Theresa May’s announcement that the vote on raising National Insurance contributions for the self-employed will be delayed until after the publication of the Taylor Report in Modern Employment Practises in the autumn is presumably meant to reassure us that the government is taking seriously the many objections which have been levied against the policy in the 48 hours since it was announced by the Chancellor. On the other hand it might merely concentrate minds on a question which few have yet asked: just why does Theresa May have Tony Blair’s former chief policy wonk seeming to direct Conservative policy on employment?
The Taylor review, set up by the Prime Minister last November, is often described as ‘independent’. Yet Matthew Taylor is not independent at all. He was on Tony Blair’s Downing Street staff. Before that he was a Labour member of Warwickshire County Council. He stood as a Labour candidate in the 1992 general election. He helped write the 1997 Labour manifesto, and led Labour’s rapid rebuttal unit in that election. He isn’t an independent; for the Conservatives, he is the political enemy.
Presumably, Mrs May appointed him in the same spirit in which Gordon Brown appointed Digby Jones as a minister in the Lords: she thinks a ‘government of all the talents’ will help to create the impression that her administration is governing for the whole country, not just a partisan section of it. David Cameron had taken a similar approach in appointing former Labour health secretary Alan Milburn to chair the Social Mobility Commission.
Trouble is that there is a reason why Taylor and Milburn threw in their lot with the Labour Party: their political instincts are very different from that of most Conservatives. In Taylor’s case this shows in how he has approached the whole question of the gig economy. The central theme of his report is that the self-employed should be treated much more like employed people: they should be charged higher taxes but granted equal employment rights in return. Where self-employed people work for one or two main employers – and are arguably really employees in disguise – this might make some sense. But it breaks down when applied to the genuine self-employed: people who work for a wide variety of customers. How do you grant employment rights to a self-employed florist? Will all her customers owe her holiday pay, and have to offer her a meeting with a union representative before sacking her and buying their flowers elsewhere?
It was a weakness of Tony Blair’s Labour governments that they tended to see things from the point of view of regular employees – and usually public sector ones. Hence we had endless new laws which gave rights to workers but made life difficult for small businesses.
Thanks to Taylor’s appointment that weakness has now been imported right into the heart of May’s government. Conservative voters who thought they had elected a Conservative government and rejected a Labour one have every right to be annoyed – and to ask: why have the Conservatives got so few ideas of their own that they need to raise New Labour’s undead to do their policymaking for them?