*Emeritus Master of Clare College and Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Cambridge, President of the Industrial Law Society, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a revised version of the Bill Wedderburn memorial lecture delivered to the Industrial Law Society on 17 April 2013. I am grateful to Catherine Barnard, Simon Deakin, David Howarth and Gillian Morris for their comments.
The Coalition Government’s employment law policy is facing in two directions, reflecting tensions between social liberalism and market fundamentalism but wrapped in the language of ‘fairness’. In one direction there is continuity with New Labour’s ‘Third Way’ of ‘regulating for competitiveness’ and social inclusion. In the other direction the Red Tape Challenge is leading to the abolition or scaling down of employment and equality rights. The arguments for deregulation are not based on hard evidence but are mainly ideological supported by the subjective perceptions of some employers. The Government is locked into a model where there is a presumption that regulation interferes with the efficient working of labour markets, and the supporters of regulation have tended to over-emphasise the ‘business case’ for regulation at the expense of the moral and political case for providing ‘decent work’. There are alternatives to the market values of Thatcherism which take account of the fundamental changes in employment relations over the past 30 years. These include the development of workplace structures for industrial democracy, and effective enforcement of employment and equality rights by greater involvement of workplace representatives. There is a need for an alliance between the forces of social liberalism and social democracy to restore what the founders of labour law regarded as its ‘special function’ to be ‘the guardian of human beings in an age of unrestrained materialism.’