Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Vince Cable hasn't moved; the Labour Party has.

The custom of pre-releasing speeches to the media worked to Vince Cable's disadvantage this week. The BBC picked out the most inflammatory part of what he was going to tell the GMB union, that there were hard-liners in the coalition who were itching to tighten up TU legislation given an excuse, and trailed it on virtually every news bulletin leading up to the congress. Consequently, the boo-boys were prepared and duly featured on news reports thereafter.

However, as Jonathan Calder points out, there were positive aspects to the speech. One was the recollection that Vince had worked on legislation on worker participation, a long-held Liberal principle, while he was in the Labour Party and an assistant to John Smith. Several things struck me about this passage. John Smith was clearly sold on the German model, which was more social democratic than socialist. If he had lived, would a Smith government in 1997 have revived the plans? Secondly, it is interesting that Vince should have brought the subject up in front of a trade union audience now. It strikes me that co-ownership and schemes involving workers on management boards are disliked by full-time union officials, because they could be a threat to their livelihoods or to the political ambitions of the ideologically-driven people. It looks as if Vince was going over the heads of the officials to the activists on the shop floor.

It is unlikely that workplace democracy is going to feature in the immediate future plans of Labour, ever more dependent on union money. The Conservatives have in the past encouraged wider share ownership, but that is not the same thing. David Cameron has gone further in speaking up for worker co-ops - but only in the public sector, as part of his Big Society. It is up to the Liberal Democrats to see the policy through in industry as a whole.

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