Taylor tells TUC good work is the hallmark of a fair society

MATTHEW TAYLOR ARRIVED at the Trades Union Congress on 26 June anticipating grief. The eternally-youthful chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts was previewing his forthcoming report for government on the the flexible labour market. A self-confessed sufferer from "verbal diarrhoea", he has already said much to worry those of a more traditional labourist mindset.

Taylor Hand; © Tim Dawson

Taylor tells TUC good work is the hallmark of a fair society

Accordingly, he provided a few glimpses of his background by way of locating his sympathies with the workers. He is a former Labour councillor, researcher for the NASUWT and the holder of an MA in industrial relations. That he was Tony Blair's head of policy in the latter days of his government went unmentioned.

Publication of his review was thought to have been scheduled for 8 June. Theresa May's snap election scuppered that. Its new release date remains under wraps, but it is likely to appear sometime during the next fortnight, he told attendees at the TUC's Living On The Edge event on 26 June 2017.

Taylor promises to focus on the lower-earning precariat. His report will also be informed, however, by his belief that between a half and two-thirds of those who work flexibly, enjoy doing so. "I don't want to find myself being attacked by precisely those groups that I am hoping to help", he said.

The report will acknowledge that the UK economy has been effective at creating jobs - more even than that of the United States, according to Taylor. He will also argue that labour-market flexibility is a contributory factor in that success.

He will make the case, though, that flexibility should be a two-way benefit. If workers accept zero-hours contracts, they should also be able to decline work without penalty, for example. Taylor notes approvingly a supermarket distribution centre that provides workers with an app that allows them to work at nation-wide locations and undertake self-determined roles, where their skills allow.

"The balance of the master/servant relationship has to be shifted," he says.

He will also argue for a levelling out of the tax system so that employees and the self-employed are treated equally. Again, this should be no surprise - Taylor made sympathetic noises when Phillip Hammond unsuccessfully tried just this in the last budget. The trade off for this should be a more consistent approach to pensions, sick pay and training, particularly for those earning £10,000 a year, or less, he said.

Taylor's final, broad-brush, call, will be for a general policy framework that recognises the importance of economic work that is "good". "A commitment to good work should be as important as providing enough work", he said. This should include opportunities for progression and a voice at work, not least because happy workers tend to be more productive.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

From the platform responses, it was clear that many in the labour movement are sceptical about Taylor's trajectory. Hannah Reed, the TUC's employment rights officer, argued that all workers should be given the rights of employees from the point they are first engaged, unless it can be proven that they are wilfully self-employed. (I questioned this from the floor on behalf of the NUJ, citing the issues that freelances at the BBC have when they are taxed at source, against their will. Reed made clear that the TUC's policy was only in respect of employment rights, not tax - although whether a government would countenance one without the other is a moot point).

Miatta Fahnbulleh from the IPPR called for sectoral wage bargaining and automatic union enrolment by sector. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, delivered Taylor the most memorable sideswipe, however. She opened her critique of the 56-year-old's presentation by noting that a sizeable portion of her membership consider his 80-year-old father, sociologist Laurie Taylor, to be an undimmed object of lust.

Of course, Taylor made clear that we would have to await the full details of his nine-month consideration of the gig economy. His reception exposed, however, the likely fault lines his publication will reveal. Many trades unions will redouble their call for zero-hours contracts to be outlawed and for an all-out assault on "false freelancing". Indeed, Rebecca Long Bailey, the shadow business and industry spokesperson, indicated that Labour had little interest in piecemeal labour market reform.

There are challenges too for those of us with long experience of representing freelance workers, most of whom are content with their status. The question at the heart of any response to Taylor will be: are any enhanced benefits on offer sufficient to sweeten the likely cost of equalising taxation? Allied to this is whether a fresh government commitment to the quality of work will ever seem believable - particularly from a party of the right.

There are issues for Taylor too. Many are the earnest reviews of policy whose critical importance have been played up while in progress, only to be quietly shelved once launched. Just ask Brian Leveson or Ron Dearing.

Arriving against a backdrop of minority government, the danger is that whatever are this review recommends, traction will prove illusive. If the RSA boss can come up with something that avoids that fate, then perhaps Taylorism will take on a new workplace meaning - whatever is the reaction of organised labour?