By SLF Co-Chair Gareth Epps

It’s not just social Liberals and those Liberal Democrats least comfortable with the coalition that have expressed dismay at the proposal that has become known as ‘shares for rights’. This is for a number of reasons. First, the proposal didn't just come out of the blue; it came after a summer of positive mood music for that long-cherished Liberal goal of co-ownership, the passing of the first ever Liberal Democrat policy paper on the subject and the successful rubbishing of the Beecroft agenda to tear up employment rights in the UK, largely due to the complete absence of evidence that it would help the economy. Inconsistency, to put it mildly. Second, the nagging feeling that this is not a policy proposal derived from anything other than expediency – specifically the internal dynamics of that part of the Conservative Party that has forgotten it didn’t win a majority in 2010. It wants to steamroller through Beecroft, whether by the front or back door. The proposal was announced a mere 10 days before appearing tucked away in a portmanteau Bill, along with a rushed consultation (with a derisory three-week “consultation” period), having managed to unite in opposition the CBI, TUC and even the Chartered Institute for Personnel & Development. It appears to be unworkable and likely to benefit only employment lawyers. Last but not least, the way in which the proposal was announced. This is of concern to those Liberal Democrats who had hoped Coalition decision-making had improved and lessons learned from mistakes made in the first half of this Parliament. It appears to have been signed off by the ‘Quad’, without reference to any part of the Party, going against the protocol that politically significant decisions going against Liberal Democrat policies be subject to internal discussion. If those taking the decisions in this instance thought they were politically insignificant, they have significantly misjudged the mood of the Liberal Democrats. On that last point, there really does need to be an understanding that the Party’s tolerance is not unlimited. Government announcements in coalition that are not decided properly are bound to promote division and disunity.  The battle for the Liberal Democrats is tough enough without this. We would urge all Liberal Democrat members to take part in the consultation and point out the flawed thinking and absence of evidence that the withdrawal of basic employment safeguards is remotely necessary for employee share ownership. I re-read the writing of the great Jo Grimond on the subject last weekend. His co-ownership proposals were in part designed to strengthen industrial relations, and made no mention of the denial of rights. I shudder to think what Jo would be saying on the subject, if he were with us today. Coalition is, in part, a game of give and take. Shares for rights is taking liberties (quite literally), so we look forward to the most splendid gift in return. The Government consultation can be accessed here - the closing date is 8 November.
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