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What can the Liberal Democrats offer Labour voters who don’t like the way their great party is heading under Jeremy Corbyn? What, particularly, has our party to offer the working people of this country who have seen their standard of living drop under the Government’s austerity programme and can’t expect better if Brexit happens?
As the party that supports neither unbridled capitalism nor full-blooded socialism, we allow markets to operate as freely as possible, but intervene to ensure they are well-regulated and competitive, and to offer individual citizens greater powers and rights. “We want to build a new economy that really works for everyone”, states Paper 133 for the Brighton Conference on jobs, businesses and communities. It’s a substantial paper that’s been in the making for two years. What is in it for ordinary families where people have all sorts of insecure ill-paid jobs that just don’t bring in enough for any kind of comfortable living these days?
The paper proposes to protect workers at the bottom end of the market, who need core rights – minimum wage, sick pay and holiday pay for both employees and the developing category of ‘dependent contractors’ – by establishing a Worker Protection Enforcement Authority to ensure their rights. A Good Employer kite mark should promote good firms. And since there should be a shift in focus from quantity of work to its quality and towards job satisfaction and training, a National Skills Strategy is proposed with a Minister for Training and Skills to take responsibility for its development and implementation.
In the jobs market there is now demand for high-skilled workers and for the low-skilled, but with weak growth in between. With young people probably needing to retrain multiple times in their lifetimes, the paper proposes Lifetime Learning Entitlements, with individual ring-fenced funds for adults to retrain, plus enhanced apprenticeships. The existing apprenticeship levy should be expanded into a wider Skills and Training Levy, with 25% of the funds raised to go into a Social Mobility Fund targeted at areas with the greatest skill needs, intended to drive upskilling across under-represented and disadvantaged demographic groups.
Another proposal is to set immigration policies to support growth and meet key skills gaps. With student input seen as hugely beneficial, a British equivalent of Canada’s International Mobility Programme is proposed for professionals to be hired on fixed-term contracts, and a Training Up Britain Programme to allow highly-skilled migrant workers to mentor British workers to develop their skills.
Unions are seen as vital in protecting worker rights and increasing diversity, but since their numbers have fallen drastically especially in the private sector, a Union Innovation Fund to support them in their work is proposed, and a Right of Access to enter workplaces, and also to contact workers digitally subject to sensible conditions.
The section of the paper dealing with improving business welcomes the opportunities that new technology can bring, but recognises that public trust in businesses is very low. It proposes that to promote responsible and sustainable businesses there should be a new Companies Act for the 21st century. Directors of large firms will be expected to include in their corporate purposes the long-term interests of stakeholders, the community and the environment.
A topical issue considered, whether providers of data should be compensated for its being used in AI and other products, concludes that companies using such data should indeed provide financial compensation, and the proceeds of such data usage could support the creation of a Citizens Wealth Fund, to invest wealth on behalf of all UK citizens.
With many other detailed proposals for the development of jobs and businesses for individuals and communities, this paper and the motion F28, along with other motions on taxation reform in the Brighton programme, show how much Liberal Democrats can potentially contribute to our people’s economic future through our progressive policies.
* Katharine Pindar is a long-standing member of the Lib Dems and an activist in the West Cumbrian constituency of Copeland and Workington.