Could self-employed freelancers sway General Election 2024?

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There are 4.4million self-employed individuals in the UK, at the last count. If they voted as one homogenous block - and they voted for either Conservative or Labour - it would determine the outcome of the next election, writes Andy Chamberlain, director of policy at IPSE.

How many votes does it take to win the UK general election?

In 2019 the Conservatives won what was heralded as a landslide victory. They secured a majority of 80 seats with approximately 13.9 million votes in total. Labour had close to 10.3 million votes in total.

Even in a year when there is a runaway winner, there’s still only 3.6 million votes in it – which is probably not far off the total number of votes cast by the self-employed, when you take abstentions into account.

The parties are not blind to this. While self-employment will not be the defining issue of the likely 2024 general election, it will be a very big issue for a big number of voters and any party that has designs on victory would be wise to use the next year (give or take a few months) to listen to what the sector is telling them. And what it would tell them is the following.

How can the parties win the self-employed vote?

Self-employed businesses are businesses. Overwhelmingly, that is the way they see themselves and that is how they want to be seen by government.

Like all businesses, they are striving to succeed, and in so doing they’re helping their clients to succeed. They would love to feel supported by their government, or at the very least acknowledged as genuinely being in-business and not have to constantly prove their self-employed status. They love their independence and they want to keep it.

The Conservatives’ position on one-person business owners

Does the current government see freelancers and the self-employed as businesses? An argument could be made to say no, it doesn’t.

There is no representation of self-employment, or even SMEs, on prime minister Rishi Sunak’s new Business Council and after 13 years of Conservative rule, the big issues which plague the freelance sector – the IR35 off-payroll rules, lack of clarity on employment status and late payment – have worsened rather than improved.

Despite this, there is still a feeling among Tory MPs that the self-employed are their natural supporters – entrepreneurial, hard-working and perhaps even individualistic.

For many, these are core Conservative values and they underpin a baked-in synergy with this part of the labour market. But the party cannot be complacent. There is a feeling among many of our members that the Conservatives have let them down (notably during the pandemic), and its Westminster wing will have to work very hard to win back their support.

Where is Labour on the self-employed?

The Labour Party – rooted in the trade union movement, and seen to be promoters of employment as a means to secure 'worker' rights - has a more difficult relationship the self-employed – at least traditionally.

But things could be changing. Last week the Fabians, in association with Prospect, Bectu and the Community Union, launched a manifesto for the self-employed.

There are some progressive policy suggestions contained within that document. Many of which IPSE agree with – indeed we fed into the manifesto itself. None of it is Labour policy (yet), but the party’s deputy leader Angela Rayner spoke at the launch event and it seems likely that at least some of it will be adopted by the party.

Could the Liberal Democrats make a comeback and court those in freelance work?

Since their 2010 heyday, the Lib Dems have been on steady decline. They’ve been eclipsed as the ‘third party’ by the SNP at recent elections.

But there is evidence they are growing stronger with some impressive by-election results, including in Somerset and Frome last week.

The party’s leader, Ed Davey, has been something of a friend to IPSE in the past and he clearly ‘gets’ many of the issues faced by the self-employed. Arguably, there is nothing more liberal than people taking control of their working lives and freeing themselves from the shackles of overbearing employers.

If the Lib Dems set their minds to it, they could develop a persuasive narrative and policy offering that would appeal to the self-employed while still keeping true to their central beliefs.

What about the other parties’ commitments to professionals with freedom over their work?

The SNP could and should do more on self-employment. Independence from the UK will always be the priority over independent working, but there are a lot of passionate, talented people working for themselves in Scotland -- and the SNP should be trying to persuade them why independence would be beneficial for their businesses, assuming that is what they believe of course! SNP MP Alison Thewliss has been particularly vocal on IR35, holding the government to account over the damaging impact of its off-payroll working rules.

Plaid Cymru don’t often speak about self-employment, but they did back our calls to extend support to all self-employed during the coronavirus pandemic. Just like everywhere else in the UK, there are votes to be gained in Wales by backing the smallest businesses.

The self-employed vote is likely to grow

The total number of self-employed has been on the rise recently, with year-on-year growth reported in the last three quarters. It’s possible that by the time the next election takes place, total self-employment will be close to five million – which, incidentally, is where it was at the time of the last election in 2019. It’s also likely that the next election will be closer than the last, where every vote will count.

No party can win an election just by focusing on the self-employed. The big issues of cost-of-living, immigration, housing, taxation, public sector pay, climate change and the NHS will all vie for supremacy during the 2024 election campaign. But it remains true that the party which picks up the votes of a high proportion of self-employed freelancers will have a significant advantage, likely making them the party to beat.

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