The right to strike, and the paradox of liberty

After Vince Cable’s warning today that the coalition would be prepared to introduce new anti-strike legislation if faced with widespread industrial action, Sarah Veale from the TUC said: “Restricting the right to withhold labour would be completely at odds with the coalition’s commitment to civil liberties.” But what if the right to withhold labour comes at the expense of someone else’s liberty?

First of all, I have never heard of anyone supporting an absolute right to strike. It would plainly be ridiculous. You couldn’t, for example, just ‘go on strike’ because you don’t fancy going into work, could you? So we already accept, as a society, that we have to impose some restrictions on the right to strike. Similarly, I don’t think there are many people who would advocate removing the right to strike entirely. That would also be ridiculous. So how do these two fundamental liberties – the right to determine the makeup of your own workforce and set the conditions upon which you will give people a share of money in exchange for doing something you want them to do, and the right to set, or at least have some genuine say in, the value of your own labour – both exist, in a free society, without contradicting each other?

An awful lot of people claiming to be libertarians seem to instinctively give automatic priority of the employer’s right to determine the makeup of their own workforce. That’s an uncomfortable conclusion to reach so fast: is it not odd how many so-called libertarians appear to have no real regard for liberty as a philosophical concept whatsoever, and care only for the liberties of those already in a societal position where they can already exercise those liberties to begin with?

Strikes are an essential weapon against worker exploitation, and worker exploitation is one of the most alarming threats to personal liberty, some would say throughout all of history (the culmination of it being, obviously, things like the slave trade). Of course workers need to be allowed to withdraw their labour if they are, say, forced to work in unsafe, inhumane conditions, or if they are forced or coerced into working for free. And anyone who works for a living, no matter what they earn, should be closing their eyes in a silent blessing to the unions for the fact that working for a living does not make you an inferior citizen these days.

But what strikes should not be, in a democratic society, is a tool to ‘bring down’ the democratically-elected government. They should not be used to obstruct government policy in general. They should not be used as a partisan tool. And they should never, ever put lives at risk. I doubt that I will never be convinced that, for example, fire-fighters striking on bonfire night (as they threatened to do last year) is an ethical thing to do. If they care more about money than they do about people’s lives… well, they should be in the private sector.

And yes, I’m aware of the irony here: when an employer profits from their greed it is taken as a sign of hard work and success on the part of the employer, but when a worker tries to profit from greed in the same way it becomes a sign of laziness or selfishness.

Except the line between who is a ‘worker’ and who is an ‘employer’ is nowhere near as black-and-white as a lot of the hard left would like us to imagine. If you’re a junior or middle manager earning somewhere between £21k and £40k a year, for example, are you a ‘worker’ or an ‘employer’? If you run your own business, employing just a handful of other workers, what then? What about if you’re Bob Crow, or a public sector manager on £100k or so a year? The truth is that CEOs and bankers and the Prime Minister and David Beckham all work, too. And, with the exception of the Prime Minister, the market – which is made up of other ordinary working people, choosing what to buy – has valued the labour of each high-earning individual at a higher price than they do their own.

So can we trust the market entirely to set the value of everyone’s labour? Well, perhaps, in theory, we could, actually: it’s not an inherent set-in-stone given of the free market that we have to let the people who profit most from the business, rather than those who work for it, have total control over where the profits go. Is it not possible to have shared ownership of a private business, with shared profits? Aren’t workers just a different kind of shareholder? We already do it to some extent after all: many employers provide health insurance, gym memberships, dental care, pension security, expense accounts, cars, phones – a whole host of things that they are in no way legally obligated to provide – to their employees. Perhaps if there was a little bit more of that kind of thing a bit further down the economic food chain, there’d be a bit less of a need for strikes. Or high business taxes, or laws forcing fixed minimum wages, or such a big public sector, for that matter. And in the same vein, perhaps if the government didn’t use public services as a political punching-bag every time it needs to score a few ‘looking tough’ points, perhaps public sector workers and their union representatives would be less defensive whenever any kind of reform appears on the cards – and perhaps they would be less tempted to stir up politically-motivated strikes, as well.

So yes, a law banning workers from withdrawing their labour altogether would, obviously be a pretty enormous restriction on personal liberty. No-one is seriously likely to pass a law like that. However, just as with other civil liberties, such as the right to free speech, the right to consume alcohol, and (in other countries at least!) the right to bear arms, the fact that you legally have a certain right does not mean you are always well-advised to exercise it. It also doesn’t mean you should necessarily get to exercise it without impunity.

It’s been said that employers get the unions they deserve. Perhaps we would need fewer laws on both sides of the aisle in the first place if the concept of personal and moral responsibility, so beloved by so many conservative and socialist minds alike, was upheld as a matter of course by both workers and employers alike in their dealings with one another. Perhaps the best solution to this whole worker-employer liberty puzzle is for us as individuals to stop this robotic detachment from all commercial and employment operations, where thousands of human beings are suddenly immune from expectations to employ either common sense, ethics, or humility, because they are “just doing their jobs.” And perhaps we should all make sure we deal with people in the workplace – whether they are a customer of ours, or we of theirs; whether we work for them or they work for us – the way we would appreciate being treated ourselves in any other area of our lives.

Keep your Whig on: should Lib Dem voters just give up on true liberalism?

One of my favourite political jokes is the one about the MP who gets caught up in a terribly embarrassing sexual scandal. “Apparently he was secretly into humiliation and stuff, too,” says one commentator. “Secretly?” says another. “He was a Lib Dem!” And never has it seemed more appropriate, or more fun, to make Lib Dem jokes like this. But, with Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms coming dangerously close to being taken seriously, with welfare being cut by £7bn and counting, with the AV vote decidedly lost, and with the kind of local election results that would make even Norman Tebbit cry, has the time come for Lib Dem voters to give up on the dream of a genuinely liberal Britain? Should yellow voters follow Ed Miliband’s invitation to save themselves from permanent blushes and, er, just go red instead?

Well, in some ways, the Labour party really do have a lot of nerve to even ask the question quite frankly. Let’s take the two biggest ‘betrayals,’ if it’s not too melodramatic to use that word, of Liberal Democrat voters by the party. Raising tuition fees is probably the most controversial, and most publicised u-turn. Well, after introducing tuition fees themselves, in 1998 (when they had a 179-seat majority), commissioning Lord Browne in 2009 to review the future of higher education funding without any particularly strict guidelines at all about, say, capping costs, and leaving it until after the 2010 General Election to implement the report, an election they knew they were unlikely to win, thereby in effect deliberately leaving the reform of higher education funding in the hands of the Tories, it is ridiculous and insulting for the Labour party to suddenly pretend they have some great moral desire to look out for the interests of students. People aren’t goldfish: we remember that Labour promised us that they “would not introduce top-up fees” and even that they had “legislated against them” before bringing them in. We also know who commissioned the Browne Review in the first place.

Despite the infamous (and rather idiotic, given that there were no electoral mathematics amongst even the most optimistic Lib Dem pollsters that suggested the Liberal Democrats would get a chance to form a government without being in coalition with at least one pro-tuition fees party) ‘pledge’ signed by Nick Clegg on tuition fees, their policy of abolishing them altogether wasn’t actually considered, by a lot of senior Lib Dems – David Laws, for example – to be a particularly central aspect of their manifesto. More important, argues Laws, is the targeting of educational funds at a much earlier age, and making sure that there are good, well-funded schools, with competent teachers, and proper levels of discipline, in the country’s poorest areas. In short, policies like the Pupil Premium, and Free Schools (50% of which, so far, are being planned with the specific aim of providing education for children from low income backgrounds), are more important to a lot of high-ranking Lib Dems than whether graduates earning over £21,000 per annum have to contribute something towards their own higher education. And these views weren’t secret: even though the Orange Book was officially rejected as party policy under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, it has never been a secret that the main contributors are also now some of the most heavyweight political figures in the Lib Dem party.

None of this gets them off the hook: they never should have promised something they almost certainly knew would be impossible to deliver, given the electoral mathematics of the situation, if nothing else. But sometimes, when a u-turn happens, it’s worth actually considering if there was a genuine reason for the change in policy. The tuition fees plan isn’t perfect of course, but, given that no major party is proposing anything much better, is it really, in the cold light of day, much of a reason not to vote Lib Dem?

The other enormous turnaround in policy from the Lib Dems is their approach to the economic crisis itself. There is simply no denying that they campaigned furiously on a platform of being anti-cuts. Even Orange Book libertarian Lib Dems tend to be against a big state in principle, but not necessarily in favour of cutting corners with social justice, just to save pennies. The only explanation they’ve offered for this complete reversal of belief is that they didn’t fully comprehend quite how bad the UK’s debt was until they got into power.

Do we believe them? I find it hard to. As many Lib Dems pointed out (before they went into coalition of course), even though the Tories are aiming extremely harsh cuts at the public sector, Public Sector Net Borrowing (PSNB) for 2010/11 was only 11.7% of GDP*. And the national debt was at 60.1% of GDP until government intervention in the collapsing financial section pushed it up to 148% GDP*. All of these figures have been in the public domain and none of them are particularly changed since May 2011; certainly not for the worse. In fact, some commentators say that the economic situation is a lot better than was thought during the 2010 election campaign. For example, government projections allowed for a further £500bn of potential financial sector liability costs, for things like mortgage securities, but this money seems more and more unlikely to be needed. Surely a tiny slice of that £500bn could be put into rescuing things like disability benefits?

So the excuse about the economic situation being worse than was once thought doesn’t seem to cut much ice. Even if it were true, it seems illogical to say that if the national debt is £910.10bn then spending will help to compensate for the recessive effect of increased private sector wealth-hoarding, as we often see in a recession, but if the national debt is £2252.90bn, then fast spending cuts, much deeper than the actual size of the debt, suddenly become a good idea (necessary, in fact), and that there is suddenly no need to worry about the impact of fast, deep cuts on, say lowering tax receipts and slowing the actual circulation of cash.

So there’s no hiding from the fact that on the economy, the issue that concerns the most British people according to the vast majority of polls, the Liberal Democrats really do deserve a bit of a kicking for their help in legitimising what many consider to be nasty, ideological cuts – Iain Duncan-Smith’s Welfare Reform Bill, for example – and also for insulting our intelligence by imagining that we can’t look at a graph of public spending for the past twenty years and see that public debt has been more or less the same throughout the Labour government as it was during Thatcher’s government – with a couple of spikes for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course.

But is even this enough of a reason to not vote Liberal Democrat again in four years time? Perhaps it would be, if the next question were not: if not the Lib Dems, then who?

Surely it cannot be Labour? Looking at welfare, the most disappointing of the cuts, only ten Labour MPs voted against the Welfare Reform Bill, and that was in defiance of the party whip: the official Labour line was not to oppose the bill. I have heard many Labour campaigners and bloggers saying this was for tactical reasons but I don’t believe them. If it was for tactical reasons, they would be constantly campaigning about welfare reform , trying to win the argument. They are not. Ed Miliband has accepted Disability Living Allowance reform, for example, which is possibly one of the cruellest and most unnecessary cuts happening within welfare, with only 0.5% of claimants ever being considered false, by the DWP’s own figures. The Labour party have done a lot of shouting about their ‘amendments’ to the bill, but in actual fact, their amendments aren’t much better than the content of the original paper. An example of a Labour amendment is that they want to limit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) eligibility to two years, instead of only one. If Iain Duncan-Smith had proposed limiting it at two years, they’d probably be making a fuss out of capping it at three. The concerns of the many charities and experts who object to this policy don’t relate to how many years you give claimants, they relate to the fact that the entire principle of time limiting a benefit like ESA is ridiculous, because overwhelmingly people do not choose to be on it in the first place. You’d think that the Labour party would know that. And don’t even get us libertarians started on the Labour party’s record on civil liberties. This is one of the big issues that won Labour voters over to the Lib Dems, and I’m still waiting to hear them apologise for all the people they locked up or placed under house arrest without ever convicting them of a crime.

So Labour shouldn’t be winning Lib Dem votes over spending cuts and welfare reform any more than they should be winning them over tuition fees. I suppose you can always vote Green, if you’re a left-wing Liberal Democrat; a refuge from the Labour party, perhaps, who was unhappy with the Iraq war and the bank bailout, but still intrinsically socialist rather than liberal. You could vote Socialist Worker Party (SWP) if you’re more interested in abstract ideology and Russian history than you are in actually helping anybody. And you could vote for the Communist Party of Great Britain if you’d like to have an MP who enjoys long philosophical discussions whilst handing out free sandwiches. (Incidentally I have nothing against free sandwiches. More politicians should hand out free food to people. Some days I actually think the Communist Party of Great Britain’s habit of handing out free, healthy sandwiches all the time is the most useful thing I’ve ever seen a politician do.)

But meanwhile, in the real world, where does that leave honest-to-goodness liberals, who actually believe in low taxation and decent standards of living; who believe in personal responsibility, but want to see it encouraged in landlords and employers as well as poor people deciding how many kids to have; who believe community and family are better at taking of people than the state, and therefore don’t want to see people being shovelled out of the areas they’ve lived in their entire lives because private landlords are too greedy to show any personal responsibility to their community, because local authorities house people in silly, inappropriate ways, and – most importantly – because successive governments have been all too happy to pass heaps of taxpayers’ money right into the hands of private landlords without questioning the price for fear of deflating the pumped-up housing market. Who do we all vote for?

Well, I’m afraid that as much as I shall continue to give them a kick whenever I see fit (which is often), I still can’t really see much better an option – for now – than to stick with the Lib Dems. And although it might feel like it sometimes, I know I’m not the only one: despite the appalling local results overall in May, ConservativeHome blogger and Tory strategist Rob Haywood points out that the Liberal Democrat local vote actually held up reasonably well in areas where the party currently has a sitting MP. Where Labour and Tory candidates for parliament often focus their campaigns around national issues, the Liberal Democrats are extremely good at engaging with their own constituents about important local issues, and their genuine local concerns. With more and more minority governments likely in future, perhaps that’s something worthy of a few Lib Dem brownie points as well.

*Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS)

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