Alex White presents his alternative Queen’s speech – what Labour could and should be doing now were it in power.
Six years into a Conservative government, the economy is not where they told us it would be. Productivity shows no sign of recovery, there are poor employment prospects even for those who have completed vocational education, and the first signs of future trends in the economy are putting huge pressure on families and the self-employed. An alternative Queen’s speech should introduce three bills to address these problems as a matter of priority.
Of these, low productivity must count as George Osborne’s biggest failing, putting us at risk of a lost decade. Output has flatlined for years and at the end of 2015 was lower than its peak before the 2008 financial crash. The problem is there are very few obvious solutions, let alone a single one. However, a productivity improvement bill would introduce some limited but necessary steps to broaden the United Kingdom’s output to show the government is taking it seriously. It would increase investment in local infrastructure projects – and make a decision on airport expansion – while borrowing costs are low. It would boost the co-operative economy, where co-operatives are often more productive than normal companies, with a co-op growth fund to give them freedom to compete for finance in a way they currently struggle to do alongside profit-driven companies. And it could introduce stronger forms of accountability within existing businesses, so that bad practice is rooted out and long-term investment made more attractive.
There is also a skills imbalance which means we have too many young people picking courses and training which lead to poor employment prospects. Simon Parker, director of New Local Government Network and author of Taking Power Back describes this as ‘too many hairdressers and too few builders’: in 2011 there were over five times as many hair and beauty course completions as there were new jobs in the sector. This is partly caused by regional imbalances in our economy. A local skills bill would incentivise further education to focus on long-term employment prospects, reform the National Citizen Service so that communities and businesses can guide local needs, and encourage unions, colleges and businesses to develop their own vocational programmes to train local workers.
Lack of skills often leads to poor employment. The growth of insecure employment should be a pressing concern, because many of the institutions which are there to protect workers in unstable jobs are no longer fit for purpose. There are six million people paid below the living wage, while a third of all private employees in the UK are employed by micro-businesses which have fewer than 10 employees. The needs of these businesses are vastly different across the country, where the outlooks for a café in a coastal town rise and fall with the tourist season, or a small shop in a university town will struggle with a high turnover of student staff. Some will be self-employed: the number of self-employed workers will soon be higher than the entire public sector workforce in the UK.
An independent worker bill would introduce new forms of social and legal protection for gig, self-employed, and micro-business workers. It would create a new ‘independent worker’ category to clear up the current obscurity around some platforms and ‘gig’ work which holds back technological change and innovation in outdated parts of the economy. It would give powers to communities to set up self-run, flexible childcare around clusters of small businesses. And it should set the terms for a commission on what this increasing part of the labour market needs in the form of welfare.
Increased productivity, a better relationship between skills and long-term employment, and facing the challenges of emerging trends in the way people work. These are big challenges facing the UK. A genuinely radical Labour party, determined to bring about real change and rediscover its roots as a party of labour, would present just such an alternative Queen’s speech. And quite the contrast it would make with the unambitious real legislative plans we are to be saddled with later today.
Photo: UK Parliament
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