Ed Balls can't ignore the growing ranks of people working for themselves. Photo: Getty
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Labour need to address the self-employment problem

Of all workers in the UK, over one in every seven is self-employed. Labour should account for this in its economic proposals.

In the early years of the coalition government, Labour had an easy argument to trot out. The route to economic recovery was painfully slow, and all the talk was of double dips and possible triple dips. When the recovery (and some happy revisions to the economic statistics) finally happened, Labour had to start talking about living standards instead. This was a risky strategy – there was a fair chance that the cost of living problem could have evaporated by now.

Unluckily for the rest for us, but luckily for Labour strategists, the argument still holds. The recovery hasn’t yet been strong enough to raise GDP per capita to what it was before the crisis. Wages grew by 0.7 per cent in the past year. Over the same period, prices rose by over double that – 1.6 per cent. Prices have been going up faster than regular wages in every quarter of every year since 2009. Around 1 in 5 working people are in low pay. Labour say we can’t carry on like this.

This has felt like safe territory for Labour – a policy without a big spending commitment price tag. Ed Balls has already talked about increasing the minimum wage, ending zero-hours contracts, and encouraging more firms to pay a Living Wage – a wage level that allows workers to meet basic living costs. The logical next step now, eight months before the election, is to set out some specifics. Ahead of the start of the Labour party conference this week, Ed Miliband has been busily doing interviews talking about a new pledge to raise the minimum wage to £8 per hour by 2020.

The lack of growth in wages is a real one, and needs to be addressed. But – should Labour find itself in government in 2015 – it will need to tackle the underlying cause, and not the superficial symptom. Getting strong, sustainable growth from businesses will mean that businesses will be able to afford to pay more. That will take investment in skills, infrastructure and innovation.

But there is an even bigger problem than this. The debate about policies like the minimum wage seem to take place in a nice neat world where most people neatly fit into a box labelled “employee”, and most firms are of a reasonable size. It’s neat, because it means that government can help workers by leaning on employers to improve conditions or raise wages – whether by regulation or through tax incentives. But it is becoming harder and harder to believe that this reflects the reality of the new world we are in.

Of all workers in the UK, over one in every seven is self-employed. Among men in work, the figure is even higher – almost one in five men in work are self-employed. In the last year, the numbers in self-employment grew around five times faster compared to the numbers working as employees.

These people will not be touched by increases in the minimum wage – the minimum wage does not apply to the self-employed. And if the minimum wage rises at a rate that businesses cannot afford, we may find that it isn’t the unemployment figures that go up: more people may effectively be pushed into working at what is effectively a lower hourly wage rate in self-employment instead. Almost a quarter of those living in in-work poverty are in households where at least one person is self-employed. To ignore these people would leave a gaping hole in any strategy for tackling low pay.

This is not to say that self-employment should be discouraged. Among the ranks of the self-employed are many success stories. For some, it may well be a route to greater freedom and higher income, and that is a good thing. More self-employment may well help create a more flexible, productive economy. But if Labour is serious about tackling low pay and increasing economic growth, it can’t carry on ignoring the growing ranks of people working for themselves. Politicians need to reflect the new reality of the working population. 

Nida Broughton is chief economist at the Social Market Foundation

Nida Broughton is Senior Economist at the Social Market Foundation.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle