Time to talk to the Taliban

Lord Malloch-Brown has hit the nail on the head

I have a piece in the magazine tomorrow on Gordon's "goats" - the acronymic offspring of his "government of all the talents", announced with great fanfare by Brown prior to entering Downing Street in June 2007 - who have, in recent months, slipped their ministerial tethers to graze in pastures new. Lords Jones (Trade and Investment), Darzi (Health) and Malloch-Brown (Foreign Office) have all resigned from government. The latter fired a parting salvo at his soon-to-be former bosses, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, in an interview in this morning's Daily Telegraph, in which he claimed British forces in Afghanistan were under-equipped: "We definitely don't have enough helicopters. When you have these modern operations and insurgent strikes what you need, above all else, is mobility." He has since been forced to backtrack, issuing a rather embarrassing clarification in which he said that there were "without doubt" sufficient resources in place in Afghanistan.

But whether or not there are enough helicopters in Helmand is a distraction from the bigger issues at stake - for example, why are we still in Afghanistan nearly eight years after 9/11? What is the current mission? What is our exit strategy - if, that is, we even have one? Can we actually 'win' in Afghanistan? Don't expect such questions to be put to ministers, though, as Britain's lobby correspondents have a notoriously weak grasp on foreign policy (in fact, on any aspect of government policy outside of their narrow, Westminster-based, politician-focused remit.)

The media-generated row over choppers for our boys has overshadowed the real significance of Lord Malloch-Brown's frank remarks on Afghanistan in the Telegraph. The Foreign Office minister responsible, and former United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, acknowledged that, in the long run, "the definition of victory [in Afghanistan] includes allowing elements of the Taliban support group back into the political settlement".

His controversial admission come hot on the heels of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's own plea to Western governments earlier this month to develop a new strategy for his country which involves talking to the Taliban at the highest levels - even to their top leader, Mullah Omar.

In the past, the Brown government has hinted that it would consider engaging in negotiations with the various insurgent groups across Afghanistan, including the Taliban, but, as far as I can see, nothing meaningful ever came of it. So will we now see a new push for peace? Fat chance. Those on the right and the pro-war left (dare, I presume, my neocon friends over at Harry's Place?), who wrongly argue that to even talk to the Taliban is "appeasement", still seem to sadly dominate this debate. But former U.S. Secretary of State under George Bush Snr, James Baker, said it best: "You don't just talk to your friends, you talk to your enemies as well...Talking to an enemy is not in my view appeasement."

Hawks often provocatively ask those of us who oppose the war in Afghanistan: what would you do instead? It's time to turn this question on its head. As even President Obama's own National Security Adviser acknowledged last year, in a report for the Atlantic Council, "Make no mistake, Nato are not winning the war in Afghanistan". So I ask the hawks: as we sink further and further into the Afghan quagmire, and as defeat stares us in the face, what will you do instead? In order to "win" in Afghanistan? Or even to turn the corner? Simply send more helicopters or finally acknowledge the Churchillian adage that to jaw- jaw is better than to war- war?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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.