Why May Must Say Yes to Worker Directors

Industrial democracy has made a welcome return to the political front line. With positive news for workers and the economy in general hard to come by, this could be a glimmer of good news in a fairly bleak winter.

I’m talking of course about the idea of Worker Directors. Theresa May has been tying herself in knots on this – showing rather less poise than Ed on Strictly – having first pinched the idea from Ed Miliband, going big on it on her  way to Downing Street, pulled the plug on it in front of the CBI and finally rekindled interest in response to a question from Gloria del Piero at the fag-end of last week’s PMQs on Wednesday.

But the idea of worker directors is not new – the modern era opened with the Bullock Report into industrial democracy in 1977. As debates at the time illustrate, then, as now, this was seen as something of a magic bullet for solving deficiencies in employee engagement and boardroom arrogance.

Bullock directly lead to six worker directors being appointed to the board of the then-state run forerunner to BT.  The experiment ran from 1978 to 1980, all concerned felt it was successful, but it was allowed to lapse by the in-coming Thatcher government who perhaps already had privatisation in mind.

The value of the worker director concept works on two levels. On the plus side, they have important symbolism. A witness in the boardroom. A civilizing influence to curb corporate excess. An advocate of realism to speak truth unto power.

But a more inclusive approach can also lead to real change, especially as part of a wider democratization of workplaces. The TUC’s 2014 report on workplace democracy set out clearly and convincingly how and why more inclusive employers would also be more effective and efficient.

Both the symbolism and practical effects of Worker Directors speak to issues regarded by employees and workers as being important. UKCES survey work paints a picture of  “a climate of fear [as] employees face greater stress and job insecurity while working harder.”

But nor should the potential of worker directors be over-stated : They can only ever be one part of effective employee relations. And they can actually be very damaging to industry if mistakenly seen as a panacea.

You can immediately see the limitations: What are the terms of reference? What is off-limits? What information has to be disclosed – and when? Is there enough time and detail to form the basis for a proper discussion?  The fundamental constraint is that worker directors are always, always “playing away” – the agenda is set, predetermined. They cannot on their own bridge the gap between boardroom and shop floor. They do not replace effective communications within a company and they are too restricted in number and scope to be a truly effective tool for employee engagement.

And the very real risk is that this then becomes a tick-box exercise. “We’ve got a worker on the board, what more do we need to do?” The answer is likely to be “nothing”.

So worker directors need to sit alongside effective collective bargaining arrangements. They can certainly add value and encourage dialogue at a strategic level.  But we need to be aware of the capacity for worker director arrangements to act as black holes – sucking everything in, generating no light or understanding, leaving nothing outside.

Quite apart from the PM’s acrobatics, the high level of interest in the latest Government consultation on corporate governance shows it remains a live issue. But  if employers try to  weaken  consultative strictures in favour  of more limited and regulated dialogue  with worker directors,  they should not be surprised to find poorer  outcomes as a result.

And we may not even get as far as this debate on practicalities. As the TUC’s  Janet Williamson  observes,  “appointing a non-executive director to speak on behalf of the workforce or setting up a stakeholder advisory body are not the same as putting workers on company boards. Don’t think that working people won’t notice the difference.”

In this era of post-truth left-behind politics, worker directors would seem to be a straightforward win-win issue. The PM has a choice to make here; I hope she makes the right one.

Trump: Will he Learn Lessons From History or Repeat Them?

Democrats are out of power, across that great wide ocean. Trump is President-elect, fascist god in motion” So goes a song from my youth, updated for today

Trump. Oh my goodness, where do you start. “Brexit times ten” someone said – no by a thousand would be an accurate retort.

Because there are of course great similarities between the two electoral earthquakes: The “left behinds” turning over political establishments, the triumph of post-truth politics. The legitimising and unmuzzling of bile, bigotry, violence and narrow views of society. To all my American friends, I wish you well in this new world.

But this commonality – written on endlessly over the last week or so – can only take us so far. That’s partly because Brexit was a vote to leave a multinational proto-state, but Trump was a decisive shift of power within one unified set of borders. Succession as opposed to reactionary revolution. But it is also partly because Britain has (had) a long record of essentially being at ease with itself in a way that the USA doesn’t.

Yes, we can see real stresses in the notion of a UK national identity, but this is as nothing compared to the US. There is, still, a prevailing generally affectionate relationship with national – and unifying – institutions such as the NHS or BBC, or sporting success/failure.  We have over a thousand years’ worth of assimilating migrants. It is 350 years since the last sustained armed conflict on British (though not Irish) soil.(Forgive my crude, optimistic summation in three sentences, and no offence intended by pre-dating the Jacobite rebellion).

And if the ties that bind us together are stronger and more numerous, the manifestations of dissent and discord are less strident too. Until recently, there was a safety net of sorts that stopped most of our citizens falling too far behind. And the potential for killing and murder is so much lower in our gun-controlled country.

Look across the ocean and we see a country deeply and dangerously divided.   The protests against the election result are understandable but what exactly is being said?  We refuse to accept the democratic mandate, the outcome of the election? Really?

Well, no, not exactly. Leading figures such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been careful in their language. Co-operation where possible, resistance and opposition as necessary. Red lines clearly set down.  Warren in particular has clearly nailed the argument that fear and opposition  to  Trump is just a  case of sour electoral  grapes.

But you can well understand if others are not so measured. Trump aggressively pilloried so many during his campaign. There is what seems to be widely institutionalised racism (that has spawned the Black Lives Matter movement) and in the deeply ingrained sense of disempowerment so well portrayed by Paul Theroux in Deep South you are forcibly reminded that a bloody civil war is less than three generations’ distant.

Looking back it is indeed amazing that the Union survived such savage fighting and sharp political divide. Some may convincingly argue that despite amendments to the US constitution extending suffrage, economic advancement lagged a long way behind political progress – and that progress itself was always at risk.

So if you prefer an economic rather than racial perspective, you can see how  a period of sustained  growth  might visibly erode these vicissitudes. Will a booming economy be able to provide enough energy and power to alleviate despair and disenfranchisement, to distract or even dissolve racial divides?

I doubt it. Even if the US economy is described as “near Goldilocks” (not too hot, not too cold, just right) growth in employment does not equate to jobs paying enough for people to live on, let alone live modestly well. This now seems to be regarded as normal. And future automation is likely to exacerbate that trend.

As the President-elect surveys this landscape, I wonder what he sees? I wonder if he even gets it? Everyone knows that those who do not learn the lessons of history will repeat them – but is the 2016 Presidential election a throwback to the past or, perhaps, unfinished business from it?

One thing I feel for sure; this cannot be normalised. This is serious.

And the lesson for us? In a play on the consistently marvellous Daily Mash, we have to conclude that when it comes to the US and UK, there is now much more than a common language that divides us.

Brothers, sisters…….”



Things were so much simpler then…….. A poster from 1982



Tory Voters Back Rent Control – Proof the Housing Market is Bust

House builders have reignited the housing debate with two new reports. First Berkeley Homes’ boss Rob Perrins garnered publicity for calling out the PM on the anticipated failure of government to miss a target of 1m new homes by 2020.

Three reasons were given for what everyone acknowledges is a key issue: the low level of housing construction, linked to a lack of available land, the complexity of planning regulations (whilst acknowledging some reform in this area) and the decline in local authority home building.

But both the report and media response were slewed towards the housebuilders’ agenda, leading to a selective and I think misleading analysis.

The report majors on the availability of land (but a lengthy BBC news item focused on planning) This seems to me to be putting all your eggs in the one basket. Even sharing space in your basket for the collapse in council house building – without explaining why that has happened – does not mitigate the inaccuracy this creates.  Whatever the intention, the inference was one of “Ditch regulation and we can pile it high and sell it cheap.”

Then came the Labour-commissioned Redfern report, named after the eponymous head of Taylor Wimpey.

This was a wider analysis and emphasized, rightly, the macroeconomic factors affecting house ownership – but perplexingly at the expense of shorter-term supply issues. “This is a 20 year problem so we need a 20 year solution” was the author’s valedictory summary on the BBC’s Today programme.

But of course we don’t have 20 years to fix the housing crisis (and it is a crisis). And cost seems to be a key and overlooked element in the mix, affecting (and affected by) both supply and demand.

You see, as Churchill said, land is the ultimate natural monopoly. You can’t (unless you are clever and Dutch) really create more of it.  Can you think of any other finite resource that would be so poorly regulated?

Yes. Poorly regulated. Not just by the myriad of planning regulations highlighted in the Berkeley report but by a system that  allows  huge  developments  to  be snapped up on a “buy-to-leave” or “gold bricks” basis.  A system that defines homes as “affordable” if they cost “only” 80% of the market value (Lol, as they say).

There are two elephants competing for space in this room. One is our preoccupation with the value of property as a crucial component of wealth creation for the post war generation. We need to wean ourselves off that.

The other is rent control. There have been and will be arguments about whether it will kill or cure the private rented sector. It is sometimes spoken of in the same hushed tones a terrible disease.  But as part of a reformed regulatory system?  There are  persistent success stories, and frankly, given the desperate shortage of decent, affordable accommodation the appetite for action is close to insatiable.

And crucially, what have our politicians got to lose by turning their backs on such an idea? Quite a lot as it happens:  increasing numbers of constituencies now have a majority of people who rent in them. Voters – including Conservative voters – now back rent control.  An idea whose time has surely now come?

There are other reasons why  housing must surely rise even higher on our political agenda: Economic arguments   consistently  demonstrate  the  returns  on  each  £ invested in housing outstrip  other investments significantly.

Amongst other  key pieces of an effective response to the housing crisis, articulated by Alex Hilton and others, are a secondary  not-for-profit  housing  market,  yes,  planning reform,  and new minimum standards  in construction and  lettings (everything from revenge evictions to MP Karen Buck’s “Fit For Habitation” Bill that was shamelesly talked out  by Philip Davies. )

Above all, we will never fix the  crisis until  we stop treating housing as a commodity  and start  seeing it for  what it is –  a utility  necessary  for  a healthy  economy and  population.

A New Populism? Talk Like You Mean It

There have been growing calls for a new populism – but we have one already. Unfortunately it has delivered first Brexit and now Trump. It is clearly just not the sort of populism we like.

It doesn’t take 20/20 hindsight to see how this has happened. If you simultaneously create a thirst for material things whilst dissolving the mortar in the walls of society, it is not surprising   that there is profound change and instability.  The desire to own and the push to sell Council and social housing is an example.

Then technology makes the thirst become unquenchable – those material goods become ever more alluring, desirable, essential, cheaper.   This is not a new process.  In 1987 the British  labour movement had already  grasped  what was happening – ‘What do you say to a docker who earns £243 a week, owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella? You do not say, let me take you out of your misery, brother.’  said trade union leader Ron Todd.

But although the risk  was  recognised,  the trend  continued and was in many ways accelerated until we end up  with inevitable  dissatisfaction (because  you can never have too much “stuff”) ,  and hyper-individualisation,  with the most important  relationship  being  that  which each individual has with the internet.

The alienation that comes from this dissatisfaction and absence of community, or is borne of straight-forward unfairness in society, pushed many to vote against “the establishment”. A prevailing view is that it was the “left behinds”  that  account for both the shock election results of the year.

What supreme and incontrovertible irony. The Brexit and Trump victories reinforce the factors and structures that widened social inequality and depressed social  mobility.  There will be no “catching up”

So what is to be done? You might say it is too late already. From Black Lives Matter to racist, fascist, murders,  have we passed the  point of no return? Are old notions of community, collectivism and progressive populism  are dead.  If that is not true, it certainly feels that we are teetering on the brink.

Despite some common features, the US and UK are very different political theatres. For us here I think the solution has to be some truly bold political thinking to seize both initiative and imagination.

In policy terms, we are surely going to need to go to where people are rather than where we would want them to be. The people have spoken on Brexit and it would be wrong to ignore that.  So we come up with a progressive Brexit programme that acknowledges the referendum result as paramount,  but  engages the public in  the necessary  discussions about, for example,  public service resourcing  in post-EU UK.

We need to rethink organisation and engagement too. Progressive collectivist and populist ideas are simply not reaching many, especially  young  people.  The excellent TUC report on young core workers shows how things have changed and why this demographic has little option but a “living for the weekend” lifestyle.

We also recognise that people feel policy is made too far away from where they are, so we must  look to an expanded programme of devolution accompanied by electoral reform.

Jonathan Pie says it best in his latest contribution:  We can make these changes and pull ourselves back from the brink.  But it will take sustained self-discipline, stamina and determination. The starting point is to understand just how difficult it will be.

Time for a Labour-led alliance for Brexit?

I rather think that our Prime Minister is stumped on Europe. She has announced the  main plank in her Brexit programme – a Great Repeal Bill that  will lift-and-shift all EU based legalisation  into UK law at the instant we formally leave the EU.

That actually seems quite sensible to me. Achieve the principle and worry about the practicalities later.

But the problem is that the detail of how that will happen simply isn’t there. And those practicalities are in fact monstrously complex and weighty issues: What access do we need and will we have to the Single Market? What will we do about migration and free movement of labour? How will key public services function if EU nationals are unable to work in them?

Perhaps the reality is that we cannot know what to do about these issues at this stage. Perhaps we really have to wait until Article 50 is triggered or until the day after we leave?

But in any event, negotiators never want to show their hand (especially if there is an element of bluff) so I can understand a small part of the dismay over last week’s court ruling (and I must cite an excellent piece by Will Gore on the virulent press reaction to that as the best analysis I read).

However, to return to the PM. She is truly caught between two titanic forces – the clear court edict compelling Parliamentary scrutiny, and the courting of public opinion which is more animated on this  subject than any other (partly as a result of the irresponsible incitement Gore writes about). Her government currently has a majority of just 10 in the Commons, and she herself seems unwilling or unable to colonise the middle ground – something that in my view would enable her to govern for as long as she wanted.

Into such a dangerous mess, step forward Her Majesty’s Opposition.

Despite some reported wobbles, Labour’s position on Brexit is, in my view, pretty clear: “We respect the vote but want a fair deal.”

The electoral demographics are even clearer. The party needs to win back or retain support amongst many who voted Brexit to have any chance of success in a General Election.

Given that the real issue is the lack of a plan rather than any attempts to rerun or  overturn the EU referendum result, that is surely what  Labour in opposition needs to focus on –  to seize the narrative,  the  initiative and the imagination  of  a British public that  is at best jittery, and at worse downright volatile.  It is a cry from the heart that Labour is at its best when it is boldest.   For both the party and the country, is not being bold now a matter of necessity not choice?

It is right (as Hugo Muir argues) that MPs who profoundly disagree with (he says “fear”)Brexit,  vote against it when the opportunity arises – and accept the electoral consequences.  But that does not trump or detract from the arguments for a Labour-led progressive alliance in support of Brexit with greater focus and vigour than any previously discussed.

This is possibly difficulty territory for Remainers.   But in truth, there may be no other way to douse the flames many are fanning. You need to go to where people are, rather than where you would like them to be.

An edited version of this piece also appears in Labourlist

Remote, illiterate, self-interested – Government’s own experts slam UK digital programme


A major new report on how the UK government “does digital” has concluded that the gap between those who make policy and the end-users (i.e.: us) is big and deep and wide and a major impediment on making progress in this area.

By progress, we mean seamless, efficient, pain-free, hassle free transactions. The report holds up how passport applications have changes over the last twenty years – and particularly since 2013 as an illustration. And you can see their point.

But it is not just ease of use for us as citizens. In these cash-strapped times, how else does central government save money (up to £2bn of it) and deliver services: automation of transactions is a key means to do both.

So says the much-respected Institute for Government. But if all this is self-evidently good, what is the problem? Because the public on-the-record criticism of ministers and the most senior civil servants  by their only  slightly less eminent colleagues this week was striking.

Remote, illiterate, self-interested, regressive, abysmal management, poor pay, risk averse, incentivised to be sub-optimal. I paraphrase, but not by much.

Taken at face value,  even  if the  looming autumn statement  provides clarity on the direction and priorities  of the Government Digital Service,  the structure of government  decision making and financial control means  it will not be put to best use.

In the storm of despair, there was one noticeable beacon of success. The DVLA claims 92% of its transactions achieved digitally (which is “interesting” given Office of National Statisitics data on internet connectivity and use).  They accept that some customers will not want, nor be able, to move away from paper records and that is fine.  How has this been done?

Let’s just say it isn’t rocket science. Mutli-disciplinary teams to bridge the gaps between policy formulation, product development and customer experience. A curious, extrovert approach to seek out improved and new ways of working. The self-awareness and self-confidence to say when something isn’t working or isn’t worth pursuing.

Let me acknowledge that DVLA paradigm is not trouble-free. PCS members have had to take industrial action to try and defend working conditions.  Indeed, poorly paid, badly managed, disincentivised workforces unsurprisingly have a tendency to underperformance, or resistance to change.

And here is a central  contradiction  that  government must  grasp  if it  wants to  “do digital”  better:  You need  to take people with you,  but how can you with employment and economic policies that  don’t work  for so many (with alarming new projections of child poverty published just yesterday) ?

This is not a Luddite argument.  Employees and union members are citizens and service users too.  They want government to work as efficiently as their bank or on-line supermarket. They recognise change is constant. But we all need to pay bills, almost all of us want to work, and we surely have an entitlement to live rather than just survive.

Is it too much to expect Government-led digital programmes to respect those prerequisites?

This is the second of two linked articles about the Digital Economy. The first appears here


Servant or Master? What Will be our Relationship With a Digital Economy

Woman at table using smartphone and writing in notebook

The impact of digitalisation and automation will be increasingly profound. Enthusiasts talk in terms of technology setting us free, but I understand the worries of those who reckon we will be subservient rather than superior.

This is not just because of the impact on employment – in terms of numbers and quality of work. It is also because the data that is collected compromises privacy and can be processed in a way that hurts us.

Surrounding the launch of an important Institute for Government report on how the UK “does digital” was a self-evident truth that data and digitalisation are Good Things. Yet citizens’ data is special.  It’s not like a store loyalty card or online music channels, where as customers we choose to consent to have items proposed to us on the basis of past purchases and other data.

It is not even the same as the social media channels ProPublica has recently exposed as using  racial  profiling  to maximise advertising revenue (although  those in the  trade  will tell you  that has been going on  for decades).  There is still the crucial ingredient of consent.

But what consent can citizens give that justifies the “deep mine of big data” to identify repeated use of specific words or phrases to use as the basis for decisions about individuals or services?

We are close now to Snowden territory – the implied consent that citizens give to the state to keep them safe in whatever way the state thinks is appropriate or necessary. Or perhaps it is a Hobson’s Choice of the citizen having to give consent in order to receive services that they need as oppose to  simply  desire, as is the case  with many DWP payments.

So I worry when digital experts talk gleefully about ripping down barriers and creating a brave new world. I get their frustration.  I admire their enthusiasm, but my gift to them is a certain book by Aldous Huxley that they need to read sooner rather than later.

And to the Cabinet Office (interestingly not the Treasury) where the Government Digital Service is housed?  Good luck in keeping the £450m four year settlement awarded in last year’s autumn budget statement.  But beware becoming one of the silos that cause you such trouble elsewhere.

But we should end on a positive: We have bright, clever, people who want to work for the public good and who aren’t afraid to speak candidly about how they think that can be done better. At least there is a chance of better things happening.

 This piece also appears in The Huffington Post

This is the first of two articles on our relationship with  a digital economy. Part 2 appears here