Trade unions the true ‘fix for cost of living crisis’

A busy couple of months has seen my eye somewhat taken off the ball on this blog – this is my first post this month and only my second since the end of March.

Aside of all that, however, I couldn’t help but notice the publication of the Office for National Statistics’s monthly labour market overview last Tuesday and its subsequent weaponisation by the government (a) as an inevitable distraction from its reign of perpetual chaos and omnicrisis; (b) in connection with its refusal to do anything of note about the sharply rising cost of living; and (c) to talk up its own record on the labour market (as if any of this was the result of its own policies). In particular, I did manage to note Boris Johnson’s appearance in the Sundays to link (c) and (b) – to stress ‘work’ as the ‘fix for the cost of living crisis’.

From the ONS’s overview, it’s true that unemployment – at least on this measured definition – is low and declining, and has also dropped beneath pre-pandemic levels. The employment rate – the number of people in work, of some type – is also slightly higher. The number of vacancies in the economy rose sharply and, at 1.295m, is actually higher than the number of the registered unemployed (1.257m); while the number of job movers from one job to another during the first three months of the year – as a result largely of resignations than dismissals – is also high. All this might, at superficial level, be a sign of a labour market that is ‘tight’, or ‘heating up’ – but this is indeed, far from being ‘red hot’ with many of the jobs being poor quality and with a mismatch to skills.

We don’t have to delve too far into the data to find the most obvious sign of why the labour market is not ‘red hot’: wages. In a ‘tight’ labour market, theory would indicate that wages should be rising to compensate for the evident shortages of labour. But, while they are rising, according to the ONS’s data, it is largely because of the contribution being made by bonuses: rises to basic pay are rising much less quickly and, currently, are rising less fast than the cost of living – thus, real wages across the economy are actually declining, despite the headlines in some sectors. Bonuses are short-term, given (and withdrawn) at management discretion; they are confined substantially to the finance and business sectors, which account for 60 per cent of all bonuses; they do not provide proper compensation for workers’ labour; they are outside the purview of collective wage setting; and, quite frequently, they prove to be discriminatory against women, people of colour, disabled people and the young.

Additionally, we know that no less than 41 per cent of universal credit claimants are actually already in a job (formally, in what the DWP’s ‘conditionality regime’ calls ‘working – no requirements’) – i.e. that taxpayers’ money is being used to subsidise wages for workers that are uneconomically low; while 68 per cent of working age adults in poverty live in a household where at least one adult is in work. Government support to subsidise low wages is a major intervention which both undermines the labour market and the incentives for workers to collectivise.

Of course, all this shouldn’t be happening – Brexit, in ending the free movement of labour, was supposed to ensure that ‘reserve army of labour’ arguments no longer applied to this country’s wage setting mechanism. In truth, it might be a little too early even to be thinking of sending the jury out on that one, although the signs are evidently not good. Nevertheless, wage growth in the UK has been poor for more than a decade – since at least the 2007/08 financial crisis, in fact – and, while there is likely to be a lag between a ‘tight’ labour market and the point at which wages start to rise, even if this does kick in at some later point, it is clearly starting from a low, and unstably weak basis. While it has changed little in the last twenty years, the labour share of income is lower than in the 1970s and the last time it rose consistently was in the few years of the first Labour government after 1997. In short, we do not have any evidence that the UK’s wage setting arrangements are currently able to respond appropriately to the signals sent by the labour market.

Consequently, it is more than evident that work is not the route out of poverty – and not only the elderly, those who are economically inactive, for whatever reason, and the ‘in-work’ poor. Everybody in work is poorer off than they should be, with an evident impact on living standards both in the here and now and in the future, in terms of pension saving. The labour market that we have is good at creating jobs but much less so at raising wages. Not for the first time, nor no doubt for the last, it is clear that Johnson does not know what he is talking about.

Chief among the reasons why our wage setting arrangements are not fit for purpose is the 40-year neoliberal attack on our collective labour market institutions – both trade unions and collective bargaining. Trade union density in the UK – the percentage of employees who are members of a trade union – now only reaches 23.7% (fewer than one in four workers); while collective agreements only cover 25.6 per cent of employees (both heavily supported by the public sector): these are official government membership figures drawn from its specific annual statistical bulletin (the 2022 update, containing figures for 2021, is actually due out later this week). The decline in collective agreement coverage is part of a Europe-wide phenomenon (and, likely, for similar reasons of the political shift rightwards); and the signs on trade union membership in the UK are not all bad – there have been rises in each of the last four years; trade union members still number a substantial 6.56m; and there is indeed a lot more ‘buzz’ around the phrase ‘trade unions’ than in many years – decades, even – hitherto.

Economically, trade unions are a good thing: on pay, we know for example that unionised workplaces see wages that are higher, on average by 5 per cent for equivalent workers; and that wages in unionised workplaces are less dispersed, thus helping to reduce wage inequality (both stats from Alex Bryson and John Forth from 2017). Any reduction in inequality in the UK is entirely welcome, not least in view of the UK now, as a result of rising wage disparity, having the highest level of income inequality than anywhere in the EU other than Bulgaria – itself, as an aside, an interesting indicator of the failure of ‘trickle down’ theory. Furthermore, there is significant evidence about the cost of living gap: that it is the poorest who face inflation rates that are much higher than they are for the richest (as a result of a much higher share of income going on the sorts of things where prices are rising quickest: energy and food).

One solution – and possibly the most significant, as far as workers are concerned – to the cost of living crisis is, therefore, a strengthening of our labour market institutions to ensure that workers properly receive the value of their labour, thus allowing workers better to face the cost of living crisis. As we know, the much-promised Employment Bill has again gone AWOL but, should it ever appear, one of the most important things it could do is to take the shackles off trade unions and encourage collective bargaining at industry-sectoral level, ensuring that fair rates of pay are set and which apply across a sector, preventing employers from competing against each other on wages, thus driving wages downwards, and stopping workers being set against each other. Boosting collective bargaining will boost the labour share of income.

I am, of course, not holding my breath; a government which takes its cue from the sorts of newspapers whose headlines today, as Johnson is again pictured with wine at a gathering during lockdown, try to pin the blame on strikes for the problems in the energy and food supply chain is not going to throw the gears into reverse on 40 years of neoliberalism. The TUC argued for a restoration of the role of collective bargaining in its evidence to the Spring Statement, back in March, and there is no evidence that anyone in the government was listening then or, just as importantly, has learned anything since.

But it is precisely this that workers need if we are to be able to deal with the rising cost of living.

What should Auntie do now?

Yesterday’s announcement by DCMS Culture Secretary freezing the BBC licence fee for the next two years (until April 2024) before allowing it to rise in line with inflation until April 2028, was an interesting exercise in news management since much of the coverage concerned how the licence fee will be replaced from 2028. The DCMS statement itself really wasn’t about that – the future beyond 2028 was somewhat shoe-horned into the press release as its very last paragraph, covering around 60 words out of about 900.

Nevertheless, the BBC has some powerful detractors in the media, all with their own vested interests in getting rid of the licence fee; the ongoing ‘culture war’ evidently sees the BBC as one enemy (among many); and Secretary of State Nadine Dorries first announced the news by the somewhat unusual method of tweeting out a link to a Daily Mail article (and clearly setting out her own agenda for the press release in the process), only tweeting the link to the official DCMS press release sometime later. A department whose current political head believes that this licence fee settlement should be the last might seem – in the context of a forthcoming separate consultation on ‘whether the licence fee will remain a viable funding model for the BBC’ – might seem to have rather pre-judged the outcome of that consultation.

And, of course – of course – this government of populists (that is, this Prime Minister) needs a few distracting headlines of its own right now.

The single argument raised in support of the freeze – that people facing ‘a sharp increase in their living costs’ could not be asked to pay more for the BBC at this point – is a powerful, but multi-sided, one. We should question the role being played by the government’s own policies in the steepness of that increase and what it ought to be doing to redress those in practice.

Furthermore, this is a government whose policies usually pay attention to the living standards of working people only when it suits it: it is failing to address the dramatic rise in energy costs being experienced by people whose energy suppliers (or re-sellers) are bankrupting themselves; it refused to extend the £20 uplift to universal credit given during the early stages of Covid-19; and it only acted on free school meals during school holidays when it was publicly shamed into doing so by Marcus Rashford (whose subsequent gong courtesy of Her Madge is telling on so many levels). The failure of wages even to keep pace with inflation – yesterday’s other half of today’s living costs news – gives a further lie to the arguments of Brexiteer cheerleaders (Nadine Dorries among them) about the ‘reserve army of labour’ coming from the EU (to which there were anyway other solutions than Brexit): almost as if the weakness of our labour market institutions (i.e. our trade unions) hadn’t been the intended result of much of public labour market policy for the last forty years. And, indeed, where is the Employment Bill?

Naturally, a ‘sharp rise’ in inflation means that the freezing of the BBC licence fee will have an even more deleterious impact on its services – that’s programmes, of course – since it will need to be either ‘absorbed’ (by way of ‘efficiencies’ – also known as ‘cuts’) or else in reduced levels of programming (which are also quite clearly cuts).

While recognising that £159/year (or £13.25/month) is a lot of money – quarterly and monthly payment options are available, at little or no extra cost – and that more needs to be done in respect of those on low incomes and the elderly, I think the licence fee provides good value and should be retained. This is clearly not a popular view – note that the BBC’s own reporting of yesterday’s story contains, quite uniquely, a section on ‘Can I legally avoid paying the licence fee?’ – but I’m far from alone here: in-depth 2016 opinion poll research by GfK (for the government) on the alternative options then under consideration emerged with the view that the licence fee was actually the most favoured of these (section 7; p. 40ff).

Comparatively speaking, the licence fee is also in fairly rude health. A subscription to the news and opinion columns of a leading newspaper, often linked to in these parts, is £119/year (or £11.99/month); a Netflix subscription costs, at basic, single, level £5.99/month – or £13.99 for a family of four watching screens at the same time; Sky plus Netflix is £26/month (18-month contract); and Sky plus Netflix plus broadband stacks out at £46/month (18-month contract). With Netflix – a platform which, essentially, is collecting your information about your viewing habits with a view to monetising you further – there is of course no public service broadcasting element; Sky – no longer a vehicle of the Murdoch family following its sale to US giant Comcast in 2018 – also has no public service broadcasting obligations and its basic programming (not including sports…) thus costs at least as much again as the BBC licence fee. In terms of earnings, the £3.05/week which the licence fee costs (per household) compares pretty favourably with the £550/week which is the November 2021 average weekly pay figure.

Quite a lot of people yesterday were spending time justifying – one way or another – their BBC viewing and listening habits, but I think this is a dead end. I suspect that few of us escape the BBC entirely (and why on earth would you want to?) and, while there are rightly some things that need to be learned around pay equality, around some of its editorial decisions, around its interpretation of its requirement for impartiality (flat earth being but the latest ridiculousness), as well as around its role as a part of the establishment, the BBC does do a lot of things very well. It’s very easy to focus on an area of public spending on which individuals don’t see a lot of personal return (health, roads, benefits) and demand a cut – but we can’t escape taxation and we don’t live in a pick’n’mix society (and nor should we). There is, however, such a thing as public goods – things for which we all pay regardless of individual consumption but which lowers the cost to all of us. To me, the BBC is a public good (a look at other subscriptions – as above – points heavily in this direction, too) – and the ‘soft power’ return to ‘global Britain’ of a corporation which has worldwide brand recognition and which enjoys global trust is incalculable. We squander that at our peril.

Nevertheless, the perils of squandering things do not tend to occupy for very long the thought processes of vandals determined to stamp their boots over society. Dorries’s very public scribbling on the wall doesn’t signal the end of the licence fee as much as advertise for trainee grave diggers and fire lighters – though we should note that 2028 is at least one government away, and that even 2024 may well not end up within the purview of this one (please). Dorries herself is unlikely to see 2024 in post – there have been no fewer than six secretaries of state within DCMS in the 4.5 years since it was established and she is thus already almost half-way through the average tenure.

If I was Tim Davie, I would thus be putting a deal of effort into building relationships within the opposition, within the trade unions and within the creative sector generally ahead of the DCMS consultation with a view to building as much support as possible around the future for public service broadcasting in order to raise public perceptions of how much the BBC does in this area. While the question of the consultation is for another day (it will come: this government is, in respect of its pet projects, one that is in a hurry, as much as it is slothful elsewhere), I note that the BBC is not the only public service broadcaster and that others are funded for this role from central taxation. Where we end up in terms of BBC funding, presuming a continuation of current policy, may well therefore be some sort of hybrid model of central taxation plus subscription (I’m not arguing for this – just what I think is most likely). In this respect, maximising the channels which are geared to delivering public service broadcasting (and which are funded out of taxation) may well be the best means of minimising the impact of those boots.

[EDITED 19 January 2021 to record that Sky is now owned by Comcast.]

Mobile licence fees: market value still not realised?

To close the year – as indeed I did on the last day of 2020 – this post constitutes the text of my autumn 2021 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. The text, which focuses on a consultation on mobile licence fees launched in the summer by Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulatory authority, has been updated to account for the outcome of the consultation, while some links have been added.

Ofcom is consulting on new licence fees for 3G mobile spectrum. Here, we revisit a horror story and update it for our age.

In the middle of July, Ofcom issued a consultation proposing new annual licence fees for mobile spectrum in the 2100 MHz range, commonly used by operators to supply 3G mobile services.

Readers may well recall – with a shudder – Ofcom’s original auction process, back in the spring of 2000, for 20-year licences to use this spectrum. At the outset, the auction was thought likely to raise around £5bn (a sum in excess of operators’ bidding models but which could still have been absorbed), inflated by a competitive bidding process designed by economists and based on games theory alongside huge interest in the potential of 3G spectrum to revolutionise our usage of mobile phones (then used for little more than voice calls and minimal data). However, it ended up raising some £22.48 billion after an exhausting process lasting nearly seven weeks. At the time, such a sum represented around 2.5 per cent of UK GDP – and could have built 400 hospitals.

Faced with the prospects of paying a similar amount per head in Germany in another 3G auction there, as well as elsewhere in Europe, the sheer unsustainability for the operators involved of financing such sums led – among other things – to a bursting of the telecoms asset bubble, economic recession and a delay in capital expenditure which put back the introduction of 3G services. Lessons were learned – but the process was a scarring one, even for those of us charged only with monitoring progress and analysing the potential impact. For members of the union working in the industry, the damage caused was both deep and long-lasting.

Just to put some perspective on such sums, inflation (as measured by the Retail Price Index) has risen by 78 per cent since then. £22.48 billion would now be worth some £40 billion – and, in 2021, you could probably get a working Covid-19 Track and Trace system for that.

Crisis

Ofcom’s regime was modified in 2011 in the wake of the banking-led financial and currency crisis and it is now, in 2021, proposing comparatively modest fees, ranging between £290,000 and £567,000 per MHz, depending on the type of spectrum involved, which will lead to annual licence fees of between £12.79m (for O2) and £25.58m (for EE).

These sums compare interestingly with the auction-led outcome which led to a total annual cost in excess of £1bn. Perception of the market value against which Ofcom is obliged to set the fees is associated with many things, not the least of which is that 3G has now been surpassed, with 6G likely to come on stream in the 2030s, and with EE announcing that it will switch off its 3G network in 2023 to support its 4G and 5G networks. Even so, the figures are starkly divergent.

O2 has some 24 million direct mobile customers while EE has around 32 million so the fees are unlikely to make much of a dent in consumers’ contract prices – they amount to around 53p/year for O2 customers and around 80p/year for EE ones. Neither will they make much of a contribution to public finances (Ofcom is self-financing on the basis of the fees it generates and the fines and penalties it levies, and it is a net contributor to the Treasury (p. 55)).

For workers in these and the other mobile operators, however, the impact is likely to be a little more significant. Ofcom is rather dismissive of the argument based on narrow economic considerations (consultation document, p. 33), but each pound of fees that mobile operators are forced to pay is likely to lead either to a reduction in capital expenditure or an increase in the never-ending search for efficiencies (or, indeed, both). Ofcom takes no view about the impact on workers, but anyone arguing that each £1 million of fees is insignificant has never sat in on pay, or other, negotiations with a corporate employer.

Workers and the operators for which they work might well be justified in arguing that 3G licence fees have already been paid in full.

Ofcom was – at the time the column was written – due to finalise the proposals later in 2021 with the fees to apply as from 4 January 2022.

On 13 December it announced a fractional reduction in the licence fees to £561,000 for paired spectrum and that it would consult further on unpaired spectrum – a very minor win for the operators with annual fees for EE and O2 now set at £22.44 million and £11.22 million, respectively (although, depending on the outcome of the further consultation, this may rise further). Ofcom continues to maintain that its licence fee proposal has no impact on investment (response, pp. 45-47) on the grounds that setting fees below market value’ would effectively amount to it giving operators an ‘unconditional subsidy’ (p. 47) – an argument which, in the historic context, demands a certain amount of chutzpah to deliver.

Automated recognition software: your rights in the public space

This is the text of my summer 2021 column for BECTU’s Stage, Screen & Radio, slightly extended and with added links. Sometimes the column – especially when published several months later – gets overtaken by events; occasionally concurrent events give it added relevancy and that’s the case with this one, with news this week that the Information Commissioner is stepping in over the case of facial recognition technology in Ayrshire schools ‘to speed up the lunch queue’; and with Eurostar testing the same to give ‘seamless travel across borders’ and a ‘touch-free journey through border checks’ (under plans originally announced last summer). As always, the language is of course interesting focusing on the upsides with little consideration of the (considerable) downsides. Passport checks – which already incorporate biotechnology – are one thing; whether school children are in a place to give informed consent for something as quotidian as school lunches is another thing entirely.

Anyway, on with the column…

The European Data Protection Supervisor – an agency which reinforces data protection and privacy standards – has called for a ban on the use of ‘automated biometric identification in public space’. This means a number of things connected with the use of what, for simplicity, we’ll call here ABI to categorise a range of features including, most obviously, facial recognition but also gait, voice, keystrokes and our other biometric or behavioural signals.

The EDPS is not concerned with the use of AI to unlock your smartphone, but it is concerned about the public space: law enforcement and also the wider commercial and administrative environments in which it might be deployed – for example ‘smart’ advertising hoardings and billboards, attendance at sporting and other mass events, in airport screening or wherever users access public services.

The call for a ban is clearly serious – but so is the context in which it was made: the European Commission’s legislative proposal for an Artificial Intelligence Act. This, the EDPS noted, did not address its earlier calls for a moratorium on the use of ABI in public, however otherwise welcome the initiative.

The UK has of course left the EU, but the Information Commissioner’s Office – the UK’s own data protection and information authority – is also concerned about these issues. A reference to facial recognition technology appeared very early in the ICO’s 2019/20 Annual Report; while the Office issued an Opinion on the use of facial recognition technology in law enforcement in October 2019. It also intervened in a judicial review on the use of such technology by South Wales Police – a review which the police lost on human rights and data protection grounds.

We know – and have done for some time – of the problems of ABI in distinguishing between people: it has a much lower accuracy record in correctly matching people of colour, women and those aged 18-30. Partly, this speaks to the lack of diversity amongst those developing ABI software and amongst those on whom it is tested; in either case, were the base to be more representative, its accuracy record may well be better.

This, in turn, speaks to the need for software development standards also to be more representative and more inclusive, and to take serious account of tightly-drawn standards of ethics.

(Whatever the comical faults of the LinkedIn jobs algorithm, it is AI that is responsible for diverting job advertisements in a way which reproduces the extent of existing occupational job segregation, and which may contravene sex discrimination laws, by sending grocery delivery jobs to women and pizza delivery jobs to young men).

Furthermore the EDPS spoke specifically of its concerns that AI ‘presents extremely high risks of deep and non-democratic intrusion into individuals’ private lives’ while the ICO being similarly exercised – expressly, and in very similar language, about its potential for ‘unnecessary intrusion into individuals’ daily lives’ – indicates a worry among regulatory authorities that there are unsettling data privacy and state surveillance aspects surrounding the use of ABI in this way.

ABI works on the basis of matching scanned images against a ‘watchlist’, deleting those where there is no match and otherwise prompting human intervention. What the authorities are concerned about is whether an individual could anticipate, and understand, their image (or data) being processed in this way; and whether this is both a necessary and a proportionate response. What you and I might be concerned about is how someone could put us on a watchlist – was it because we went on strike, perhaps, or demonstrated against racism? – and how the authorities would then be allowed to track us wherever we go without us knowing.

Unquestioning faith

Additionally it’s true that we tend to place a large amount of unquestioning faith in the results that machines give us. If our trust is not to be abused, we need to be confident that the ABI which lies underneath has been developed, and is being used, in a socially just way.

The South Wales Police case highlights that ABI could identify large numbers of people and track their movements. Few trade unionists – or others organising protest actions – will need a refresher course on what that might mean. The decision in this case recognises the need for precise legal boundaries on the use of ABI, something which EDPS also openly acknowledges, although what these will be has yet to be defined.

Where we impose limits on the use of surveillance technology, in a law enforcement capacity and in terms of our knowledge of our data rights and our trust, is something in which we should all be taking a keen interest.

The battle over working time

I think it’s fairly obvious by now that the reason why the EU working time directive, and its application in UK law, was not on Hannan’s list was that it’s so very obviously at the very top of it he hardly thought it actually needed to be mentioned.

The assertion late last week by Kwasi Karteng, Secretary of State for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, that the government had no plans to dilute workers’ rights was believed by no-one, for reasons not least of all that Kwarteng was co-author, along with a number of other leading representatives in this Vote Leave government (Priti Patel and Dominic Raab among them), of Britannia Unchained. This was a call written back in 2012 for an end to the UK’s ‘bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation’ and (in)famously described UK workers as:

Among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.

Karteng’s non-credible denial was rapidly followed yesterday by confirmation in parliament that the government is, indeed, looking at scrapping some EU labour laws, including a ‘relaxing’ of the working time directive. Another lesson in the ‘never trust a Tory’ narrative.

In the midst of a pandemic and post-Brexit uncertainty – is, of course, scrapping workers’ rights can scarcely be much of a priority. Working class families are struggling with huge numbers of issues, including insecurity at work as a result of employment laws failing to keep up with the pace of change in employers’ exploitation of them, while still (in substantial numbers of cases) occupying positions as keyworkers keeping this country going. Furthermore, ‘building back better’ post-Covid-19 requires the sorts of consensus-building exercises and extending involvement to workers’ organisations that, actually, comes as second nature in Europe proper but which is clearly entirely foreign territory to this government. By definition, scrapping workers’ rights does not embody much in the way of consensus building.

Other than that, however, I wanted to make two (main) points.

Firstly, Karteng points to ‘being struck’ by ‘how many EU countries – I think it’s about 17 or 18 – have essentially opted out of the working time directive’. This is of course rhetorical nonsense: ‘countries’ cannot ‘opt out of the working time directive’ – EU health and safety laws have general application across the EU and are not available on the pick’n’mix counter. (As indeed should social and employment rights not be either, although that is a slightly different argument.) What he does mean is that member states are allowed to deviate from bits of the working time directive where – crucially, but which is frequently forgotten – this is with the agreement of the individual worker (calling to mind here the blanket forms issued to employees, especially new recruits, and where coercion rather than ‘agreement’ has been the keyword). Alternatively, this can be done – other than in the UK – where there is a collective agreement in place. With the specific maximum 48-hour week limit in mind (the working time directive being about much more than just that), there is a qualification which must be met about the protection of the health and safety of workers being guaranteed. This is all covered summarily, and very usefully, in Opting out of the European Working Time Directive, a publication from the European Foundation from 2015 and bits of which Karteng – more probably an adviser – seems to have read.

In particular, pages 4-5 of the document summarise the positions across the then EU. Broadly, it is not possible for workers to opt (or be opted) out of the provisions across Scandinavia, southern and south-eastern Europe (other than Bulgaria) and Ireland; some, limited opt-outs are available across the swathe of central Europe; while broad opt-outs are (or were) the case in the UK, Cyprus, Malta, Estonia and Bulgaria.

Consequently, the number of opt-outs are (surprisingly) not as many as Karteng would like to portray and, actually, they encompass those among the peripheries of the EU. So, it will not be as easy as all that to remove these protections without triggering a response in kind from the EU as regards the tariffs it will be able to impose, under the free trade agreement agreed and signed before Christmas, where the UK departs from EU norms.

I suspect that Karteng knows this very well and that this exercise is a little bit of testing the waters to see who is listening (the EU will be, of course) and thus to see what he may be able to get away with. But it won’t therefore be much, except at a price: the UK can only depart from EU norms under the agreement in limited, and heavily circumscribed, ways: the price of negotiating with experienced, expert negotiators. The phrase ‘rule taker, not rule maker’ springs to mind as regards the UK’s post-Brexit future – while that, of course, for any number of reasons including among Brexiteers themselves, is simply unsustainable in anything other than the short-term. Again, I suspect Karteng is also very well aware of this. Expect therefore more war, in private of course, within the Tory Party over the next few years. This testing of the waters is being done with that in mind, too.

Secondly is the issue of the direction of reductions in working time. Historically, working time fell for much of the twentieth century but, from around 1980 onwards, such a trend has slowed and even, in some cases, been reversed. There are a number of reasons for this, explained in depth in a very useful paper – The Why and How of Working Time Reduction – written by colleagues from the European Trade Union Institute (I believe an update will also be available shortly). Again unsurprisingly, hours (of full-time workers: the key to the Britannia Unchained phrase) are not lower than elsewhere: such hours are pretty standard but the UK ranked among the highest in the EU.

The working time directive is a health and safety law. It was proposed under a particular section of the European legislative framework allowing a majority vote by member states and its aim is to improve health and safety. Nevertheless, it also improves social rights in allowing workers the opportunity to control, in some small way, aspects of their working time and, thereby, to achieve some measure of influence with the employer as regards their work-life balance. All of this is, of course, why the Tories hate it and why the working time directive is at the top of the list for removal (pro tem: restriction). It also explains very well why it needs to be defended. At a time of the deunionisation of society in general – stout battles still taking place in certain sectors – we can expect to see such gains as were made in working time during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century reversed here too, deunionisation being one explanation for the gains having come to a halt.

As Brexiteers have already implicitly observed, this issue is one that underpins huge aspects of the future social organisation of this country. It concerns not only the decoupling of wages and productivity – with gains in national income not going to workers over the last few decades – but taken instead by capital owners in the form of corporate profits and shareholder dividends. It is not just that, to quote that phrase again, ‘productivity is poor’: it is, but quite clearly wages are even poorer and, in comparison, becoming increasingly so. We know from the theory that such a decoupling leads to rises in income inequality – something in which the UK is, shamefully, among the countries already taking a bit of a lead. But also, with fresh concerns of job loss through mechanisation and robotisation (on top of those lost in the destruction wreaked in hospitality and the arts and entertainment industry during the pandemic, as well as the loss of workers who have, simply, gone away), reduced working time in compensation for the impact of mechanisation on the jobs and security of workers has again come back on the agenda, as indeed has the idea of a universal basic income.

When we emerge from the pandemic, the quality of jobs will also matter and, in this respect, a National Recovery Council, as proposed by the TUC, has a clear role in building consensus and support for a better, more inclusive society. Furthermore, if the loss of substantially younger workers as pointed to by ESCoE is correct, increased mechanisation to deal with the loss of workers is one possible outcome. That may, in turn, raise productivity – but wages, and the labour share in general in terms which also encompass working time, need to rise too. Working hours in the UK are not low – but they do need to be lowered and there are thus many pressures building in that direction.

All this is why the Tories want to knock the working time directive on the head – and, furthermore, why they want to do it now while the pandemic is causing much of a distraction and when this lends itself, at a time of prospective rises in mechanisation, all too readily to people being regarded as ‘lucky to have a job’.

As always: Join a Union. And Organise.

First shots fired in post-Brexit battle

On Wednesday this week, as Washington DC was preparing, on the one side, and not (on the other), for the substantially white privilege ‘revolution’ that did, in contrast, turn out to be of the televised type, the soon-to-be-Lord (Daniel) Hannan, Lima-born and raised and privately educated, published his list of regulatory ‘barriers’ that a post-Brexit UK could ‘disapply’ (trigger warning: post is on Conservative Home). These include (as listed):

  • Temporary Workers’ Directive
  • the REACH Directive
  • the End of Life Vehicles Directive
  • the droit de suite rules and other regulations that hurt London’s fine arts market
  • the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive
  • chunks of MiFID II
  • GDPR
  • the bans on GM.

Alphabet soup apart (and I’m not going to decode any of it here), this is quite astonishingly specific and betrays, in part, Hannan’s own petty concerns, some apparent pay-offs to mates and some things of which I suspect he actually has rather little working knowledge.

None of this is of course a surprise: the only surprise is that the Working Time Directive – setting out rest periods and prescribing minimum rest breaks and leave entitlement for workers – commonly thought to be the first target of Brexiteers, isn’t on the list (though Hannan clearly sets out that the EU directives he sets out are non-exhaustive, in which case the WTD surely hasn’t been forgotten). In a move that was clearly choreographed, Boris Johnson held a call with business leaders later the same day asking them to come up with ideas for changing the regulatory environment because ‘the UK would need regulatory and legislative change’ (no ££).

It’s clearly about time we had another ‘red tape challenge’: with two this decade (in 2011 and 2019) so far, on top of certain aspects of the 2012-2014 ‘balance of competences’ review, and the 2014 consulting on ‘gold plating’ the TUPE regulations, there is clearly a mini-industry (not least in media headlines) needing to be fed and sustained. Indeed, you’d almost think that asking the question, rather than coming up with anything practical to do, was the point. Businesses are, by the way, likely to use the opportunity to have a varied but wide-ranging moan over the costs of employing young women who then become pregnant – a somewhat flippant response, perhaps, but one which also has at its heart the implicit core of the problem as to why these ‘challenges’ continue to come around regularly with little apparent effect in practice: the costs to businesses of continual labour turnover as a result of poor employment policies are significantly greater than the costs of complying with regulations which actually raise labour standards; while the regulation that remains in place overwhelming has a clear, and useful, function. For all that it walks around with a target perennially pinned to its back, regulation not only protects but also supports ourselves as citizens in terms of our health, the environment within which we live and the cohesiveness of our society. That is why it is hard to get rid of, despite all the noise its reduction is able to generate.

It will be interesting to see who is listening to Hannan – who is, by the way, an adviser to the Board of Trade as well as President of the Initiative for Free Trade (a well-connected think-tank whose mission is to use Brexit to advance the case for revitalising the world trading system). If Hannan does get his way then, on the strength of this list alone, the Brexit that results will clearly be that of the elites.

Other than that concern, the central significance of Hannan’s post is that it highlights that Brexit will not be over for some time to come – indeed, that we are only at the beginning of a very long and hard road ahead. Given the current policy vacuum at government level, on top of the inability of Brexiteers over the last four/five years to indicate what Brexit should look like other than in terms of simple (‘side of the bus’) slogans, there is inevitably space for people like Hannan to fill with such concepts as deregulation (most obviously, but no doubt among others). Furthermore, the free trade agreement signed on Christmas Eve and the joint UK-EU commissions that it envisages gives plenty of space not only for debate over the tariff costs in terms of a UK which actively seeks divergence from European standards; but also in terms of how that agreement can be developed and improved upon not least in terms of supporting workers’ rights in ways that reflect social policy improvements within the EU. Additionally, while the free trade agreement might solve problems over tariffs, it is – as businesses are already starting to find out – the non-tariff barriers that the single market brought down that are the key to trading successfully. Here, not least in the context of deregulation, there is the rising amount of realisation (see here, for instance; or otherwise here) that, at least in this first week, Brexit actually means more red tape for industry, not less. On top of all this, and rather less prosaically, there is the notion of full independence for Scotland, on which this blog will no doubt have more to say, as well as the question of a united Ireland, the growing YesCymru movement and the existence of support for improved democratic representation within England itself. The price of ‘sovereignty’ is indeed likely to be a much smaller territory over which that dominion reigns.

All these are ways in which the future shape of the UK will be competed over as a result of the Brexit bow wave. Politically therefore, the notion that the word ‘Brexit’ can be avoided – in ways akin to Johnson’s own attempts this time last year to ban the word – is not only itself simplistic but also naive. Labour may not now need to define what Brexit means – but it does need to define what the UK should look like in its wake. The first shots in that war have, at the very least, been fired by Brexiteers which provides some cover for Labour being able to say the word again; and, most certainly, to ensure that the vacuum is filled not only by the likes of Hannan.

In the meantime, it is worth noting that such shots were fired to (not at!) an exclusively business audience. In the context, that’s probably unremarkable in itself – but I wonder how that will go down amongst new-blue voters in so-called ‘red wall’ seats? Was that really the Brexit they thought they were voting for, either in 2016 or in 2019? And did they really believe, in 2019, that they were voting for an end to Brexit?