A more dangerous world represented in the Russian invasion of Ukraine means the Labour Party must go “bolder and deeper” in how it thinks and talks about the future of work, says a major new study released today in the run-up to the party’s annual conference in Liverpool.
A new age of insecurity means it is even more important for the UK to have a more stable and broad-based economy and society capable of withstanding the threats from hostile actors.
The policy study says the Labour Party has a “bold” agenda for reform of the UK’s labour laws and employment rights but the parliamentary legislative timetable, the low rate of unionisation, the cultural change required of industry, and the fissured character of the economy will make it difficult for changes to be made. Any case for transformation must transcend these challenges by linking the global and local.
The study – A progressive politics of work for the age of unpeace: What Labour can learn from the European centre-left – was written by Andrew Pakes, Deputy General Secretary and Research Director at Prospect Union, and Dr Frederick Harry Pitts, from the University of Exeter. As part of their research they met with trade unions, academic experts and social democratic representatives from across Europe.
The report compares different approaches in the UK, Sweden and Germany. To coincide with the policy study’s launch, researchers will take part in a roundtable discussion this week at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in Brussels. Featuring representatives from the European Commission, and International Labour Organization, participants will discuss the connections between national security, economic security, and security at work and the implications for employment, workers and industrial strategy in the changing geopolitical picture.
Dr Pitts said: “Work is too central to the lives of citizens to be treated as a purely technological problem. It is, and always has been, a political problem, and the contours of its future shape are politically defined.
“In the context of the global pandemic, and now the Russian reinvasion of Ukraine, we can clearly see that this definition does not just happen at the level of the shop floor, or even of national governments, but as part of broader geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts.”
The study says Labour should take inspiration from Swedish and German models of industrial relations – such as the Swedish Job Security Councils and German Regional Transformation Councils – to smooth the transition to a greener, more balanced economic strategy. Collective bargaining should be used to help strike industrial compromises that drive improvements in productivity and economic dynamism as a cornerstone of security.
The SPD in Germany and Bidenomics in the USA, the policy study suggests, provide Labour with a model of how to keep workers and their communities at the centre of macroeconomics and geopolitics.
The report was produced as part of a Foundation for European Progressive Studies project with Progressive Britain on the implications of geopolitical shifts for work and workers, and how to found a new politics of work in an age of change and crisis.
Researchers held a series of roundtables, bringing together social democratic politicians, policymakers, trade unionists and academic experts, to discuss the situation in the UK and how the British Labour Party could learn from its counterparts in Germany and Sweden in developing the new politics of work it is constructing.
Those who took part said Germany’s Zeitenwende provides a potential model for how to house a new politics of work and industrial strategy within a wider reset on foreign policy posture, and the UK needs one of its own to coordinate its readiness and resilience across multiple industries, government departments and areas of everyday life.
Dr Pitts said: “Labour should seek to ensure the politics of work is part of the wider conversation already ensuing on national, economic and energy security. This would be a strategic and constructive way to stress the need for social partnership, strengthened workers’ rights and the creation of new institutions to represent and mediate the voice of workers and businesses.
“Labour has recognised the profound risk represented by the current crisis of the global order. But it needs to go bolder and deeper in making these connections, and a new politics of work ready for a new age of insecurity is one area in which this can be achieved.
“A new Labour government should use the power of the state to create space for policy innovations that could, in turn, guarantee workers both security and flexibility in a risky new political economy.”