This summer at the Edinburgh book festival, Ewan Morrison coined the excellent pejorative “Dot Communism” and I’ve been borrowing it ever since. Dot Communism pervades public life across all political boundaries. It is the lazy fetishisation of the values of firey start ups everywhere: work tirelessly, grow fast, and democratise resources, insofar as democratisation involves everyone owning everything at once, whether it be information or hard cash.George Osborne yesterday took this fetishisation to a new extreme, and Labour should be learning from his error.
Proposing a new scheme in which employees swap certain significant employment rights for a stake in the organisation which employs them, Osborne seeks to create a new kind of worker – the “employee-owner”. In a sense it’s safe Tory ground in that he’s relying on personal responsibility rather than protectionism to ensure both productivity and fair play. However, the scheme also relies on- indeed champions – the thrusting owner mentality which will thrive on personal risk provided there’s the promise of fat, fast returns.
Labour should be paying attention to two kinds of response. Unions have reacted with outrage, with Paul Kenny of the GMB stating unequivocally his belief that “slashing people’s employment rights… won’t create jobs and it won’t create growth”. This was perhaps predictable. Osborne gleefully played up his scheme’s lefty-bating angle, introducing the policy with the gloriously sarky statement “workers of the world unite”. Still, the horror of the left at this extreme application of the dot communist manifesto should be a stark warning to any overly soundbite-friendly policy wonks at Labour HQ.
More importantly, John Cridland, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, was quoted in the Guardian with a distinctly lukewarm response. The scheme might be ‘attractive’ to workers in ‘some of Britain’s cutting-edge entrepreneurial companies’, but he thinks ‘this is a niche idea and not relevant to all businesses’. In other words, flashy get rich quick schemes might well appeal to a few media-friendly industries whose workers are characterised by boldness and zeal, but the majority of organisations rely on the bulk of their workforce feeling secure in their jobs, drawing their salary, and proceding perfectly happily without a major stake in the future of the company.
All Labour needs to do now is to realise that this is exactly what they’ve already said. Shadow secretary of state for business Chuka Umunna’s speech at the party conference- as recorded on Labour’s website- now looks rather prescient in calling for “an economy that rewards those that work hard and create sustainable value- not those just out to make a quick buck”. There’s an opportunity for Labour to turn this line into more than banker-bashing. They can be the party of sensible entrepreneurship and sustainable growth, the thriving local furniture business to the Tories’ coke-fuelled Old Street digital bullshit dispensary.
As Ed Miliband starts putting some flesh on to the bones of his “one nation”, he should be reading the papers today and remembering that, in business, mutual responsibility, shared vision and employee development are about much more than the promise of quick cash. Indeed, he’s already said as much- so he’d better make sure the nation realises it.
Josh Lowe is a freelance journalist and writer. He tweets at @jeyylowe.