Sunday, 27 November 2011

How many jobs will robbing workers of their rights create Vince? None.

Business Secretary Vince Cable, one of the sadder Liberal Democrat barnacles clinging to the hull of the coalition, has launched a ‘call for evidence’ on reforming employment law.

Up for grabs are ideas such as allowing businesses to cut the consultation period for making redundancies from ninety days to just thirty, making it harder for workers to take their employers to an industrial tribunal and the introduction of ‘protected conversations’ between managers and staff. This last means that employers would be allowed to discuss sensitive issues such as retirement or performance with staff without, as Dan Watkins of Contract Law told this week, ‘fear of their every word being used against them in a tribunal.’

Perish the thought; actually the thought I seem to have had most about ‘protected conversations’ is that like ‘protective custody’ any exercise of power needing to be disguised by a mealy mouthed euphemism is unlikely to be a good thing. As Brendan Barber of the TUC put it ‘protected conversations’ could provide the ‘perfect cover for rogue bosses to bully at whim without fear of being found out.’

Am I the only person out there who thinks this call for evidence seems more like a fishing trip to see what the government can get away with?

If so some of the things they’d like to get away with are very nasty indeed, take for example the proposal put forward by Adrian Beecroft, a big time donor to the Tories, that ‘unproductive’ employees should lose their right to claim unfair dismissal. The Lib Dems managed to kick that idea into the long grass a while ago; I doubt it will stay there though.

The purpose of this assault on hard won rights for working people is dressed up under the dubious term ‘reform’ is, according to Adam Marshall of the British Chambers of Commerce to create a situation where ‘firms won’t have to waste time and money and can focus on running their business and delivering growth.’ Yes, naughty workers always wanting their pesky rights and gobbling up money their bosses could be paying themselves.

Hang on a moment though, will turning the clock back on employment law really kick start the economy? Chukka Umunna, shadow Business Secretary doesn’t think so and told the press this week that ‘watering down people’s rights at work is not a substitute for a credible plan for growth.’ He may have the misfortune to labour under the tag of being the ‘British Obama’ and being named as a potential future leader of a party that has lost its way big time, but on this issue Mr Umunna has a valid point.

There are a great many things the government could do to help businesses, simplifying the tax system in return for companies investing a slice of the money saved in long term job creation; speeding up the planning system for companies that move to areas where jobs are scarce for example. You might notice something about these ideas; they all involve an element of working in partnership; both sides giving a little to meet in a mutually advantageous middle.

That approach is something successful businesses and healthy societies understand implicitly. If the relationship between employers and employees is one of ‘us’ and ‘them’ with both camps armed to the teeth and spoiling for a fight sooner or later everybody loses out.

Anyway should we be dismantling rights for people in work, and for those looking for work thanks to the harshest welfare reforms for decades, in the name of promoting growth; might growth itself be something of a chimera? Natural resources and human capability are finite; the real challenge of the century ahead is to find a way of sharing what we have fairly rather than endlessly chasing after more.

Yet again the government has proved to be drawing its policies from a 1980’s playbook. Demonize the unions, shout at the poor that they just aren’t trying hard enough and attack anything connected to ‘rights’, the public will lap it up; maybe not. Times have changed, if small businesses are going to drive the recovery, and they surely are, then promoting partnership working will matter more than making it easier for bosses to fire staff on a whim.

That the government led by David Cameron can’t see that explains why they can’t some up with a Plan B for the economy and why what we need to get Britain back in business isn’t fewer rights for workers; what we need is a new government.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Were August’s riots just a taste of what is to come?

This week the first academic analysis of the riots in London, Birmingham and several other cities at the end of the summer was published; I doubt David Cameron will care all that much for what it has to say.

In ‘Mad Mobs and Englishmen’ Steve Reicher and Clifford Scott of, respectively, the universities of St Andrews and Liverpool predict that a refusal on the part of politician to pay attention to the real causes of the riots could make such social disorder more likely. They reject the knee jerk reaction that ‘straightforward criminality’ was solely to blame for the riots, claiming the real trigger was a sense of grievance and lack of opportunity felt by a growing number of young people.

Speaking to Professor Reicher said the riots began because ‘police failed to engage with local communities’ and that when politicians responded by calling for ‘water cannon and curfews’ to be deployed next time they risked ‘making a bad situation still worse.’ He went on to say that politicians could learn ‘much about our society if we stop, listen and learn from what people did on those four nights in August.’

His concerns were shared by Mark Seddon, director of the People’s Pledge campaign, who said in an interview given to that more unrest on the streets was possible if nothing was done to address the ‘democratic deficit’, adding that there was a real risk that ‘the state response will become more violent as the riots become more violent.’

Elsewhere director general of the CBI John Cridland warned this week that the UK economy was in a ‘bad place’ and that efforts by businesses to turn things around were being hampered by the speed with which the government was implementing its austerity policies. As understatements go that deserves some kind of prize, this week number of people out of work rose to 2.62 million, 1.02million of whom are aged 16 to 24; far from curing our economic woes austerity seems to be making things worse and could cause government borrowing to reach £100 billion above target by 2015.

In a speech to the Social Market Foundation reported by the BBC this week Labour leader Ed Milliband said that given the harm being done to the economy and to society by their policies it would be ‘the height of irresponsibility for the government to carry on regardless.’ He went on to urge them to ‘change course for the sake of our young people, change course for the sake of the country.’

Even the dear old Church of England got in on the act with eighteen bishops signing a letter printed in today’s Observer calling for the government to reconsider its plans for welfare reform because they risk tipping thousands of families into poverty. It is the sort of comment the church should have been making when the Occupy protest camp first appeared on its doorstep; but better late than never.

The unfortunate truth though is that none of this, not the reasoned analysis of academics, or the politely heartfelt concerns of senior clerics, or the appeal from the leader of the opposition to put the good of the country ahead of party politics will penetrate the shell of indifference surrounding the government. David Cameron and George Osborne have painted themselves into a corner over the economy and fixing ‘broken Britain’ and lack the strength of character to find a way out.

Instead we are treated to comments such as the following from Tory Party Chair Michael Fallon who told the BBC that ‘rather than speculation whether businesses are good and bad Ed Milliband should set out a credible plan to clear up the mess Labour left behind.’ Yes that’ll solve the problem, another spat at the despatch box between George Osborne and Ed Balls over who is to blame for the deficit; it won’t be at all like playing pass the parcel with a time bomb will it?

In his conference speech David Cameron twittered on at length about ‘leadership’; I doubt he knows what the word means, he certainly hasn’t shown any. If he were serious about solving the problems afflicting our society and economy he would be working to bring the three main political parties, business leaders, the unions and anyone else with a stake in Britain’s future together to address the problems we face and to find a solution that is to the benefit of everyone.

That is what real coalition government is about, not using scare tactic to prop up a first past the post electoral system that disenfranchises millions of voters and using the introduction of IER to rob millions more of their vote altogether; not roaring like a lion at the people tagged as the ‘underclass’ by the tabloid press then mewling like a kitten frightened by a thunderstorm whenever he deals with the city or the banks. He lacks the courage and understanding of the fears of ordinary Britons to do so and so in its place we will get instead is a vicious cycle of riots and retribution that in the end will harm everyone.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

In the future everybody will be allowed to strike for fifteen minutes.

There are times when you open your morning paper and feel obliged to check the date on the off chance that you have somehow passed through a wormhole and emerged on April 1st without noticing.

I had one such moment yesterday when I read that Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude had suggested that public sector workers angry over pension reform plans imposed by the government hold a ‘token’ fifteen minute strike on November 30th. This was, he said in an interview given to the Financial Times, something the government would be ‘willing to accommodate’ and that he ‘couldn’t imagine’ any public sector employer docking worker’s who took part a day’s pay as a result.

Gawd bless you Mr Maude sir; you’re a gent and no mistake. I’ll just give my forelock a good hard tug before writing the rest of this article in honour of your boundless generosity. Then again maybe I won’t.

This offer delivered from somewhere in the leftfield had attached to it the threat that if public sector workers followed the instructions of their union and took part in a full day’s industrial action then the government would see this as making further tightening of trades union laws inevitable. As one BBC commentator put it, if the government was offering the public sector unions a carrot then it was attached to ‘a pretty hefty stick.’

Speaking to the BBC TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said that if Francis Maude had ‘genuinely wanted this idea to be taken seriously I would have expected him to have raised it directly with the unions rather than play it as a PR gambit in an interview.’ He went on to say that real progress in the dispute over public sector pensions would only be achieved via the government making ‘acceptable offers’ as part of the negotiation process.

A spokesperson for UNISON, the union representing many of the workers due to take part in the strike, questioned whether the government was in a position to guarantee that nine thousand public sector employers wouldn’t dock the pay of staff who took part. He described the offer as a ‘load of PR gimmicks to make people think unions are being unreasonable’ and went on to say that UNISON members had ‘voted a certain way and how that strike goes ahead is not a matter for Francis Maude to decide.’

I don’t know which surprises me more that the offer was made in the first place or that the response to it has been so restrained. The line taken by UNISON, the TUC and most of the media is that this is just another piece of out of touch eccentricity from a government composed of people so wealthy they really do think the world smells of fresh paint and that it is entirely normal to be met by an honour guard of footmen and chambermaids whenever you pop down to your little place in the country.

I don’t think it is anything of the sort; I think it is a concerted, cynical and potentially disastrous attack on democracy. The only question relates to how many of the people complicit in it know and agree with what is being done and how many are too stupid to understand what is happening.

Last week a commons select committee attacked the proposed introduction of individual voter registration saying that it could damage democracy and lead to the legitimacy of future election results being called into question. Turning the right of working people to withdraw their labour into something granted from above and only to be exercised within confines so strict as to make doing so irrelevant is no less dangerous.

This week the Greek people saw their, admittedly unpopular and ineffectual but none the less democratically elected, government replaced by one led by a grey technocrat in order to appease the market, a god more cruelly capricious than any their ancestors once thought inhabited Mount Olympus; in a short while Italy will follow the same sad course. Across Europe democracy is under threat in a way it hasn’t been since the end of the war because the clever manipulators of capital see it as a barrier to their turning the debt crisis into an opportunity to make money.

Here in the UK we are told that the government’s heroic deficit reduction plans will keep the wolf of financial chaos from our door and that our political system is somehow immune to the troubles that have afflicted the rest of Europe over the decades. That, to me, sounds dangerously complacent; far from saving the economy the policies driven ahead so recklessly by George Osborne risk turning a recession into a depression, if people are being stealthily discouraged from even registering to vote and tricked out of the right to withdraw their labour then our democracy will slowly atrophy.

Democracy isn’t a perfect system; but it is demonstrably the best one on offer, not least because it allows the people to make things awkward for those who set themselves up as their rulers. If things turn out how Francis Maude and his kind think they should in the future everyone will be ‘allowed’ to strike for fifteen minutes, but whether that is the same as being free is open to question.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Voting is NOT a lifestyle choice.

Ever heard of IER? I’ll give you a clue it’s not a ‘must have’ computer gadget, the next iphone app or a distant relative of self appointed conscience of the Tory party Iain Duncan Smith.

IER stands for individual Electoral Registration and it is perhaps the most dangerous idea this misguided government has come up with so far. Up to now it has been the responsibility of the ‘head’ of every household in the country to ensure that every eligible adult living in his or her property has registered to vote, the penalty for not doing so being a fine of up to £1000.

Under IER all that will be swept away and it will be up to individuals to register to vote, or not. The vote, something women threw themselves under horses to win and men (and not a few women too) of all nations died in two world wars to protect will stop being a civic duty and become just another ‘lifestyle choice.’

This has attracted expressions of concern from the Electoral Commission, academics, pollsters and, belatedly, the Labour Party, all, it seems, to no avail, the government has set its course and the presence of a huge rock in the way is seen as not being a good enough reason for changing direction.

The latest group to draw a map of the rock in this particular instance is the commons Political and Constitutional Reform committee, who said last week the that introduction of IER could ‘damage democracy.’ I admire their restraint; personally I think it risks destroying it completely.

Why so? It’s very simple, if they are not compelled to do so, register to vote that is whether or not a person actually cast his or her vote is and should remain a matter of choice thousands of people will simply not do so. As the Labour MP and chair of the committee Graham Allen told the BBC ‘Getting people to take responsibility for their own votes is the right thing to do, but it has to be done in the right way.’ In this instance the right way is by making it a requirement to register and educating people in the importance of using their vote.

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said the government was acting to ‘modernise’ electoral registration and that they were ‘putting safeguards in place to stop people dropping off the register as well as looking at what we can do to increase registration levels.’ This all sounds very proactive but is, in fact, little more than bland nonsense since there are no plans in place to hold a national canvass of registered voters in 2014 so when IER is introduced a year later the information against which the number of voters registered will have to be checked and any targets for increasing it set will not be accurate.

There is no doubt that there is something uncomfortably paternalistic about the ‘head’ of a household registering the voters in his property and I can see the potential for fraud, but IER will not solve the problem in fact it will create even more problems. Not least because whenever I hear a bureaucrat talking about ‘modernisation’ it seems to be an excuse for someone to cry ‘havoc’ and let slip the dogs of incompetence.

What should concern us even more is the fact that, as pointed out in a recent article published in the New Statesman, that under IER the number of people registered to vote could fall from the current level of 90% to 65% or maybe even 60%, meaning that ten million or more voters could vanish from the electoral register and the democratic radar at a stroke. As Jonathan Tongue, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool pointed out in the same article this will be a ‘disaster in terms of shrinking the electoral register and reducing the number of people voting in general elections,’ he goes on to add that ‘If you diminish the number of people registered to vote, you delegitimise the outcome of elections.’

The voters who ‘vanish’ as a result of the introduction of IER will, inevitably, come from the poorest communities, the young, members of ethnic minorities and people living in rented accommodation. They are in effect being told that the political system isn’t interested in their views or their votes so would they please go away.

This should concern everyone outside the richest sections of society. The rich don’t much care about democracy because they can buy whatever they need from an education for their children to health care for themselves when they grow old or fall sick. People on low to middle incomes, the gap between the two groups is shrinking by the day, need it desperately. Without the ability to make their collective voice heard at the ballot box they, we, are sunk because their cries for help will always be drowned out by the bellowing of the corporate giants.

After an ecstasy of dithering the Labour Party has woken up to the importance of this issue, Harriet Harman denounced the introduction of IER from the conference platform and party leader Ed Milliband is said to be ‘steamed up’ about the proposals and is planning an Obama style registration drive in universities and colleges across the country.

Labour are, of course, in something of a difficult position over IER since they came up with the idea of introducing it whilst in government. I also fear that for all the good intentions behind it Red Ed’s attempts to galvanise sceptical students might be unfortunately comic in its delivery; more a timid whisper of ‘do you think we should? than a triumphant shout of ‘yes we can.’

What is deadly serious though is the threat this ill thought out plan poses to our democracy. I don’t take the line that it is part of a right wing conspiracy since this government lacks the organisational skills to mount one, it is, instead, the product of an out of touch political class that masks is inability to connect with the public with endless fiddling about with processes.

IER will damage the legitimacy of our democratic process, whether your views belong to the left or the right if you believe in the right of the people to choose how and by whom they are governed call for it to be abandoned before it is too late.