Brown goes on the attack at Leveson

The former PM's desire to settle scores made this a remarkable performance.

Gordon Brown, who has made few public statements since leaving Downing Street, has come to the Leveson inquiry with an unashamed desire to settle scores. In the first hour of his testimony, he "absolutely" denied that the Sun received permission from him or his wife to run a story on his son's cystic fibrosis, denounced James Murdoch's MacTaggart lecture as "breathtaking in its arrogance and ambition" and quipped that "You can serve up dinner, but you can't serve up BSkyB as part of the dinner."  And there was more - the former Prime Minister told the inquiry that he had passed to a recording of Sunday Times reporters discussing "illegal (newsgathering) techniques" to the police, and contradicted Rupert Murdoch's claim that he told him he had no choice but to "make war" on his company after the Sun's defection to the Tories (one wonders if the inquiry will adjudicate on this point). Brown's prodigious memory (we haven't once heard the words "I can't recall") and righteous fury have made this one of the most remarkable performances of the inquiry.

The most difficult moment for Brown came when he was challenged on why he and his wife continued to regularly socialise with News International executives even after the Sun's story on their son. Brown replied that his wife was "one of the most forgiving people I know", an answer that some will find implausible. Was it not, rather, that Brown was so determined to win over the media that he cynically forgave even their gross abuse of his family's privacy?

Asked about his relationship with Murdoch, which was far warmer than Blair or Cameron's, Brown said it was "faintly ridiculous" to suggest he was influenced by Murdoch's views. In an amusing line, he quipped that Murdoch would have us at war with France and Germany and have Scotland as the "52nd state" (independent and Atlanticist). Of his similarly warm relationship with Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, he said Dacre was "personally very kind" but rightly noted that this did nothing to diminish the ferocity of the Mail's attacks on Labour. Even more than Blair, Brown acquired a reputation as a media obsessive. But, he insisted, he is "so obsessed by the newspapers that I rarely read them".

Along the way, Brown has also taken the time to remind us of his opposition to euro membership and to defend his Afghanistan policy. The former PM appears to have seized an opportunity to deliver a state-of-the-nation address, leaving Robert Jay QC often struggling to keep him on topic.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown at the Leveson inquiry this morning. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.