25 May 2017
By Gregor Gall, Professor of Industrial Relations, the University of Bradford
The Conservative Party manifesto was launched last Thursday, 18 May. In the first section, entitled ‘A strong economy that works for everyone’, one of the highlighted pledges on page 11 is that ‘Theresa May’s Conservatives will deliver … Fairer corporate governance, built on new rules for takeovers, executive pay and worker representation on company boards’.
The pledge to institute ‘worker representation on company boards’ was made by May in her pitch to become Tory leader last summer. But by November last year, she had backtracked on the idea, saying that there would be no legal compulsion upon employers to create the positions.
So the matter would seem to be sealed, done and dusted. And yet, Theresa May still repeatedly makes the claim. Writing in the Financial Times on 15 May 2017, she said: ‘I will ensure that there is representation for workers on company boards …’ .
And, thus, it’s worth recalling the analysis of Nils Pratley, the Guardian‘s financial editor, on Tuesday 16 May:
“…May’s slippery use of the phrase ‘representation for workers on company boards’ is well known. She does not mean actual workers on actual boards. The CBI and other corporate lobbyists killed that radical idea months ago. Instead, to meet the prime minister’s ambition, a company may merely have to designate a non-executive director as the ‘employee representative’. That director may feel obliged to meet a few workers once in a while, but dressing up the process as a ‘workers’ right’ is ridiculous.”
Writing the same day in the Guardian, his colleague, Polly Toynbee, said of May’s pledge on worker directors: “Straight, honest, trustworthy? These are the qualities she hopes to impress on voters. But look what happened to her first promise to put workers on company boards: it has morphed into something pathetic.” She was referring to her dropping of any mandatory compulsion about employers to create worker directors.
Taking its cue from Theresa May, Sports Direct has been the only company in Britain to create the position of a worker director since last summer. But, critically, it chose itself which employee would serve this role. Consequently, the Unite union branded this as no more than a ‘PR exercise’.
There is something tragically Shakespearian about Theresa May. As Macbeth said in Act 1, Scene 3 in the play of the same name: ‘Nothing is but what is not’. In other words, May cannot be taken at her word and she consistently deploys a surprising amount of Orwellian ‘doublespeak’ in her pronouncements. ‘Straight, honest, trustworthy’ are not the adjectives that come to mind on her pledge on worker directors.
It remains to be seen whether May can be taken at her word on her other pledges on workers’ rights such as her party’s claim in its general election manifesto that: ‘We will make sure that people working in the ‘gig’ economy are properly protected’ and ‘Workers’ rights conferred on British citizens from our membership of the EU will remain’.
This article was originally published in the Huffington Post