The fall of the skilled worker

There’s an interesting discussion about pay in the IFS Green Budget and the increase in highly skilled employment at the same time as a decrease in real wages. (See previous posts here, here and here.) The IFS believes that the fall in wages has been mitigated by these compositional effects. Because the recent rise in employment has been among the higher-skill level groups, the fall in wages is not as severe as it might have been. Or, to put it another way, had the composition of the workforce stayed the same, the wage collapse would have been even worse.

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The IFS comments:

The overall conclusion that compositional effects are, on average, increasing real wages is also true in both the public and private sectors, and for both men and women.

In summary, we can rule out a story that says that the continued weakness of earnings is due to compositional effects, such as lower-paid types of people returning to work after losing jobs during the recession. Cyclical compositional effects might be playing some role, but they are being dominated by the continuation of longer-run compositional changes, such as increasing education levels, that should act to raise pay.

In other words, rising skill levels would normally be expected to raise pay. The fact that they haven’t is indicative of the severity of the pay squeeze.

But, as the Resolution Foundation’s interactive chart shows, real-terms median pay levels for all occupational groups are now lower than they were in 2004. For all except the managerial group, they are lower than in 2002.

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For all groups, real-terms median pay levels started falling before the financial crisis. The recession has just made the fall that bit worse. The drop in pay is sharpest among the Professional and Skilled Trades groups, both falling by more than 6 percent in the decade since 2004. As Larry Elliott says, we have sacrificed pay for jobs. That seems to be true even for the highly skilled.

Of course, all these figures would look even worse if we included the self-employed, whose earnings, on a number of measures, were on the slide before the recession and have collapsed since 2008.

The IFS blames falling productivity for the pay squeeze, though it acknowledges that pay has fallen even faster than productivity.

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And, in any case, this just changes the question. Why has productivity collapsed? The pay puzzle becomes a productivity puzzle.

There’s a lengthy discussion of the productivity paper in this Bank of England paper by MPC member Martin Weale. He points out that the UK’s post-recession drop in productivity hasn’t been much worse than for of many other OECD members. That said, he’s not very optimistic about the near future.

After the disappointments of the last few years one would be bold indeed to be confident that this is the start of a sustained revival. I have not been able to identify factors responsible for the weak productivity growth, except in the broad sense that it is related to the financial crisis and the experience of countries during the period 2008-2010, so I cannot be confident that shadow of this is now easing.

And looking at the underlying rate of growth:

Chart 8 suggests that the third quarter of this year is no more than a brief ray of sunshine in the gloom.

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The key to improving productivity is to improve skills say the CIPD, UKCES, the CBI and just about everyone else. But that’s where we came in. We have more people in skilled occupations yet still our pay levels and productivity have fallen.

It could be that this is all simply the result of a catastrophic economic crash. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect employment and pay to recover as quickly as they did after previous recessions. But the fact that these trends seem to have started before the downturn is worrying. Could it be a sign of a longer-term shift in the balance of power in the workplace? Are many employers substituting labour for capital and paying lower rates simply because they can?

We have tended to assume that education, skills and qualifications gave workers bargaining power and therefore some protection from the pressure on wages and conditions experienced by the unskilled. It seems that is no longer the case. Middle-class professionals can have their pay rates hammered down too. If, as some commentators predict, technology enables even complex jobs to be chopped up into discrete tasks, things may be about to get that bit worse.

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Blog celebration

As promised before Christmas, I will be having a celebration to mark this blog’s 8th anniversary. Yes folks, I’ve been punting this stuff out for almost 8 years now.

It will be an informal do, just a few drinks and a chance to have a chat.

Details:

Date: 5 March 2015

Time: 17.00

Venue: The Parcel Yard, King’s Cross

http://www.parcelyard.co.uk

The invitation is open to all this blog’s readers, even though I’ve no idea who most of you are. If you would like to come, please let me know in the comments, on Twitter @FlipChartRick or by emailing Rick at FCFT dot gmail dot com.

Hope to see lots of you there.

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NHS on course to run out of money by 2020

David Cameron keeps promising to maintain the ring-fence on NHS spending. Not a penny of the NHS budget will be cut, he said again last month. The trouble is, even that doesn’t look like it will be enough. According to studies by the Kings Fund, health costs increase somewhere between 3 and 6 percent faster than inflation. Rising costs and demand mean that the NHS needs real-terms budget increases just to stand still. NHS England forecasts that the service will need another £30bn per year by 2020.

In its recent Green Budget, the Institute for Fiscal Studies looked at how productivity improvements might reduce the need for extra funding.

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Relatively modest sounding productivity increases of 1.5 percent would halve the amount of extra funding needed. More ambitious ones might even reduce it by around three-quarters. 

The trouble is, the NHS has never been able to make consistent year-on-year productivity improvements. According to figures released by the ONS on Friday, while there has been the odd jump in health service productivity, it has usually been followed by a slowdown or even a fall. The record 3.5 percent jump in 2011 was followed by 0.9 percent in 2012.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 15.41.32Steady productivity improvements are more difficult to achieve than one offs. A sudden cut in funding creates a sense of crisis and people respond well to crises. It’s much easier to manage people when there is an all-hands-to-the-pumps emergency than during the day-to-day slog of steady-state. The NHS handles emergencies well. That’s one of its main purposes and it attracts the sort of people who work well in situations of extreme urgency. I wasn’t at all surprised that the Royal Marsden re-opened less than a week after a fire and full evacuation. I’m also not surprised that the NHS is plagued by project failures. It does emergencies well and the humdrum less so. The NHS’s history of heroic productivity improvements followed by nothing the following year is entirely consistent with its culture.

As if the task of improving health service productivity wasn’t hard enough, the government’s reorganisation seems to have made things worse. A review of the reforms published last week by the King’s Fund was damning.

The first half of the 2010–15 parliament was taken up with debate on the Health and Social Care Bill, the biggest and most far-reaching legislation in the history of the NHS. The second half of the parliament was devoted to limiting the damage caused by the Bill and dealing with the effects of growing financial and service pressures in the NHS.

Arguments about privatisation distract from the much more important and damaging impacts of the reforms on how the NHS is organised and the ability of
its leaders to deal with rapidly growing financial and service pressures. By taking three years to dismantle the old structures and reassemble them into new ones,
the government took scarce time and expertise away from efforts to address these pressures.

In any organisation, restructures divert people’s energy away from other activities. Shortly after the proposals were published, the right-leaning think tank Civitas warned the government that a drop in performance was likely with a reorganisation of this scale. Eighteen months in, the Commons Health Committee found that the disruption and distraction caused by the restructure was hindering efficiency savings.

The organisation that emerged from this upheaval is, says the Kings Fund, more complicated than the one it replaced.

The complexity of the new structures that resulted from the 2012 Act has proved equally damaging. An unwieldy organisation has emerged from debates on the reforms and compromises made along the way in what can best be likened to
a Heath Robinson construct.

All of which makes increases in productivity even less likely.

In any case, productivity improvement in service organisations is no easy task. This Bank of England report showed that, in the decade before the recession, the UK private service sector improved productivity by 2.3 percent per year. That was unusually high by international standards and, along with the rest of the economy, its productivity has stalled since the recession. Given this, the recent history of NHS productivity gains and the damaging effects of the recent re-organisation, surely annual productivity growth of 2.4 percent for the next five years is on the outer edge of optimism.

And even under the 2.4 percent scenario, the NHS will still need more money in 2020. The health service faces a smaller scale version of general public spending dilemma. The upward pressure on costs is too great to be met from productivity improvements alone. It therefore needs more funding (which means more taxes or government borrowing) or it will have to stop doing much of what it currently does for free. Neither of these options is likely to be popular but things can’t go on as they are.

A pledge to give the NHS inflation linked budgets is a pledge that it will run out of money by the end of the decade. Sooner or later, something has got to give.

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UK self-employment: success story or basket case?

Some useful data on self-employed incomes appeared while I was out of the country. HMRC published its annual personal income statistics. Because of the time-lag in processing tax returns, this data is always nearly two years out of date, so it tells us what things looked like up to March 2013.

According to HMRC, there were 5.5 million people with self employment income in 2012-13 and, in total, they earned £80.6 billion. Compared with the pre-recession numbers, this shows a big rise in the number of people and a big drop in the amounts earned. In 2007-08 there were 4.9 million people with self-employment income and, in total, they earned £88.4 billion. So an extra 600,000 self-employed people earned around £8 billion less in 2012-13 than in 2007-08. And that’s before allowing for inflation.

The Resolution Foundation updated its all worker earnings estimate last month, which is the closest thing we’ve got to accurate data on self-employment earnings. (See previous post.) It shows the difference including the self-employed would make to the overall fall in earnings. Because self-employed incomes have fallen by so much, including them shows the pay squeeze to be even more severe than the official figures suggest.

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At the end of last month, the New Policy Institute published an analysis of turnover among UK businesses, using the BIS Business Population Estimates and HMRC data.

The paper uses the following definitions:

  • Zero employees (both registered and unregistered businesses) employing no-one but the business owner(s)
  • Small – between 1 and 49 employee(s)
  • Medium –between 50 and 249 employees
  • Large – between 250 and 499 employees
  • Very large – 500 or more employees

This shows that, since 2000, the number of businesses with no employees (apart from the owners) increased their share private sector employment from 13 to 17 percent.

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With an increasing share of employment, we might reasonably expect the no-employee firms’ share of turnover to have risen too but it didn’t. Not even a little bit. Over the same period, it stayed pretty much the same. Since the recession, the total turnover of no employee firms has fallen in real terms. For all the talk of the rise of SMEs, businesses of 500+ employees had a greater share of the market in 2014 than they had in 2002.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 08.55.16The result of this was that, with more people chasing less money, the turnover per worker for the no-employee businesses fell, slowly at first, then more sharply after the recession.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 08.59.51Turnover per worker for non-employing businesses fell from £76,000 per worker in 2003 (adjusted for CPI) to £70,000 per worker in 2009 and then to £53,000 per worker in 2014. The recession made a fall in revenues that had been going on since the early 2000s even worse.

In all three of these datasets, the definitions are different. HMRC definitions exclude some people who would describe themselves as self-employed in the Labour Force Survey (the usual source of self-employment numbers) or the Family Resources Survey. The BIS figures look at businesses rather than people and some people may run more than one. That’s why the numbers of self-employed vary slightly depending on the sources used.

Whatever definition we use, though, the lines in the graphs all go in the same direction. The number of people goes up and the amount of money they earn goes down.

The rise of self-employment has become a common headline in recent years but it’s only a rise when you look at the number of people. In terms of money, there has been no rise at all. Financially, the sector has shrunk.

Despite an increase in numbers, the self-employed haven’t managed to increase the total earnings of the sector or its share of turnover. This suggests that very few of the self-employed are growing their businesses. They are simply competing with each other for a shrinking pot.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise given what we know about small businesses. As Paul Nightingale and Alex Coad found, the typical British startup is one which, it it is still in business after 2 years, just puts another one out of business.

There are good historical reasons why “the entrepreneurial virtues of new businesses are often assumed rather than examined” (Holtz-Eakin, 2000: 284), but as the empirical evidence in the previous section has shown, recent research is more sober about the value of self-employment and entrepreneurship. It certainly is the case that a small number of start-ups has a positive impact on the economy, but most of the time, for most of the firms, and for most of the performance metrics, the economic impact of entrepreneurial firms is poor.

The firms are marginal because they lack the ambition or capability to grow or innovate, have high death rates, and are poorly captured in statistics or academic studies. They are undersized because they lack the minimum efficient scale needed to perform on par with incumbents in their sectors and industries. As a result, they are poor performance: they have low productivity and low levels of innovation, and generate churn rather than economic growth.

Or, at least, they did. Since the recession, though, the churn has slowed down. The ONS attributes much of the rise in self-employment not to more people starting businesses but to fewer people leaving. Those who might once have quit and gone back to employment or retired are, instead, hanging on, fighting with the new entrants and accepting lower returns. I’m reminded of one of those David Attenborough nature programmes where, as the drought gets worse, more and more animals appear, desperate to drink from a shrinking water hole.

The cheerleaders for self-employment paint a picture of a dynamic, energetic and innovative sector. Some even think it will be the future of work. The numbers tell us something different though. If we look at non-employing businesses as a sector, it’s a story of chronic over-staffing, falling revenues and declining productivity. In short, a bit of a basket case.

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12 billion flying pigs

A couple of reports on welfare social security spending came out either side of Christmas.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies noted that, while spending is forecast to fall as a percentage of GDP, it is still set to rise in real terms during the next parliament. Even with a growing economy, benefits will still be a larger proportion of GDP at the end of the decade than they were before the recession.

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More than half of the benefit spending goes to pensioners:

Total spending on benefits, tax credits and state pension in 2015–16 is forecast to be £220 billion, equivalent to 29.5% of overall government spending, and 11.6% of GDP.

Of this total, around £121 billion is forecast to be paid to pensioners: they will receive £92 billion in state pensions, and around £29 billion in other benefits such as pension credit, housing benefit and disability benefits. The remaining £99 billion of expenditure will go to working age families, both those in work, and out-of-work.

The components are easier to see from the second report, published last week by the House of Commons Library.

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The figures are slightly different but the pattern is more-or-less the same – a slight fall followed by a rise again towards the end of the decade.

Pensioner benefits are pushing up the total but some of the other benefits are falling very slowly or, in some cases, not at all. HMRC expects spending on tax credits to rise in real terms by 2020.

George Osborne is still talking about reducing social security costs by £12 billion. But the prime minister has promised to protect pensions and, as older people are more likely to vote, it is unlikely that the Conservatives will go into the election promising major cuts to pensioner benefits. That only leaves the £99 billion of working age benefits to go at.

The government’s attempts to cut benefit spending have so far fallen well short of their targets. Changes that were meant to save £19 billion only reduced costs by £2.5 billion. Housing benefit, says the IFS, has proved be particularly stubborn:

Housing benefit explains £3 billion of the extra spending. Despite announced cuts of over £2 billion, real terms housing benefit spending will be nearly £1 billion higher in 2014­–15 than 2010–11. This was unanticipated – the OBR’s welfare trends report shows expected spending in 2014–15 has risen by nearly £3 billion since their June 2010 forecast. As they explain, the private rented sector has grown faster than expected, private rents have grown faster than expected, and earnings have grown more slowly than expected – all of which increase housing benefit spending.

And something similar is happening with tax credits:

That slower-than-expected earnings growth also increases tax credit spending.

All this has important fiscal consequences. Working-age benefit spending has always been sensitive to the unemployment rate. But the rapid growth of housing benefit and tax credits over the couple of decades (documented in this briefing note published today) means that slow earnings growth now has the potential to push up spending too.

The government has made a big deal about how its welfare reforms have encouraged people to go back to work. That may be true but it’s not going to do much to reduce benefit spending in the future. The unemployed now only receive about 15 percent of housing benefit spending and unemployment benefits are only just over 2 percent of total social security costs.

As this chart from the OBR report shows, while employment has risen since the recession, the percentage of employed people receiving housing benefit has gone up too

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Nudging people back into work has just changed a lot of people from JSA claimants to tax credit claimants and from unemployed housing benefit recipients to employed housing benefit recipients.

If there ever were any work-shy claimants, there aren’t enough of them now to account for much of the benefit costs. Any significant reduction in the social security budget will therefore have to come from cuts to the benefits of the working poor and the disabled.

Against this background, it is difficult to see where savings of £12 billion could come from. Michael O’Connor produced this wonderful pie-chart showing how much the welfare cap cut from the working age benefit bill last year.

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A cut of £12 billion to an overall cost of £99 billion is roughly an eighth which, I’m sure you’ll all remember, is 45 degrees on a circle, or, as I like to think of it, North to North East. Some way to go then.

Without big reductions in tax credit or housing benefit spending, it’s unlikely that the government will get anywhere near savings of £12 billion. The only way housing benefit and tax credit costs will fall is if a lot more people are paid a lot more than they get now. If that were to happen, some of them might even manage to pay more in tax, which would improve things on the income side too. Unfortunately, that doesn’t look very likely either.

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The future of work: Tech Yeah! vs Tech Meh!

There are, broadly, two views about future technological advances doing the rounds at the moment. I’ve nicknamed them Tech Yeah! and Tech Meh!

Tech Yeah! is the more mainstream of the two. You hear it from the futurologists at management conferences and in the technology sections of the major newspapers. My Twitter stream is full of it. Tech Yeah! says we are on the brink of leap in technology as far-reaching as the industrial revolution only much faster. It will transform the way we live and work. In the process, it will make us more productive and lead to an era of abundance.

Tech Meh! is the view that the future won’t be anywhere near as futuristic as we think and that technological progress is slowing down.

The big inventions have all happened, says Robert Gordon, and the recent technological developments just won’t deliver the same increases in productivity and living standards.

The computer and Internet revolution (IR #3) began around 1960 and reached its climax in the dot.com era of the late 1990s, but its main impact on productivity has withered away in the past eight years. Many of the inventions that replaced tedious and repetitive clerical labor by computers happened a long time ago, in the 1970s and 1980s. Invention since 2000 has centered on entertainment and communication devices that are smaller, smarter, and more capable, but do not fundamentally change labor productivity or the standard of living in the way that electric light, motor cars, or indoor plumbing changed it.

In a recent WSJ piece, Gordon remarked:

The rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well turn out to be a unique episode in human history.

He’s not alone. Tyler Cowen famously argued that the US is stuck on an innovation plateau after having eaten all the low hanging fruit. PayPal founder Peter Thiel is also in the Tech Meh! camp.

Peter Thiel pulled an iPhone out of his jeans pocket and held it up. “I don’t consider this to be a technological breakthrough,” he said. “Compare this with the Apollo space program.”

A couple of years ago, Alan Patrick argued that there was more innovation in 1909, 1929 and 1969 than in 2009.

A similar theme runs through David Boyle’s New Year thought-piece in the Guardian. He too thinks that the pace of technological change is slowing down.

Two peculiar counter-intuitive facts about the digital world this year. First, sales of computer tablets have been on the slide. Second, even less predictably, sales of ebooks – at least in the summer – were down by a quarter on two years before, while sales of print books have been rising.

[D]espite what we are told, technological change is actually slowing down. I’ve been travelling on Boeing 747s and driving Minis my entire life (I’m 56). And although the technology inside them is very different, just compare that with a century ago – with the extraordinary development over the same 56-year period of cars, aeroplanes, submarines, telephones and all the rest.

If I was born in 1858, would I still be struggling along in my wagon at New Year 1915? These days, we live at the same addresses as we did a century ago. Travelling in London, at least, we take the same bus routes, use the same stations.

He has a point. I remember, when I was about 8 or 9, drawing two pictures of futuristic aeroplanes. By the time I was grown up, I told my teacher, the first one would whisk me across the world at 3 times the speed of sound. But this would be rendered obsolete by the second one, which would do 4 times the speed of sound. An over-active childish imagination? Not really. After all, we’d gone from a wooden glider driven by a 12 horsepower engine to a moon landing and supersonic passenger flights in 70 years. Expecting to fly at ever faster speeds over the next 20 years or so looked like a reasonable assumption. We were going to have a colony on the Moon by 2003, so 4 times the speed of sound across the Atlantic would be run-of-the-mill.

It never happened, of course. Concorde was as good as supersonic flight got before we scrapped it and we gave up on manned space flight years ago.

As I was flying abroad recently, it occurred to me that I had made an Airfix model of the Boeing plane I was on when I was a kid in the 70s. The first one I ever did was a Harrier jump jet, recently dumped by our government but still doing sterling work elsewhere. Had aircraft technology moved at a similar pace during my dad’s lifetime, the RAF would still have been flying Lancasters and Spitfires in the 1980s, albeit with more sophisticated technology in the cockpit. The Spitfire was state-of-the-art in 1939 but almost obsolete by 1945. Today’s airforces and airlines are still using 40 year old technology.

David Boyle links to a couple of pieces by Mark Pack who points out that the speed of take-up of iPods was no more impressive than the take-up of radios in the 1920s and 30s and argues that the world is not speeding up but slowing down. He links to a fascinating book by Bob Seidensticker called Future Hype (website here). It was written in 2006 but its argument that a lot of new technology simply enables us to do the same stuff faster and sitting at home or in a cafe holds true.

Ha-Joon Chang says the washing machine changed the world more than the internet, pointing out that, so far, there is little evidence that the internet revolution has done much to improve productivity.

It may be that all this is about to change. We may indeed be on the cusp of a technological revolution. But that revolution will have to deliver massive leap in productivity to counteract a global slowdown in economic growth and a relative decline in the world’s working age population. A report by McKinsey in 2012 warned that, unless the rate of productivity growth speeds up, those born after 2000 will see a much slower rate of improvement in their living standards than the post-war generations enjoyed. Those in Southern Europe might even end up poorer than their parents. To deliver the sort of growth we once assumed was normal, these technological advances are going to have to be really good.

As Diane Coyle said, the tech optimists and tech pessimists can’t both be right and the Tech Yeah! future is the preferable one. At least with the robots we get the leap in productivity:

The UK economy needs more robots. That’s the message of the low labour productivity problem. Real wages can’t rise over the long term unless investment in capital and productivity improve.

This is a more optimistic vision than that of a slowdown and stagnation, even if it does mean that the robots will eat a lot of people’s jobs, but it still leaves the problem of distributing the benefits of this productivity.

In its Future of Work report last year, UKCES came up with a number of scenarios which included both the possibility of a long period of stagnation and of a technology driven productivity leap. One thing all the scenarios had in common, though, was that, for those without good skills, powerful connections or inherited wealth, the future looks extremely bleak.

The Economist concluded, at the end of a long piece on technology and work last year:

[S]ociety may find itself sorely tested if, as seems possible, growth and innovation deliver handsome gains to the skilled, while the rest cling to dwindling employment opportunities at stagnant wages.

It might not even be so great for the skilled. The Uberification of professional work could create a new class of precarious freelancers, working in what the Economist described earlier this month as a limited Utopia. Limited, that is, to those who own the technology. Or, as John Naughton put it, “a concierge economy [with] legions of network co-ordinated serfs.”

In terms of that great abstract thing we call the economy, the robot future is, without doubt, better than long-term stagnation. For those excluded from its benefits, though, it might not feel that much different.

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We don’t need to change the law on strikes

Increasing the threshold for strike ballots is back on the Conservatives’ agenda again.  Trade unions are arguing against it based on the fact that a lot of MPs and most recent governments have been elected by a minority of voters.

It’s a silly argument though. In elections with large numbers of candidates, people will inevitably be elected with minority support, especially in a time of fragmented political allegiances. Strike ballots are more like referendums where there is a straight yes or no choice. That’s why turnout thresholds are often used in referendums.

But strike ballots differ from elections and referendums in one very important way. They are not binding on anyone. In elections and referendums, everyone has to abide by the result, whether they voted for the winning side, the losing side or didn’t vote at all. In a strike ballot, even if the result is in favour of industrial action, no-one is forced to go on strike. A strike ballot is an enabling vote rather than a binding one. It simply means that those who want to go on strike can legally do so.

Let’s recap on the industrial action laws:

  • No-one can be forced to go on strike;
  • No-one can be forced to be a member of a trade union;
  • Unions can’t discipline people for refusing to go on strike;
  • Pickets are restricted to six people so it is impossible to physically prevent people from going to work and there are criminal sanctions against threatening or intimidating behaviour;
  • Those wanting to strike can’t do so without a ballot and they need to get a majority of those voting to agree with them; but
  • (And this last one is really important) An apathetic majority can’t stop a committed minority from going on strike.

All that sounds pretty reasonable to me. Tory grandees like Norman Tebbit and John Redwood have advised against changing the law. Well they would, wouldn’t they? After all, they were part of the Thatcher and Major governments which put most of this legislation in place.

If strike ballots were binding on all members, then there would be a case for setting turnout thresholds. But they aren’t, so there isn’t.

This proposal isn’t about setting a fairer framework for industrial relations though. It looks more like a desperate attempt to resurrect a policy from the party’s legendary heroic past in the hope that there might be some votes in it.

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