An open goal on self-employment

Philip Hammond’s assault on the self-employed provides Labour with a golden opportunity to win over Tory voters – that Jeremy Corbyn is squandering, writes Calum Sherwood

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party for the first time, he promised a ‘new politics’, which would think outside of old orthodoxies and update our offer to the nation fit for the 21st century. Corbyn’s campaign claimed he would renew Labour’s connection to working people and would be better placed to understand the new challenges they face.

However, after our devastating defeat in Copeland, I could not help but find myself agreeing with Rachel Megan Barker’s insightful piece for The Fabians, which argued Labour needs to give more to the electorate than slogans, particularly the well-worn phrase ‘Labour will protect the NHS’. She wisely summed up the current programme of the leadership as ‘[the] uninspiring aspects of Ed Miliband’s leadership and add in the toxic nature of hard-left politics, without really coming up with anything new or exciting-. Quite a brutal assessment, but one that is hard to challenge.

It did not always have to be this way. After our devastating defeat in 2015, Labour had the chance to renew itself, to engage with the issues that are redefining labour (small ‘L’) in the 21st century. After five years under Miliband distancing ourselves from our past achievements (and mistakes), we could have finally talked about the future, comfortable with our record in government but with our eyes firmly set on developing a programme fit for 2020. The fact is, when Labour won elections in the past, under Old Labour and New Labour, we won because we spoke to the nation about working people’s concerns and aspirations as they saw them in the here and now. We did not do it by fighting old battles or settling old scores.

The nature of work and community in 2020 will be very different from 1997, or indeed 1964. We need to understand the effects of greater atomisation and automation, and provide the solutions that are needed to build the ‘good society’ (as Anthony Crosland would say) for working people. The TUC’s excellent 2016 report ‘Living for the Weekend?’ paints a stark picture of current employment conditions for Britain’s young workers: un-unionised, heavily tilted towards the private sector and voiceless in the workplace, defined by precarity and low wages. These problems go beyond simply a demand for higher wages – although also crucially important – it points to a bigger problem of work eroding, rather than fostering, community and social bonds which previously held together working-class people.

The disappearance of the canteen in the modern office is one such example of how shifts in the world of work are changing relationships and community. Fewer and fewer offices invest in providing a work canteen (let alone subsidise them to provide cheaper food), expecting employees to pop out to Pret or Greggs on a lunchbreak or eat a packed lunch at their desks. The conversations and bonds which were once built in the canteen are vanishing, creating an office of strangers with little of the social solidarity that once existed. This is not the case in some large manufacturing plants; Nissan in Sunderland, for example, continue to provide their workers with a sports and social club (as a teenager I used to rehearse there with my ill-advised ska band), but this is becoming an anomaly and part of yesterday’s workplace. Labour needs to be responding to subtle shifts in the working world, not just at the macro level, and providing answers to these relational problems, which will pose a challenge for our relevance as a party of workers in the future.

The New Economics Foundation published a report in 2010 which made a call for a new ‘21-hour week’ as the norm. A radical policy proposal that, while not without challenges, acknowledged the need for a sensible conversation about flexibility and work that Labour needs to be engaging with. Work-life balance is a key issue that Labour, as a feminist party, should be hammering the Tories on by making the case for jobs which provide the flexibility to allow working people time to spend with their families and in their communities. The Tories position themselves as the party of the family, but their economic model means workers are spending more time at work, and less time with loved ones, making life meaningful with the freedom to spend time as part of a community.  Research by Bright Horizons and Working Families in 2014 found that more than half of parents report not being able to go home from work on time, due to a culture of inflexibility, high expectations from employers and overwork. While a ‘21-hour week’ as proposed by NEF may sound utopian, we need only look to our sister party in France and its success in government of introducing and defending the 35-hour week for inspiration. By championing flexible working and challenging the current culture of overwork, Labour places its tanks firmly on Tory lawns, capturing the centre ground on family and quality of life.

Devising a programme rooted firmly in the reality of workplaces in 2020 is crucial to win over the Tory voters we need to win a general election. Tory voters, especially young Tory voters, are just as disenfranchised with the worsening situation for Britain’s workers as those on the left. As the hard-right of the Tory Party make a post-Brexit push to turn us into a glorified tax haven, this disillusionment will only grow; and it is Labour’s responsibility to be a viable opposition with the answers and the credibility for those voters to trust us to turn things around for them and their families.

I voted for Corbyn in the first leadership election because it appeared that he was offering something new, a programme which had the potential for mass appeal, which was interested in trying to win over all classes and sections of society. My dad is a taxi driver, and the case made in the first campaign for statutory rights for self-employed workers is one which stood out, and would be genuinely transformational for his life. When I was growing up, my dad experienced several periods of ill-health which seriously blighted our fragile family finances. As a self-employed worker, he did not get paid unless he worked, and so he rushed back long before he was ready. Knowing he could instead be guaranteed sick pay as a self-employed worker would have made an insurmountable difference, to his wellbeing and our economic security. It is a policy which appeals as much to the self-employed cabby in Gateshead as to the small business owner in Peterborough – the types of people we need to get firmly in our camp.

Over the past a two years, policies championing the self-employed should have been central to our attack on the Tories’ record. We should be highlighting the fact that self-employed workers have become less able to pay into private pension schemes since the Tories took over, falling from 23 per cent in 2010 to 16 per cent in 2017. We should be acknowledging that one in eight self-employed workers are rejected for a mortgage, even if they earn more money than they did in a previously employed occupation. Policies on these issues should have been set out in earnest as a trap for the Tories, outflanking their lazy thinking and demonstrating we better understand the issues facing self-employed workers in the gig economy. This is even more important after Hammond’s ‘omNICshambles’ budget, leaving us with an open goal ripe for the taking, yet Labour have seemed little more than bit players in an uproar mostly led by Tory rebels.

And so the unfortunate question truly is: where have these proposals gone? Where have the policies that cross over party or class lines disappeared to? Why is Labour continuing to hammer the same stale messaging, rehashing the politics and policies of the past for the conditions of the future? Sometimes it seems that the only way we could get the Labour leadership to kick into fight mode and offer something new is if we persuaded Theresa May to run to be Labour leader.

And so we find ourselves going onto the doorstep with the familiar line ‘Labour will protect the NHS’, in lieu of anything else. The NHS is crucial, and of course we are the only party which will defend it, but we know from 2015 repeating this mantra is not enough to win.

Right now Labour is flatlining, shedding voters left, right and centre. We need to open our eyes to the rapidly changing nature of work, and anchor ourselves in the lives of young workers if we want to stand a chance of speaking to the nation. Otherwise, as the Ska classic goes: ‘working for the rat race, you know you’re wasting your time’. Labour is quickly running out of time.

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Calum Sherwood is a Labour activist. He tweets at @CalumSPlath

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Comments: 1...

  1. On March 15, 2017 at 10:32 am Jeremy Bateman responded with... #

    YES. We need to ‘park our tanks on Tory lawns’. Hammond has opened up the way to the working class Thatcher voters we won back in ’97. Trouble is, they won’t vote for Labour when they see Tory posters showing Corbyn.
    And please let’s stop resorting to ‘save the NHS’. It is a vital issue, but we’ve used it since before I could vote and I haven’t seen it win an election for us.

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