Presentation here

‘Soft-regulation’ and the modernisation
Of employment relations under the
British Labour government (-97-2000)
Explores the way New Labour sought to modernise British
employment relations through non-legislative enactments (soft
1. Labour-management partnership (1st term)
2. Facilitation of workplace change (2nd term)
3. Trade union modernisation (3rd term)
Soft law allows for wider set of insights into nature of state
intervention (though shaped by overall state approach)
Research draws from multiple research projects conducted
since 2000 to present day.
1. Labour-management partnership: Survey of trade union
representatives (MSF) conducted in 2000 (317 responses,
15%); Partnership Fund research in Finance sector
2. Facilitation of workplace change: ACAS project on NHS
modernisation (5 case studies during 2002-2004)
3. Trade union modernisation: Evaluation of Union
Modernisation Fund (2005-current)
IR research has tended to focus on the more ‘formal’ aspects
of the role of the British state (ie. Hard law)
‘New Labour’ policy situated within the British tradition of
‘voluntarism’ (limited state intervention) and recent
ideological commitment to Neo-Liberalism.
Emphasis on individual rights, with limited collective changes
(NMW; SRP) and not reversal of Tory reforms
But, state intervenes in a myriad ways (Howell), with increased
emphasis on ‘soft law’ (benchmarking, encouraging, steering)
Labour-management partnership (1)
Promoted during Labour’s first term, 1997-2001
Based on productive cooperation and end of adversarialism
DTI Partnership Fund (50k for joint projects) – definition of
partnership was ‘open and vague’ but seen as ‘call for self
regulation between the workplace actors (Terry and Smith (2003)
Industry for partnership flourished
Some academics saw in partnership an opportunity for unions to
increase their institutional centrality (Ackers and Payne, 1998);
chimed well with idea of the ‘mutual gains enterprise’ (Kochan and
Osterman, 1994)
Wide body of research sought to question extent of mutual gains:
unions incorporated; benefits to employees limited
Labour-management partnership (2)
State support diminished during second term and industry for
partnership receded
Opinion divided between those that see the ‘partnership
movement…has run out of steam’ (Guest et al, 2008) and the
endurance of partnership agreements (Bacon and Samuel, 2009)
248 partnership agreements between 1990-2007; in 2007
accounted for 10 percent of workers and 1/3rd in public sector
But research shows it is problematic to conflate partnership with
Partnership relates more to culture, policies and practices; good
employment relations produces better ‘partnership’ outcomes
State endorsement of partnership did little to change employer
culture; though state could attempt this as an employer
Facilitating workplace change: the state as
employer (1)
Assessment of partnership often points to need for intermediation
(Cooke, 1990); and also need to build skills and capacity of key
actors (ie. Unions and management)
Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) was a key
player (as a state agency) in the ‘Industry for Partnership’ ; played
a role in facilitating partnership in NHS change
From 2004 New Labour sought to modernise the National
Health Service through the Agenda for Change programme
Large ‘harmonisation’ programme that was to be implemented
through partnership working and consultation machinery
But, widespread structural changes meant that at local level
consultation machinery was often not working or had broken down
Facilitating workplace change: the state as
employer (2)
In hospital trusts, organisational mergers had created uncertainty,
distrust and tension in consultation forums
Uncertainty over what was negotiation and consultation, what
issues were to be covered and protection of local interests meant
forums had broken down and senior management were not
attending; this made Agenda for Change difficult
ACAS played role in reinvigorating consultation machinery,
through ‘workplace projects’, joint seminars and problem solving
groups and the like; recognition of difference and benchmarks with
‘good practice’ were key
Consultation became more effective, which in some cases meant
more effective employment relations and structures of
representation - state role here as employer and facilitator
The modernisation of unions (1)
Trade Union Modernisation Fund introduced during New Labour’s
third term, from 2006
Up to 10 million was allocated across three rounds, for matchfunded union projects (up to 200k)
79 projects funded in total involving a large range of trade unions
Seen by some as largely an extension of the Partnership Fund,
designed to foster less adversarial union activity and a ‘supply side
trade unionism’ (Ewing, 2005)
Rationale was to equip unions with the skills: common place to
management in global and competitive market place; need to
represent diverse groups of workers (transform; demonstrate)
Themes partnership working, communication, diversity, modern
management methods and professional competence; vulnerability
The modernisation of unions (2)
UMF projects were varied, and included: new partnership
agreements with employers; extensive upgrading of technological
capacities; extensive developments in diversity strategies and
roles (eg equality representatives); wider ranging programmes of
training; development of ‘management tools’
Key emphasis on internal communications, diversity management
and skills upgrading; attempts to engage employers often met with
limited success.
Difficult to see the UMF as an exercise in state-sponsored social
engineering (or if so, it failed); more ‘social exchange’, new
‘opportunity structure’
State resources to encourage internal modernisation and climate
for innovation - but politically contentious state investment
Conclusions: Steering the modernisation of
employment relations (1)
Focus on how New Labour sought to modernise employment
relations through soft regulation
Can be seen in terms of steering through partnership, facilitation
and capacity building (union modernisation)
Can this be seen as coherent – partnership seems to underpin
New Labour’s neo-liberal agenda for flexibility and consensus
But, when partnership failed, state steering sought to push the
agenda in the public sector, with support from ACAS, and
modernise unions to equip them with the right skills for partnership
Conclusions: Steering the modernisation of
employment relations (2)
Such coherence not evident: partnership was largely rejected by
employers (see argument of disconnected capitalism); unions
have been able to use the UMF for their own agendas
Focus on soft regulation directs attention to the wider attempts by
the state to (re)craft employment relations: state has always
intervened in British industrial relations, despite voluntarism, and
scholars’ emphasis on the law often results in ‘the exclusion or
marginalisation of a much broader range of state actions’ (Howell,
Soft law directs us to these wider actions, but need to placed in the
context of state action and also, ultimately, the relationship
between hard and soft law (ie. Absent hard law may result in more
soft law; but soft law may need some basic hard laws to work)
Conclusions: Steering the
modernisation of employment

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