Up the City of London

Brian Coleman returns to the City of London

The last time I wrote a column referring to the Corporation of the City of London, Ken Livingstone described me as behaving like a "demented Trot" in calling for its abolition - which, incidentally I was not.

Meanwhile a hard copy of my blog was pinned up on the notice board of the Members room at the Guildhall. I suspect the first time many Alderman and Common Councillors had read anything in the New Statesman.

Although one Common Councilman was very rude to me (and you know who you are Mr Deputy), I was amazed at the number of sensible and well informed members of the Corporation who sidled up to me and remarked that I had raised some interesting points.

Well, the other night the Great and the Good of London Government duly donned their dinner jackets and enjoyed the Lord Mayor’s hospitality at the Annual Government of London Dinner.

To the general astonishment of most, Ken Livingstone wore the regulation Black Tie (is there an election on?) and the number of guests who I spotted in a lounge suit could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The lord mayor actually made a good speech, mainly because he expressed the sentiments that we politicians were thinking, that London and its issues as a capital city are not understood by this government.

And, once again, it has been stuffed on the Local Government Finance settlement.

Ken Livingstone’s response was, sadly, rather long and rambling and, unlike Ken’s normal after dinner style, devoid of jokes, which was probably why one Common Councilman on the top table was sound asleep and at least one London Borough Mayor was nodding off.

Most guests amused themselves by reading the printed copy of the detailed table plan. During his speech Ken could not resist his current obsession of attacking the London Evening Standard which he described as the London Evening Johnson to a murmur of disapproval.

The best speech of the evening was undoubtedly by Councillor Merrick Cockell. He's the leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (and with a name like that he was born to be leader of a Royal Borough!) and Chairman of London Councils.

Letting Merrick speak was a nod from the City that we have London mayoral and assembly elections this year and they had better have a bit of political balance.

After paying tribute to the Corporation and the chairman of its policy and resources committee, the still unknighted Michael Snyder, Merrick - on behalf of all the London Boroughs pleaded for much closer cooperation with the mayor of London - post the elections in May. Probably the one overwhelming theme of Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty has been the constant state of war between him and the London Boroughs whatever their political colour.

The following morning I was again in the City of London attending the City New Year Service at St Michael Cornhill presided over by the redoubtable rector, the Reverend Dr Peter Mullen, who preached a sermon before a selection of liverymen and City worthies that restored one's faith in the Church of England.

Condemning most things liberal and the wishy washeyness of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Mullen suggested that global warming was a pagan myth and the answer to all life’s problems was a firm and robust Christian faith.

In times gone by the rector would have made a wonderful archdeacon but, in these politically correct days, has as much chance of advancement in the Anglican communion as I do of getting positive coverage in the Guardian. The service ended with a robust singing of three verses of the National Anthem including the great line "Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks".

The City of London remains a defender of those traditions and beliefs that made our country great and over the centuries has confounded and frustrated generations of politicians: long may it be so!

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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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.