We need to seriously address the issues of work

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Back in 1980 I entered the world of full-time employment as a sixteen year-old school leaver. Relatively secure jobs, with pensions and other benefits (in my case luncheon vouchers), were the norm. Thirteen million people were in trade unions.

But the Thatcher revolution was just beginning. It involved targeting those unions which the self-styled Iron Lady said had become too powerful. As a clerical assistant in the Civil Service, I ended up being involved in one of the initial battles when the government refused to implement the recommendations of an independent pay review body. We went on strike and lost. Others followed, notably the printers and miners, who also lost.

The industrial landscape was being redrawn and times they were changing. After my stint in the Civil Service, I spent 25 years in Royal Mail, where I lived through a heavily unionised workforce grudgingly accepting erosion of pay and hard-won working conditions. For those in non-union workplaces it was usually worse, particularly where jobs were privatised.

Wind forward 40 years and trade union membership is less than half of what it was back in 1980. New things like zero hours contracts and the gig economy are the order of the day. Misuse of ‘self employment’ is common and things like decent pensions have largely been consigned to history. Minimal protections, like the European Working Time Directive are also under threat from another Tory government that is talking about further restricting the right to strike, at the same ignoring the fact that worker exploitation is rife. The old established unions appear pretty toothless, failing miserably to organise in non traditional areas.

In fact, it has been left to relatively new bodies, like the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, to recruit and take up the fight for the rights of those employed in the most insecure types of work. But, of course, unions are only part of the equation. Good worker protection ultimately comes through legislation and I want to see Liberals engaging in that debate.

The questions I would like to pose are:

  • What minimum standards do we feel should apply in the workplace?
  • Do we still believe in the long held Liberal policy of employee involvement?
  • Where do we stand on proposals for a universal basic income?
  • Are we going to start talking about these issues instead of leaving it to the Labour Party to pose as the sole friend of the worker?

Our predecessors allowed Labour to outflank us a hundred years ago. One of the reasons for that was the relative ambivalence of the Liberal Party to the newly enfranchised working class. Being a mass party means addressing the things that affect large sections of the population.

Now is the time for us to do just that.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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  • Tristan Ward 15th Jan '20 - 4:02pm

    We need seriously to consider the issue of split infinitives.

  • Well said – support for trade unions should be an obvious consequence of Liberal social and economic policies, encouraging cooperation and helping people to solve their own problems – while the Conservative anti-union legislation is a fundamentally illiberal attempt to restrict freedom of association (and the Lib Dem MPs did vote against it, of course).

    And yet, when my union (which is not a Labour affiliate) went on strike last year, while Labour shadow ministers and local MPs and candidates were very public in their support (a welcome change from the Blair and Miliband years, incidentally) – making statements, showing up to picket lines, putting pressure on the employers … the Lib Dems nationally and locally basically ignored the dispute. A missed opportunity.

  • David Becket 15th Jan '20 - 4:56pm

    The unions are part of the problem. We have Len McCluskey to thank for the wrong Miliband, and Corbyn. If it were not for him we would still be in the EU and not facing 5 years of right wing government.
    I deplore the fact that workers are not sufficiently represented, but fighting to give more power to McCluskey and Co will not improve working relations and will not attract any support for us. If this new Independent Union can show a way forward it would be worth supporting.

  • This new union.If we want to change things we could start by supporting this union in every way.

  • Innocent Bystander 15th Jan '20 - 6:29pm

    you scatter a lot of blame around but what is your answer to globalisation, ? how do you afford all those benefits when competitor nations don’t enjoy them and their products are much cheaper? Trade barriers again? Capital controls?

  • David Becket 15th Jan ’20 – 4:56pm………….The unions are part of the problem. We have Len McCluskey to thank for the wrong Miliband, and Corbyn. If it were not for him we would still be in the EU and not facing 5 years of right wing government…………..

    I fail, by any stretch of the imagination, to see how McCluskey, Miliband or Corbyn are responsible for ‘Brexit’. Those making such claims do nothing for the crdibility of this party.
    As far as ’employment rights’ go a quick glance down memory lane at Vince Cable’s tenure as Business Secretary in the colaition. His “bonfire of regulations”. the introduction of tribunal fees for employees making claims against employers (ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court) ,scrapping of the Working Time Directive, supporting
    zero hours contracts, etc….

  • David Becket 15th Jan '20 - 7:03pm

    @ expats
    McCluskey, Miliband and Corbyn have lead to the current situation. D Miliband might have put some beef into the remain campaign, as might Charles had he lived.

  • Christopher Curtis 15th Jan '20 - 7:45pm

    You are absolutely right to say that we need to seriously address the issue of work.
    Good work with a good employer is one of the most powerful ways to enable and empower people. Work which exploits is one of the most powerful ways of taking away freedom and hope. In my lifetime, there has been a deep change in work from where many people had security, dignity and shared enough of the fruits of their labour to feel valued and empowered, because work could pay for decent housing and opportunities, to where many people now, do not.
    We must, though, not accept uncritically the socialist analysis that employers and employees are inherently in conflict and that large, collective organisation of labour is the only remedy. Much of the change over recent decades has reflected changes in technology as much as it has reflected Thatcher’s attack on unions, and Len McCluskey and his ilk are not a good answer to any problem.
    I’d like to see us do much more to encourage and reward good employers, to protect and secure rights for employees and to regulate to ensure that all of us participate in decision that affect us, whether made by our employer or government. It’s what we should stand for.

  • Unions can be a force for good (improving pay and conditions, improved safety and welfare for employees) and they can be a force for bad (pushing bureaucratic processes onto the workplace, holding management to ransom, driving forward and ragidly defending inefficient practices, making it difficult to get rid lf underperforming employees, meddling in politics)

    In order to do anything a person or institution needs some power. And what a person or institution wants to do (and use that power to do it) might be good. But it could be bad also. Hence why all power needs tobe checked and sometimes tempered.

    My own experience of unions has been profoundly negative. Rigid and dogmatic people, not actually looking at the big picture. Very inward looking

  • If Liberal Democrats don’t get their blinkers off soon there will be an indefinite period of Tory rule – reinforced should Scotland leave the UK because they want no part of it.

    Time to get thinking caps on, chips off shoulders about justified criticism of what happened between 2010-15, and an opening of minds. If it doesn’t happen there won’t be a Liberal Democrat Party anyway now that the one policy it had is, like it or not, about to be a thing of the past.

    Thankfully, Layla Moran on Politics Live today seems to be alive to this.

  • David Raw is spot on. The Tories won 345 out of the 533 seats in England – a majority of 157. If Scotland does go for Independence, the Tories will be in power for the foreseeable future. However, while Scotland remains in the UK we must be willing to work with the SNP as part of a progressive arrangement with Labour in the event of a future hung parliament.

  • @David Warren – This is a good article and you are certainly right that, as a party, we have not had a strong policy on work, yet it is such a crucial area of life.
    When Jo Swinson made her leader’s speech at conference last year, most of it was about Brexit of course but there was one other line near the end that stuck with me. It was about how we need to think differently about policies and be more visionary, and the example she gave was that we (as a nation) should stop judging our success merely by economic growth but should consider also the happiness and wellbeing of our people as a serious indicator of our national success. I’m paraphrasing, but I thought it was a great point, and even though Jo has sadly gone I’d love to see us take this forward as a key principle of our policymaking.
    We need to find a good narrative that is distinctive and gives us a Unique Selling Point over the next few years. Maybe this could be it. So our housing policy should include the types of houses that are built as well as the numbers, and our work policy should be all about encouraging happy, healthy workplaces. If you think of how environmentalism has become integrated into our political culture: 30 years ago green policies were considered a bit fringe and even silly, but now they are mainstream, with all parties committed to green-proofing their policies to some extent. We could do the same with well-being. I’m not a policy wonk but this is an idea that really appeals to me.

  • David Warren 15th Jan '20 - 9:30pm


    The shift away from Lib-Labism at the beginning of the 20th Century was gradual and was in part due to the reluctance of some Liberal associations to select working class candidates. Ramsey MacDonald was an example of a prominent Labour politician who initially tried unsuccessfully to get into parliament as a Liberal.

    Of course the split between the Asquith and Lloyd George wings of the party after WW1 was decisive in enabling Labour to become the main recipient of anti Tory votes making them the obvious party for trade unions to get behind.

    You are right we do need a Liberal trade union movement and building relationships with the majority of UK trade unions that are not affiliated to Labour would be a very good place to start.

  • Automation ought to be a part of discussions surrounding the future of work. It’s likely to have significant impacts on our working landscape, and it will certainly increase both relative and absolute inequality. If jobs become more scarce via automation, you can expect worker exploitation to increase. Less well-to-do folks will struggle to afford to retrain and reskill. Whilst Andrew Yang has brought the concept into the American consciousness, we don’t really talk about it at all here. Part of his answer is UBI, and I’m afraid my knowledge of economies isn’t enough to say if it’s viable. It certainly would only be part of an overall solution that helps to keep society from meltdown. Automation issues will likely peak as climate issues do too.

  • The problem with Trade Unions (full disclosure I’m in two and I’m even a minor rep in one) is they tend to be run by people more interested in politics than the welfare of their members. During the last GE I was repeatedly encourage to go and campaign for Labour. Meanwhile on the work front they seem unable to gain us a pay rise. They fail to see their main priority is to represent their member not to run political campaigns which the majority of their membership either don’t support or regard as an irrelevance. Until they become relevant to their membership they will continue to decline.

  • Tristan Ward 16th Jan '20 - 8:00am

    How are Labour and the Unions responsible for Brexit?

    Of course the Brexiteers carry much blame but Labour and Unions are to blame because

    1 they did not campaign wholeheartedly for Remain in the referendum; and

    2 Not opposing Brexit wholeheartedly after the referendum.

    Eg voting to serve Article 50 notice, not voting for 2nd referendum, not making Corbyn accept That someone else might have to be Prime Minister in gov of national unity etc etc.

    Even a few days ago a Labour shadow minister said their opposition to the Withdrawal bill should not be taken as a signal that Labour is imposed to Brexit.

  • Nonconformistradical 16th Jan '20 - 8:08am

    Re your posting at 15th Jan ’20 – 11:02pm – were/are these unions affiliated to the Labour Party?

  • Unfortunately, David Warren, the reluctance of local parties to select working class candidates continues to a large extent. In many constituency parties the membership has been very middle class, and in some others, where the membership has been more mixed, there has been a continuation of a deferential attitude. You only need to look at the studies on independent school v state school backgrounds of our candidates and MPs to realise this continues.

    Can I also say that if trades unions do not conduct political campaigns they lose relevance anyway. That should NOT mean they always support one political party. Perhaps that has been a contributory factor in their decline, that they have always been seen as supporting Labour, and people who do not naturally feel that way are less inclined join them. I think it would be divisive just having rival union movements supporting different parties like the CGT and CFDT in France.

  • John Marriott 16th Jan '20 - 9:19am

    Yes, Mr Warren, we need “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. But, as Tristan Ward opines, let’s do it without splitting our infinitives!

  • The objection to split infinitives chiefly appears to date from no earlier than the late 19th century. The Grammar of the English Language (1931) argues that the split infinitive “should be furthered” because it makes sentences clearer and reduces ambiguity.

  • Alex Macfie 16th Jan '20 - 9:54am

    For once I agree with Glenn, the so-called “split infinitive” is not a problem, and the objection to it is a contrivance. And actually, the infinitive in English is simply the uninflected (dictionary) form of the verb — it does not always take a “to” (we say “I can go” not *”I can to go”).

  • I agree that we DO need to engage with the issue of work. Indeed we can have a strong USP in this area if we engage realistically with the working world of today and of the future and produce solutions that would attract voters turned off by Conservative attacks on workers rights and Labour on the other hand hankering after the 1970’s.

    I agree with Christopher Curtis (above) “We must…not accept uncritically the socialist analysis that employers and employees are inherently in conflict and that large, collective organisation of labour is the only remedy.” Instead, we should encourage good employers, offering incentives for example to encourage best practice.

    So much has changed since the halcyon days in which mass membership of trade unions was the norm; not all of it for the worse. For example, workplace safety has massively improved (there are now huge penalties, not to mention reputational damage for employers getting it wrong) – this improvement has not been brought about through unions. Of course some changes are for the worse – working hours have increased for example – and this is something we need to address.

  • Nonconformistradical ,

    Unite are under Lexit Len but PCS are not and yet they were the most insistant I turn up and canvass for Labour. Either way both failed to inspire me with any convidence, effectively I’m in one to support friends and the other for legal cover.

  • Tim13:

    I’d say that the reasons TUs support Labour is because Labour supports them. Labour is currently the only major party with policy to roll back the last 40 years of anti-TU legislation, the only major party whose elected representatives, party officials, etc. regularly show up to picket lines to offer solidarity, etc.

    I expect most TUs would be very happy if the Lib Dems would do likewise. You might find, especially in Con-LD areas, their activists

    This extends to non-Labour TUs: my TU is not affiliated to Labour and hasn’t given the party a penny, but it doesn’t stop Labour supporting us … or the Lib Dems ignoring us … or the Conservatives being generally hostile to us.

    Julian Tisi:

    “Instead, we should encourage good employers, offering incentives for example to encourage best practice.”

    The last few decades have showed that this approach might work reasonably well for some high-paid middle-class jobs where the supply of suitably qualified employees is limited … but it’s hard to imagine a voluntary incentive that would encourage a zero-hours minimum-wage employer to change its business model. Indeed, they only pay minimum wage in the first place because that’s rather more enforced than “incentive”. Many would pay much less if it was legal to do so, and with Brexit maybe it soon will be.

    I admit that this may be the sort of “don’t rock the boat, everything is basically fine” soft policy which will appeal to many Lib Dem voters, though.

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Jan '20 - 10:58am

    “my TU is not affiliated to Labour and hasn’t given the party a penny, but it doesn’t stop Labour supporting us … or the Lib Dems ignoring us … ”

    Have you been in contact with the Association of Liberal Democrat Trade Unionists about being ignored..?

  • Nonconformistradical

    I didn’t even know there was one of those, so thank you. Something to remember for the next time.

  • Good article. Good questions. A list that could easily be expanded.

    But how can it be that after two closely spaced general elections these questions need to be asked? Do we have no position on key issues, no narrative about how we see the world that explains why it’s not working for most people and – building on that – a compelling plan to enable people to take back control of their lives and their futures?

    If we don’t, we leave the door open for others’ plans. And Plan beats No plan. As we have seen!

    Of course, this isn’t new; the Lib Dems have never really been much more than a coalition of residents’ associations that, when and where the stars aligned, could win a handful of Westminster seats. When the brand was seen as ’nice’ (as opposed to the ‘nasty’ alternative) that delivered modest success, but Coalition changed the brand perception to ‘untrustworthy’. Without the boost from anti-Brexit (especially in SW London) the outlook is dire.

    It doesn’t have to be like this but, whether because of ossified thinking or some other reason, I see little desire for change.

    For example, is there anyone who thinks the current approach to policymaking is working? Yet when I have argued that it’s not and needs root and branch reform, I get no push back from the party establishment.

    So, I will say it again: as long as policymaking is dominated by several overly large committees interacting with each other in opaque and complex ways, whose elected members are drawn almost exclusively from London, the lowest common denominator of this unrepresentative group will determine policy. The monolithic bureaucracy involved makes it virtually impossible for alternative thinking to challenge the status quo.

    A big reason the Soviets failed was their equally top down and inflexible bureaucracy. In contrast, capitalism positively celebrates the diversity of bottom up solutions that a properly open market system (NB NOT a degenerate monopoly-plagued one like ours) encourages. That supports natural selection of ideas and that in turn enables fast and flexible evolutionary responses to a changing world.

    That is also the spirit of Liberalism. We should draw the obvious parallel with policymaking and change to a bottom up approach that moves faster while being more reflective of the country.

  • David Warren 17th Jan '20 - 4:33pm

    Some really great comments, I really appreciate the feedback.

    I very much hope that senior figures in the party have been reading so they can reflect on why the party has been largely neglecting these issues.

    The policy of employee share ownership featured prominently in Liberal Party manifestos up to the 1980s and past leaders had plenty to say about industrial relations when strikes were more of a feature of the nations landscape.

    Worker exploitation is rife in modern Britain and it is about time we had something to say about it.

  • Christopher Curtis

    Well said. Moving the dial, if only slightly, from bad to good on employee relations would quickly make a huge difference to a lot of lives in freedom-enhancing and other ways.

    Some tension between workers and employers is inevitable but it doesn’t have to result in full-on confrontation although, sadly, in Britain workplace culture has historically tended that way and that’s reflected in national politics. However, there is a spectrum of other possibilities ranging right up to cooperation for mutual advantage with a fair division of the profits.

    Many employers do, of course, recognise that treating their employees fairly is no more than enlightened self-interest but in a financialised environment even good employers may have limited options.

    As for the bad employers, we can and should devise an institutional framework that will constrain them to start acting responsibly. Ideally, that would be legislated but a start could perhaps be made without that.

    For example, in my experience employees always have a far better idea of the real contribution of their boss (and their boss’ boss) than anyone else and that could be leveraged for good. I am not an expert on employment law, but is there anything to stop a Lib Dem local authority that was so minded requiring that its most senior employees (chief Executive and function directors for starters) be scored out of ten annually by each employee reporting directly or indirectly to them with the results for each totted up and those scoring under, say, 50% being put into ‘special measures’ (or maybe asked to look for a new job).

    A similar system in universities would have a dramatic impact on vice chancellors’ rapidly inflating salaries not to mention doing a lot for morale. And in public companies, a supervisory board with strong employee representation would be equally transformative.

    And, in a slightly different vein, why do we apparently have nothing useful to say about/no vision for appropriate training to offer the 50% who don’t go to university and further 25% who probably shouldn’t (assuming ‘university’ has anything like its traditional meaning). This is a quite astonishing omission – see my earlier comment on this thread. We just import people instead. I wonder why so many voted for Brexit. (/sarc)

  • Katharine Pindar 17th Jan '20 - 10:12pm

    Gordon, the policy-making structures of the party just aren’t as top-down and inaccessible as you make out. If sometimes one can’t altogether see why a working group doesn’t include a particular specialist, one can’t make a general criticism out of that. The call for people who have some expertise in whatever is to be discussed goes out freely to members.

    Then, the working groups proposing policies not only share their initial ideas with members at the Spring conferences and ask for any member to contact them with opinions after that, they do consult outside their own membership, specialists beyond the party. One result in the area of working life was the excellent policy paper and motion passed in the 2018 Autumn Conference at Brighton. It was entitled: Better Businesses, Stronger Communities: Proposals for a New Economy that Really Works for Everyone . I recommend it to you, but I believe it will be followed up – the work and the thinking on policy doesn’t just stop.

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