Theresa May is supposed to represent the Conservative Party's break with the neoliberal era, characterised by Thatcher, Blair and Cameron's love of freewheeling entrepreneurialism and a shrinking welfare state. It's such an apparently convincing posture that leading liberal publications have described her as "post-Thatcherite" (New Statesman), pursuing policies that will allow her "to advance deep into Labour territory" (The Guardian).
Whether or not this is actually true, it means that today's announcement that the Tories would "oversee the greatest extension of rights and protections for employees by any Conservative government in history" has been easily accommodated. Every major newspaper's front page this morning led with this attempt to secure the "working class vote", which includes an increase in the National Living Wage and an unpaid statutory right to leave a job so you can care for a family member for up to a year.
But given that the Tories couldn't even bring themselves to use the word "workers" themselves, opting instead for "employees" – they just can't imagine themselves outside the perspective of management – it might be worth giving some of these promises a closer look.
Is The Minimum Wage Increase All It's Cracked Up To Be?
One of the smartest re-branding exercises that the last government carried out was introducing something called the "National Living Wage" (NLW) – a new name for the minimum wage, but designed to sound like you can actually live on it without being in poverty (which you can't).
A key Tory bid for Labour voters is that the NLW will increase "in line with median earnings until the end of the next Parliament in 2022". This sounds decent, but, as Josh May in Holyrood magazine has pointed out, it actually amounts to a cut in the last government's plans.
George Osborne promised the NLW would reach "£9/hour" by 2020. By pegging the NLW increase to average earnings, at a time when wages are growing at their slowest rate for three-and-a-half years, the Tories have effectively announced a cut in what they previously promised. It's re-branding all the way down.
UPDATE: The Tories have got in touch to say it's not the case that the new plans for the National Living Wage increase will amount to an effective cut.
A spokesperson said: "Our ambition in the last Parliament was for the National Living Wage to reach 60 per cent of median earnings by 2020 subject to sustained economic growth. We intend to meet that commitment by 2020 – and then continue with a National Living Wage linked to 60 per cent of median earnings."
Labour, meanwhile, have seized on the opportunity to claim that, yep, the Conservatives' new promise would in fact make the National Living Wage £8.20 in 2020 – a cut on the £9 Osborne promised.
In terms of political messaging, Labour's approach of putting a number on it – a £10 "Real Living Wage"* by 2020 – seems less open to interpretation.
* We're looking forward to the "Real Actual Genuine Not Fake Living Wage" entering the discourse in the 2022 General Election.
Having Workers On Company Boards Doesn't Make Up For Kneecapping Trade Unions
Theresa May first announced this pledge when she was campaigning to become leader of the Conservative party last year. The idea is that workers on publicly listed companies will be represented on their boards, alongside management. After she became Prime Minister, she watered down the plans when talking to the Confederation of British Industry. Then a government green paper diluted it to homeopathic levels, suggesting that if companies weren't comfortable with having the proles on board, they could opt for "advisory panels" or simply gesture towards more "stakeholder engagement".
The idea of having workers involved in boardrooms sounds a bit like corporatism – the fascistic notion that society should be structured around corporations – and is, ultimately, a way of reducing the role that trade unions play in pursuing workers' interests. In this sense, the policy is perfectly continuous with the way trade unions have been kneecapped by the last Conservative and Coalition governments, which made it harder for workers to go on strike – a development Conservative MP David Davis said was akin something out of Franco's Spain.
As a few commentators have pointed out, there is no point guaranteeing workers extra rights as long as they can't take their employers to court to ensure they're adhered to. The Coalition government introduced fees for claimants going to tribunals – which have in some cases been up to £1,200 – and, as a result, there's been a 68 percent drop in workers doing so. Rights that can't be enforced are worthless. The Tories' commitment to tribunal fees will ensure that stays the case.
You Can Look After Your Family if You're Rich
One of the most covered pledges has been the promise to "allow" workers to take unpaid statutory time off from their jobs to look after family members who need care. Presumably, this is a response to the "crisis of care", the generally acknowledged phenomenon that care workers – many of them working class women of colour – are getting less and less support to deal with more and more problems.
Apparently, the Tories think the way to deal with this is to get workers who desperately need state-provided care for dependents to do it themselves. They'll even give you a whole year off work… unpaid! There are no plans to increase the carer's allowance, which, if you're eligible for it, is a pitiable £62.70 a week. Sounds good to me and my wealthy mates who can easily do without a salary for 12 entire months.
In other words, this pledge will only benefit well-off, strong and stable, nuclear families who can afford it. It also comes a few months after a report in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, which stated that there were 30,000 excess deaths in 2015 "likely" due to "disinvestment in health and social care".
Far from representing an ideological departure from neoliberalism, the unpaid care pledge delivers what neoliberalism does best: it privatises the idea of social care, turning it into an act of individual responsibility and ensuring its material and emotional burden is shouldered even more by those who can't afford it.