The Eric Morecambe government

All the right things in the wrong order.

One of the great comedy lines of all time is Eric Morecambe’s retort to Andre Previn’s complaint about his inability to play Greig’s piano concerto. Grabbing Previn by the lapels he says, “I am playing all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order”.

This might well be the motto for the government’s efforts to get the economy growing. They are doing some of the right things, just not necessarily in the right places and not really in the right quantities and crucially not with the right focus. Take the variety of state-sponsored lending schemes launched in the last year. When Project Merlin failed to magic up the boost in small business lending that it was expected to, the government launched (or relaunched) the Small Firm Loan Guarantee Scheme (SFLGS), which according to the department for business, was apparently successful, although it failed to get the economy really moving. Three months after it was launched the SFLGS was effectively replaced by the credit-easing scheme billed as Funding for Lending, which would allow banks to borrow at a cheaper rate.

Fast forward another two months and business secretary Vince Cable was out and about this week promoting an industrial strategy that included a suggestion all this may soon be collected together under the umbrella of some form of British business bank.

The details — whether it would include new cash (unlikely), who would be picking the schemes, sectors and firms to invest in and so on — weren’t included. It was a policy announcement coalition style, in effect little more than a floating of an idea to judge its credibility. A business bank in itself sounds like a sensible idea, although simply rebranding lending schemes or creating a fancy new website to house them all in won’t make businesses any hungrier for lending.  

Until that demand for borrowing returns (and to some extent that appetite will require the banks to drop some of the more onerous conditions and rates they are placing on lending at the moment), supply side measures will continue to have little impact.

Some commentators immediately seized on the problematic issue of governments picking winners and images of 1970s British Leyland plants were rolled out again to illustrate why this is such a bad thing. The real problem of course is not picking winners, but rather investing in losers. However, picking sectors seems to be more acceptable. Here, too, there are signs the government is playing the wrong tune. While freeing up planning regulations might help the housing sector, allowing a few homeowners to get the eight-foot conservatory they always dreamed of won’t pull us out of recession.

It is welcome to see a broader acceptance of the fact that there is a role for what shadow business secretary Chuka Umuna calls active government. But this activity will naturally involve selecting sectors to back. One sector that too often gets overlooked as a driver for growth is professional services. What role can the professions play in getting what has become known in some parts of Westminster as “this growth thing” moving?

To address just this question, the Professional and Business Services Group (PBSG) has produced an excellent report Seizing Opportunities for Growth, summarising the work of the sector and suggesting what needs to happen to keep things growing in the right way. The sector remains a major contributor to the UK economy, accounting for roughly 13 per cent of all economic activity, employing 3.5 million people and producing £167bn of GDP in 2010. Crucially it is an international business and accounts for 14 per cent of UK exports and returned a surplus on the UK’s current account of £28.5bn in 2010.

But the report makes it clear that despite the success of the sector there is more than can and must be done to protect and enhance this sector. Chief among these is the expansion of digital infrastructure to create what it calls “smart cities” and the opening up of government data for commercial exploitation and innovation.

The crucial point is that if we get the underlying structures, skills and systems right, then there would be less need to worry about government picking sectors or spotting winners, because everyone would be able to benefit from a more productive environment.

This article first appeared in economia.

Morcambe and Wise. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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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.