Clegg’s contradictions

The Liberal Democrats need to sort out their line of attack on Labour’s “deficit deniers”.

One of the (many) downsides to the Liberal Democrats being in coalition with the Conservatives, and Lib Dem press officers like Lena Pietsch having to serve under Tory spinners like Andy "Bully" Coulson, is that the Lib Dems have had their talking points written for them, word for word, by their Conservative coalition partners.

Take the deficit. I've blogged before about Clegg and Cable's humiliating and inexplicable U-turn on the issue of spending cuts and the timing of deficit reduction, but have you noticed how Tory-esque their attacks on Labour's economic policies seem to have become in recent weeks? The whole Osbornian "deficit denier" stuff has been swallowed wholesale by the Lib Dem front bench.

Last month, in a joint press conference with the Tory party chair, Sayeeda Warsi, the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, said it was "inexcusable" that none of the Labour leadership contenders had come up with any policies to tackle the record Budget deficit. And on Sunday, Danny Alexander wrote to the Labour leadership candidates, accusing them of "opportunism rather than economic competence".

And in yesterday's PMQs, stand-in Nick Clegg, the deputy PM, told the Tory MP Mark Pritchard::

They [Labour] were irresponsible in government, and they are now living in denial in opposition.

He told the Labour MP Nic Dakin:

One hundred thousand members of the public have made suggestions about how we can try to bring some sense to our public finances without hitting the vulnerable and without hitting front-line public services. Have we heard a single suggestion from anyone on the opposition benches? Not a single suggestion.

But, in the same session of PMQs, he said to the Labour MP Joan Walley:

I simply ask the Honourable Lady and her colleagues whether they have any qualms about the fact that her party and her government announced £44bn-worth of cuts but never had the decency or honesty to tell the British people where those cuts would fall.

Hang on! He accepts that Labour had planned "£44bn-worth of cuts", but accuses Labour leadership contenders -- including David Miliband, who is sticking to the Brown/Darling deficit reduction plan -- of being in "denial". Contradiction?

And he tells Dakin (above) that we have not "heard a single suggestion from anyone on the opposition benches" about how to fix the public finances, despite being well aware of the various proposals that have emerged from the five leadership candidates during the course of the campaign.

Take David Miliband, for example, who wants to abolish charitable status for private schools and introduce a mansion tax.

Take Ed Miliband, who wants to retain the bankers' bonus tax.

Take Ed Balls, who wants to introduce a 50p tax rate on those earning more than £100,000.

Take Andy Burnham, who wants to end the ring-fencing of the NHS budget.

Take Diane Abbott, who wants to scrap Trident (something the Deputy PM once wanted to do!).

Now, I accept that most of these proposals have yet to be fleshed out in detail, and none of them on their own (or, for that matter, combined) will eliminate or even halve the structural deficit, but to pretend that we've had nothing but silence from in-denial Labour leadership candidates is simply untrue and absurd.

It also, as I said, flatly contradicts his other line of defence -- Labour planned cuts, too! -- which he deployed against Joan Walley yesterday, and again on the Today programme this morning against John Humphrys.

Get your story straight, Nick!

UPDATE:

I hear Danny Alexander refused to appear on Newsnight yesterday to debate Ed Balls. The shadow schools secretary has, of course, been praised for his grasp of economics and fiscal policy by, among others, centre-right figures such as Irwin Stelzer, Martin Wolf and Boris Johnson (!).

Check out Balls's reply to Alexander's letter to the candidates here.

You can read Mehdi Hasan's politics column each week in the New Statesman magazine.

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.