During his speech to the Conservative Party conference on Monday, George Osborne outlined a ‘new type of contract’. Workers entering the scheme would be offered between £2,000 and £50,000-worth of tax-free shares in their employer’s company. In exchange, they would be expected to relinquish protection against unfair dismissal and entitlement to flexible working, as well as other employment rights.
As I have noted elsewhere, the Conservative Party has a history of engaging with questions of ownership, and in particular has a longstanding interest in encouraging employee ownership and other forms of profit sharing. On at least one level, therefore, the plans outlined by Osborne on Monday afternoon represent little more than the latest iteration of a traditional Conservative theme, a modern twist on an issue that has preoccupied the Party for nearly a century.
But there is a notable (and rather worrying) break with the past in these latest proposals.
Most previous generations of Conservatives have associated the extension of ownership with the extension of citizenship. For Noel Skelton, the man who in 1924 coined the phrase ‘property-owning democracy’, employee ownership offered a means of bringing the economic rights of ordinary working people alongside their political rights. Skelton argued that the extension of the franchise to the working classes had created a major imbalance in the life of the nation, because it had not been matched by an extension of their rights to private property. Employee ownership offered an ideal means of redressing the balance, not simply because it could be distributed rapidly, but also because it offered a means of bridging the gap between capital and labour, thus easing the industrial tensions of interwar Britain.
Although Skelton’s proposals were never implemented, the power of his analysis (and the connections he cultivated) ensured that his ideas retained a powerful hold over his Party. And his interpretation of the ‘property-ownership democracy’ has been a consistent feature of British Conservatism, right up to (and beyond) the Thatcherism of the 1980s. Thatcher herself described the campaign to extend share ownership as a ‘crusade to enfranchise the many in the economic life of the nation’, and regarded the creation of a property-owning democracy as ‘the great Tory reform of this century’. Similar comparisons were drawn by other Conservative politicians of the era, who sought to portray (as Skelton had) the extension of share ownership as being comparable to the extension of the franchise in the nineteenth century. For the Thatcherites, as for earlier Conservatives, questions of property were inherently tied to questions of citizenship.
But the plans outlined by Osborne on Monday pull in the other direction, requiring workers to relinquish rights in exchange for property. Though this proposal may offer some workers a new route to share ownership, it simultaneously unwinds a longstanding association between the extension of ownership and the extension of citizenship. Far from representing a novel twist on a traditional Tory theme, this move represents a dramatic retreat from (and a betrayal of) a century-old Conservative objective.
Matthew Francis recently completed his PhD thesis on the influence of neoliberalism on British party politics at the School of Politics and IR, University of Nottingham.