The political landscape is changing. Within two years, we are likely to have a new Labour prime minister competing against David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell, who was voted in as new Liberal Democrat leader last week. Gordon Brown is likely to complete the set of leaders who will face up to each other come the next general election.
While all three of the main parties will be jockeying for the centre ground – with there being much agreement between them – when it comes to employment, their policies are likely to be quite distinct.
When Cameron’s new baby, Arthur, was born last month, Brown was one of the first to send the Tory leader’s family some congratulatory flowers. It was a sign of the chancellor’s assumption that he alone is now the leader in waiting. Brown, too, is a father of a young son and his wife is expecting their second child later this year, so you can bet that both of them will be extremely conscious of the issue of parental leave.
Brown is committed to continuing the government’s policy of extending parental leave to one year, and is strongly in favour of allowing either the mother or father to share the period off work by the end of this parliament.
The chancellor is already setting out his stall when it comes to women at work. Brown’s legacy already includes helping to introduce new rights for mothers and fathers to request flexible working, launching a 10-year strategy for childcare and financial support for it, pilot projects in the South East to help women get back to work, and the National Minimum Wage.
Following Baroness Prosser’s Women and Work Commission report last week (go to www.personneltoday.com/34267.article), the chancellor is promising new measures to address the pay gap between men and women, both full-time and part-timers, in his budget on 22 March.
His approach is likely to be more carrot than stick, however. He will double the number of skills coaches available under government programmes, offer taxpayer-supported grants to businesses that employ larger numbers of the lower skilled, and boost the ‘train to gain’ scheme.
A source close to Brown said: “He is a big fan of training in the workplace, and is ploughing more money into that. Cameron takes a traditional laissez-faire approach and wants to leave it up to employers to get on with it. But Gordon believes you have to subsidise it.”
Brown would also place more emphasis on addressing the lack of skills among ethnic minorities, according to his aides: “He knows that in 20 years’ time, 70% of the current workforce will still be in work, so it is as important to look at raising skills levels as it is improving educational standards.”
Cameron is far less politically experienced than his Labour rival, although at least he can claim to have worked for a significant time in the corporate world, where he was a strategy executive for media company Carlton Communications.
Cameron has shown an ambivalent attitude to business so far. To change the party’s image, he has promised to “stand up” to big business and not be such a “mouthpiece” for it as the Conservative Party has been in the past. Whether this is mere posturing, an attempt to distance the party from its old image as the party of the stuffy boardroom, or whether he really means it, remains to be seen.
We do not know that much yet about his policies, because nearly everything in the next Conservative manifesto is up for grabs – Cameron having appointed six policy commissions to report in summer 2007. One of these, on the environment, is chaired by Zac Goldsmith, the environmental campaigner and editor of the Ecologist magazine. On green issues, at least, there is a discernable difference between the Tories and Labour, with Cameron refusing to sign up to Brown’s climate-change levy.
The Tory leader has sought to play down the traditional ‘Punch and Judy’ approach to politics that has dogged Westminster for decades, but that does not mean there are not other differences. For example, while Cameron is supportive of the right to parental leave, he has said that allowing fathers up to six months’ parental leave “smacks of political correctness”. So would Cameron reverse Labour’s legislation to allow parents to share up to a year’s paternity leave? Unlikely, as taking it away after it had already been introduced would cause a political storm.
In addition, the Tories have already signalled that they will seek to be as family friendly in their policies as the current government. They are short on detail at the moment, but George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, said last week that he wanted the party to get away from the old impression that women should stay at home.
The gloves are likely to come off when it comes to the issue of Labour and red tape, however, and Cameron’s team are unlikely to pass up an opportunity to attack a Brown government on this.
Shadow trade and industry spokesman, Alan Duncan, said: “There are a thousand regulations and 150 directives from the EU every year. Labour has just turned a blind eye to that. And Gordon Brown has been guilty of obscene retrospective taxation on sectors such as the oil industry.”
For its part, the Brown camp says it is relaxed about its regulatory record in comparison to other industrialised countries.
Now that Campbell has been elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, the party can settle down and get back to business after the disruption of recent weeks.
There has probably never been a time in recent political history when the party could hold the balance of power. But the next general election could be a close-run thing, with the possibility of a hung parliament in which Campbell’s party could prop up a minority Labour or Tory administration.
There may be some relief from the business community over the election of Campbell. The elder statesman of the Lib Dems is more ‘small c’ conservative than Simon Hughes, and less concerned about environmental taxes on business than Chris Huhne. Aged 64, Campbell will probably want the party to focus on issues such as human rights, foreign affairs and public services than get bogged down in the minutiae of employment rights. In addition, recent press releases from the party’s trade spokesman, Norman Lamb, have focused on gas prices and the Post Office.
Business as usual?
Overall, with Labour more likely to win the next election under Brown, employers can expect more of the same in terms of regulation. And, even if Cameron does get lucky and get into Number 10, he is unlikely to return to the deregulatory days of previous administrations. If employers are looking for a bonfire of red tape, they will be disappointed.