Labour must become the champion of self-employed workers

But what would that mean in practice?

 

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

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