Far from being a source of dynamism, excessive inequality is now seen as a cause of economic instability. The IMF argues that the pre-crisis bubble was a result of rising personal indebtedness driven by a growing gap between rich and poor. Their prescription for recovery is equally clear: wages must rise in line with productivity and the bargaining power of those with modest to low incomes must be improved. 

Second, the Labour government was successful in restoring full employment as an objective of public policy. But the net effect of this achievement was to move half a million people from workless to working poverty. Families continued to struggle to make ends meet, despite the minimum wage and tax credits. Wages at the bottom end of the labour market were simply too low.

Third, since 2004, wages for all those below the middle of the earnings distribution have been either frozen or have fallen once inflation is taken into account. Robust growth depends upon a steady stream of consumer demand but consumers are hardly likely to feel upbeat if their living standards are being squeezed.

Obviously the state has a role to pay in solving these problems by making full employment a priority and redistributing through the tax credits system. But the government cannot determine wages for all people at work. Rebalancing bargaining power depends on institutions that can represent workers interests effectively – a relationship that is explored in the Smith Institute’s latest report Just deserts? Poverty and income inequality: can workplace democracy make a difference? (July 2013, Coats). To use the US scholar Jacob Hacker’s formulation, pre-distribution matters.

The centre-left, then, has an opportunity to revive an argument that has been treated with contempt for far too long – that workplace democracy can deliver fairer wages and more productive enterprises. The international evidence is compelling: those countries with a fairer distribution of incomes, like the Nordic states and the Netherlands, have an array of institutions which create an inclusive labour market with decent work for all.

Productivity levels and the extent of innovation in German manufacturing are also looked on with envy by British policymakers. This impressive record is partly a result of effective industrial policy, but it depends just as much on the engagement of workers and their involvement in the process of incremental improvement. Works councils and trade unions, despite their weakened condition, remain central to the integrity of the German system. Britain presents a stark contrast, with an exceptionally low level of employee participation (only Lithuania is worse in the EU).

It would be wrong not to recognise the weakness of trade unions, especially in the private sector, even though the workers covered by collective agreements receive wages around 6% higher than those in a similar non-union firm. There is still a union 'sword of justice' effect, but it has become weaker as membership has fallen. Labour must think radically about how the state can facilitate the growth of effective workplace institutions. There is an irresistible case for learning from the works council models that are to be found in most EU 15 member states.

Rebalancing bargaining power means that the state has to re-establish its role as an exemplary contractor and employer too. The living wage should be used as the pay floor in public procurement and where negotiated rates of pay exist they should be observed by all those in the government’s supply chain, including sub-contractors. Beyond using the government’s contractual powers, the Low Pay Commission (LPC) should be given extended terms of reference to investigate the causes, consequences and cures of low pay. The LPC should also be required to develop principles of affordability, identifying when a rate above the minimum wage could be applied to an industry. And government should sponsor a dialogue on skills and productivity between all stakeholders (including the trade unions) in low wage industries.

The central element of Labour’s story has to be a reconceptualisation of the purposes of economic growth and the role of major corporations. It demands a return to the notion of stakeholding that was rapidly adopted and equally rapidly jettisoned by Tony Blair in the mid-1990s. That the architecture of British capitalism is broken should be a matter of consensus, if 'One Nation' means anything it surely means a broad agreement about the terms under which markets operate. Thoughtful Conservatives like Ferdinand Mount, who served as policy head to Margaret Thatcher, have begun to see the wisdom of two-tier corporate boards on the continental European model.  It would be odd if Labour missed the opportunity to develop an agenda for the reform of British capitalism

While it would be wrong to argue that the electorate have moved decisively to the left, there is a widespread belief that a return to the pre-crisis status quo is unacceptable. The possibility of a progressive post-Thatcherite settlement is tantalisingly close but triangulation and well-intentioned tinkering will prove inadequate to the task. Labour’s alternative has to include a progressive agenda for the world of work. Reducing income inequality and the extent of low pay is essential in convincing a sceptical electorate that the party has a credible economic programme.

David Coats is a research fellow at The Smith Institute

The group's new report can be read here

 

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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