Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham.
One hundred years ago, rather than tasting the dirt and death of the trenches, Lenin holed up in Switzerland, and, in the words of Don McLean, “read a book on Marx”. As any Gove-ite schoolchild understands, the consequence was a behemothic warning to governments tempted to force-feed social trends. Policy, and indeed, politics, swing on the balance between action and reaction, freedom and security.
This balance pervades a timely report by Demos, Going it alone, published this week. How we work is changing. Almost 15 per cent of our workforce is now self-employed – a group set to overtake the number of public sector employees by 2020. And this shift is down to much more than economic strictures, or a Government that resists the invention of jobs. We are an increasingly self-focused population who want, or need, to work more flexibly, often whilst caring for children or aging relatives.
We’ve all accepted that the days of fifty years of nine-to-five in the same firm as your Dad are over. Lately, it’s more about moving to the Dordogne to grow Merlot, or to Dundee to “streetfood” haggis. And sometimes it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. But it’s not for everyone: the more freedom you gain, the more you slip your security blanket.
Demos responds to the developing zeitgeist with policy recommendations. Most of these demand government cuddles rather than leg ups. Its best suggestions fit with the inherently autonomous nature of this style of work: tapping into the crowd-sourcing movement emulates the report’s calls for innovation, whilst avoiding paternalism. Because going self-employed is a choice. A choice which, apparently, 75 per cent of its exponents prefer. I know I do.
And businesses often depend on the pliancy of freelancers in order to test-drive evolution. I’m glad that the report addresses the risk of promoting regulation over responsibility; darkening grey rules reduces the space for trial or trust. But proposals to equalise incentives, and bring tax definitions in line with those used in employment law, seem not only fair, but also sensible. Any solution for cutting bureaucracy is refreshing. Using derelict buildings as “work hubs” – physical spaces for freelancers to work independently together – is attractive. But these hubs should remain more Paris salon than kibbutz. You might occasionally chat to a fellow café Macbook user, but would you really ask them to join you in the proposed government-led collective maternity-pay insurance scheme? I don’t know if I’ll ever want kids, so I think I’d be better off settling for a savings account.
It’s easy to see self-employment as a solution – a way for government to embrace both the move from industry to information, and an aging population. But the most fitting policy response would be to do nothing. Nothing proactive, that is. Please lacerate red tape, and prevent exploitation. React, inform, nudge even, but don’t push, or positively discriminate. We need to be allowed to go it alone.