Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Flickr / UK Home Office Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Flickr / UK Home Office

As Theresa May tries to appeal to working class voters, Chris Bambery takes a look at the reality behind the rhetoric

Theresa May is promising the “greatest expansion in workers’ rights by any Conservative government in history”. It would be easy to just dismiss this on the basis of the fact workers’ rights have never featured before on a Tory agenda but by making the issue of work a feature of the UK general election, May has opened up an interesting debate which can, and should, rebound on the apostles of neoliberalism, her own government included.

So what is she promising? First up is that workers would have the right to take up to a year’s unpaid leave to care for a sick family member. Let’s highlight the unpaid part because in a society where there is a crisis in the care for the growing numbers of elderly (seen as a problem under capitalism of course) this might be seen as a way of providing a no-cost sticking plaster. It is also something which already exists in countries like Ireland.

Workers too would be given a statutory right to bereavement leave when they lose their child plus greater protections for those suffering mental health problems. You will also be given the right to request – but not necessarily be granted – unpaid leave for training purposes. That’s one possible way of addressing the UK’s appalling productivity.

Much publicity was attached to May’s promise to give workers a greater voice in the boardroom. Listed companies would have to designate a director as the employee representative, directly appoint a worker to the board, or create “stakeholder advisory panels”. In fact, as City AM pointed out this was a retreat from her earlier pledge, being a “climbdown from an initial promise last year to tackle “runaway” corporate salaries by offering workers’ representation on boards was welcomed by the Institute of Directors.”

The Tories are clearly trying to win over Labour voters who they seem to believe must be alienated by Corbyn’s left wing platform.

Yet by making the world of work an issue May has opened up an issue the left can seize on and exploit because the simple truth is that the reality of people’s work is grim, far grimmer than when I first drew a wage back in the much-derided 1970s. Back then you had permanent contracts, tea breaks, a works canteen and, of course, strong trade union organisation with shop stewards who could stand up to management. Today permanent contracts are something absent in many spheres of work, including once traditional middle-class professions like academia and the media. A minority are self-employed, part-time, on zero contracts or sub-contracted, plus unpaid workers who’re interns or in work experience. But it is a growing minority and it is used to further undermine the confidence of full-time workers who fear for their position and such “privileges” as paid holidays and a pension.

In an excellent article in the current New Left Review, Wolfgang Streeck points out that the as well as creating “the attrition of political parties—their retreat into the machinery of the state as ‘cartel parties’” because of the acceptance by Social Democracy of the neo-liberal template, the neoliberal onslaught which got underway under Thatcher and Reagan also led to, “a meltdown of trade-union organization, together with a dramatic decline in strike activity worldwide—altogether, in other words, a demobilization along the broadest possible front of the entire post-war machinery of democratic participation and redistribution. It all took place slowly, but at an increasing pace and developing with growing confidence into the normal state of affairs.

We shall return to his argument but if we talk about the world of work there is the actual experience of work ranging from open plan offices, supposedly democratic but where staffs are under constant surveillance, to unpaid overtime.

But above all the UK is a low wage, low skill economy, which explains its low productivity, flowing from an overall lack of investment, private and public sector. The majority of the British population are struggling to get by, with living standards driven down after the 2008 financial crash and the recession that followed, and with the news that wage increases in the coming year will lag behind inflation. To survive people are building up the burden of personal debt, using credit cards to pay for basics like food, gas and electricity.

Surely it is not beyond the capability of the left to drive home the need for a different agenda. Corbyn is doing that and could exploit that to gain support in England and Wales (Scottish Labour are too right wing and stupid to do the same).

But May’s pronouncements on workers’ rights indicate a shift away from the neo-liberal agenda, even if it is rhetorical in the main. Because something has changed in the wake of Brexit and Trump’s win. For many, this is simply a revolt those whom Hilary Clinton called the “deplorables,” people who are bigoted and racist and too stupid to grasp the benefits of globalisation and the free market.

Of course for those of us on the left Trump’s victory was not to be welcomed (although Clinton was no better and, in my opinion only Bernie Sanders could have defeated Trump) and whatever our views on the EU we need to rally to fight a right wing, hard Brexit.

But they are also an expression of a popular bitterness with the reality of neo-liberalism. That can often be ugly but what it has created is a political debate in which not everyone is singing off the same neo-liberal hymn sheet, for instance simply repeating national governments are powerless in the face of globalisation. We are also seeing something else as Streeck points out:

After decades in which national democracies were hung out to dry in favour of institutions that promoted globalization, they are now coming back into their own as channels for the articulation of discontent.

Turning to Theresa May he makes this point: “The noteworthy ‘One Nation’ rhetoric of the new British prime minister shows that this has not escaped the attention of at least part of the political class. As early as her speech on 11 July 2016, launching her prime ministerial campaign, May called for changes that had not been mooted since the 1980s, not even by the Labour Party leadership: war on inequality, fairer taxation of higher incomes, a better education system, workers on company boards, protection for British jobs against offshoring, and all that together with limits on immigration. The fact that the vote for Britain’s exit from the EU has reminded British politicians that their first responsibility is to their electorate is also evident in May’s speech in November 2016 to the Confederation of British Industry, in which she explained the result of the referendum in terms of people’s ‘wish for a stronger, fairer country’.”

Streeck concludes: “The new protectionists will not put an end to the crisis of capitalism; but they will bring politics back into play, and remind it of the middle and lower strata of the population that have been the losers from globalization.”

His point is that May cannot deliver on that agenda just as Trump will find it difficult if not impossible to bring auto jobs back to Michigan from Mexico. But what the Sanders’ campaign shows is that the left can deliver an agenda for creating jobs, boosting welfare and ending austerity which can cut with the grain.

When Trump promised to bring jobs back to Michigan my thought was that someone like Corbyn could go to Sunderland or Doncaster and say exactly that, but with an agenda to actually do it. That means as well confronting racism, something which should be central to any talk of workers’ rights.

Put simply the idea that votes count is back and so is the idea that national governments can act to improve your life. It might not seem that radical but neo-liberalism of both the centre right and centre left strove mightily to hollow out what democracy we had won and endlessly repeated Thatcher’s mantra that “There Is No Alternative,” in other words we had to accept what the market delivered us.

The likes of Trump and May, or Macron as well for that matter, cannot deliver the change people yearn for. Only the left can, if it gets its act together. Let’s go to it. 

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.