In 1948 Anuerin Bevan (the son of a Welsh coalminer and Labour MP who founded the NHS) made a speech in Parliament which started “No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin”. As the Conservative Party Conference creaks on, #lowerthanvermin is making the rounds on Twitter, as true as it was 64 years ago when Bevan first created the hashtag. I don’t know if it’s a pleasing historical continuity or just a sign of how far we haven’t come. As well as outlining plans to cut welfare by £10bn, demonising the unemployed during a recession exacerbated by the Government’s own economic policies and having a large number of their members protesting against gay marriage (LOWER! THAN! VERMIN!), George Osborne unveiled another big idea.
It is a plan that workers receive shares in return for giving up some of their rights. This situation is less like being unable to distinguish between The Thick of It and the actual Government, and more like being unable to distinguish between the Guardian and the Daily Mash. Obviously, £100m spent on a scheme to give tax breaks to shareholders of small businesses is very much part of the Tory property-owning dream. The money would be better spent on Sure Start centres or bursaries for low-income students or investing in green energy. But whatever. It won’t help with deficit reduction, but then again we all know that “deficit reduction” is a vehicle for reducing the size of the state, and ensuring workers’ rights are upheld is clearly a part of the state Osborne would like to see trimmed.
It’s not the worst idea in the world until you get to the part that says people will be able to purchase these shares in exchange for giving up their workers’ rights. Like their right to unfair dismissal. Like their rights to request flexible working hours. Like certain aspects of the right to maternity leave. I don’t think it would be possible to conceive of a single policy more illustrative of the conservative mindset. It simultaneously aims to puts a price on the rights that people have fought for for centuries, and then puts a false tension between possible material benefit for oneself and one’s support of universal human rights. I mean, surely Osborne could just spend £100m on giving out these tax breaks if he wanted to? But his borderline sadistic political mindset sees a Government doing something beneficial for a population presumably as akin to having a Nanny State . I mean, what if people just bought these shares and benefited from them?! They might get a taste for voting for Governments which proposed redistributive measures to improve their lives, and then where would we be? STUCK IN A CYCLE OF SLAVISH STATE DEPENDENCY.
The idea that workers’ rights are in some kind of opposition to the concept of employee-owned shares is a false dichotomy. I am all for employees having a share in their business, but then that’s because I’m a Marxist who sees capitalism as inherently exploitative. For the same reason, workers’ rights are a good thing. For most people, more universal rights are synonymous with them (as the Tories put it) “getting on in life”. This is only untrue for a tiny minority at the top who profit from lax workers’ rights, and as usual, the Tories are conflating the interests of the 1% with the interests of the population as a whole. It’s also classist dogwhistling of the most tiresome sort, dividing the country into the sort of (entrepreneurial) types who want to own shares in a company and the (lazy) ones who think workers’ rights are important. The Conservative party conference has been doing this over and over again – not content with painting the unemployed as people living a life of total luxury on £50 per week through sheer fecklessness, they are now trying to portray working people who want to keep their rights as in opposition to responsible shareholders. I know, I know, The Pope is a Catholic, bears shit in the woods and Tories try and sell their policies through divisive, classist rhetoric.
They just don’t get that people may support universal rights for reasons bigger and more profound than the capital those rights may allow them to accrue. Unable to conceive of anyone holding motivations larger than their own self interest, this is an ideological move to undermine the solidarity of workers who have organised for decades to fight for these rights, because the conservative mindset can only view mass organised movements with suspicion.
I could write something about how this commodification of the very concept of workers’ rights represents a new frontier for capitalism. About how when George Lukacs wrote about the commodification of greater and greater aspects of the human experience, he probably didn’t think this would one day come to include putting a price tag on workers’ rights. About how Marx must be turning in his grave.
Instead I thought I’d draft some policy ideas which I’m sure we’ll see the Chancellor announce in due course:
– Students to swap right to protest in exchange for £1000 off their tuition fees (rising to £2000 in their final year for a clean track record of no political action whatsoever apart from the occasional Port & Policy session).
– Parents could swap their right to parental leave in exchange for vouchers for private schooling for their firstborn.
– The disabled could swap their right to accessible workplaces in exchange for keeping their disability benefit.
Honestly, this is so easy, I don’t know why I’m still unemployed when I could easily be working as a Conservative policy advisor.