The Tories and Europe: a moral reckoning

We cannot rely on Obama to shame Cameron over Europe

Jonathan Freedland is right to call the media out in his column today on their shameful silence over the Conservatives' sinister European alliance. The mainstream media, most notably the BBC, have consistently failed to scrutinise Michal Kaminski's disturbing political record. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that journalists are putting their Tory sources before their ethical responsibilities.

As he writes:

[W]here is the outrage? Where is the revulsion at David Cameron becoming partners with men who cheer those who fought for Hitler and against Churchill? The Guardian, the Observer, the New Statesman and now the Jewish Chronicle have been shining a light in this dark corner, but from the rest of the media there has been little more than silence.

Despite the attempts of Kaminski's apologists, including Iain Dale and Stephen Pollard, to present the head of the Tories' Eurosceptic group as a moderate Atlanticist, it is clear he is nothing of the sort. This is a man who first denied and then admitted to wearing the Chrobry Sword, a notorious fascist symbol. This is a man who still defends his past membership of the far-right National Revival of Poland. This is a man who not only believes his country should not have apologised for a 1941 massacre of at least 300 Jews but suggests that Jewish involvement with the Communist Party is morally equivalent to this crime.

That the Obama administration should be troubled by this state of affairs is no surprise. Obama is the most pro-European US president for decades and, like his predecessors, wants to deal with a Europe that is united and strong. So the question remains, why has Cameron taken this bizarre risk?

It's important to remember that Cameron's pledge to withdraw from the European People's Party was first and foremost a political move, designed to outflank his right-wing leadership rival Liam Fox. But beyond this, his Eurosceptic alliance reflects the revival of the debased realist belief that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend".

Just as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were prepared to support General Pinochet and the Contras as bulwarks against communism, so Conservatives today are willing to align themselves with the far right in opposition to a united Europe.

The US is clearly troubled by the geopolitical implications of Cameron's decision, but there is unlikely to be a moral reckoning. In any case, it is not one we should outsource to the Obama administration. As a political issue Europe has never detained either the electorate or the media for long. In response, the Conservatives believe they can masquerade as progressives at home while supporting reactionaries abroad.

The challenge for all Europeans is to destroy this moral complacency -- and soon.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.