The government has declared war on workplace benefits. Labour must save middle England from Picklesian puritanism.

by Dan Cooke

I have been having a recurring nightmare lately that I go to work one morning and my boss has been replaced by Eric Pickles.

Maybe it stems from guilt that I let my office pot plant fade from neglect, when there are others not allowed to have them. Or it may be a deeper fear of what could be exposed and corrected. Can it be right that my employer subsidises my lunch every day? What about the free language lessons? And, even more embarrassing, the “Thai head massages at your desk” promised in my offer letter… I never did find out exactly what this meant but I know what Pickles would make of it.

But then I remember: I work in the private sector, so Eric can’t touch me. Thank goodness it’s only on TV that you can get a line manager like that (think The Office).

But a different type of guilt – and a different worry – persists when I ponder the pillorying of public sector “perks” like sandwiches in meetings and a work mobile phone that, in the jobs I’ve had, were simply things provided so you could do the job. Do government employees really deserve such different conditions from those in the private sector for similar work? And can their terms really be attacked without influencing the norms in the private sector as well?

Current Westminster debate on the workplace is often a battle of abstract buzzwords: “efficiency”, “flexibility”, “empowerment”, “security” and others. But in lunch-break conversations up and down the country, in the private as well as public realms, employees are more worried whether they will have to start paying to use the coffee machine and whether they can get help with a taxi home if they work late.

If Labour wants to break through, we need to understand this and have policies that relate to the concerns expressed around the water cooler. That may even mean a fight to keep the water cooler – and the kitchen and the other spaces people have in offices to keep a bit of balance and sanity in their hectic working days.

In such matters, decisions in the public sector – and above all the tone in which they are explained – send a powerful message about what is acceptable for all. So, when it is ridiculed as ludicrous and unjustifiable to use a small, windowless box room as a place that civil servants can have paid-for massages, then this affects all workers – public or private, blue collar, white collar or dress-down casual.

More tangibly, as further public services are inevitably outsourced to private providers, their employee benefits are likely to be scrutinised to the same standards (even as high profits and executive pay at the same outsourcers are justified as the rewards due from efficiency). Unless the fight-back starts soon, more and more people will wake up to find that the nightmare of Picklesian puritanism is the reality of their working day.

So while the government strategy is to divide public and private workers by stirring suspicion and envy, Labour needs to counter with strong advocacy of good working conditions in both sectors. Ed Miliband has rightly argued that New Labour did not have enough to say about the way people work, not just what they are paid, and this is a prospectus on which he must be built. The pressure to work longer hours is a major issue, as Ed has indicated, and new threats to security of employment matter too. But concern should also extend to the environment people work in and the benefits in kind which many good employers provide  – and more should – to show staff that they are valued and help them balance work with other commitments.

A good start, to show Labour gets it, would be to raise the alarm over the proposals from the office of tax simplification in December to abolish tax relief on employer-provided luncheon vouchers and the cost of late-night taxis home for staff on overtime. These “tax simplifications” are under review at the same time as proposals to streamline corporation tax by allowing companies to avoid tax on overseas branches or subsidiaries in tax havens. Choices like this reveal a government that favours Davos man over “mondeo man”. Labour must show that it can stand up to it on behalf of middle England.

Next, we need our own review of workplace benefits. This should draw on best practices in the UK and abroad in employee childcare, travel, health and wellbeing and include proposals for how to reward good employers and encourage more to follow them. As part of this, we need to recognise that small businesses will often be particularly nervous of being asked to do more but will also benefit if they can match what larger employers can offer staff.

So, rather than abolishing existing reliefs on employee benefits we should consider re-focussing them. More generous allowances should be given to smaller companies, while they could be tapered away for larger ones, which can be encouraged in other ways such as a code of best practice and the obligation to “comply or explain” (as with corporate governance now).

Labour has always seen itself as the party of working people. This heritage rightly takes account of issues, as relevant today as ever before, such as unfair dismissal and the right to organise at work. But we know that, on their own, these do not always speak strongly to enough people to win support in areas where levels of public employment and unionisation are lower. However, this is no reason to stop thinking about the workplace as the key to winning future support; rather we need to update and broaden our understanding of what this means.

So I hope at the next election we will regularly see Ed Miliband in the gleaming canteens of some of Britain’s best employers, praising their example of how to treat staff and hearing, in turn, of their own gains from improved morale and productivity. That would be smart politics. It would also point the way to a Britain in which good conditions are more widespread in the private sector, secure in the public sector and everywhere a source of pride not ridicule. And to a Britain in which nocturnal visions of Eric Pickles need intrude on no worker’s slumber.

Dan Cooke is a Labour activist and lawyer.

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5 Responses to “The government has declared war on workplace benefits. Labour must save middle England from Picklesian puritanism.”

  1. doreen ogden says:

    Ha ! You are talking about workers that are actually going to be in work – the ones that have taken a paycut so they can keep in work. Dream on …

  2. theProle says:

    I work for a pretty typical SME in the retail manufacturing sector, £10 millionish turnover, 100ish employees.

    I don’t have a pot plant on my desk.
    Staff facilities run to a pair of over priced vending machines (usually empty anyway), and a well worn table tennis table donated by a employee ages ago.

    I usually turn up 15-20 minutes early in order to ensure that production actually start on time. I usually leave 10-15 minutes late, cos someone has to tidy up, log the computer out, turn the lights off. If someone turns up with a delivery, or a sales rep comes in at lunch time, guess who leaves his brew and butties, and goes to sort it all out. I don’t get paid or time in leu for any of it.

    If something has to be collected, and someone else is out in the company van, I end up using my old Landrover pickup (and my diesel), to go tearing round town, cos orders HAVE to go, or we are all out of a job.

    I’ve not had a pay rise since 2007, and my fixed costs of living have gone up by getting on for 50% in the mean time. For most of 2009 we were all on a 4 day week, and the firm nearly went under due to the combination of a large cancelled order (cheers B&Q) and a total lack of logic or understanding from our bank.

    The (shared) computer on my (shared) desk is a 2006 windows box, that can just about manage to run the internal specifications pages on the intranet, or my email, but woe betide if I want both at once.

    I don’t mind all that much. I don’t expect any different from them – times are hard. Our suppliers are squeezing us with price increases. Our customers dig their heels in when we try and pass the increases on. VAT went up this year, our products are VAT rated, and guess who our customers wanted to take the hit, so they could hold retail prices. Our products use lots of aluminium, and the weak pound and high global metal prices are doing us no favours. I’m lucky, I have a job. I make it my business to do what it takes to keep my bit of the company running, to make orders go on time, to sort out problems before them become major, to keep people supervised so they don’t waste time. There are a band of about 6 of us, hands on supervisors. We keep the place going, because if we didn’t, we all know there would be no place to employ us.

    However, if one thing makes me angry, it is people paid 3 times what I am, by my taxes, to do sweet FA, crying about the loss of their pot plants, work iPhones (guess who pays for the phone I use all the time I work – yep, that’s right, it’s my personal mobile), massage suites, fancy office chairs, and the rest. It’s a hard world out here, about time you got used to it. If you want luxuries in your office, that’s fine. Pay for them yourselves. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else – if your REALLY worth what you think you are, then someone will pay it. But don’t try the private sector, you may be in for a big shock…

  3. Chris says:

    @Dan Cooke

    Good article. The majority of British employers have never been enlightened and willing to go beyond the bare minimum for the standard worker drones, even that is given grudgingly.


    “if one thing makes me angry”

    So being taken for a mug by your employer doesn’t annoy you in the slightest?

  4. Tacitus says:

    Perks? What perks? Most employers these days think being in a job itself is a perk!

  5. theProle says:


    >So being taken for a mug by your employer doesn’t annoy you in the slightest?

    They don’t take me for a mug. They just haven’t got money to throw at extra perks.
    I know, I’ve seen the figures. Things are looking up this year (I reckon 75% chance of a pay rise, and probably the first payout on the company bonus scheme in several years), but there still isn’t a lot of cash out there for them to play with. You may argue that it would be better to stand back and let things slide rather than go beyond the strict letters of our contracts – if I and my fellow team-mates did that, then eventually we know there would be no company, and hence no jobs, and I tend to the view that the value of having a job outweighs the fact they can’t run to a pot-plant for my desk…

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