George Osborne weakens job tribunals and forgets history

Posted on: 04 October 2011 by Alexander Hay

The Chancellor's proposal at his Conservative Party conference speech today shows both a contempt for workers and a surprising lack of foresight from someone who once studied history at Oxford

George Osborne - a forgetful historianUnlike many a cabinet minister, Chancellor George Osborne has no excuse. While the dreaded PPE degree (a sort of Oxbridge answer to the mark of mediocrity that is the Media Studies degree) abounds through Parliament, Osborne has a History degree from Magdalen College, which was awarded with a perfectly respectable 2:1. And if history teaches us anything, it's how not to make the mistakes others have made before us.

It also requires insight, intellectual vigour and being able to support what you're saying, none of which was on display today at the Conservative Party conference when Osborne made the following modest proposal:

George Osborne moved to deregulate the labour market by announcing big fees to deter workers bringing employment tribunal action such as unfair dismissal and race discrimination cases.

In a move condemned by the unions as an attempt to silence the vulnerable, workers will face a £150 to £250 charge to make any employment tribunal application and a further £1,000 for starting a hearing. The sums would be higher for compensation claims of more than £30,000.

The charges, recoverable if a case is won, come on top of a move to deprive access to tribunal for all workers with less than two years' continuous employment...

What happened since Osborne's salad days? Did one of his frontal lobes go missing? Did he receive catastrophic brain damage after getting hit with one of Gordon Brown's flying mobile phones? Or did all that education go to waste when he entered the spiritually and intellectually numbing world of politics?

In any case, the younger Osborne - as a historian - might have pointed out to his dimmer older self the many problems with this proposal. Firstly, it's going to upset the unions, who are already restive, and starting a fight over such a blatantly one-sided idea isn't a good one unless your first name is Margaret, your middle name is Hilda and your last name is Thatcher. As later historians will no doubt observe, none of these are on George Osborne's passport.

More to the point, it will emphasise the commonly held view that the Conservatives are the 'nasty party', a corrosive label that the younger Osborne would know is not the sort of thing a political party should ever have. He might also fulminate on the risks of being so blatantly pro-employer, given that much of the improvements we take for granted these days come at the cost of those employers no longer being able to run amok. Having the weekend off, for example, or not being killed in industrial accidents.

But then the young historian Osborne might also ponder how British industrial relations developed as they did. One of the great motivators behind the rise of the unions was an imbalance between the rights of the worker and the rights of the employer. When competition grew towards the end of the 19th century, employers cut corners, putting their workers at risk or making them poorer. Workers' rights were gained by unions as a result of such provocation.

The older, more forgetful Osborne, however, remains wedded to the idea that UK business would make more money only if the workers had less rights. (The 'Chinese Toy Factory' gambit.) Viewed through such a prism, being able to take your boss to a tribunal when he is being unreasonable is, somehow, a threat to our economy. While Osborne senior might congratulate himself on inserting a clause that means you only pay if you win, that will still put off many of the poorer paid, more vulnerable employees that tribunals were precisely intended to protect. Put simply, expect more strikes as the old fashioned way of balancing employer-employee relations takes hold once again, and all because the government is, foolishly, doing away with the legal protections that workers have won over the years, lessening the need for unions in the first place.

Osborne the historian should remember the old dictum, 'Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it'. Osborne the politician, however, has moved on and has the amnesia to prove it.

[SOURCE: The Guardian]

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Alexander Hay

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