Work is a fundamental element of Conservative thinking. A job is the best pathway out of poverty and towards prosperity. It can provide a purpose which defines us as an individual. As well as creating jobs, Conservatives have a proud history, which goes back to Lord Shaftesbury and Benjamin Disraeli, of ensuring robust protections for people in the workplace. In this spirit, Theresa May asked Matthew Taylor, the former head of Tony Blair’s Number 10 Policy Unit, to review current employment practices and law.
Yesterday’s launch of Taylor’s review was briefed as part of May’s leadership reboot. In this regard, May’s speech fell somewhat short. But as a Conservative case for work it was a well-worded statement. May described how a “good job can be a genuine vocation, providing intellectual and personal fulfilment, as well as economic security. With good work can come dignity and a sense of self-worth. It can promote good mental and physical health, and emotional well-being.” For the past seven years, the Conservative have had an impressive record of job creation. Now the time has come for similar progress to be made in the development of workers’ rights.
Technological innovation, as much as globalisation, is transforming the workplace. At the cutting edge of this change is the “gig economy”. New companies such as Uber, Deliveroo, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit have appeared which allow workers to easily take up freelance work and to be hired through apps and websites. It has provided opportunities for many workers as well as lower prices for consumers. But there is also a lack of security for workers as the legal line between gig economy jobs and the traditional definition of self-employed has become ill-defined. These new jobs also fail to provide sufficient pay and benefits for people to get started on the path towards forming families, owning a house, or planning their retirement.
Jeremy Corbyn and the hard-left have responded negatively to this development and believe in a heavily restricted labour market, unlike the liberal left in America. The challenge for Conservatives is to maintain the balance between flexibility and fairness which ensures British workers can easily find work without fear of being exploited. Taylor’s Good Work review goes some way to provide guidance on how this can be achieved. This is particularly important as the workplace in general becomes increasingly flexible and as people make more frequent career changes.
Taylor’s key recommendation is that gig economy workers should be legally classified as “dependent contractors”, separated from the traditional definition of self-employed. Not only would this allow the tax system to recognise the unique status of gig economy workers, as Philip Hammond tried to do when he proposed an ill-judged increase in NICs in his Spring Budget, it would also provide greater clarity in the law so employment tribunals can identify and punish cases of abuse. Gig economy workers who work full-time would also be able to enjoy access to the national minimum wage, sick pay, and holiday pay.
May placed workers’ rights at the heart of her new Conservatism. But the loss of her majority in a humiliating election result has placed these reforms in jeopardy. Instead of being able to confidently promise a bill to implement the Taylor review’s proposals, May asked other parties to “read this report, engage with the difficult issues it raises, come forward with your own views and ideas about how we can tackle these challenges as a country.” It is more likely that Corbyn’s Labour party will decide to play an obstructionist role in Parliament in order to weaken the government.
There will be some opposition from within the party to these reforms, but May’s desire to build a new Workers’ Party remains necessary and right if the Conservatives want to regain their majority. In a rapidly changing global marketplace, the Conservatives can only endure and thrive by becoming a champion of small businesses and workers, "the little guy", in an increasingly volatile new world.