A bit of mourning before getting organised

By-election defeat, dirty Tory tactics and the festive season party circuit

Moan, moan, moan, moan, moan. OK, I’m in a bit of a bad mood this week, so that’s what this blog is going to be - just one long moan. Sorry ...

Turns out we didn’t win the Kentish Town by-election on Thursday. Although it would have been something of a miracle for us to move straight from third place to first, particularly with the Lib Dems wanting the seat so badly, we did think we stood a chance. And it wasn’t just us. Rumours reaching us from activists in the other parties ranged from ‘you might just win’ to ‘you’ve got it in the bag’.

We ran a very decent campaign in the end. Natalie, our national internal communications co-ordinator (also from Camden) edited and designed some really professional leaflets, and I think she spent more time canvassing than I did as well. Councillors and key Greens from all over the country also joined us for doorstep duties at various points over the past six weeks, and Peter Tatchell came along for a special session to push Labour voters our way last week (Peter was in Labour for over twenty years before joining the Green Party in 2004).

Thursday started at 6am, with a queue of two dozen Greens outside my flat ready to deliver our ‘it’s election day’ postcards.Our polling day HQ was run like clockwork by London Assembly Member Darren Johnson, who took Lewisham from one Green councillor to six this year. But still, about half way through the afternoon we realised how outnumbered we were by LibDems on the streets – we could see about five of them ‘knocking up’ voters for every one of our people.

I was also a bit shocked to see a Tory leaflet going out on the eve of the election with a 'truth table' stating baldly that I am not a local school governor (I am, and my school is in the ward). I'm sure that can't have helped - voters put a lot of store in local connections - and it's not as if the Tories couldn't have easily found out the facts. We mentioned it in several of our leaflets, and the details come up immediately if you put my name into Camden Council’s website.

The Tories of course didn’t stand a chance in Kentish Town and Labour - defending the seat - were similarly outnumbered by the LibDems, so we did manage to take second place, which is a bit of a result at least. This was only confirmed after two (yes two!) recounts. At the first count we were two votes ahead and after a recount this rose to four. But they still called for another count, so it wasn’t until 1am that we finally had the result, with us still four votes ahead. Luckily, the new laws mean it was easy to find a pub still open near the Town Hall in Kings Cross for a team celebration after all the excitement.

Having caught up on my sleep now, I’m feeling a lot less grumpy, and the fact that 28% of the voters put all their faith in the Greens this time (not just one of their three possible votes, which happened a lot in May) is very touching. We are well set up for next time too – after three more years of a LibDem-Tory coalition messing up running the council, ‘we were second last time’ will be an excellent campaign slogan!

More depressing is the amount of paper the parties have gone through in the course of this election. As predicted in my previous blog, with four parties all working hard, the number of leaflets got really out of hand, particularly from the LibDems. I know it works - and fools a lot of voters - but I just can’t bring myself to put out things like their tricksy pretend-handwritten letters (usually printed on twee blue notepaper) which will be familiar to people living in LibDem target wards across the country (‘Dear Friend…’ eugh).

I have been collecting all the leaflets that have come through my door and, including what the Greens delivered, it all weighs in at just over 300 grams. This probably doesn’t include everything, as I’m unlikely to be a target voter for any of the other parties myself, but it’s a reasonable working figure. Multiplied by the 5,800 households in the ward, this means the campaign as a whole used up almost two tons of paper. Sorry forests! I hope it all gets recycled. My collection of blue, yellow and red paper is going in the ‘dodgy propaganda’ file for the time being.

Now I’ve got all that moaning out of my system, I’m looking forward to a few weeks of relative rest. By happy coincidence, the Christmas party season is just starting up and my new job as Principal Speaker means my invitation list includes the odd swanky do this year as well – good timing indeed.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.