Monday, 14 February 2011

Employment rights: historical thought required

One of the most worrying elements of politicians these days - from all parties - is that they lack a sense of history.

Tony Blair talked about rights and responsibilities, and Gordon Brown about 'Britishness', as if those subjects were fresh off the page. No-one, of course, had ever thought about any of this - not Ralf Dahrendorf, William Beveridge, Anthony Crosland or Leonard Hobhouse. I could pick any number of other names out of the air. Adam Smith? Who's he?

This government's about as good (or bad) at this as any other. Hence the recent musings about loosening rights at work, for instance by increasing the period people need to work for an employer before they receive protection against unfair dismissal or poor treatment. It's not so much that this will make the coming 'shake-out' easier - although it will - but rather the images and discourses pressed into use to justify this questionable policy.

Ministers talk of 'flexibility', 'change', 'dynamism', 'taking the weight off employers' backs' and 'allowing the market to work'.

Actually, as the history of employment law in the UK shows, the effects can be the opposite. David Cameron is said to take Harold Macmillan as his political hero. They're both apparent centrists who went to Eton, after all. But Macmillan understood, as Cameron sometimes does not, how recession and depression can work. His government introduced the 1963 Contracts of Employment Act forcing businesses to provide written contracts, pay on time, keep to their end of the bargain, provide a notice period, etc. etc. It was also during that period of Conservative government that many of our more effective and more modern health and safety legislation was enshrined in statute.

Why did the Conservatives do this? Because they knew it was efficient.

Encouraging protectoin at work makes people happier and more satisfied, and encourages them to work more efficiently, for agreed goals. But we can leave these modern - and often Scandinavian - insights to one side for the moment and just point out that the more people are offered redundancy pay and periods of gardening leave, the more likely they are to move from declining or failing companies, and the more likely they are to wait for a job that fits their skills before diving into a new post.

Even for relatively liberal economists, it's a no-brainer.

It's all of a piece with coalition policy which is, as Andrew Rawnsley of The Observer pointed out on Sunday, decided between two parties rather than thinking about how the public will receive those ideas - let alone how they'll work out in practice.

Hence the slow-motion car crash of tuition fees, mangled and despised even before they reach the implentation stage. But more of that anon...

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