Shares for rights – a line in the sand for Lib Dems?

Written by: Linda Jack on 26 October, 2012
Filed under Democracy, Economy

There are few issues that unite the Liberal Democrats across the social/economic liberal spectrum at the moment. However, the proposal to give up employment rights for shares, appears to be one of them. Despite a carefully worded defence by Vince Cable on Lib Dem Voice, the party just isn’t buying it.

At the same time as Vince’s article was published, Tracy Connell, a party member from Newcastle, was organising an open letter which has attracted hundreds of signatures from party activists. As Lib Dems we may differ in our views on deficit reduction, or reforming the welfare state, or the top down reorganisation of the NHS, but go anywhere near civil liberties or people’s rights……….. As our constitution states:

“Liberal Democrats are committed to fostering a strong and sustainable economy which encourages the necessary wealth creating processes, develops and uses the skills of the people and works to the benefit of all, with a just distribution of the rewards of success. We want to see democracy, participation and the co-operative principle in industry and commerce”.

The letter makes clear the disquiet felt by members:

“We believe this policy goes against not only Liberal Democrat principles, but principles of decency and honesty in the workplace. With a loss of rights the employee will be in a more unstable employment situation, which can only decrease confidence and spending which our economy desperately needs if it is to grow successfully.”

And as one commentator on Liberal Democrat Voice asked,

“if I seek to sell my shares, who can I sell them to? If I can only sell them back to the private owners, then their buyer monopoly gives me no opportunity to get a better price, basically making the shares worthless and scuppering the whole scheme.”

As a former Unison Branch Secretary I know only too well how hard fought for rights at work have been. The notion that those rights are up for sale is not only insulting, it is a clear demonstration of the contempt the Tories have towards the ordinary “hard working families” they claim to support. It also demonstrates their obsession with supply side reform without any recognition at all that so many problems in the economy are on the demand side. If my pay is being squeezed, or I fear losing my job, I won’t be spending on anything other than essentials. Even those lucky enough to have jobs are living in fear of losing them and are understandably far more reluctant to spend.

As David Mitchell, writing in the Observer, put it:

“You don’t need those pesky rights,” the chancellor seems to be saying. “You don’t need cover against unfair dismissal or redundancy – that’s for the sort of loser who gets unfairly dismissed or made redundant. That’s not you, you don’t need flexible working rights – you want to get on. You just need money, a stake in the company. Come over to the other side – join the strong: the shareholders, the rights withholders.”

Or, as Simon Caulkin pointed out in The Guardian:

“The notion that UK workers need less protection is simply wrong. The UK is already near the bottom of the OECD’s employment protection league. UK employees work longer hours, are more likely to work part time and get proportionally half the employment benefits of the average. In any case, there is nothing in the OECD figures to show a correlation between low employment protection and high economic performance. Rather, the reverse: greater protection seems to go with better economic performance.”

This “bright idea” may be at consultation stage, but it is already clear from the Treasury press release: “Employee-owner status will be optional for existing employees, but both established companies and new start-ups can choose to offer only this new type of contract for new hires.” So what is envisaged as voluntary is on the employer rather than employee side. One has to wonder what would happen to someone refusing to give up their rights for shares if they were on Jobseeker’s Allowance. Would their benefit be stopped for refusing to take up a job?

It is clear that this is an ill-judged, ill-considered and ill-thought through piece of nonsense that must be exposed for what it is.

This may well be the kind of attack on workers’ rights we would expect from the Tories, but certainly not what we expect from the Lib Dems. As Lester Holloway, a member of Liberal Left’s Advisory Board put it “Lib Dems must say ‘no’ to privilege and exploitation and ‘yes’ to upholding rights for ordinary working people.” I for one am delighted that this is a view most of my fellow activists appear to share.