WITH only 10 weeks until Britain’s general election the main parties are setting out the territory on which the campaign will be fought.
Inevitably, the economy (or more likely it’s fallacious surrogate, “the deficit”), the NHS, immigration and Europe will be key battlegrounds. However, it would seem — if the recent pre-election skirmishes are anything to go by — that Labour’s focus on the cost-of-living crisis and union campaigning on fair work and fair pay will mean that workplace protection policy will receive more than just superficial attention.
The Tories have already called on employers to increase the wages of their staff and pay the living wage for lower-paid workers as they enjoy record profits in the wake of the fall in oil prices. They have also advocated a £7 minimum wage. This, I suspect, has more to do with reducing welfare payments to the working poor rather than any real concern over the fact that two-thirds of children living in poverty come from working families.
While the level of inequality in Britain should be enough to provoke action by any government that has not mislaid its moral compass, it is more likely that the pronouncements of the likes of the IMF and the OECD on the economic impact of inequality are what is focusing political strategists’ minds. It is difficult to ignore the 9 per cent GDP lost between 1990 and 2010 as a result of inequality in Britain.
Redressing Britain’s disgraceful record on the inequality level — the fourth worst of 340 OECD countries and the worst Europe — has, in part, motivated Ed Milband’s advocacy of “pre-distribution.”
Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish government has put reducing inequality at the heart of its programme for government and alongside innovation and internationalisation as the main driver of its refreshed economic strategy.
New Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, in a recent speech to the David Hume Institute, identified inequality as Scotland’s single biggest challenge.
In the next few weeks we will discover how this translates into party manifestos and, in particular, into proposals for enhanced workplace protection.
In addition to raising the minimum wage, the Tories have flagged their intention to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, to end the use of exclusive zero-hours contracts (ones which tie workers to just one employer) and to tackle trafficking through a modern slavery Bill.
Labour has committed to raising the minimum wage to £8 per hour by 2020, to using public procurement and tax incentives to encourage more employers to pay a living wage, to banning “exploitative” zero-hours contracts, to reform the tribunal system so affordability is not a barrier to justice, to set up a proper inquiry into the blacklisting and to double the length of paternity leave and increase paternity pay.
While Labour’s proposals in particular should make a difference, they fall far short of the demands the Scottish TUC will publish early next month. However, of more significance is how little of substance Labour has had to say about the role of unions and about the need for a positive approach to union rights.
We already know about Tory proposals to introduce thresholds for strike ballots in the utilities and public services. Labour’s national policy forum report, on which its manifesto will be based, contains some warm words about the importance of the union voice for people at work and in wider society. But, aside from welcome commitments to support union learning and to repeal the Lobbying Act, it contains no firm proposals.
Murphy referenced STUC evidence on zero-hours contracts in his recent speech on inequality, but had nothing at all to say about the role of unions in reducing it or what a future Labour government might do to support union organisation or to extend the scope and reach of collective bargaining.
Labour’s strategists may consider it an electoral liability to display too positive an attitude to unions. Such an approach is unlikely to work in Scotland. Labour faces a formidable challenge from the SNP which is certain to make much of its support for the recommendations of the Working Together review, instigated by the Scottish government to highlight the positive role played by unions in Scotland, in direct contrast to the Westminster government’s Carr review on the conduct of industrial action.
The Scottish government has already started to implement some of the 30 recommendations of the Working Together review, conducted by academics and an equal number of union and employer representatives.
This includes establishing a post of cabinet secretary for fair work, training and skills, supported by a fair work directorate and the creation of a fair work convention. This would promote union and employer leadership on workplace issues and explore the potential to extend collective bargaining in Scotland and increase levels of workplace democracy.
Under its new leader, the strategy of Scottish Labour appears to be concentrated on winning back the support of working-class men, mostly in the west of Scotland, who voted Yes in the referendum.
This strategy is likely to focus on a narrow range of issues that opinion polls suggest appeal to this particular group — the NHS, youth employment and standing up for Scotland. It is also responsible for Labour’s blatantly populist and cynical campaign for the sale of alcohol at football matches. While this is something that might be attractive to Labour’s target voters, it is less so to those who have to deal with its consequence, particularly the victims of the domestic violence with which the combination of football and alcohol is related.
Politics must be about more than parroting the findings of focus groups. It must be about ideas, about values and about ideology. It must be about winning support for policies that might be unpopular with some groups of voters but for which the evidence is sound. The evidence, presented in the report of the Working Together review and published elsewhere, is that high levels of union membership and extensive collective bargaining coverage are not an impediment to economic success and are central to the reduction of inequality.
If Labour is serious about reducing inequality and about tackling the cost-of-living crisis, it must not shy away from a positive policy agenda on union rights, signal this in its manifesto and campaign on it.
The recommendations of the Working Together review would be a good place to start, not just to match the commitments of the SNP, but because it is the right thing to do.
Grahame Smith is general secretary of the STUC