Shooting the past? The modernisation of Conservative Party employment relations policy under David Cameron

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Shooting the past? The modernisation of Conservative Party employment relations policy under David Cameron

Steve Williams and Peter Scott


Drawing on secondary data sources, the Conservative Party’s efforts to modernise its approach to employment relations matters are discussed and critically scrutinised. Policy innovations are likely to be undermined by their mutual inconsistency with pervasive neo-liberal, Eurosceptic and anti–union values, indicating that, on balance, any modernisation will be limited.
7,885 words

Contact details

Steve Williams, Department of Human Resource and Marketing Management, University of Portsmouth Business School, Richmond Building, Portland Street, Portsmouth PO1 3DE

Tel: 02392 844033


Steve Williams is Principal Lecturer in Employment Relations at the University of Portsmouth Business School
Peter Scott is Senior Lecturer in Employment Relations at the University of Portsmouth Business School

Shooting the past? The modernisation of Conservative Party employment relations policy under David Cameron
1. Introduction

Until recently, scholars and practitioners in the UK have not had to give any thought as to what a future Conservative government might portend for employment relations. The general election defeats of 2001 and 2005 seemed to rule out the possibility of a Conservative administration in the near future. However, under David Cameron, who became its leader in 2005 in the aftermath of a third general election defeat, the fortunes of the Conservative Party have been revived (Dorey, 2007). Cameron initiated a wide–ranging shake–up of Conservative policy and organisation, characterised in some accounts as an attempt to modernise the Party (e.g. Denham and O’Hara, 2007), thereby making it more attractive to voters. Although electoral opinion polls remain volatile, there is a strong prospect that the Conservatives could form a government after the next general election, due by 3 June 2010 at the latest.

This article considers the putative implications of a Cameron–led Conservative government for employment relations in the UK. Such a task is not made easy by the general absence of specific Conservative policies. However, there is enough in existing proposals, the topics featured in policy documents and shadow ministerial speeches, and the language used to frame these topics, to ascertain the likely trajectory of employment relations policy in the event of a Conservative election victory. This enables us to benchmark the extent to which Conservative policy on employment relations has been successfully ‘modernised’, in the sense of being a departure from the neo–liberal agenda that dominated its approach during the 1980s and 1990s. It also allows us to consider the likely implications of a change of government for employment relations in the UK and, in particular, how far the approach of a Cameron–led administration would differ from that elaborated since 1997 under Labour.

Conservative modernising trends are leading to the development of distinctive employment relations policies in particular spheres and highlighting themes other than the party’s former preoccupation with reducing trade union power. However, Conservative Party policy remains underpinned by distaste for organised labour and labour market regulation, albeit offset by an electorally pragmatic need to appear supportive of moderate trade unionism and the interests of workers.

2. The neo–liberal policy inheritance

Historically, Conservative policy on employment relations has been dominated by the perceived problem posed by the trade unions. Yet the longstanding aversion towards the unions exhibited by the Conservatives was frequently tempered by both ideological and pragmatic considerations (Dorey, 1995; Taylor, 1994). Ideologically, the ‘one–nation’ strand of Conservatism recognised the legitimacy of unions inasmuch as their activities helped to support the national interest; thus Conservatives often distinguished between ‘responsible’ unionism - limited to articulating the interests of workers in a way that promoted integration at work - and ‘irresponsible’ unionism - more political and militant in its orientation. The Conservatives accepted trade unionism, while at the same time encouraging moderation in union behaviour (Dorey, 1995). They also tried to avoid antagonising unions for pragmatic reasons. Electoral success depended upon the votes of workers, particularly skilled workers, who were represented by trade unions. For much of the twentieth century, then, the Conservatives’ natural distaste for trade unions was tempered by the need to win the support of trade unionists, as well as by an ideological belief in the desirability of integrating unions within the state, and of promoting cooperative employment relations.

From the 1960s onwards, though, there was a notable shift in Conservative policy on employment relations, away from a pragmatic acceptance of voluntarism, towards a greater preference for restricting union behaviour through legislation, removing, or at least narrowing, the ‘immunities’ that unions traditionally enjoyed when organising industrial action. The previously minority view that the unions were too powerful, and that restrictions needed to be placed on their behaviour, became increasingly influential as the Conservative leadership faced an increasing amount of internal criticism that the Party was too soft on the unions and should no longer appease them (Dorey, 1995).

While the first substantive expression of this shift in Conservative policy towards employment relations was evident in Edward Heath’s ill–fated Industrial Relations Act (1971), it was the legislative programme enacted by the Thatcher and Major administrations during the 1980s and 1990s that constituted the most profound attack on the role of the unions (Crouch, 1996). This encompassed, among other things, the imposition of severe restrictions on the ability of unions to organise lawful industrial action, the introduction of strict controls over their internal governance arrangements, and the abolition of the closed shop (see Dickens and Hall, 1995).

While the Conservatives may have effected the reform of employment relations in an incremental manner (Auerbach, 1990), their interventions were underpinned by a neo–liberal ethos which saw the unions as coercive bodies that used their illegitimate collective power to force employers into conceding wage rises, distorting the free market, and producing adverse economic outcomes, particularly increases in inflation (Wedderburn, 1989). The ‘sustained assault’ (Howell, 2005: 133) on the unions was an important element of a broader, neo–liberal policy agenda, marked by the desirability of deregulated labour markets as a source of economic competitiveness (Davies and Freedland, 2007; McIlroy, 2009). This extended beyond a concern with restricting union behaviour, to encompass, among other things, limiting access to employment tribunals and resisting European Union (EU) employment legislation.

The subsequent period of Labour government can be seen, in retrospect, to demonstrate both elements of change from, and continuity with, the neo-liberal approach to employment relations practised by the Conservatives. After 1997, Labour extended the breadth and depth of individual rights at work: among other things, it legislated to introduce a minimum wage and extend protection against workplace discrimination; acceptance of the EU’s Social Chapter resulted in, for example, new employment rights for part–time and temporary workers (Brinkley et al, 2007). It also introduced new collective provisions, notably a new statutory union recognition procedure. Labour’s programme thus differed from the approach taken by its Conservative predecessors (Dickens and Hall, 2003). Moreover, under the 2004 ‘Warwick Agreement’ with the unions, Labour agreed to enact some improvements in employment rights, like an increase in the minimum annual leave entitlement, in return for continued trade union support (McIlroy, 2009).

Set against this, however, Labour has retained the bulk of the anti–union legislation it inherited from its Conservative predecessors, marking ‘a shift in the political consensus of the most significant kind’ (Davies and Freedland, 2007: 111). Employment regulation, particularly that emanating from the EU, has been advanced, but in a ‘minimalist’ way (Smith and Morton, 2006: 405), so as not to mitigate the supposed benefits of a flexible labour market (Howell, 2005). Overall, we would argue that Labour’s employment relations policy has continued to be dominated by a neo-liberal ideology (cf. Daniels and McIlroy, 2009), albeit modified in certain respects; certainly, it has not proved the ‘turning point’ in employment relations anticipated by some early commentators (Taylor, 1998: 308). Rather than expressing an outright hostility to employment regulation, Labour viewed it largely as a means of promoting economic competitiveness, particularly where it was implemented in a ‘light’ fashion (Davies and Freedland, 2007). New rights at work could be reconciled with, but were clearly subordinate to, the desirability of promoting labour market flexibility. Thus, as Smith and Morton (2006: 414) argue, Labour’s policy on employment relations is best viewed as a ‘distinctive form of neo–liberalism’, marked by the retention of the Conservatives’ anti–union laws, a preference for light touch employment regulation, a determination to restrict the power of organised labour through the promotion of an employer–friendly partnership agenda, and continued difficulties for workers in enforcing rights. An incoming Conservative government would face an employment relations framework modified in emphasis, but not substantially different in nature, from that bequeathed in 1997.
3. Conservative Party modernisation

Since David Cameron was elected to lead the Conservative Party in 2005 his efforts to modernise the Party, and render it more electable, have been heavily scrutinised (Bale, 2008; Denham and O’Hara, 2007; Dorey, 2007; Evans, 2008; Fielding, 2009; Kerr, 2007; O’Hara, 2007; Reeves, 2008 inter alia). This section confines itself to providing an overview of the contours of Cameron’s modernisation project and its possible significance in order to frame the discussion of the Conservative Party’s approach to employment relations.

Modernisation must be placed in the context of earlier, ineffective and abandoned efforts to reform the Conservatives (Denham and O’Hara, 2007), under the respective leaderships of William Hague (1997-2001) and Iain Duncan Smith (2001-2003), and turn them into a credible alternative to Labour as a party of government. Under Michael Howard’s leadership (2003-2005), the Conservatives eschewed modernisation, fighting (and losing) the 2005 general election on a narrow strategy of appealing to core voters by emphasising issues like crime and immigration (Quinn, 2008).

Following its third successive general election defeat, the Conservative Party elected as leader the self–proclaimed Tory moderniser, David Cameron. Cameron soon set about ‘decontaminating’ the Conservative brand (Quinn, 2008; Reeves, 2008) and attempting to create ‘a new kind of Conservative Party which would appeal to a new generation of Conservatives and, crucially, a new generation of Conservative voters’ (Evans, 2008: 294). This has also involved an explicit attempt to distance Cameron’s Conservative Party from Thatcherism (Dorey, 2007; Evans, 2008).

The word ‘modernisation’ is rather nebulous and open to various different interpretations. In the area of employment relations, for example, Labour has equated modernisation with the development of greater partnership working (Danford et al, 2002). Politically, Labour itself went through its own period of modernisation during the 1990s, something that involved reducing the influence of the unions in an attempt to make the Party more attractive to the voting public at large (Alderman and Carter, 1994). This suggests an interesting parallel with the more recent efforts of the Conservatives to widen their appeal among the electorate. Modernisation, it seems, is less a specific programme of reform, but more the application of a convenient and superficially attractive label to signal that a political party has jettisoned previous policy positions that are subsequently thought to be electorally unpopular. That said, however, in policy terms four main elements of the Conservative Party’s modernisation project under the leadership of David Cameron are clearly distinguishable.

First, there has been a concerted effort made to promote the importance of ‘quality of life’ issues, particularly evident in the area of environmental politics and the expressed desire to tackle climate change (Evans, 2008). This focus on non–material general well–being issues (Dorey, 2007) is designed to appeal to voters who were previously repelled by the Conservative Party’s neo–liberal dogma, helping to distinguish it from Labour.

Second, there is a marked emphasis on reducing the role of the state, and eschewing state regulation as a means of achieving policy goals. Although many would see continuity here with Thatcherite approaches, there is a novel emphasis on local democracy. Under David Cameron, the Conservative Party has stressed the importance of localism in decision–making, and of devolving power to local communities. Cameron has spoken of the need to use a more flexible and decentralised ‘post–bureaucratic’ approach to achieving goals (Reeves, 2008: 65), in contrast to Labour’s ‘statist’ approach. This would involve the retreat of the state from many aspects of delivering public services, with a greater role envisaged for private companies and, especially, the third sector. Cameron’s Conservative Party places a notable emphasis on the desirability of involving voluntary agencies and community organisations in delivering social and employment services (Kerr, 2007).

Third, the Conservatives have made a notable effort to broaden their appeal by projecting themselves as more socially liberal, tolerant and inclusive (Dorey, 2007), and more reflective of a diverse wider society. While carefully retaining a privileged role for the institution of marriage, Cameron has enthusiastically supported civil partnerships and tolerance of same–sex relationships (Dorey, 2007: 147).

Fourth, the Conservative Party claims to attach a high priority to dealing with social problems by tackling their underlying causes. Conservative shadow ministers have frequently referred to the need to take effective action on what they refer to as the UK’s ‘broken society’, encompassing crime, joblessness and poverty (Evans, 2008: 299). Cameron has consistently expressed concern about ‘increased alienation and social breakdown within communities’ and advocates the need to ‘strengthen the ties between “family”, “community” and “nation”’ (Kerr, 2007: 51). There is an explicit commitment to combat poverty by strengthening families and building stronger communities, reducing the factors, like educational failure, that contribute to it. This even encompasses a concern with the undesirable consequences posed by economic inequality (Dorey, 2009), as has been articulated by the Conservative shadow minister Oliver Letwin. Again, the state’s role in tackling social problems is played down; rather, the emphasis is on empowering local communities and voluntary agencies to act in ways that fortify civil society and promote social inclusion (Reeves, 2008).

These changes have been designed with three related aims in mind: to distance the Party from Thatcherism; to demonstrate its appeal to a broader range of voters; and to distinguish its approach from Labour. While traditional themes in official Conservative policy discourse, such as the EU, crime and immigration, have left centre stage (Dorey, 2007), it is also notable how little emphasis is accorded to the importance of free markets. Cameron’s Conservative Party claims to be more concerned with improving society, rather than economic progress, distinguishing it from a Thatcherite agenda (Reeves, 2008).

How effective have the Conservative Party’s modernisation efforts been? Under Cameron the party has ‘made a great deal of headway in closing the gap in electoral credibility between Labour and the Conservatives’ (Kerr, 2007: 47). Opposition to modernisation from within the Conservative Party has been muted, particularly over policy matters. Perhaps Cameron’s most notable achievement, though, has been his capacity to appeal to modernisers, while at the same time retaining the support of Conservative ‘traditionalists’ who find the emphasis on families and communities attractive (Kerr, 2007).

Finally, how significant is the Conservative Party’s programme of modernisation? To what extent does it represent a radical shift in policy priorities, and a distancing from Thatcherism, or even a return to the ‘one–nation’ values of the past? Certainly, one could question the strength of the commitment to ‘green’ issues, or note that some proposals, such as increasing to £1,000,000 the threshold at which inheritance tax applies, could equally easily have been advocated by the 1979-97 administrations. Dorey (2007), however, asserts that the emphasis the Conservative Party under Cameron places on tackling social problems, and its more socially inclusive orientation, signals the revival of one–nation Toryism. Some writers point to the eclecticism of Conservatism in practice, implying that the policies of Cameron’s Conservative Party sit firmly within a broad–based and pragmatic Tory tradition which encompasses various ideological positions (e.g. O’Hara, 2007). Bale (2008: 281), however, suggests that Conservative policies are driven by more short-term considerations, indicative not of a re–capturing of the centre–ground of British politics, nor a shift back to right–wing authoritarian populism, ‘but an attempt to bob and weave between them’ as political circumstances dictate.

4. The Conservative Party’s employment relations policies under Cameron

To what extent has the Conservative Party’s modernisation agenda spread to encompass policy on employment relations matters? In some respects, there has been evident movement from its previously established positions, particularly with regard to Labour’s National Minimum Wage (NMW), measures to enhance gender equality at work, the promotion of better work–life balance arrangements; and the aspiration to liberate public sector workers from over–burdensome performance management regimes. Set against these changes, however, there remains an apparent obsession with repudiating the EU’s ‘Social Chapter’, an ongoing belief in the desirability of deregulated labour markets and a marked antipathy towards the unions.

One feature of Conservative ‘modernisation’ as it applies to employment relations long pre–dates the leadership of David Cameron. In 2000 Michael Portillo, the then shadow chancellor, announced that the Conservatives were dropping their opposition to the NMW, which had been introduced the previous year. Since then, the Conservative Party has occasionally re–stated its commitment to the principle of the minimum wage, and its retention by any future Conservative government. In August 2008, for example, in a speech to the think–tank Demos, the shadow chancellor George Osborne asserted that ‘[m]odern Conservatives acknowledge the fairness of a minimum wage’ (Conservative Party, 2008a), a view quite alien to the deregulatory ethos that characterised the 1979-97 Conservative administrations.

Yet the Conservative Party’s support for the principle of minimum wage legislation sits oddly with the promises regularly made to business groups by its leaders about the desirability of labour market deregulation (see below). Underlying opposition to the principle of regulating low pay exists within the parliamentary party. In May 2009, for example, the Conservative backbench MP Christopher Chope won the support of eleven colleagues for his Employment Opportunities Bill, which would effectively have abolished the minimum wage. While it stood no chance of being enacted, the proposal was described by one union leader as a ‘little insight’ into what a Conservative administration might do (Stratton, 2009). While the Conservatives have promised to keep the NMW, there is no indication of whether or not they will maintain its value, keep the annual up–rating mechanism, uphold enforcement efforts, or retain the Low Pay Commission. Any of these actions would de facto diminish the effectiveness of the NMW.

There are three other areas of employment relations where recent Conservative Party proposals are indicative of change, seemingly a departure from the neo–liberal deregulatory approach of its 1980s and 1990s predecessors, and indicative of ‘modernisation’. The first of these is the concern to enhance gender equality at work. Soon after he was elected to the leadership of the Conservative Party, David Cameron signalled his apparent distaste at the continuing existence of a gender pay gap, referring to it as a ‘persistent injustice’. Equal pay for women is evidently a key Conservative campaign priority (Conservative Party, 2007).

However, the Conservative Party’s stated position on tackling gender pay inequality is marked by an important contradiction. On the one hand, it promises measures including ‘stronger legislation to prevent employers discriminating...’ against women (Conservative Party, no date b). Yet apart from a proposed technical change relating to the ‘material factor’ defence in equal pay cases, the only legislative provision being contemplated by the Conservatives is for employers who have lost equal pay cases at a tribunal to be obliged to undertake a compulsory pay audit as a means of identifying, and thus being better able to tackle, sources of pay discrimination. On the other hand, though, Cameron has emphasised the desirability of voluntary measures to promote equal pay; gender pay inequality is best challenged not by legislation or regulation, but from the leadership of employers and changes in their culture and attitudes. More equal pay, the Conservatives assert, should be achieved through non–legislative interventions, such as the provision of more effective career guidance. A concern with promoting attitudinal change and the desirability of better career guidance for women are already features of the Labour government’s efforts to reduce the gender pay gap (e.g. Women and Work Commission, 2006). While the contemporary Conservative Party’s concern with tackling gender pay inequality is markedly different to the position it took during the 1980s and 1990s (e.g. the reluctant implementation of the equal value provision), its proposals are really not that much different to existing policy interventions, and seem unlikely to reduce the gender pay gap by much.

The second element of modernisation concerns proposals to enhance work–life balance by improving access to, and the take-up of, family–friendly working arrangements, explicable within the broader concern with ‘quality of life’ issues (Dorey, 2007: 145). In his speech to the 2007 Conservative Party Conference, Cameron emphasised the need to be ‘the party of the family’: that all working parents should be given the right to request flexible working, and that employers who embrace flexible working secure business benefits like better productivity and higher morale (Daily Telegraph, 2007).

There are two elements of the Conservative Party’s proposals. First, it intends to extend the existing right to request flexible working to all working parents. Second, it proposes changing the existing system of parental leave, in particular by giving parents more flexibility. In March 2008, the Conservatives announced that parents would be able to have up to a year’s leave, some of which could be shared between them. The first fourteen weeks’ parental leave would be reserved for mothers; the remaining thirty–eight weeks could then be split between the parents, perhaps to enable the mother to return to work, or both parents could stay at home and take their parental leave together for a total of twenty–six weeks (Conservative Party, 2008c). Again, as with the proposals to reduce the gender pay gap, there is an apparent contradiction between the call for legislation to extend the right to request flexible working and change parental leave entitlements, and an espoused desire to encourage better work-life balance voluntarily. Cameron has expressed his desire for interventions that would encourage employers to take action, because it is in their own business interests to do so (Dorey, 2007).

In some ways, the Conservative Party’s approach is similar to that elaborated by Labour during the 2000s. The proposals on flexible working arrangements – an extension of the right to request flexible working, and changes to parental leave arrangements – build largely on policies already implemented by Labour, which also intends to extend the right to request flexible working to parents of older children itself. Both Labour and the Conservatives seem to believe that improvements in work–life balance provision are best secured by demonstrating the resulting business benefits. The main difference with the Conservative proposals is the encouragement given to fathers to take more leave after the birth or adoption of a child, given fathers’ lack of propensity to do so currently. This is ostensibly designed to enable parents to share the burden of childcare and, in as much as it enables mothers to return to work, facilitate women’s labour market participation. This is consistent with the belief that existing work–life balance legislation reinforces the assumption that women’s careers are of secondary importance, relative to those of men (see Dickens, 2007).

Yet the Conservative Party’s interest in work–life balance issues does not stem from a concern with advancing the interests of workers. Rather, it reflects the broader belief in the need to promote and strengthen family life (Dorey, 2007). Support for the family is seen as a way of preventing the social dislocation that causes broken societies (Kirby, 2009). Thus better work–life balance goes alongside tax breaks for married couples as a means of strengthening families – perhaps an odd priority for a Conservative Party which in other areas stresses the importance of diversity.

A third aspect of apparent modernisation concerns the Conservative Party’s desire to develop a new, more supportive relationship with workers in the public sector, particularly professional groups who have seen their autonomy and discretion eroded by the imposition of targets and other paraphernalia of performance management regimes (Dorey, 2009). It has made a concerted effort to win support within certain parts of public sector workforce by explicitly distancing itself from the Thatcherite hostility of the 1980s and 1990s (Saunders, 2006). There are no specific details available as to how the Conservatives would realise their aims in this area of policy; the main aspiration seems to concern allowing public sector occupations more professional autonomy and discretion, eschewing the top–down target culture that has permeated many public services (Kerr, 2007: 52). The concern with relieving the bureaucratic burden on public sector professionals, and allowing them greater scope for discretion, autonomy and their own judgement in making decisions, is consistent with the broader Conservative aim of devolving decision–making arrangements (see above).

Nevertheless, while public sector professionals are wooed by the Conservatives, the aversion to the public sector workforce in general remains apparent in other respects. For instance, there is an evident determination to erode the pension entitlements of public sector workers. In a November 2008 speech to business leaders David Cameron criticised the pensions ‘apartheid’ whereby pensions in the public sector tend to be final salary schemes whereas defined contribution arrangements have become the norm in the private sector (Watt, 2008). Pension reform is likely to be conjoined by pay policy, a more traditional source of industrial conflict between Conservative governments and public sector unions. In order to reduce government debt, drastic curbs on public sector pay are reportedly being considered by the Conservatives (Winnett, 2009). While the Conservative Party under Cameron clearly wants to forge a cooperative relationship with the public sector workforce, pressures to contain public expenditure may undermine the effectiveness of this element of modernisation.

Conservative proposals to reduce the role of the state, and give more responsibility for delivering public services to private firms and the third sector, could also pose a threat to both the progress of equal pay, given that the public sector has a considerably better record than the other sectors, and to tens of thousands of jobs. Admittedly, the impact will be temporarily mollified where workers are transferred to the private or voluntary sectors under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations.

When it comes to employment relations, three aspects of the Conservative Party’s modernisation agenda require further comment. First, in some respects, they signal a departure from the economistic deregulatory nostrums of the 1980s and 1990s; the Conservatives now argue for some labour market regulation, albeit narrowly confined to minimum wages, gender pay equality and work–life balance. Second, that said, some Conservatives’ proposals accommodate the ‘New Labour’ inheritance rather than break with it. A striking feature of the Conservatives’ proposals on gender equality and flexible working is the extent to which they build on existing Labour policy interventions. Third, with the exception of minimum wage policy, common to all of these areas is a concern with winning electoral support from key groups whose votes the Conservative Party needs if it is to win a majority at the next general election. Indeed, the Conservatives appear to have augmented their proposals on flexible working in response to internal research which showed that the Conservatives were still perceived not to be very family–friendly (Bale, 2008). On the basis of this evidence, then, the modernisation of Conservative Party policy on employment relations has been both derivative and partial.

The modernisation thesis holds even less water when we examine three other areas of Conservative policy relevant to employment relations matters: the commitment to withdrawal from the EU’s Social Chapter; the determination to maintain, and accentuate, a deregulated, flexible labour market; and a lingering antagonism towards trade unionism.

While Cameron has rather effectively defused the divisive issue of Europe (Bale, 2006), the Conservatives have ‘modernised’ neither their opposition towards EU social and employment legislation nor their intention to withdraw the UK from the Social Chapter which was instituted by the 1999 Treaty of Amsterdam (see Conservative Party, 2008b). The Conservative Party’s (2009: 15) manifesto for the 2009 European elections stated that ‘the restoration of British control of social and employment legislation will be a major goal for the next Conservative government’. The Conservatives have said little about how they intend to implement their commitment to pulling out of the Social Chapter. Do they intend to repeal existing legislation covering such matters as parental leave? This would hardly be consistent with their proclaimed concern with boosting family–friendly working arrangements. Alternatively, does the opposition to Social Chapter measures only apply to future legislative interventions? In which case it would have little real effect since EU policy–making on social and employment matters is increasingly dominated by ‘soft’ regulatory measures, such as the so-called open method of coordination, rather than ‘hard’ regulation in the form of directives.

Although the Working Time Directive (WTD) falls outside of the Social Chapter, as a piece of EU employment legislation it symbolises the kind of regulatory intervention that Conservatives oppose prominently (see Conservative Party, 2009). Yet there is an important contradiction in this area of Conservative Party policy. On the one hand, some writers claim that a concern with non–material well–being issues, like the challenge of balancing work and family responsibilities, is a key element of the Conservatives’ modernisation programme (e.g. Dorey, 2007). On the other hand, the Conservative Party opposes regulation, such as legislation to cap working hours, which would do much to help workers accommodate the competing demands of their work and family lives.

In practical terms, of course, the Conservatives would find it very difficult to withdraw from the Social Chapter without the agreement of all other EU member states, which is highly unlikely. Opposition to the Social Chapter is notable, less for its practical relevance, and more for what it symbolises. It helps to retain the allegiance of the relatively sizeable Eurosceptic element within Conservative ranks by demonstrating that the party remains suspicious of, and willing to challenge, European integration. It also demonstrates the party’s business–friendly credentials, by indicating that the Conservatives retain a belief in the virtues of labour market deregulation, whatever might be said elsewhere about improving people’s work–life balance, being family–friendly and supporting diversity.

A concern with labour market deregulation, often euphemistically referred to as ‘cutting red tape’, pervades the Conservative Party’s approach to employment relations issues. A prominent theme is the desirability of ‘simplifying employment law to make it easier to hire people...’ (Conservative Party, no date a). In the vocabulary of neo–liberalism making it ‘easier’ to hire staff is, of course, a euphemism for making it easier to fire workers, on the basis that employers will then have more of an incentive to take people on.

The Conservative Party’s review of business regulation, led by Sir David Arculus, which reported in May 2009, indicates how a Cameron–led government might approach this area of employment relations. It focuses largely on the supposed difficulties experienced by small businesses in dealing with employment law, portraying it as one of their ‘biggest regulatory burdens’ (Arculus, 2009: 22). The review proposes that current employment laws should be consolidated and simplified, with their effects carefully scrutinised, that grievance and disciplinary procedures should be streamlined and that the employment tribunal system should be altered to ensure that simple cases are dealt with speedily and efficiently. Arculus (2009) suggests that, while small businesses should not necessarily be exempted from certain employment laws, there should be more scope for using derogations and transition periods to ease the regulatory burden. A future Conservative government may look to restrict access to unfair dismissal, perhaps by extending the qualifying period for workers in small businesses.

The Conservatives would also aim to reduce the regulatory burden on business when it comes to workplace health and safety. Shadow minister Chris Grayling has suggested that the regulatory burden on businesses could be lifted without eroding safety standards (Logan, 2008). Such a view is perhaps rather odd given the extent to which workplace health and safety in Britain is already governed by a system of self–regulation which privileges managerial flexibility (Dawson et al, 1988). Yet viewed alongside the concern with making it ‘easier to hire’ staff, and the hostility directed at the EU’s Social Chapter, the Conservative Party’s stance on workplace health and safety indicates that on employment relations matters its approach reflects the same kind of neo–liberal aversion to employment regulation that characterised the Thatcher and Major administrations.

Under the leadership of David Cameron the Conservatives have made a concerted effort to appeal to trade unionists. The most explicit statement of this new–found concern with wooing union members came in a September 2008 ‘open letter’ to them from shadow chancellor George Osborne. He claims that they will find a ‘welcome home’ in the modern Conservative Party since it espouses their values and puts social justice ‘at the very heart’ of its message. According to Osborne, whereas Labour has ‘betrayed working people’ by failing to deliver social justice or improve public services, the Conservatives ‘are developing the policies to create new jobs, help with the rising cost of living, strengthen working families, and trusting the professionalism of public service employees’ (Conservative Party, 2008e). As part of its attempt to attract support from trade unionists, in 2008 the Conservative Party appointed a ‘trade union envoy’, former MEP Richard Balfe (Pitcher, 2009).

Other evidence suggests the Conservatives remain hostile to trade unionism. Cameron has not repudiated the pledge, first articulated during the period when Michael Howard was leader of the Conservative Party, to abolish the government’s Union Learning Fund. The opposition towards unions is notably expressed in the briefing Old Labour is Back (Conservative Party, 2008d). It lambasts Labour’s over–dependency on trade unions for funds, and claims that the unions enjoy excessive influence over its policies as a result. The 2008 agreement on the Agency Workers Directive is used as one of the illustrative examples: strange, given Labour’s intransigence here. Some of the policies cited in the briefing as evidence of the kind of union–friendly interventions that the trade unions are allegedly trying to foist upon the Labour government include equality–related measures, like mandatory equal pay audits, which are, in modified form, part of official Conservative Party policy. Perhaps more striking than such contradictions in Old Labour is Back is its anti–union tone. The demands of the unions are presented as militant and left–wing in a way that is designed to leave no reasonable reader in any doubt that they should be roundly dismissed out of hand.

Occasionally, this hostility towards militant unionism recalls aborted themes of the 1979-97 Conservative governments’ legislative attacks. During the Grangemouth oil tanker drivers’ dispute in April 2008, for example, the shadow chancellor George Osborne hinted in remarks to journalists that a future Conservative government would consider tightening the law, making it more difficult for some workers to undertake lawful industrial action (Buckley and Elliott, 2008). This resurrects the possibility that a future Conservative government might consider legislation to ban strikes in ‘essential’ services (however defined). A Green Paper published shortly before the 1997 general election raised the prospect of restricting strikes in essential or ‘near monopoly’ services and removing legal protection from industrial action with ‘disproportionate or excessive effects’ (DTI, 1996); this refrain re–emerged in the Conservatives’ 1997 general election manifesto and, again, in 2002 amid a rail strike. A Cameron government would be unlikely to court the propaganda possibilities for the unions by legislating preemptively on such matters, but might be prepared to seize the opportunity during a sufficiently serious period of disruption.

Publicly at least, the Conservatives are attempting to distance themselves from the explicit anti–unionism of the Thatcher and Major administrations during the 1980s and 1990s. The modernisation agenda is designed to give the impression of a more caring and inclusive party, one whose appeal extends beyond its traditional constituency in an attempt to win support from those who might otherwise have been repelled given its past record. Beneath the surface, however, one encounters a degree of antagonism towards the unions redolent of previous Conservative governments, suggesting that the extent of any modernisation is at best limited.

5. Conclusion: the implications of a Conservative government for employment relations in the UK

In all the attention given to David Cameron and his efforts to modernise the Conservatives the implications for employment relations policy have hitherto been overlooked. There is some evidence that the Tory modernisation agenda stretches to encompass employment relations matters, attempting to distance the contemporary Conservative Party from the neo–liberal emphasis on anti–unionism and employment deregulation that characterised 1979-97, and representing a partial accommodation with some ‘New Labour’ themes. The main elements of the Conservative Party’s modernisation agenda as it applies to employment relations are: a commitment to keeping the NMW; measures to alleviate gender pay inequality; greater recognition of workers in the public sector; and action to encourage better work–life balance arrangements. The last of these elements is particularly significant in so far as it highlights the espoused concerns to improve people’s general non–material well–being and support family life.

But how significant or novel is the Conservative Party’s modernisation agenda when applied to employment relations policy? While much of the emphasis has been on improving gender pay inequality and work–life balance, we should also be concerned with those elements of Conservative proposals which attest to the importance of continuity. Thus we can see a reluctance to depart from neo–liberal dogma, apparent in the hostility to the Social Chapter, employment regulation and trade unions latent in Conservative attitudes to employment relations. This is particularly evident in the messages that have gone out in shadow ministerial speeches to business groups, where a determination to ‘cut red tape’, a euphemism for deregulation, is frequently espoused. This is an approach that is not indicative of modernisation, but rather recycles familiar neo–liberal nostrums.

The Conservative Party’s approach to employment relations is often contradictory, it is even incoherent in places, but it is not irrational. The contradictions are clearly evident. For example, under Cameron the Conservatives have put a lot of emphasis on the need to re–balance the relationship between people’s work and family lives; yet they vociferously oppose measures, like the WTD, which could help to achieve this aim. The Conservatives claim to support public sector workers; yet this support seemingly does not extend to maintaining their pension arrangements. Incoherence is evident in the muddled thinking that pervades the Conservative Party’s approach to employment regulation. On the one hand, there is an explicit concern to promote gender pay equality and better work–life balance arrangements by encouraging employers to improve their provision voluntarily. At the same time, the Conservatives also appear to favour legislative measures on these matters too. Such incoherence does not make trying to make sense of what a future Conservative government might actually do any easier, although the prevailing neo–liberal ethos suggests a preference for voluntaristic ‘business case’ exhortation to employers.

That said, however, the Conservative Party’s approach to employment relations is rational, and can be understood with reference to the historical context elaborated above. As discussed above, the Conservatives’ previous employment relations challenge was to balance instinctive antipathy to trade unions with the need to retain electoral support. During the 1980s and 1990s the reforms instituted by the Thatcher and Major administrations were informed by a neo–liberal ideology that contributed to, and also reflected, union weakness. The trade unions are much less of a ‘problem’ for the Conservatives than they were in the past. However, the Conservatives still need to demonstrate their attractiveness to voters, most of whom are workers who want to see their interests protected, even if relatively fewer are trade unionists.

The main employment relations challenge facing the contemporary Conservative Party involves striking a balance between, on the one hand, the need to forge a electorally viable coalition of key demographic groups and, on the other hand, the spectre of an underlying neo-Thatcherite antipathy towards employment regulation that, if left unchecked, would deter people from voting Conservative. There is an interesting parallel here with how Labour has tried to advance neo–liberal policies, without losing the support of its working–class and public–sector professional base (Hall, 2003). The significance of Cameron’s leadership is that, unlike his immediate predecessors, he has realised that workers need to be enticed, not repelled. Hence the emphasis on issues like gender pay equality, work–life balance and support for the public sector workforce, all of which are designed to attract support from key groups of voters. The Conservatives seemingly recognise that a deregulatory agenda would adversely affect precisely those groups of workers whose votes they need to win a general election.

Finally, what are the putative implications of a Conservative government for employment relations, and how far is its approach likely to differ from that of Labour? There is likely to be some continuity with regard to additional ‘light’ regulation, particularly in the areas of equal pay and work–life balance. While it is unlikely, for practical reasons more than anything else, that withdrawal from the EU’s Social Chapter will be possible, the arrival of a Conservative administration in the UK would stimulate further the existing shift from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ methods of employment regulation. In this respect we can anticipate a large element of continuity with the approach taken by Labour, which in recent years has also strenuously resisted EU employment legislation.

The main area of divergence is likely to concern the more explicit unwillingness to regulate employers that we expect to influence the Conservative Party’s agenda. This may well take the form of some symbolic – but not unimportant – efforts to reduce employment protection, like restricting access to unfair dismissal for workers in small businesses, or more quietly undermining enforcement efforts. However, the Conservatives are unlikely to take action to restrict the behaviour of the trade unions, or to limit their ability to organise industrial action, without some incitement such as a major strike. Given their weakness, the unions are simply not going to be much of a priority for a Cameron–led administration; the Conservatives are unlikely to want to damage their new–found electoral credibility by picking an unnecessary fight with them. That said, if and when a future Conservative government does find it necessary to react to, and intervene in, industrial matters, we should be in no doubt that its actions will be informed by precisely the same kind of neo–liberal values that inspired the Thatcher and Major administrations and which, in a modified form, have influenced the policies of recent Labour governments.


The authors would like to thank members of the Portsmouth Employment Relations Network for their comments on an earlier version. They are also grateful for the constructive suggestions made by the two anonymous reviewers for the journal.


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