Obama and Cameron: the Tory apologists strike back

Irwin Stelzer takes on James Macintyre

The "excellent James Macintyre" (to quote Telegraph religion editor George Pitcher) is away on holidays, so may I step forward and offer a defence of my colleague? James has been annoying the Tory leadership for months now with his various scoops - on the Boris/Cameron row over Crossrail; on Jewish leaders' reactions to Cameron's alliance with Polish MEP - and former member of the neo-Nazi National Revival of Poland party - Michal Kaminski; and on Obama's private view of David Cameron - but it is the latter revelations that seemed to have really touched a nerve inside Conservative Central Office. Various anonymous diarists have tried to discredit James's story on Obama and Cameron in last week's magazine and, today, Irwin Stelzer, the neoconservative American economist piles in on James in, of all places, the Guardian:

"With Labour's poll numbers headed south, and its policy cupboard bare, its fans have decided that the personal is, indeed, the political. So what better than to argue that David Cameron is regarded as all sizzle and no substance by the most popular political figure on the world stage, Barack Obama. The US president, we are told in the New Statesman, regards Gordon Brown as a man of "substance", but David Cameron as all "sizzle".

Leave aside the Cameron team's assertion that they have checked with White House sources and hear only denials. They would say that, wouldn't they? Ask instead whether it is reasonable to assume that super-cautious Obama, a lawyer without an impetuous bone in his body, is likely to have derided a man with whom he might have to do business for years to come. The answer is that Obama is as likely to have shared that thought with Cameron's political opponents as Thomas More was to have told Richard Rich of his opposition to Henry VIII's divorce."

Three points are worth making here, in response:

1) Who said Obama shared his thoughts with Cameron's "political opponents"? James simply reported that it is an open secret at one of Britain's leading newspapers that a member of the Obama camp relayed, in confidence, to a senior editorial staffer, the President's instinctive reaction to meeting Messrs Blair, Brown and Cameron back to back. Blair: sizzle and substance. Brown: substance. Cameron: sizzle. Government insiders on both sides of the Atlantic indiscreetly share such "secrets" with senior journalists all the time. Stelzer, as a man of great knowledge, intelligence, and learning, should know that, shouldn't he?

2) Tory apologists claim that an American leader would never be so foolish as to criticise, upset or annoy a British ally, future or otherwise. But they forget their own (recent) history. Republican President George W. Bush is alleged to have been so annoyed by fellow conservative Michael Howard's belated oppostion to the Iraq war that he was barred from visiting the White House. And, of course, as James pointed out in his original piece, Prime Minister John Major famously infuriated presidential candidate Bill Clinton when Central Office staffers became involved in George Bush Snr's re-election campaign back in 1992. Again, a man of Stelzer's transatlantic knowledge and experience, should know all this, shouldn't he?

3) Stelzer, like the diarists, focuses on only one part of James's story, conveniently ignoring what I would argue is the more substantive element: that members of the Obama foreign policy team have been circulating British newspaper reports on Cameron's dodgy alliance with Mical Kaminski and, in the words of one Democratic Party source close to the State Department, and quoted by James, "There are concerns about Cameron among top members of the team." Why wouldn't there be? Did Stelzer and other Cameron cheerleaders really think the hard-headed Democratic foreign-policy realists inside the White House and the State Department would simply ignore the Tory leader's isolationism in Europe and his cuddling up to far-right reactionaries in the name of the (mythical) "special relationship"? That wouldn't be "change we can believe in", would it?

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.