Wednesday, 27 June 2018

The is more political space for a liberal immigration policy than ever before

Ben Jackson

On 27 April 1968, Richard Crossman reflected in his diary on Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Powell had delivered the speech a week earlier in a bid to bypass elite opinion on immigration by mobilising the public against Britain’s nascent multiculturalism. Although worried by the support Powell had attracted, Crossman thought that in the last resort the British political system had crucial safeguards against the corrosive effects of such uninhibited populism:

"The British constitution is like a rock against which the wave of popular emotion breaks, and one hopes that after a time the tide will go down and the rock stand untouched. This is the strength of our system, that, though in one sense we have plebiscitary democracy, actually the leadership is insulated from the masses by the existence of parliament. Parliament is the buffer which enables our leadership to avoid saying yes or not to the electorate in the hope that, given time, the situation can be eased away" 

How different the debate over immigration is today, we might think, as parliament now stands cowed by the ultimate populist weapon of the referendum and the noisy anti-elitist rhetoric of the press. After all, a familiar story about the years after 1968 is that the political elite dutifully closed ranks to marginalise Powell and accept – however fitfully and incrementally – a multicultural destiny for Britain. 

In contrast, the current British political elite has been fractured and immobilised by the implications of leaving the EU and the role played in that decision by the toxic debate about immigration. We might easily conclude that a decline in the authority of parliament – and in the confidence of politicians to lead public opinion – lies at the root of the problem.

Crossman and restrictive immigration

While this might be a tempting story to tell, it is in fact misleading. The recent history of the politics of immigration in Britain is a more complicated one than a straightforward story about the decomposition of a paternalistic liberal political elite. 

A few days after Powell’s speech, Richard Crossman addressed the Warwick University Politics Society about race. Crossman recorded in his diary that his remarks to this meeting departed from what he called the ‘liberal’ view that ‘there is such a thing as a universal human being who can be united by universal rational principles.’ On the contrary, Crossman argued, ‘our main effort must be to control racial and cultural passions. We must be prepared to admit that our country has a very severe limit to its capacity for racial assimilation.’ 

Crossman therefore favoured the restrictionist immigration legislation of 1962 and 1968 ‘because I believe that as a nation we have the right to decide a great issue for ourselves. Should we become a multiracial community which has large amounts of Indians and Africans from abroad mixed into it or should we remain predominantly a white community which permits small foreign communities to come and live here and become full citizens?’ It is unclear from the diary entry how Crossman would have answered that question, but he seemed to have some sympathy for the latter option (as he noted elsewhere in his diary, he was acutely conscious that immigration was a major issue in his Coventry constituency). 

Why was immigration policy not liberalised?

This vignette tells us something important about the elites of both main parties between the 1960s and the 1980s. Secure though they were in their parliamentary bastion, at no point did they liberalise British immigration policy, in large part because they were aware that attempts to do so would be extremely unpopular and leading politicians such as Crossman were worried about the impact of a multiracial society on social cohesion. 

The cross-party consensus on immigration was that an externally restrictionist policy should be combined with (avowedly non-Powellite) efforts to integrate racial minorities into British society and promote equal opportunities between ethnic groups. Although the solidity of this cross-party position frayed somewhat under the Thatcher government, immigration policy debate nonetheless remained largely within the lines drawn up during the Wilson and Heath governments.

Blairite immigration policy

This historical background throws into relief the distinctiveness of British immigration policy since 1997. It is well known that the Labour government elected in that year decided to admit EU citizens from the new accession states into the British labour market in 2004 when most other EU states imposed transitional controls on free movement. But it is less widely recognised that this was only one element of a radical recasting of British immigration policy that took place under Tony Blair. 

Alongside free movement from the EU, Labour substantially expanded the number of visas and work permits available to immigrants outside the EU, eventually developing a points-based system for non-EU immigrants. Labour also actively sought to boost the number of international students at British universities and introduced relatively generous schemes to enable them to work in the UK after graduation. The overall result was an unprecedentedly expansionist immigration policy. 

As with certain other policies under this government, however, these innovations were not very widely advertised or publicly justified by government ministers. As far as it has so far been possible to reconstruct its rationale, New Labour’s immigration policy seems to have been in part a response to the demands of employers for workers during the economic boom. 

But it also fitted with New Labour’s wider ideological ambitions to recast Britain as an open, modern and liberal partner in the emergent global economic order. Indeed, New Labour’s mildly cosmopolitan and pro-diversity stance was consonant with the social values of a rising demographic in British politics: university graduates who, in combination with ethnic minority voters, now make up a substantial and increasing voting bloc that is sympathetic to immigration (graduates currently constitute just over a quarter of the electorate and ethnic minorities just over 10 per cent, with both figures projected to increase over the next ten years).

A settlement for the Brexit age

The politics of immigration in Britain has therefore become more keenly contested than in earlier decades because for the first time British politics is grappling with the legacy of a government that was broadly in favour of greater immigration and the rise to electoral significance of a group of voters who believe immigration has been beneficial for the country. In spite of the defeat to this worldview registered by the EU referendum, there still remains greater political space for a liberal immigration regime in Britain than ever before.

And it is here that political leadership enters the picture once again. While we should not be nostalgic about earlier political elites, it is clear that our current leaders are failing to rise to the occasion. An immigration policy that can command public support will be central to any settlement of Britain’s exit from the EU. It is still highly likely that whatever policy emerges will be a relatively liberal one by historical standards, not least because a modern service economy like Britain’s requires openness to people as well as goods to flourish. 

Yet politicians of all parties apparently cannot find the right words to explain why this is on balance a desirable outcome or how it might fit with a persuasive story about Britain as a liberal, inclusive polity. This failure to lead leaves an immigration debate dominated by self-appointed spokespeople who delight in oversimplifying the complex crosscurrents of public opinion.

But one lesson of Powell is that alarmism about immigration always ends up redounding to the discredit of its exponents, as the incomers of today become the valued citizens of tomorrow. In due course the judgement of history will be rendered on those who have trafficked in a similar discourse today. The question is how much damage to Britain’s social amity and economy they will be permitted to do along the way.

Ben Jackson is Associate Professor of Modern History, University College Oxford and co-editor of Political Quarterly.

This article will be published in upcoming issue of The
 Political Quarterly journal.

Image by Hefin Owen.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Despite rhetoric of inclusion, whiteness predominates in our universities

Kalwant Bhopal

On the face of it, policy making in education points a positive picture of inclusion and equality. However, higher education is one example (of many) in which institutions such as universities – particularly elite and Russell Group universities – in fact use mechanisms to protect white privilege to enhance their own position of elitism to maintain their power.

Making progress?

The widening participation agenda introduced by the New Labour government in 1999 to advance the attainment gap and improve the educational experiences of those from disadvantaged groups has shown to be successful. The Equality Act introduced in 2010 brings together all previous legislation into one single act and includes protected characteristics of which race is one. There has also been an increase in the numbers of black and minority ethnic (BME) young people attending higher education institutions.

However despite significant advances in policymaking in education and increases in BME student numbers, inequalities in education based on racism, exclusion and marginalisation continue to exist.

Evidence of racism

Whilst there are differences within and between different BME groups, Black students remain the most disadvantaged; they are less likely to attend elite and Russell Group universities and are less likely to obtain a first or 2:1 degree compared to their white peers. They are also more likely to drop out of university and be unemployed 6 months after graduation and suffer an ethnic penalty in the labour market. Reasons for dropping out include racism, favouritism towards white students and a lack of cultural connection to a white Eurocentric curriculum.

BME staff are also under represented in higher education institutions. They are more likely than their white colleagues to be on fixed term contracts, they are under-represented in the highest contract levels and over represented in the lowest; they are less likely to be senior managers and make up just 1.6 per cent of heads of institutions. Out of 154 higher education institutions in the UK, only three vice chancellors are from a BME background. Furthermore, there are 13,295 white professors in the UK and 1150 who are from a BME background of which only 80 are Black. White academics are also more likely to be on the highest pay grade (earning over £59k) compared to BME academics.

Individual acts of racism are also present on our campuses. On 8 March 2018 a Black student reported being racially harassed in her halls of residence with two students chanting ‘we hate Blacks’ outside her room at Nottingham Trent University. A week later The Guardian reported how a group of law students had used racist and offensive language in a WhatsApp chat group. These incidents are the tip of the iceberg. Institutional racism also continues in access to universities. Recently, Oxford University was accused of a system of ‘social apartheid’ as nearly one in three colleges failed to admit one Black student in 2015; and only last week The Independent reported that back people in the UK were 21 times more likely to have their university applications investigated for suspected false or missing information.

In my new book White Privilege: The myth of a post-racial society, I demonstrate when complaints about racism are made in higher education, these are often dismissed by senior managers as a ‘clash of personalities’ and rarely acted upon. Furthermore, when individuals raise concerns about racism and harassment they face isolation and lack of support from colleagues.

Universities and white privilege

As a consequence of all the factors detailed above, such universities work to reinforce their representation as white, middle class institutions reserved for white middle class students. Universities are key spaces in white whiteness and white identities predominate. This is not just in the representation of white groups occupying senior decision making roles, it is also evidenced in the curriculum and approaches to diversity, inclusion and social justice.

Far from being liberal spaces of inclusion, higher education institutions continue to perpetuate the superiority and predominance of whiteness and, as a result, universities remain spaces reserved for the privileged few.

Elite universities are the epitome of the legitimation and reproduction of institutional racism. They continue to play their part in the reproduction and reinforcement of racial and class inequalities. In this system of exclusion, BME students remain marginalised and excluded. Higher education institutions fail to cater for the experiences of BME students. As a result the enactment of policy making in higher education is based on a rhetoric of inclusion, but one that is rarely evidenced in practice or outcomes.

Kalwant Bhopal is professor of education and social justice in the Centre for Research in Race and Education, University of Birmingham. Her new book, White Privilege: the myth of a post-racial society was recently published by Policy Press.

Image by Anne-Lise Heinrichs. 

Thursday, 21 June 2018

The Irish abortion referendum has renewed momentum for change in Northern Ireland. Theresa May must respond

Deirdre Heenan

Following the landslide vote in the Republic of Ireland on 25 May to repeal the eighth amendment in its constitution and effectively end its abortion ban, the focus almost immediately turned to Northern Ireland, where abortion laws are amongst the strictest in Europe. Changes in the Republic of Ireland will hasten moves for free, safe, legal access to abortion rights in Northern Ireland that women in the rest of the United Kingdom take for granted.

In Northern Ireland, abortion remains illegal in almost all cases under the UK’s 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, which makes it a criminal offence for a woman to cause her own abortion. The 1967 (UK) Abortion Act that exempted women from this legislation was not extended to Northern Ireland.

Denying provision for abortion does not stop abortions, it simply increases the physical, emotional and financial costs to women. More than 700 women travelled from Northern Ireland for an abortion in 2016. Earlier this year, women from Northern Ireland were given the green light to access NHS funded abortions in Britain, but prior to this decision women had to access this service privately at a cost of approximately £1,000. Despite being resident in the UK, women still have to incur the costs of travelling to Britain to avail of NHS abortion services. Other options are to buy abortion pills illegally online, which not only puts them at risk of imprisonment, but also involves taking unregulated medicine without healthcare and support. Or they could continue with an unwanted pregnancy, which many women are forced to do.

The developments in the Republic of Ireland have reverberated across the whole island and led to renewed calls for reform. The Irish referendum result paves the way for unrestricted access to abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, through a GP led service. This is markedly different to what is currently available in Britain where the upper time limit for abortions is 24 weeks.

The renewed momentum for change has moved the issue of abortion out of the shadows to the front and centre of British politics and created yet another political headache for the prime minister. MPs from all political parties have demanded that Northern Ireland is brought into line with the remainder of the UK on this issue. More than 140 MPs have backed a plan by the Labour MP Stella Creasy to amend the Domestic Violence Bill currently making its way through parliament to legalise abortions in Northern Ireland.

In June, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission over the legality of Northern Ireland’s abortion law on a technicality. However, significantly, a majority of the judges said the abortion law was “deeply unsatisfactory” and incompatible with human rights.

The prime minister has stated that she believes that women should be able to access safe and legal abortion, but has refused to intervene. Her default response is that abortion is a devolved issue that should be dealt with by locally elected politicians.

However, the devolved government in Northern Ireland collapsed 18 months ago with little prospect of an imminent return. The region is currently languishing in a no man’s land somewhere between devolution and direct rule. The absence of any sort of functioning government is compounded by the fact that the DUP is propping up the Conservative government in Westminster. A confidence and supply deal has afforded them an unprecedented level of influence in British politics and they are virulently against reform.

Interestingly, whilst this deal does not mention abortion, the DUP party chair Lord Morrow has warned of ‘consequences’ for the prime minister of allowing the Tory party to have a free vote on the issue. The DUP claim that the current abortion arrangements are the settled will of the people of Northern Ireland, but the latest opinion polls suggest otherwise. The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2017, based on a representative sample of the population, found that abortion legislation was out of step with public opinion with overwhelming support for reform of the current laws.

The continuing absence of a devolved Assembly, coupled with increasing pressure from a growing chorus of voices demanding change, make it difficult to see the prime minister’s ‘it is a devolved issue” stance as sustainable. The scale of the verdict in the Irish referendum means that it is impossible to ignore or suggest with any credibility that it does not change the context in Northern Ireland. “Women’s problems” cannot continue to be exported with a pretence that abortion does not exist here.

In Northern Ireland, a place still marked by sectarianism and religious division, where social issues have been pushed into the background for generations, it seems that the time may finally have come to end the culture of shame, silence and guilt that surrounds the subject. It is no longer acceptable to sweep the issue under the carpet and steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that the current system has been massively damaging to the psychology of women. Abortion is a sensitive, deeply contentious, emotive issue that divides opinions with society. A UK-wide evidence-based debate on abortion in the context of healthcare, human rights, social justice, education and ethical issues is long overdue.

Deirdre Heenan is a Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Why fears about a Brexit ‘no deal’ are vastly overstated

Philip B. Whyman

It has become increasingly accepted, not least by the prime minister and opposition leadership, that the negotiation of a comprehensive trade relationship with the EU is necessary to prevent the UK economy falling off a ‘cliff edge’.

It is assumed by leaders of all the main political parties and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to be economically necessary to prioritise continued EU market access over other policy goals that could be achieved through Brexit.

This concern is shaping the UK's strategy towards negotiations with the EU and has provided at least part of the motivation for the UK to consider requesting a transition period to facilitate the Brexit process.

This approach is not, however, without profound consequences. The most obvious quid pro quo of a transitional agreement is the UK having to accept similar rules and regulations to those currently required by full membership.

The most contentious aspect of this is the likely insistence from the EU that continued access to the single market requires the perpetuation of the free movement of capital and labour for the duration of this transition term. This would be a particular problem for the prime minister, given her previous statements in favour of a tighter immigration system.

A lengthy transition period also has the potential to further undermine the status of politics and politicians for those who voted to withdraw from the EU given that, more than half a decade after what had been portrayed as a decisive vote, there would have been little substantive change on the ground.

Given the pivotal nature of the ‘cliff edge’ hypothesis, it is perhaps surprising that so little attention has been given to evaluating whether ‘no deal’ would represent a ‘chaotic Brexit’, or whether it would simply represent only a slight disruption of normal economic activity.

Essentially, would it represent a ‘cliff edge’ or more of ‘a slight bump in the road’?

The downsides to post-Brexit economic models

It is often claimed that there is a broad consensus amongst economists that Brexit would prove damaging to the UK economy. Yet, out of the forty or so economic studies which have sought to predict likely economic impacts relating to Brexit, fully one third suggest either a net gain to the UK economy or that the cost–benefit is dependent upon the form of relationship ultimately agreed between the UK and the EU.

The currently best available economic predictions were developed before the European referendum, and the most prominent of these suffer from a flawed approach, particularly in relation to missing variable bias. Yet their conclusions are still influencing much that happens in the Brexit debate.

Moreover, the danger is that forecasts can themselves become self‐fulfilling prophesies, as individual businesspeople or consumers react to predicted events and by their changed actions precipitate these same predicted outcomes.

Future options

A wide variety of potential future trading relationships could be forged between the UK and the EU (each has its own advantages and drawbacks):

1. Full membership of the EU—the current status quo, which could only be pursued by either ignoring the European referendum result or holding a second referendum;

2. Apply for membership of the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA) and through this, membership of the European Economic Area (EEA);

3. Negotiate a customs union with the EU;

4. Negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU;

5. Failure to negotiate a mutually satisfactory agreement with the EU, which would lead to the UK trading according to WTO rules.

There is a clear policy trade‐off between market access and policy flexibility when considering the various trading arrangements that could be negotiated between the UK and the EU. So it is a pity that none of the economic studies undertaken to date have sought to test rigorously the relative merits of this trade‐off in order to determine which of these choices would be preferable.

The WTO option

How disastrous would it be for the UK to revert to trading with the EU on the same basis as most other countries in the world, namely according to World Trade Organisation rules? Perhaps not as much as is generally assumed.

Trading according to WTO rules does incur costs, which are detailed further in my journal article for the Political Quarterly. But the WTO option has a number of advantages.

For example, compared to EEA membership, where the UK would have to abide by current EU rules on the free movement of labour and regulations across all trade‐related matters, the UK would have none of these restrictions under the WTO option. Similarly, whereas the UK would be constrained to accept the common external tariff within a customs union arrangement, under FTA or WTO arrangements the UK would be free to negotiate its own trade agreements with any other country across the globe as it would wish.

Thus, the WTO option maximises the policy flexibility that could be utilised by UK policy makers following the completion of Brexit, but at the expense of incurring additional trade‐related costs.

Whilst a comprehensive FTA would be the preferred option for this author, reverting to trading by WTO rules does not appear likely to result in the damaging economic scenario that many commentators seem to suggest. Rather than ‘no deal’ resulting in the UK economy ‘falling off a cliff edge’, a more accurate metaphor might be that it might experience a small bump in the road.

Indeed, it may offer greater potential for reshaping the UK economy over time, rather than tying it more closely to the EU for short term advantage.

Philip B. Whyman is Professor of Economics and Director of the Lancashire Institute for Economic and Business Research (LIEBR), at the University of Central Lancashire.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

The future of Northern Ireland hangs in the balance

Connal Parr

There is no prospect of a united Ireland soon. Under the terms of the 1998 Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement, a Border Poll referendum – determining whether Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom or joins the Republic of Ireland – can only be called by the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he or she believes in the likelihood of majority support for Irish unity. Despite all the instability surrounding Brexit, recent polls put pro-unity sentiment at 21 per cent – and while other surveys pitch support for a united Ireland higher, we are talking about a process which is many decades, rather than years, away.

However, the UK’s Brexit vote has disturbed the constitutional tectonic plates. With a declining Protestant population, the Union rests on the support of Northern Irish Catholics, as publicly admitted in 2011 by former First Minister – and Unionist premier – Peter Robinson.

Northern Irish Catholics used to be content within the Union, but Brexit has smashed that to pieces. The Good Friday Agreement had sewn it up; Northern Irish Catholics had the best of both worlds. They could be culturally Irish (with rights to passports), but also avail of the best benefits of Union – most especially that colossal gift of the National Health Service.

And the Irish referendum vote on 25 May 2018 to repeal the eighth amendment of the constitution has sharpened the issue of whether anyone can seriously claim that living in Northern Ireland, with its failed devolved government, segregated schooling, and lack of access to abortion and same-sex marriage, could conceivably be viewed as preferable to the increasingly confident, liberal European democracy in the Republic. To put it bluntly, only the under-strain NHS allows Northern Ireland to continue to claim any progressive superiority.

Time to start the conversation

For the above reasons, the UK must start a conversation about where it sees the future of Northern Ireland. This conversation has recently begun in Ireland. What plans exist for Northern Ireland’s long-term place within the UK? Do English citizens want to retain Northern Ireland? If they do not, how best to move towards disengagement in a way which will not lead to severe conflict? How might the British state work with the Irish government in this eventual situation?

The nascent Irish dialogue on unification is not without flaws. Even prior to the Brexit game-changer, Sinn Féin will push for a Border Poll whatever the circumstances, though they realize the current crisis presents a particular ‘opportunity’ (as Gerry Adams himself stated). Even those more sophisticated Irish voices who have begun the discussion provide remarkably little detail as to what a united Ireland would really look like, how it could be afforded, and – most seriously of all – how the Republic would deal with the security ramifications. Only former Taoiseach John Bruton has really addressed this. But conversations, like fires, have been started.

Hardline Unionists will insist Northern Ireland simply remains a part of the UK and will follow the same route out of the European Union as ‘the mainland’, but this is far too important to be left to these same local-minded representatives who have proven themselves incapable of forming a basic government, electorally safe in fighting old ‘us vs. them’ battles with each other.

British Reactions

If the hysterical reaction to the Democratic Unionist Party’s agreeing to prop up Theresa May’s Conservative government – and their securing of £1bn as part of the deal – in June 2017 is anything to go by, many British people do not see the Unionists as part of their future. It was a point cogently outlined by Jonathan Tonge’s recent analysis of the DUP-Conservative agreement in the Political Quarterly, in which he notes that given more money was already being spent on citizens per head in Northern Ireland, ‘the prising of yet more financial assistance by the DUP to maintain a government was unlikely to be popular elsewhere in the UK’.

This feeling is most pronounced amongst Conservative MPs who have had to defend their government’s austerity programme to hard-up constituents, and it is telling to see the same Tory backbenchers now offering support to bills extending same-sex marriage and abortion rights in Northern Ireland. Tonge was among many commentators to identify that from June 2017 the DUP would be subject to an unprecedented level of scrutiny from the British public. So far, the party has not weathered its collision with actual Britishness terribly successfully.

Lack of historical understanding

Having taught the Northern Ireland Troubles in various British universities, I am often struck by the brilliant students who arrive at this subject with no grounding whatsoever in Irish history. Though this has its advantages, the curriculum in England for most lacks substantive Irish content, despite the fact Northern Ireland remains a part of the UK and Irish affairs were indivisible from the UK’s until 1921 and beyond.

There is little general understanding in the British populace of imperial legacies, and particularly notable is the lack of empathy many English students have for those who continuingly identify as ‘British’ in Northern Ireland: Ulster Unionists and Loyalists. However, they will not just go away, and whatever the fall-out from Brexit, the vast majority of Unionists will not stop feeling British.

The most attractive solution to many British citizens, as Unionists are acutely aware, is withdrawal. A recent ESRC-funded report compiled by academics from Queen’s University Belfast carries quotes from a middle-aged Protestant woman who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum: ‘The British don’t want us. They’d be glad to get rid of us… given half the chance the British would be jumping up and down saying “yippee”…if it went to a united Ireland.’


However, leaving aside the sudden loss of a £10bn annual block grant (which the Irish government would be unable to replicate), to leave the union so would cause enormous uncertainty and a probable civil war that would make the violence of 1969–98 seem like a walk in the park. And it would abandon those who see themselves as British, who the state has responsibilities to. This is something the British Left, currently embodied by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party, especially needs to get its head round (though Corbyn encouragingly reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and neutrality in any Border Poll on a recent visit to Belfast).

A British dialogue must begin, complementing what is happening in Ireland, which reflects on Northern Ireland’s place within the UK. It should occur across society, in schools, offices, and in the media, among political elites and ordinary citizens.

Right now, all people have to go on is the assurances of the DUP that everything will be fine – indeed will be rosy in the garden – with Brexit and the future. This simply is not good enough and in fact tricks (and offends) those who most identify with the Union. In the end, the British government will override Ulster Unionists when they need to. Margaret Thatcher proclaimed herself the most pro-Unionist of Prime Ministers yet went over their heads to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, repairing Anglo-Irish relations for the next three decades. Unionists went berserk (importing arms from apartheid South Africa berserk), their rage fuelled by feelings of betrayal.

One thing Northern Ireland has always shown is that change too quickly leads to social upheaval and serious violence. This is a hard and complicated conversation, but one which needs to begin.

Connal Par is Vice-Chancellor's Research Fellow in the Humanities, Northumbria University

Image by Bobby McKay

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Strengthening labour standards will avoid a post-Brexit ‘race to the bottom’

William Brown and Chris F. Wright

For forty years, a major stimulus to decent labour standards in Britain has come from its membership of the European Union. Procedurally it has strengthened the political position of our social partners; substantively it has initiated individual rights on, for example, part‐time work, agency work, and parental leave.

No one knows what will be salvaged from the unplanned chaos of Brexit, but if Britain is to avoid falling into a competitive ‘race to the bottom’, it must institute a robust means of implementing and enforcing its own standards.

Why standards matter

Decent labour standards are a prerequisite for perceived justice and social cohesion. Such standards have never, in any country, been achieved through unfettered market forces or by the unconstrained exercise of employer power. In all societies, it has required interventions by the state to regulate the market for labour to a greater or lesser extent.

In the past, Britain has achieved relied on voluntary collective bargaining between employers and trade unions. However, this practice has all but vanished in the private sector and, we argue, there is no chance of its being revived, at least in its traditional form.

The importance of individual rights

Trade unions continue to play an important role in representing workers in their dealings with employers and in advocating for equitable employment, economic and social policies. However, the creation and extension of statutory individual employment is how governments have latterly had the greatest beneficial impact on labour standards.

The most substantial benefits have come from the National Minimum Wage (NMW), whose effectiveness can be built on. Drawing on the experience of both the Low Pay Commission (LPC) and the Living Wage Foundation, the Resolution Foundation has proposed changing the LPC's terms of reference to increase its impact on low pay more generally. It argued that this should be done within the framework of an explicit government policy on low pay with medium‐term targets.

To get over the bluntness of a single NMW when many sectors could afford to pay more, the Resolution Foundation suggested that the LPC should be asked to analyse affordability by sector so that a debate might get underway on higher aspirational, sectoral rates.

The International Labour Organization has found that ‘inclusive’ labour standards that cover employees across a particular sector or labour market are an effective way of reducing income inequality and sustaining economic growth. These are particularly important for protecting the pay and conditions of workers such as migrants, women, younger workers and those in occupations classified as low‐skilled who, for one reason or another, are especially susceptible to mistreatment or being paid below their worth. Inclusive labour standards include multi-employer collective regulation and statutory extension mechanisms that extend standards to all employees, regardless of whether they work in a unionised establishment.

The state has a vital role in protecting good employers from being undercut by employers who seek competitive advantage through poor employment standards. Fear of a ‘race to the bottom’ on labour standards is one reason why a well-enforced National Minimum Wage has commanded such widespread employer support.

Ensuring enforcement

The more that reliance is placed on statutory individual employment rights as a basis for labour standards, the more important enforcement becomes. But Britain has never had a comprehensive or proactive labour inspectorate and has always been culpably lacking in the failure to enforce the awards made on individual rights cases by Employment Tribunals.

Rights are of little value when the remedies are effectively denied to those who need them most. The NMW, with proactive enforcement by HMRC, is a laudable exception to this. Nothing is more likely to erode employer respect for the NMW or other rights than increased levels of non‐compliance and evasion. Thankfully the appointment of Sir David Metcalf to the new role of Director of Labour Market Enforcement in January 2017 has opened the way for something more effective.

Social partnerships

Social partnership at the national level has a good track record in Britain for labour market regulation. It has provided the basis of the Low Pay Commission's independence and success. It has also been fundamental to the largely unacknowledged success of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas). This success should not be judged superficially by how well Acas resolves workplace disputes (although its record at that is excellent), but by how far it prevents disputes arising in the first place, by propagating good practice and providing free advice.

This use of social partnership could be extended. The Resolution Foundation’s 2014 report, arising from a committee chaired by Sir George Bain, suggested it as a vehicle for determining aspirational minimum wage rates above the NMW at the sectoral level. It could be used to strengthen superannuation arrangements and training provision.

Growing consumer power

Finally, consumer power is displacing or combining with producer power as a means of improving labour standards. The rise of consumer campaigns and of boycotts associated with evidence of poor labour practices has led to a growing concern of enterprises with corporate social responsibility and maintaining sustainable practices in their supply chains.

There is substantial scope for deepening and extending consumer power with new legal obligations to disclose and to enforce the exercise of due diligence over suppliers and supply chains—both national and international—so that their labour standards can be subjected to inspection.

The newly energised part of the electorate consists of young workers who are currently most vulnerable to bad employment practice. They may not join trade unions, but they will support political action to strengthen labour standards. Britain already has internationally outstanding social partnership institutions in Acas and the LPC. Brexit has provided the opportunity to build on and alongside these to develop more far‐reaching labour standards, and the means for their negotiation, maintenance and enforcement.

William Brown is Emeritus Professor of Industrial Relations at Cambridge University and was a founder member of the Low Pay Commission. 

Chris F Wright is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School, The University of Sydney, Australia. 

This article is adapted from a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Localism and democratisation in the Labour party

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite

We are currently witnessing a renaissance of thinking about localism, local democracy, and participative and democratic shaping of public services on the left. This draws on the early labour movement’s emphasis on self-help and localism, as well as on critiques of the big, centralised, bureaucratic state mounted by the ‘new left’ in the late 1960s and 1970s. Revisiting those critiques suggests the potential of this approach today to deliver successful public services while also dispersing the power of the state.

Localism has a long heritage in the Labour party and wider labour movement. A key belief of the radical tradition in the nineteenth century was that reform could be enacted at the local level, and this belief flowed into the labour movement and the Labour party.

There was much emphasis, in the first four decades of the Labour party’s existence, on improving conditions at a local level using the institutions of local democracy; important local politicians like Peter Lee, a leading figure in the Durham Miners’ Association and Durham County Council in the interwar period, threw themselves into local politics as the place to find solutions to local problems.

In the same period, guild socialism, with its most prominent advocate, G.D.H. Cole, provided an intellectual blueprint for a socialism built on a decentralised web of cooperatives and democratically-controlled workplaces, and a vibrant local democracy.

From a local to national frame

This agenda never disappeared entirely, but it’s fair to say that between the 1940s and 1970s localism was superseded by a mainly national focus. Two of the Attlee governments’ greatest achievements were the creation of the welfare state (which delivered standardised same provision across the country), and the nationalised industries (which were run in a highly centralised fashion).

Indeed, a new book by David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History, suggests that one of the fundamental characteristics of the mid-twentieth century period was that both main parties thought in basically national terms – about the economy, as well as about public services, nationalised industries, and welfare.

The Labour left insisted that unless welfare was universal and national, different provision in different places would undermine the principle of equality. And T.H. Marshall’s important idea of ‘social citizenship’ bolstered this view: if people’s rights as social citizens varied from place to place, they could hardly be called equal citizens.

Paths of resistance

But from the late 1960s onwards, there was an increasing variety of critiques of the (national) welfare state (and of nationalised industries). The welfare state was criticised by a range of actors from the ‘new left’ for its bureaucratic nature, centralised and top-down management. Feminists and Black activists criticised it for discriminating against women and Black people. Disabled activists showed how it disempowered and medicalised them.

These groups argued for radical changes to the welfare state that would tackle these inequalities. They often organised their own alternatives, like Saturday schools for Black children, groups where disabled people could represent their own interests, and Centres for Independent Living. Community activists showed that when people were given the chance to start, run and shape public services, those services would be more responsive and more successful; they revolutionised nursery provision in some areas, and set up housing co-operatives to direct inner-city renewal along the lines that local communities wanted.

While most of those involved in these movements saw themselves as being on the left, they came from an array of political positions – from anarchist to liberal to socialist to social democratic. Though many were supporters of the Labour party, they also spent much time critiquing Labour’s actions in local government, and developing small-scale, local alternatives.

What all these critiques and alternatives pointed to were ways of delivering public services and taking decisions about local areas that were more localised, more responsive, less bureaucratic, and which involved people more. This had to be done differently in the case of different services and different decisions, but the overarching principles were the same: localism, participation and democratic engagement.

It was an approach that had something in common with the radical self-help ethos of the early labour movement, but which still demanded much of the state. While it could seem like a modest challenge to the social democratic state, the demand for participation and decentralisation was in fact profoundly disruptive to established ways of delivering public services.

What happened, though, in the late 1970s, was not a rethinking of the centralised state, but the advent of Thatcherism; over the next three decades public service delivery became, in general, not less, but far more centralised.

The ‘postcode lottery’

There is a clear tension between the agenda of localism, democratisation and decentralisation of power, and the current obsession with uniform nationwide delivery of public service provision. The Oxford English Dictionary has the first recorded use of the term ‘postcode lottery’ in 1995, and from the mid-1990s onwards it became a potent phrase in British politics.

Advocates of more localism and decentralisation on the left have taken on the argument about ‘postcode lotteries’ from several angles. First, localism does not mean a complete lack of national standards: there should be minimum expectations for core services – health, education, and so on.

Second, it’s important to note that at the end of several decades where the trend was towards national standardisation, Britain was not a country with egalitarian service provision – or outcomes (see, for example, the Marmot Review of health outcomes in 2010). The benefits of services tailored to particular areas’ needs outweighs what is lost.

Finally, the key argument for the left should be not about whether centralised or localised direction of public services is best; rather, it should be about the funding necessary to deliver high quality services.

Localism cannot work without a fair system of funding for local government. The left has been making this argument for over a century: in 1921 George Lansbury, a committed localist, led the Poplar Rates Rebellion, which led to the imprisonment of thirty local councillors. The Poplar rebels demanded that local taxation receipts be shared out between richer and poorer boroughs of London, so that the poorer would be able to fund their higher needs for welfare spending.

Local government must be adequately funded, and funds must be distributed in a fair way between richer and poorer local authorities. Otherwise a localist agenda can be merely a way for central government to push impossibly difficult decisions about spending cuts onto the local authorities in the poorest areas. This is what the current austerity programme means. Any left-wing agenda for localism and democratisation must address this.

Consumers or citizens?

The developing obsession with the idea of the ‘postcode lottery’ (particularly invoked in the case of cancer treatment) must be seen in the context of developing ideas about public services in the 1990s. This was a decade when users of public services were increasingly recast as ‘consumers’ – as in John Major’s infamous ‘cones hotline’.

This recasting of public services as consumer goods was part of Major’s attempt to move on from a Thatcherite aversion to the welfare state, while also responding to some of the criticisms of the welfare state’s unresponsive, bureaucratic character that had been so prominent in the 1970s. But constructing users as ‘consumers’ reinforced concern with universal national standards at the expense of thinking about how public services relate to communities and to citizenship. This is a problem.

Where people make choices about public services as citizens and members of a community, they come up with different – and better – ideas than when thinking as individual consumers, as Claudia Chwalisz’s work on participatory democracy has shown. Today, there is a renaissance of thinking about localism, local democracy, and participative and democratic shaping of public services and decision-making, which picks up on some of the left’s earlier ideas about democratising and decentralising power.

Not every public service will be appropriate for this treatment, and different parts of the state and welfare provision will require different approaches. Some areas, like the provision of drugs on the NHS, are so politically sensitive that any significant shift away from National Institute for Health and Care Excellent guidelines would be likely to provoke outrage.

But services like housing, childcare and social care are already provided with significant local variation and, in many areas, not particularly successfully. Foregrounding the principles of localism, participation and democracy in developing these services could make them more responsive to local needs and more popular.

Where it is appropriate, localism and democratisation can have – and have had – striking successes. For example, the Blue New Deal programme run by the New Economics Foundation has worked with coastal communities around the UK to develop policies to improve the local economy and environment. Hilary Cottam’s work to transform welfare services through empowering users to take decisions about which professionals will be involved and how budgets will be spent rests on similar principles.

Done properly, an agenda focused on localising and democratising public services wherever possible holds powerful possibilities. It offers a chance to move beyond stale debates about state v. market, putting community and citizenship instead at the heart of how we think about public services and welfare.

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is a Lecturer in Twentieth Century British History at University College London.  

Image by JWPhotowerks.