Responsible capitalism. It’s a phrase that has been used more and more recently, often by people who believe in the responsibility bit more than they believe in the capitalism element. But it’s a concept that should be important to those of us who think that capitalism is the best way of creating jobs and improving living standards. Fundamentally, a growing economy should benefit everybody in society and companies should be expected to treat their workers well and treat their customers with respect. If they don’t do that, then people who believe in free enterprise shouldn’t be hesitant in criticising their behaviour.
The way some high street restaurants treat their serving staff is a prime example of this. In a service industry, good, hard-working staff represent the cornerstone of a restaurant’s success and profitability. But many high street restaurants pay their staff no more than the national minimum wage of £6.50 an hour. The work can be tiring and involve working at antisocial hours, limiting the amount of time people can spend with their family. Some waiting staff have worked at these restaurants for many years but are still paid poorly. In such an environment, tips from customers are absolutely crucial. And customers, quite rightly, expect their tips to go directly to waiters and waitresses.
That’s why so many people find it unconscionable that some high street restaurant chains are skimming off a share of tips as what they call an “administration fee”. When customers tip by card, some restaurant chains are keeping as much as 10% of this for themselves. There are chains, such as Chiquito and Garfunkel’s, that have already dropped this charge, and it’s about time others followed suit. Such a charge shows scant respect for workers and is effectively deceiving customers.
Conservatives should be vocal in making clear that such behaviour is not acceptable. Championing capitalism as a way of creating jobs and wealth also means being ready to speak out when workers and consumers are not treated with respect. This is by far the best way of making a case for popular capitalism and showing compassion towards the working poor. Conservatives need to be unapologetically pro-business, championing entrepreneurs and creating the environment in which business can flourish, but also unapologetically pro-worker, taking measures to help tackle abuses and improve the living standards of the working poor. This would build on the hugely welcome move to boost wages through the introduction of the “national living wage”.
Being pro-business doesn’t mean giving businesses a free pass in all circumstances. And speaking out when workers aren’t being respected isn’t being “anti-business”. Rather, it’s in the long tradition of Teddy Roosevelt conservatism – he spoke about giving both workers and businesses a “square deal” and shining a light on examples where workers weren’t being given this square deal. Conservatives should also be prepared to tackle abuse of monopoly power and rip-off practices where they exist.
As Labour falls apart during its interminable leadership contest, now is a time for the Conservatives to properly take up the mantle as the party with a moral mission to help the working poor. This means making clear that hard work should be rewarded and that the benefits of growth should reach everybody in the economy, particularly the low-paid. Boosting wages through a national living wage is a key part of this, but it’s also crucial that Conservatives make clear that they will stand up for workers and consumers when businesses are treating them unfairly. Being the active proponents of a responsible capitalism that champions businesses and workers will help Conservatives break down even more barriers in the years to come.