A year on from the release of his review into working practices, is Matthew Taylor any closer to convincing business to take on the principle of good work?
Matthew Taylor is a man buzzing with ideas. I’m at his top-floor Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) office on London’s Strand, ostensibly to talk about the government’s response to his 2017 review of modern working practices. But during our hour-long interview we cover enough ideas to make a policy wonk’s head wobble – the merits of universal basic income (UBI), worker technology, domiciliary care, regional banks and even reforming our entire political system.
Running through these myriad ideas is a singular theme which sums up Taylor’s attitude to the RSA’s purpose: how can we make the UK a better place in which to live and work?
“The UK seems to have two deeply held, though rarely articulated, views about work,” asserts Taylor. “One is the ‘master and servant’ view, where I pay you so I get to tell you what to do and you keep quiet; and two, some jobs are just rubbish and someone will always have to do them. I want to create an intolerance to these views.”
Commissioned by Prime Minister Theresa May, Taylor’s Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices was published in July 2017 with 53 recommendations and an overarching aim to ensure all work in the UK is fair and decent, with realistic scope for development and fulfilment.
The response among the business community was mixed, particularly when it came to Taylor’s recommendations around the so-called gig economy workers of Uber and Deliveroo. His idea that these people be reclassified as ‘dependent contractors’, entitled to sick, holiday and maternity pay, was criticised on both sides. Unite union said the review “spectacularly failed to deliver” on tackling insecure work, while the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warned it could be “negative for individuals and affect firms’ ability to create new work”.
Taylor acknowledges that it’s impossible to please everyone. So how does he rate the government’s feedback, issued in February?
“If you judge the government’s response purely by their willingness to act, you would say the jury’s still out. I give the government 4/10, but there are still answers to come on critical questions. So, it could go up to 7/10 which would be incredibly high for a review of this nature,” he says.
Whatever the final outcomes, Taylor emphasises that his involvement in the idea of good work is ongoing – and that technology offers huge opportunity to change the way we work for the better. He cites the ‘worry’ people have around the Uber platform, but argues that many drivers like the ‘flexibility’ it provides. He believes technology can be used for purposes beyond profiting business.
“An important piece of work we’re doing is around escaping a deterministic view of technology, the classic ‘robots are taking our jobs’, to focus on the amazing benefits it could have for us if we shape it to human ends,” he explains.
Changing attitudes requires public support, and, as Tony Blair’s former head of policy (2003-2006), Taylor understands the need for persistence and persuasion when making major policy shifts; he cites the smoking ban and Scottish devolution as examples of changes implemented smoothly because of work done to gain public buy-in.
“At the RSA, we encourage people to think like a system
and act like an entrepreneur,” he says. “Important change is
systemic; you’re trying to move a system from one equilibrium to another. The crusade for good work is complex and could take a generation to achieve a systemic shift. On the other hand, acting like an entrepreneur is about being agile and taking opportunities. This is where we need the government to act on things, but also to be out winning the argument with the public.”
Taylor believes that existing technology, such as WhatsApp, could help remote or self-employed workers organise themselves better, reaching a critical mass. Power in numbers would then allow them to articulate demands to organisations around employee rights, pay or pensions more forcefully than as individuals.
One idea that Taylor likes but was deemed too strong for the review – Number 10 told him not to include it – is UBI. An alternative to the benefits system, UBI is an unconditional form of social security that guarantees a certain amount of money to every citizen, regardless of their employment status or willingness to work.
Forms of UBI have been trialled in The Netherlands and Italy, but a recent nationwide pilot in Finland, which provided (the equivalent of) £490 per month to 2,000 citizens, was called off after the government rejected requests for more funding. Despite this, Taylor considers UBI a better way of providing welfare to a future population that will see a higher turnover of jobs and be less structured around the ‘job for life’. He believes UBI will encourage people to work and provide security if people lose their jobs. The benefits outweigh the costs, he argues.
“This would not be so expensive as to be beyond the sort of reforms we’ve done on welfare before, such as universal credit or NHS reforms. We have to get over this rather negative view we have of other people,” he adds; while he acknowledges that a “very small number of people” might sit on the sofa at home, “the benefits of having a system where we don’t have to police, coerce and bully people into work would be huge.
“Evidence shows that the only people who appear to be dis-incentivised from work are young mothers and fathers, which could be a good thing.”
Taylor believes actual implementation of UBI in the UK is “at least a decade” away, but sees other exciting ideas emanating out of the RSA under his leadership, enthusing about a new scheme of regional banks he hopes will be established in the next few years and discussing his upcoming annual RSA lecture on the disconnect between party politics and democracy.
Does the former Labour policy guru miss the buzz of political power? “I still feel involved in change and political ideas 24 hours a day,” he says. “At my age, the idea of going back into a culture where you’re not free to say what you think is right, where the outcomes are a reflection of machinations and power struggles rather than properly thought-out ideas, dealing with a hostile media – life is too short.”