Cure for insomnia, anyone? For the most part Matthew Taylor’s review on employment practices, released last Tuesday, is hard to beat: a concentrated congeries of cliché and Blairite waffle (a free sample: “Government should use its convening power to bring together employers and the education sector to develop a consistent strategic approach to employability and lifelong learning”).
Therein, however, lies a Tory opportunity, if they want to take it. Within a week or two Theresa May should announce that the Government has not only read the review, but wants to go one better on workers’ rights. Forget sillinesses like the legally-mandated “workers’ voice” (i.e. trade union meddling) in more and more companies: this can safely go down the pan, since no-one outside Momentum, the Guardian and the staff-room at Bog Lane Primary gives a monkey’s. Instead, there are four steps that will benefit individual workers’ everyday lives, get the Conservatives known as the party of the little man on the new estate outside Nottingham or in the bedsit in Brighton, and won’t harm the economy.
First, learn from the excellent Frank Field and legislatively clobber bogus self-employment. Anyone over whose activities an employer has substantial control, even if they do provide their own delivery van, should have a right to demand to be treated as employed. This isn’t an unconservative measure. Morphing those who work as an integral part of your business into soi-disant freelancers with the sole aim of getting all the benefits of being an employer with none of the responsibilities is a tactic practised by charlatans and second-rate pen-pushers who understand nothing of the businesses they run apart from the words “cut costs”. Conservatives need to push employers to do better than that, particularly once Brexit cuts off the supply of cheap Eastern Europeans who are so glad of any job that they won’t complain.
Secondly, zero hours. True, the CBI (you remember, those enthusiasts for the euro, the EU, HS2 and all the other forms of corporatism that have turned out so successfully) said that this was a vital feature of the flexible UK labour market. But you shouldn’t be so sure. Genuine temporary requirements can be handled by agency workers. Elsewhere, why not a modest minimum hours requirement for any contract of employment with a business: say eight hours in any two-week period, to be paid whether taken up or not? No business is likely genuinely to need less (it’s equivalent to the half-day-a-week receptionist, book-keeper, or barista).
Furthermore, like pretend self-employment, treating one’s workers like cabs on a taxi-rank is not the kind of practice that the Conservative Party ought to condone if it wants to be seen as the party of the hard worker and not the self-satisfied spiv who has the ear of the Minister. Indeed, there would be nothing unconservative if one was to go further and encourage yet more old-fashioned employment and longer contracted hours by saying that while agreed hours should attract the minimum wage, those over and above that should attract a premium of, say, 10 per cent.
Thirdly, there is scope for a high-profile move that would both clip the wings of the unions and benefit individual workers. In the UK, we often forget that a trade union, once given the power to negotiate in a workplace, can agree not only to improve but to cut back the benefits of the employees they represent. For example, they can, and not infrequently do, cut a deal in good socialist fashion imposing a pay cut on management or successful senior staff in order to fund a rise for other categories of worker with sharper elbows and more vocal support. Many other European countries do not allow this: why not so provide in England, secure in the knowledge that trade unions do not have a vote but middle management emphatically does?
Fourthly, what about something to please both the Sun reader and the social media enthusiast? Employers increasingly seek to control what workers can say outside the workplace (think the oh-so-politically-correct housing association that seeks contractually to prevent its employees expressing views on social media about local politics, or gay marriage, or whatever). This is much resented, but at present there is no specific protection for an employee’s right to say what he thinks in his own time on his own Facebook page. There should be: a specific protection for all lawful views expressed in a context that makes it clear they are not expressed on behalf of the employer and cannot directly undermine the employer’s business would not only be a blow for free speech, but a highly popular move (and one that would leave Jezza scratching his little beard wondering what to criticise).
There’s even a nice anniversary here. Exactly 150 years ago in 1867, Tory premier Lord Derby stylishly whipped away the Liberals’ political togs when he introduced and passed the Second Reform Act, essentially forestalling the inevitable by granting manhood suffrage in the towns. Of the next 38 years, 23 saw Conservative administrations. If Theresa May plays her cards right, she may have a similar opportunity now.