Rob Halfon MP on the ‘Future of Work’

A speech from Rob Halfon MP to the ‘Future of Work’ conference, hosted by the Conservative Trade Unionists and Demos think tank, 11 March 2017, Westminster.

Good morning everyone.

I want to thank you, and I want to thank Demos, for making this event possible. It is a really remarkable event because the idea of something of this – the concerns of workers and trade unions – working with a progressive think tank to have a conference, a few years ago, would be unthinkable. There’s been a dramatic sea change.

I want to talk about why this stuff is important and what we should be doing. I said before, and I really believe this, that I really worry when my party or any conservatives complacent about what’s going on in the labour party. Jeremy Corbyn, or whatever, won’t be there forever, and whether he’s there or not, the Labour party will continue to have an incredibly powerful message, and the Left have an incredible, powerful message, which is very simple when they knock on a door, which is that they want to help the underdog; that they are the party for the poor.

So even if people think they may not get the economy right, or that they’re extreme, or whatever it may be, they know that when that person knocks at the door asking for a vote, that his or her heart is in the right place. Now that is incredibly powerful, and whether Corbyn is there or not, at some point the centre left will regroup. And it won’t be the kind of Tony Blair soft, fairer corporatism, it will be – I think – under the, what is known as, Blue Labour, with really clever people, like Lord Glasman, like Frank Fields, like John Cruddas, where it will be a centre left that is much more community focused, much more grassroots focused, and workers focused, and there will be a very potentially powerful movement behind all that.

And as I say, underpinning it all is the central message of the left, which is our core reason for being here, is because we are the party of the poor, for the poor. We are the party for those who are suffering; for those who are struggling. That’s why we joined the labour movement, and that is why hundreds of thousands of people join the Labour party; that’s why they’ve got 600,000 members. The mistake that we make as a party is that we think that they’re all Trotskyites. Now, of course, many of them are, and I’m not a great fan of Momentum and others, but the reason why hundreds of thousands of people are joining is because many of them are actually good people; many of them are young people.

The reason why they join is because why wouldn’t they join a movement that has as its core message: to help the poor. Why would they not join it? Every young person, to feel like you’re doing something good for others, that you are thinking about others, you’re thinking about those who are less fortunate than yourself, why would they not want to join a movement that has that as its core message?

And the Labour party have another thing – the left have another thing – that conservatives don’t have, if I’m honest, and that’s infrastructure. If you have 600,000 members, you have an infrastructure; if you have strong connections with trade union movements up and down the country, you have an infrastructure. Now, we don’t have those things, if I’m honest. We’re improving – we’ve had some increase in membership. But our membership is 150,000; our infrastructure is weak, most of our members are ever ageing – wonderful people; I’ve been in the party since I was about 14 years old, but we are ageing, we have little infrastructure on the ground – although it’s changing a little – and, in contrast, the centre left, if it gets its act together, with the intellectual movement around the people I mentioned, have a huge potential.

Message, membership and infrastructure, in order to campaign, in order to get their ideas across, and actually in order to do things in terms of policy.

So what do we need to do in response to this? It’s not easy. It’s not easy for a number of reasons, because, one, conservatism is much harder to define. Conservatism is not an ideology as such, its never grown out of an ideology. It’s a kind of disposition, it’s also a kind of way of life – you tend to be conservative by name and by nature. Whenever I go and speak to conservatives up and down the country, every conservative almost gives me a different message about what we’re about. Some people say we’re about freedom, and when they say that to me, I say: if you’re knocking on that door, what an earth does that mean when you say I believe in freedom?

Other conservatives say, we believe in sovereignty, and getting out of the EU and this sort of thing. Fine. But again, what does sovereignty mean? I don’t know what it even means.

Other conservatives – and this does resonate – say we’re about lower taxes. But when we say we’re about lower taxes, we can’t just be about lower taxes; there has to be a moral message behind it, and we have to show that when we talk about lower taxes, we don’t just mean lower taxes for the rich, we mean lower taxes for everyone. And this is much harder to craft that message about what we’re about, which is one of the reasons why people are not excited as joining the conservative party as they are movements of the centre left.

Because we always tend to be the party that is focused on the economy – so we say we’re doing the cuts, doing the austerity and all this kind of thing. Now that is a very difficult challenge for us, because then people vote for us with their heads and not their hearts; and it’s why the opinion polls never – well, until recently, but that is because of the problems in the Labour party – never really state true conservative support. Because people don’t want to necessarily admit that they are conservatives. I don’t just want people to vote conservative, with their heads over their hearts, I want people – especially the younger generation – to vote conservative because they’re passionate about it; because they believe it’s a moral thing to do; because they believe that we also want to help those most in need, and that we are the party of the underdog.

So we need to do a number of things. We need to have narrative and a framework, and we need to have the policy areas that underpin it. In my view, the narrative – and there is huge potential here; I’m not pessimist, despite everything I’ve said; in fact, I’m quite optimistic, I think we can get this right – we have to have that narrative that we are the party of the ladder of opportunity.

I believe in the power of symbols; I believe in simple messaging. It’s very easy for us to explain what that is about. That if you are on lower income, we give you that ladder to get you the skills, to get you the jobs, to get education that you need. But this is not just a ladder by itself, it’s a ladder that is grafted by government, it is a ladder that the people are brought to by government, it’s a ladder that has social ambulant always there at the bottom, ready if people fall off. It’s a ladder that has hands on ladder that helps people every step of the way. And that ladder of opportunity is all about us being, what I call, the true workers party.

And I have a vision that our party will actually be, not just a worker party, but a modern workers’ trade union movement for the British people, both in terms of government – a modern workers’ trade union; in fact that’s how I describe our Party on my Twitter handle.

Now let me go through how I think that pans out. Now, to me, trade unions have five key roles:

The first, is ensuring that workers have skills and jobs.

The second, is about workers’ wages.

The third, is about workers’ rights.

The fourth, is about workers’ welfare.

And the fifth, is about workers’ services.

So I think that what we need to do as a party, when we say that we’re the party of the ladder – the ladder of opportunity – that we are the workers’ party, that we need to have our own workers’ charter, workers’ skills, workers’ rights, workers’ welfare, workers’ services, and that involves our party too. And let me go into those, bit by bit.

Now, I’m very lucky to be doing my job as Apprenticeships and Skills Minister, when I talk about workers’ skills and jobs. Because for the first time for many years, we are literally providing millions of young people, genuinely, with substance, that chance to climb up that ladder of opportunity. Creating millions of apprenticeships, transforming the procedure further education.

For many years in our country, further education was regarded as the so-called Cinderella of education, which really frustrated me, and I pointed out in a recent speech, that actually, first of all, Cinderella married Princess, but also what we have to do is banish what I call the two ugly sisters of snobbery and ignorance. Further education transforms lives and the university and college union have done brilliant videos on this. Apprenticeships transform lives. I’ve seen it all over the country, wherever I go, meeting younger people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who are doing level three, level 4, even degree level apprenticeships, and getting the jobs and the wages that they need for the future.

So for us to have an emphasis, backed up by real money – 2.5 billion on apprenticeships by 2020, double what it was in 2015, and now 500 million extra announced in the budget, to increase the number of hours, because from 2019 we will roll out reforms of every single student will be able to choose one of two things: either, a traditional academic education, or secondly, 15 state of the art, technical routes. So everything from digital to engineering to science to healthcare, backed up by money.

That is part of what we could frame as part of our workers’ charter, developing skills, making sure that people have the jobs – and it is important to point out that we have more people in work than any time in our island’s history; we have more apprentices, 900,000, than in any time in our history; we have the lowest number of the so-called NEETS, the lowest number those ‘not in employment or training or education’ on record.

The second part of that charter is, as I say, workers’ wages, and the national living wage announcement was a seminal moment in the history of the conservative party. Not so long ago, when we were in opposition, we campaigned against the minimum wage, and by the way, when I was a student at university I opposed the minimum wage, and it was my constituency in Harlow that taught me, and explained to me that – I was a candidate there from 1999 – how people struggle and how people deserve a fair days wage for a fair days work; how you get people out of the poverty trap; how if you say we have to be the workers’ party, if we aren’t to have a workers’ charter, to be a real workers’ trade union, people need to get fair wages. And again, for the Conservative party to introduce national living wage is a historic thing. And for us to focus on cutting taxes for lower earners in terms of the threshold, up to 11.5 thousand, no people paying income tax – again, it’s about framing that to show that we’re giving substance to being the party of the workers, fulfilling that trade union obligation to try as much as possible to make sure people have their wages.

If I come onto the third thing, now this is the hardest for us – workers’ rights. This is where the tensions of the libertarian element of the Conservative Party, which is noble, and who believe the free market and they believe in the cascade of wealth, and how you balance that with the rights of workers. Now, today I took an Uber to get here, and the guy said to me – ‘It’s my first ever ride in Uber’, just by coincidence. And I said to him, what do you think about the fact that you have no rights in terms of – because you’re self-employed and you don’t get rights in the way that people frame it. He said, ‘Well actually I’ve got a part-time job, this is a part-time job and I’ll do it for a few months to get some money’.

So when we are looking at these kind of things, we have to somehow work it out – and this is what the review is all about, which will be announced later in the year – how we make sure that that person feels that he can get the rights and get the money that he needs by working part-time without too much aggro. And those workers who are being exploited.

Now I could mention courier companies, and I’m not going to mention any by name, in my constituency when people come to see me, who do the complete opposite. Some of the things that go on remind me of the big loam shops, when you go into these loan shops and buy a Samsung TV, and they say it’ll only cost you a pound a week, charging you some thousands and thousands of percentages in interest rates. Those companies lure people and say you only have to pay 50 pence a package. They think they can make easy money but they have no rights and are treated incredibly badly.

I remember being in an airport and chatting to the baggage handler who was helping me with my cases. He was telling me about the problem of zero hours and how it terrified him and his family, because he just didn’t know when he would be called in to do the baggage handling at the airport. And yet I’ve other people, students and single parents, who say the zero hour contracts work for them. So this is not easy, this is not easy. And we were right to get rid of exclusivity in terms of zero hours but we have to have an answer to this workers rights.

We have to try somehow to clamp down on all the abuse that there is and clearly there is, and we have to acknowledge the abuse as Conservatives, at the same time not making it so difficult so that when people do need that flexibility we shut the door completely.

Now, worker’s welfare, a very important part of Trade Unionism. Whenever there are debates about welfare, we are always on the side, or seem to be talking about cuts. We very rarely say, for example, if you look at disability benefits – this country spends £50 billion a year on disability benefits, that’s the second highest in the free world. £50 billion a year – that is not a mark of an uncompassionate government, and yet that message – we do not say it often enough.

We get caught in the cycle of people thinking we just want to cut welfare, but we want to reform welfare to gain independence and to get people into work, and we should be proud of the money we’re spending and not be afraid to say actually what is going on. And craft it in a narrative, and make sure that when our welfare policies are rolled out that people understand – really understand – that we are spending money and that some of the forms are there to get people back into work.

The same with the NHS – there is an umbilical cord between the British people and the National Health Service. We have to be seen as the party of the NHS, not the party of BHS. What I mean by that, is that we have make sure that, again, we don’t just value the NHS, that we are spending the money that is needed. An extra £10 billion by 2020, £2 billion announced in the budget for social services. It’s something we need to proud of because no-one will believe we want to reform the NHS unless we say and show that we are proud of the National Health Service, that we recognise that it has a umbilical cord between the British people. If we are to be a one workers trade union, this is very much part of workers’ welfare.

Final part of this is workers’ services, the reason why millions of people join trade unions is not to go on strike – it’s because of workers’ services. Insurance schemes, cheaper loans that can be trusted, the educational – in my department we give £12 million plus to Union Learn because they train up to 30,000 people to become apprentices. People in those companies are going to trust the unions to do that work. Those are what workers services are all about. There are amazing services on trade union websites, including private health insurance. If we are the worker’s party, we have to be at the forefront of consumer protection – at the forefront of making changes to little things. Why do we force people to pay more, in terms of their energy bills, if they don’t pay by direct debit for example? Which often hits those who are of lowest incomes.

Our party too, we have to radically change – and this is not a policy, and no-one has these ideas to do this, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about for some while – that if we are to radically reflect the way people want to join things nowadays, there’s not the old political parties of how it used to be. Our party, literally, should be a modern trade union. Our party should offer insurance services for people on lower incomes. Our party should offer things like fuel cards for people, so they would get a discount when they go and get petrol – something many of you know I’m quite passionate about.

Our party should be offering the same things that unions offer their members, so we can become, literally, a competing trade union in a conservative way for the British people.

Those people who have a conservative disposition can join our party knowing that they would get the same services offered by other trade unions, if not better. Then you would have thousands of people joining because we would have a government which is framing the argument in terms of us being the workers’ party, framing the argument in terms of us being the party of the ladder of opportunity.

I said to you that I am optimistic – I am optimistic, I believe our party is changing. I went to Copeland to campaign. The candidate there is extraordinary, the first thing she started talking to be about was apprenticeships. I’ve been in the party all my life, I haven’t met candidates – normally they want to talk to you about the EU, or freedom. She said, I said ‘What is your passion? What makes you a Conservative?’, no prompting from me as a minister for apprentices, she started talking about apprenticeships. It was an incredibly heartening moment for me, in fact I videoed it and put it up on Twitter, because I said you’ve got to see this again, this is just wonderful. She reflects what, potentially, the party could be.

The Prime Minister believes in this, it’s why I supported her running for leader. That was before the first ballot, just in case you’re wondering. Because she said at the party conference, ‘The worker’s party’. If we get this argument right, if we can frame it – I’m not saying that I have all the ideas – correctly, even with all this Brexit stuff going on everyday, the potential for us Conservatives is huge, especially given the Labour Party, in some ways, is very weak – despite what I said about the general ideology of the centre-left.

There is huge potential if we can get this message right. The way I see it we are like the ship that is sailing to a destination, sometimes storms will come and we may do the right thing, the wrong thing, whatever it may be, but potentially we are sailing to that destination where we actually will be seen in the 21st Century as the real worker’s party, the real worker’s trade union for the British people – the real party of the ladder of opportunity. Thank you.