Since the publication of our report Work, employment, skills and training: where next for Scotland? at the end of April, debate on these issues has been hotting up, not just in Scotland, but elsewhere in the UK. By requiring the government to produce a comprehensive outline of policies to be adopted by an independent Scotland, the referendum debate has provided a platform for the emergence of what is, by UK standards, a radical new vision for employment relations north of the border. It is plainly an area where the Scottish Government feels willing and able to open up ‘clear tartan-shaded water’ between itself and much of the thinking at Westminster.
However, it would be wrong to assume that the referendum debate is the only force at work. What has been interesting in the last few months has been the more general emergence of a vigorous UK-wide set of debates about the future of work and employment relations. This has been powered by mounting concerns about the quality of many of the new jobs being created in our economy, the rise of self-employment, falling standards of living and low levels of wage rise across large swathes of the economy, growing inequality, the rise of in-work poverty and the cost of tax credits, public sector strikes, youth unemployment, and the poor job quality experienced by many workers. These debates have been fuelled by academic studies, but also by research from think tanks like the IFS and the Resolution Foundation, by charities such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and by the UK government’s own Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.
Traditional policy narratives that saw rising real wages for all and the gradual dwindling away of bad jobs with the arrival of a universal knowledge-driven economy, have started to sound less and less credible. The UK government and employer bodies have found themselves on the back foot. The CBI was recently moved to publish a report (Making Britain Work for Everyone) that warns of the need to both improve productivity and support far greater progression in the workplace while retaining what they claim are the benefits of a flexible labour market.
It is now clear that whatever the outcome of the referendum, governments on both sides of the border will continue to face calls for new thinking about how better social and economic outcomes can be generated within the labour market, and how workplaces might be managed to meet the needs of a twenty-first century economy and workforce. The debate in Scotland is further down the road in starting to address these issues, and doubtless the forthcoming findings of the Scottish Government-established Mather Review of progressive workplace policies will add to the debate, but at Westminster it is likely that the Labour Party will be playing catch up, as the fruits of its ongoing policy review on work and employment start to emerge. Jobs, the workplace and employment relations are back on the political agenda in a way that they have not been for a quarter of a century.