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What the Uber verdict means for Conservatives

In light of the recent Supreme Court ruling that Uber drivers are ‘workers’, Conservatives must now show themselves to be champions of workers’ rights

It’s not often that decisions of the UK Supreme Court make headlines in the popular press, but the Uber case last week was an exception. It held that whatever their contracts might say, Uber drivers – and by extension possibly many delivery drivers, Deliveroo riders and the like – were “workers”, something that gave them more rights against their employers than they would otherwise have, such as holiday pay and the right to be paid the minimum wage.

Sensible Conservatives should welcome this result with open arms

The reaction from some conservatives was unwelcoming. This was an intervention in the free market; prices would go up as a result. This was a case of the judges intervening in a partisan manner in matters properly up to Parliament; it was likely to cancel out the benefits of post-Brexit deregulation, and so on. Looking at the matter more closely, however, this reaction is misguided. Not only is the result in the case actually a highly desirable one; it is also one which sensible Conservatives should welcome it with open arms.

Law is naturally boring for most of us, but at bottom of it the issue in Uber isn’t difficult for a layperson to see. There is every reason to distinguish between workers and independent contractors. The gardener employed part-time by the council is a worker, but the person I pay to dig my garden for one day a week isn’t: the former deserves holiday and sick pay, but the latter is in business on his own account, expected to look after himself. The problem with Uber was that they were playing fast and loose with this distinction with a view to mightily profiting thereby.

While on the job, their drivers were closely controlled and treated pretty well the same as the employees of any minicab company. Uber, however, were trying to get out of any duty to look after them as workers by verbally dressing them them up as if they were independent contractors. The Supreme Court correctly rejected this kind of chicanery, and so should the government.

The future lies with companies that look after their employees properly

Moreover, it is not only the morality of Uber that suggests this; dealing firmly with this kind of practice is also in our interests post-Brexit. One of the pernicious effects of our EU membership was that, for all the trumpeting of the EU as the workers’ friend, in some ways it actually gave human resources managers an unnaturally easy life and to some extent encouraged UK employers to treat their workers like disposable dirt. If workers didn’t like their conditions, they did not have to be schmoozed or persuaded. On the contrary: there was always a pool of docile, relatively well-educated labour willing to take their place, armed with rights of free movement and often from poorer countries where employment prospects had been hit for six by EU economic policies.

This kind of idle management technique will no longer do. The future lies with companies that look after their employees properly, value them and where necessary train them up. Anything which makes it more difficult for managers to treat labour like any other commodity, to be bought as cheaply as possible to satisfy the director with the spreadsheet, needs to be welcomed.

Properly looked at, moreover, this need to update Britain’s employment laws and practices is actually a golden opportunity for the Conservatives. Except for their creditable opposition in the 1970s and 1980s to wilder moves by militant trade unions to dictate policy to government, their long-term history in this respect has not been impressive. In matters of employment, they have veered between being the party whose ear could be discreetly and reliably bent by big business bosses looking for a favour, and a group with an almost messianic faith in the virtues of the free market (and a corresponding disinclination to do anything when faced with actual injustice).

Neither will do today. The fairly well-off middle class which once pretty solidly voted Tory is quietly melting away. Prosperous doctors, lawyers and other professionals are these days just as likely to support the Lib Dems, Labour or (in Scotland) the SNP. Support for the Tories since 2019 has come increasingly from workers from previous Labour areas, largely but by no means exclusively, in the Midlands and North. These voters may at the moment have little time for Labour with its posturing identity politics. But they are very aware of the problems of overbearing employers and the need for government to give them a helping hand to promote their interests.

The Conservatives now need to show themselves to be overtly, if intelligently, pro-worker

This does not mean that there isn’t a good deal of scope for deregulation post-Brexit. The Conservatives, as they have hinted, should not be frightened to ditch at least a proportion of the EU acquis. Some of the wilder excesses of EU health and safety law which make life difficult for employees and employers alike are one possibility, as are some of the more bureaucratic aspects of the Working Time Directive. Similarly, there is much to be said for taking a close look at elements of EU discrimination law, with (for example) its wide view of indirect discrimination, its reversal of the burden of proof in some cases, giving rise to a requirement in employers to prove that they have not discriminated, and its prohibition of any limitation on the amount of compensation payable by employers.

However commendable in principle these aspects may be from a viewpoint of theoretical equality, their overall effect is not good. They are apt to make recruitment and dismissal a minefield, to require employers who can ill afford it to take expensive advice, and on occasion to cause companies to employ not the person they have a hunch would be good, but the candidate whose appointment they feel can be justified before some tribunal if a complaint is made. Except to a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of a Labour Party, such relaxations are likely to cause much relief and little biteback.

But on the substantive matters, the Conservatives now need to show themselves to be overtly, if intelligently, pro-worker. Welcoming the Supreme Court’s rejection of bogus self-employment as practised by Uber and corporations like it is a marvellous opportunity to get started, and to demonstrate an ability where appropriate to tell lobbyists for big business politely to go fish. But beyond that there are many other opportunities to be grabbed.

The Conservatives must now cement the idea that they are a whole-community party

On zero-hours contracts, for instance, the government has already done the right thing by curbing the worst excesses. But it could still do more, such as give zero-hours workers a right to demand guaranteed hours after a particular period (say six months or a year) based on the hours they have actually worked. Again, there is an increasing problem of employers – especially, but by no means exclusively, public-sector bodies and large corporations – drafting employment contracts so as drastically to control their employees’ private lives and in particular put severe limits on views they can express on social media. A specific protection of employees’ private rights in this respect would, one suspects, go down pretty well among Conservative (and conservative) voters, old and new.

In the nineteenth century the Conservatives deftly wrong-footed the Liberals not only by getting in before them to extend the franchise to many working men, but also by toughening up inadequate laws on workplace safety. The Tories now have an opening to do the same with Labour. They need, quickly, to cement the idea that they are a whole-community party as interested as anyone else, if not more so, in making sure the ordinary worker in Darlington or Derby gets a fair deal in the matters that worry him.

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