Got milk? The coalition’s latest U-turn

It’s free. No, it’s not free. Yes, it is free.

In my cover story on David Cameron's first 100 days in office for this week's New Statesman, I compared the Prime Minister to Margaret Thatcher, writing:

Despite appearances to the contrary, Cameron is less a Whiggish pragmatist than a radical, in the Margaret Thatcher mould. His combination of market-oriented reforms to the public sector and savage cuts to public spending -- hailed by the investment bank Seymour Pierce as heralding a "golden age of outsourcing" -- suggests that he is intent on completing the neoliberal, state-shrinking revolution that Thatcher began and which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did little to reverse.

. . . Disregard the rhetoric and image, and consider instead the record: in his first 100 days, Cameron has gone further than Thatcher -- and much faster, too. His "modernising" ally and minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, has said that the Tories always planned to outstrip the Iron Lady.

It seems, however, that Dave has decided not to out-Thatcher Thatcher on the subject of free milk for kiddies. In the 1970s, the then education secretary was berated as "Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher" after her decision to end free school milk for the over-sevens. But earlier this morning, Downing Street beat a hasty retreat from the suggestion in a letter from a junior health minister that a UK-wide scheme offering free milk for under-fives could be scrapped as part of the coalition's ongoing and draconian drive to make immediate spending cuts.

The Department of Health has now confirmed that no decision has yet been taken. (Put to one side, for a moment, the fact that cutting the scheme would have saved the Treasury only £50m and also put to one side the fact that the coalition has already announced the abolition of free swimming for children and pensioners and the cancellation of Labour plans to extend free school meals to 500,000 children from low-income families.)

It seems to me that there are two related explanations for this humiliating Sunday-morning U-turn by the government. The first is that Cameron may indeed be a Thatcherite ideologue on the economy and the public sector, but his hard-right views often benefit from being sugar-coated with the language of so-called compassionate Conservatism. Or, as I write in my piece:

Tony Blair once denied that New Labour was "Mrs Thatcher with a smile instead of a handbag". It is difficult to conceive of a more apt description of David Cameron.

It's very hard for compassionate Conservatives to spin cuts to free milk as anything other than "cruel", as David Miliband put it. So it's not surprising that the BBC political correspondent Ross Hawkins said: "The Prime Minister does not like the idea of five-year-olds having their free milk scrapped." Really? Shock, horror!

The second factor at play here is a growing sense that the Prime Minister, despite his first-class PPE degree from Oxford, lacks focus and attention to detail, which leads to these U-turns, errors of judgement and gaffes. Remember the row over Crispin Blunt's speech on prison reform, which Downing Street had cleared but then immediately repudiated when the Daily Mail reacted with rage?

The BBC is reporting this morning that the Prime Minister "did not know about the [milk] letter before it was sent out". But that's not good enough. As Tim Montgomerie writes in his piece in the NS this week about Dave's 100 days:

Cameron, it seems, doesn't arrive at his desk in No 10 until 8.30am and has left by 7pm. Away from that desk, he may be working privately, but he certainly finishes earlier than his Downing Street predecessors. An inattention to detail has long worried some of his aides. A failure to master briefs was evident in the election debates and also in his accurate but ill-chosen remarks about Pakistan. It's not enough to get the big judgements right if you get the details wrong. Government really is that unforgiving.

Indeed it is. The next Labour leader, I predict, will thoroughly enjoy taking on this Con-Dem coalition, gaffes and all.

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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The Brexiteers who hope Article 50 will spark a bonfire of workers' rights

The desire to slash "employment red tape" is not supported by evidence. 

The Daily Telegraph has launched a campaign to cut EU red tape. Its editorial they decried the "vexatious regulations" that "hinder business and depress growth", demanding that we ‘throw regulations on the Brexit bonfire’.

Such demands are not new. Beyond immigration, regulation in general and employment protection in particular has long been one of the key drivers of frustration and fury among eurosceptics. Three years ago, Boris Johnson, decried the "back breaking" weight of EU employment regulation that is helping to "fur the arteries to the point of sclerosis". While the prospect of slashing employment rights was played down during the campaign, it has started to raise its head again. Michael Gove and John Whittingdale have called on the CBI to draw up a list of regulations that should be abolished after leaving the EU. Ian Duncan Smith has backed the Daily Telegraph’s campaign, calling for a ‘root and branch review’ of the costs of regulatory burdens.

The Prime Minister has pledged to protect employment rights after Brexit by transposing them into UK law with the Great Repeal Bill. Yet we know that in the past Theresa May has described the social chapter as a sop to the unions and a threat to jobs.

So what are these back-breaking, artery-clogging regulations which are holding us back? One often cited by Brexiteers is the Working Time Directive. This bit of EU bureaucracy includes such outrageous burdens as the right to paid holiday and breaks, and protection from dangerous and excessive working hours.

Aside from this, many other workplace rights we now take for granted originated from or were strengthened by the EU. From protection from discrimination and the right to equal treatment for agency workers and part time workers; to rights for women and for working parents; and rights to the right to a voice at work and protection from redundancy.

The desire to slash EU-derived employment rights is not driven by evidence. The UK has one of the least regulated labour markets among advanced economies. The OECD index of employment protection shows that the UK comes in the bottom 25 per cent on each of their four measures.

Even if the UK was significantly more regulated than similar countries – which it is not – there is no reason to expect that slashing rights will boost growth. There is no correlation between the strictness of employment protection – as measured by OECD – and economic success. France and Germany both have far more restrictive employment protection than the UK, yet their productivity is far higher than ours. The Netherlands and Sweden have higher employment rates than the UK, yet both have greater protections for those workers. And if EU red-tape was so burdensome, so constraining on businesses, then why has the employment rate continued to increase, standing as it does at a record high?

While the UK certainly doesn’t suffer from excessive employment regulation, too many employees do suffer from insecurity, precarity and exploitation at work. We’ve seen the exponential growth of zero-hours contracts, as well as the steady rise of agency work and self-employment. We’ve seen growing evidence of endemic exploitation and sharp practices at the bottom end of the labour market.

Instead of evidence, it seems the desire to slash employment rates is driven by ideology. Some clearly see Brexit as an opportunity to finish what Margaret Thatcher started, as Lord Lawson, who served as her Chancellor admits. He claims the deregulation of the 1980s transformed the economy, and that leaving the EU provided "the opportunity to do this on an even larger scale with the massive corpus of EU regulation. We must lose not time in seizing this opportunity".

The battle that is to come over employment regulation is just part of a wider struggle over what future Britain should have as we leave the EU. At the start of the year, the Chancellor warned our EU neighbours that if the UK did not get a good deal, we would be forced to abandon the European-style taxation and regulation and "become something different". In a thinly veiled threat, he said that the UK would ‘do whatever we have to’ to compete with the EU. To be fair, the Chancellor said this was not his preferred option. But we know that many see this as the future for the UK economy. Emboldened by both their triumph in Brexit and by an enfeebled and divided opposition, many Brexit-ultras want to build a low-tax, low-regulation, offshore economy that would seek aggressively to undercut the EU. This turbo-charged, Brexit-boosted Thatcherism would not just be bad for our continental neighbours, it would be bad for UK workers too.

Britain faces a choice on leaving the EU. We can either seek to compete in what the last Chancellor called the "global race" by driving up productivity, boosting public and private investment, and improving skills. Or we can engage in a race to the bottom, by slashing rights at work, and making Britain in the words of Frances O’Grady the "bargain basement capital of Europe".

Joe Dromey is a senior research fellow at IPPR, the progressive policy think tank.