Britain is a democracy - so why do we accept dictatorships in our workplaces?

Democracy should be extended to all workplaces to make them fairer - especially payiStock

As of next year, in June 2018, companies listed in the UK will have to publish the pay ratio between their chief executive and their average worker. The policy was announced on 30 August by Business Secretary Greg Clark.

However, it all felt like a bit of a damp squib. Last year, in her first speech as Conservative Party leader after Brexit, Theresa May pledged to govern on behalf of the "just about managing".

The so-called 'Jams' have in many respects become a synonym – together with 'left behind' – for the English working class. As part of an attempt to reconnect with this group of disgruntled voters, May promised the "greatest extension of rights and protections for employees by any Conservative government in history".

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In practice, this was set to include worker representation on company boards, more rights for workers in the 'gig' economy, as well as increasing the minimum wage in line with median earnings. These, however, were promises made prior to the Conservatives' disastrous June election result in which they failed to win a majority against a leader they had assumed to be entirely hapless.

Since then, May has spent more time trying to assuage her restless backbenches over Brexit than pursuing any kind of radical policy offering. Most of the things proposed a year ago – with the noticeable exception of yesterday's executive proposals – have been quietly shelved.

This ought not to take away from the fact that the promised publication of executive pay ratios is an important step down the road to corporate accountability. Early each year we are now reminded of just how far into the stratosphere executive pay has travelled in recent decades. By the second week of January, this year dubbed 'Fat Cat Wednesday', top executives had been paid more than the average annual salary of a worker. Executive pay has risen exponentially over the past 30 years. Two-thirds of FTSE 100 CEOs are now paid more than 100 times the average UK salary.

The argument typically deployed to defend such obscene disparities is performance. Companies need the best people for the job, so the argument goes, and must therefore be allowed to remunerate their top brass lavishly.

Yet the link between high executive pay and company performance is "negligible", according to a study published last year. According to researchers from Lancaster University's management school, while senior executives enjoyed pay rises of more than 80% over the past decade, returns on investment at the biggest companies amounted to just 1% over the same period.

Rather than relying on a solid base of evidence, I suspect at least some of the reluctance to challenge executive pay is rooted in Britain's historical culture of deference to authority.

Every generation is shackled by the past, and the notion that the main division in society is between a small cognitive elite and an unenlightened mass – a central ideological pillar underlying the expansion of industrial capitalism – has not disappeared simply because few are willing to state it so plainly nowadays.

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As with racism, the old assumptions persist and simmer away behind arguments for everything from grammar schools to executive pay.

What the government's watered-down announcement about executive pay reveal unintentionally is just how far we are in Britain from a society which is meaningfully democratic at work.

This is not to play the relativist's game of declaring ignorantly that Britain is 'no different' to, say, North Korea or Saudi Arabia. Half a glass of water is after all better than an empty glass. It is more a judgement on the complete lack of democracy for the ordinary person once they walk through the office revolving door or the factory gates.

For all our democratic hubris, we still accept the equivalent of dictatorship in certain aspects of our lives.

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How far one would wish to go with workplace democracy – there are variants of the idea all the way from full workers' councils to the 'part-ownership' of the John Lewis business model – is at present a moot point. With the proliferation of things like zero hours contracts and casual work – usually entailing no minimum wage or sick pay – as a country we are still firmly facing in the opposite direction, with little concrete attempt on the part of the government to apply the brake.

But any meaningful attempt to grant workers the power to assert their own strength – distinct from the paternalistic notion of the benevolent state handing things down to them – invariably depends on a reinvigorated trade union movement.

The precipitous decline in trade union membership in Britain has roughly coincided with the take-off of executive pay. While executive pay is at an all-time high, trade union membership is at a historic low. Trade unions have in fact just experienced the biggest drop in membership since records began. The caricature of the militant trade unionist regularly summoned by the right-wing press is a figure of fantasy: the number of days lost to strike action in Britain is at a historical low.

Labour's plan to ease the draconian restrictions on trade union organisation is a step in the right direction. Trade unions are, as the recent Labour manifesto put it, the "most effective way to maintain good rights at work".

But an expansion of trade union activity – albeit through reformed and fully democratic trade unions – would also be a huge philosophical advance on the nineteenth century model of democracy we have come to accept as the limit beyond which mass participation must not go.

For all our democratic hubris, we still accept the equivalent of dictatorship in certain aspects of our lives. Notably, we remain democratic citizens at home and the playthings of unaccountable forces at work.

Thus the case for a far more expansive programme of pro-worker policies is fundamentally a question of democracy, and addressing the ongoing lack of it in significant areas of everyday life.

Politics is fundamentally about competing interests rather than ideas as to 'what works'. It is foolish to pretend otherwise. Yet who, even among those traditionally hostile to the trade union movement, could honestly object if pro-worker policies were communicated as part of an expansion of the democratic franchise.

Who, even on the Conservative backbenches, would openly poo poo the idea of more – rather than less - democracy'? Especially when we have had it drummed into us for two years that to 'take back control' is the most laudable of political aims.

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