Labour must become the champion of self-employed workers

But what would that mean in practice?

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In Britain today four-and-a-half million people are self-employed whilst three million people are members of Labour-affiliated unions.

What do these two facts teach us?

Not that unions matter one jot less, nor that our historic mission to fight for better rights and conditions in the workplace is any less urgent. The real lesson is about how workplaces themselves are changing and how we must change as a party to catch up.

To be blunt, Labour has a lot of catching up to do. Take the 2015 economic manifesto ‘A better plan for Britain’s prosperity. Out of 79 pages, it contained just the following 17 words specifically on self-employment:

“The rise of self-employment could in part be evidence of growing insecurity in the labour market.”

Of course in a worrying number of cases this is true; but it is only part of the picture. This ultra-short analysis ignores the positive reasons that many people have for choosing to be their own boss whether they are cleaners, providing child care or in the creative industries. It also says nothing of the benefits freelancing can bring in producing a more motivated workforce and raising Britain’s appallingly low levels of productivity.

I believe that over the next five years Labour should aim to become the champion of self-employed workers. But what in practice would this mean?

Firstly, it’s about listening to their views when shaping policy. Trade Union representatives make up 50 per cent of conference delegates and are allocated 30 seats on the National Policy Forum, a role that I believe must continue. But why not add an allocation of seats on the NPF for representatives of the self-employed? In this way we can make sure that when we are designing policy on pensions or life long training or infrastructure the needs of people working for themselves are not ignored.

Secondly, it’s about creating the conditions for micro-businesses to thrive. In common with a lot of freelancers I spend very little time in a traditional office environment but a good deal of time either travelling on trains or working from home. For people in my position super fast broadband and extending wi-fi on trains would make a huge difference.

Thirdly, it’s about changing the welfare state to protect the needs of the self-employed. Take the impact of having children. Whilst statutory maternity pay awards employees 90 per cent of their previous income for the first six weeks of maternity leave, freelancers get a standard £138.18 a week through maternity allowance. So an employee on the average national wage of £26,500 a year will receive £458.65 a week, whilst someone who had earnt the same working for herself would be stuck on £138.18 a week.

For new dads the position can be even worse. Employees enjoy two weeks of paternity leave but the self-employed get nothing. New rules for employees allow parents to share up to 50 weeks parental leave and 37 weeks pay. But this only applies if both parents are employees. This enlightened approach does nothing for the self-employed.

The consequences both for the economy and society are damaging. According to research carried out by Procorre, an international professional services consultancy, there are fewer than one million female self-employed contractors compared to two and a half million men. As Lisa Mangan, relationship manager at Procorre, commented:

“On paper, consultancy should be an attractive career for women….However, taking the plunge is not always an easy decision, particularly for those with young families who may be concerned that there is less financial support for maternity breaks and childcare compared to their employed peers.”

In the months since Labour’s defeat there has been a lot of soul searching in the party about what Labour stands for. For me the underlying principles of striving for greater equality, of giving everyone a fair chance in life have not changed and never will. However, the world in which we must apply those principles is changing dramatically. Only if we get this can we win in 2020.

Tim Starkey has been self-employed for 13 years. He is a candidate for Labour’s National Policy Forum. Follow him on Twitter

7 Responses to “Labour must become the champion of self-employed workers”

  1. TN

    This should have been considered years ago by Labour. It’s mainly the patronising leftie paternalists who automatically assume that eveyy instance of self-employment is some kind of self destructive path, because it doesn’t reconcile with the left’s world view that only unionised jobs are proper jobs.

  2. stevep

    If working people want to be self-employed, that`s great, but it`s a hard competitive world out there and many who choose that route do so out of necessity, not choice.
    I suspect most of us would choose stable, well-paid employment, if it were available, rather than the uncertainties of self-employment.
    Labour and the Left should commit to a society where both options are available, regulated and complementing one another, rather than competing.
    Unfettered Capitalism leads to a race to the bottom with only the wealthy benefiting.
    Social Democracy should be the way forward.

  3. JayUKChelsea

    Totally agree, Labour looks like only talking to unionised labour and those on benefits – self-employment is now a choice for most in the modern world of labour and IT – not a case of being forced to do so by evil employers and we are saying nothing about this area which is going to get a larger proportion of the workforce

  4. Karl Greenall

    This view is nonsense. Self employed people, by the nature of their style of working, are not inherently organised. It would be great if Labour took this point on board, but it is too often distracted by Rightwing people pushing their own agenda and advancement, to consider the bigger picture. To a “lefty”, a “proper” job is any job that should pay adequately to put food on the table, a roof over the head, and enables one to participate fully in ones society. Too many proper jobs do not fulfil these basic requirements at the moment Grow up !

  5. lisacat1999

    I fully agree with this article as far as it goes. However, we need to be clear that those trying to make self employment and small businesses work are very often the victims of large corporations too. For example, the squeeze on high street traders and small suppliers by the big supermarket chains, or rip offs through unfair bank lending. The rip offs by the big energy firms affect us all. The trick Labour missed at the last election was that Miliband’s stance of taking on the vested interests of big businesses was correct, but it should have been used as part of an appeal to small businesses and the self employed too. “Anti big business, pro small business and the self employed” is potentially a winning appeal.

  6. Iain Fletcher

    I’m self employed as are a few people I know. We all went in on the understanding that the pay is great but holidays and sickness cost. Add in the frankly ridiculous amounts we can claim back on tax and I think we’re generally OK. Though obviously better transport and IT infrastructure would be appreciated.

    Something should be done about businesses that force employees to go self employed, sometimes make them take a loan out for example to cover the lease on a van, and treat them like employees.

    I’d also agree with more support for microbusinesses, though they’re not the solution to the productivity puzzle. Generally small firms are not any where near as productive as larger, more established ones.

  7. Colin Gilbey

    My understanding is that if you are working at the direction/instruction of a person you are technically employed. A lot of self employed working is illegal.

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