Opinion: Clegg should look to Gladstone and Grimond, not John Lewis

Nick Clegg’s Mansion House speech on “a more responsible capitalism” gathered publicity, particularly for his widely-reported call for employees to be given the right to ask for shares in the company they work for. I am still puzzling over how people can be given a right they already have. Anyone can ask for shares at present, of course, but with no guarantee of an answer.

It would be meant something if Nick had called for employees to have the right to be given shares in their companies when they asked.   It would have meant even more if he could have set out a scheme suggesting what level of employee share ownership he considered appropriate.  Better still, he could have specified whether the shares should be made available at current price, at a discount, or free of charge in return for performance, in the way so many chief executives receive them at present. He did none of these, and I found it frustrating that this opportunity to speak clearly on a subject that is clearly of interest to the media was evidently not thought through as fully as it might have been.

In his speech, Nick called William Gladstone and Jo Grimond in aid.  Actually, both men produced rather more radical ideas on business ownership than the timid plans Nick proposed. When 19th century train operating companies seemed to be acting against the public interest, William Gladstone as Liberal Leader took powers to nationalise them (now there’s an idea!)

Jo Grimond had much more far-reaching ideas on employee rights. His book “The Liberal Future” (1959) has a full chapter called “co-ownership”. In it he wrote

 Liberals want to see the growth of a body of worker-shareholders (which) would mean that the workers came to regard themselves as employers of management.

Grimond recommended tax incentives and changes in the Company Acts to achieve this.

When he led the Liberal Party into the 1966 General Election Grimond’s ideas had developed further.  The Liberal Manifesto for that election states: ” These councils were to give employees a say on all major issues affecting their company.”  Incidentally, this would clearly have included Directors’ pay and bonuses. These radical proposals provoked much interest and probably contributed substantially to the rise in the Liberal vote at that election.

Fifty years on, suitable modernisation and extension of these ideas should form the basis of our approach. Instead of woolly talk about “the John Lewis model” (a phrase  borrowed from another Party, and one about which Grimond was fairly scathing) we need clear and specific aims of achieving

  • co-ownership of companies by shareholders and employees;
  • employee participation in all major decisions including top-level rewards; and
  • clarity on the changes to the law and tax regimes to make these happen.

Co-ownership is a powerful way of breaking up entrenched concentrations of power. We need to less fearful about explaining it in a meaningful way.

* Nigel Lindsay is a former Liberal councillor in Aberdeen and a longtime activist in the party, but consider himself an internationalist first and foremost.

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5 Comments

  • Chris Nicholson 25th Jan '12 - 4:33pm

    Patrick Brione and I recently published a report which suggested a way forward on this issue
    http://www.centreforum.org/assets/pubs/workplace-democracy.pdf
    Views/comments welcome

  • Richard Swales 25th Jan '12 - 11:04pm

    I can’t help feeling that this is intended to be an eye-catching initiative rather than a policy.

  • Mike Falchikov 26th Jan '12 - 4:25pm

    Thank you, Nigel, for raising this issue. Yes, Clegg’s approach does seem a bit timid, but at least it’s a s tep in
    the right direction. It’s great to see good old Liberal policies being resurrected – let’s all of us now work towards
    a more robust and comprehensive scheme for co-ownership and employee participation in management.

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