Monday, 12 May 2014

John Smith ... it could have been very different for workers

On the 20th anniversary of the sudden death of Labour leader John Smith, Andrew Fisher remembers his commitment to workers' rights and economic intervention

Addressing Labour Party conference in 1993, John Smith pledged:
"Our charter of employment rights will give all working people basic rights that will come into force from the first day of their employment. We will give the same legal rights to every worker, part-time or full-time, temporary or permanent.

"We will give every working man and woman the right to protection against unfair dismissal, and access to health and safety protection. And every worker will have the right to join a trade union and have the right to union recognition."
The speech is worth reading in full. But I want to concentrate on the above paragraphs for a moment.

The Agency Workers' Directive, agreed by a triumvirate of the government, CBI and TUC in the dying days of the last Labour government, reneged on that historic pledge of employment rights from day one. Instead, agency workers are only granted some limited equal rights after 12 weeks.

Likewise, Blair's 1999 Employment Act did not give every worker the right to join a trade union - only those in workplaces with 21 or more employees.

Today, the current government has diluted the protection against unfair dismissal. For those who started their employment after April 2012, you have to have been employed for two years before you have the right not to be unfairly dismissed. And even after this inordinate qualifying period, workers now face deterrent fees to even bring their case.

Instead of a "charter for workers' rights", as John Smith phrased it to the TUC in the same year, we have today a charter for workers' exploitation.

There was also a recognition that government should have an industrial strategy that commits to full employment.

"This commitment to the goal of full employment is central to our economic approach. It means using not just interest rates - which now even the IMF believe should be cut - but all the instruments of economic policy to go for growth, jobs and investment. It means what we, as democratic socialists, have always believed, that it is the duty of Government to match unmet needs with unused resources."

Given Smith wanted to use interest rates, we can deduce from this that Smith would not have allowed Brown to fulfil Nigel Lawson's aim of making the Bank of England independent. But more importantly neither would he have allowed the sort of rhetoric we heard from Blair, Hutton, Purnell and Byrne demonising welfare claimants. After all, "it is the duty of Government to match unmet needs with unused resources" - so unemployment is a government failure, not a personal one.

This is not to say that life under a John Smith-led government would have seen a workers' paradise created. As John McDonnell MP put it:
"Smith came from the right-wing tradition within the party but he was Labour. You couldn't contest that he was a traditional Labour, social-democratic politician. And he was committed to the elements of the Labour Party which represent the 'broad church' coalition."
Some see Miliband in a similar mould to Smith. If so, he could do a lot worse than read John Smith's 1993 party conference speech, and make similar commitments for a Miliband government.