Vince Cable and the curse of the coalition

Look what’s happened to the poor Lib Dems . . .

Pity the poor Lib Dems. In May this year, after winning fewer seats than they did in 2005 under Charles Kennedy, the "third" party of British politics was offered a seat at the top table by David Cameron and the Conservatives. Those of us who suggested that joining a full coalition with the Tories would be a bad move, and even potentially self-destructive, were ignored and ridiculed. " 'Supply and confidence'? That's for wimps," seemed to be the refrain of the Orange Bookers.

The coalition, however, has not been kind to the Lib Dems. Consider the policy record. In-year spending cuts, tuition fees trebled, free schools, NHS reorganisation, Trident renewal, new nuclear power stations on the way and – in the new year – control orders likely to be retained in some shape or form. The party is down to 8 or 9 per cent in the opinion polls, depending on which polling organisation you choose to believe.

Then there is the fate of individual ministers. David Laws had to "out" himself as a homosexual and resign in the space of 17 days. Chris Huhne was "outed" as an adulterer and had to split with his wife. Nick Clegg, once the most popular politician in Britain, has seen effigies of himself burned on the streets of central London by the same students who cheered him as he arrived at their campuses in his yellow battle bus during the election campaign in April.

And then there is St Vince of Cable. Uncle Vince. The man who predicted the crash. The dancer. The father of the nation. I've had my fair share of run-ins with the Business Secretary, both in print and on air, but I'm astounded at what's been revealed in the past 24 hours. The revelations in the Telegraph about his private views on the coalition, the Tories, the child benefit cut, "Maoism" in NHS reform, his own "nuclear" resignation option and, of course, Rupert Murdoch have rightly dominated the headlines and given Cameron and Clegg a headache.

How did a man so admired by the media and the public at large, seemingly so wise and so restrained, make such a stupid mistake? Why on earth did he run his mouth to two "constituents" that he'd just bumped into in his surgery? Did he ever imagine that his cabinet career, begun at the age of 67, would be on the verge of an ignominous end within just eight months, as a result of a self-inflicted wound? There is talk of him doing a job swap with the (Tory) International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, and staying in the coalition cabinet but, personally, I don't see how he can survive these revelations. His insubordination, arrogance, indiscretion and misjudgement have embarrassed the coalition; his decision to brag about his "war" with the Murdoch empire, much as I admire and applaud the underlying sentiment, makes him unfit to be the Business Secretary who has to adjudicate in the inquiry into the Murdoch-owned NewsCorp takeover of BSkyB.

But, I have to say, covering coalition politics is so much fun. It certainly keeps us journos busy. Even in the run-up to Christmas, it seems, the intrigue, speculation and controversy in Westminster never end.

On a side note, however, and given the Telegraph claims to have more tapes of more loose-lipped Lib Dem ministers (Norman Baker? Sarah Teather? Huhne??), it's worth asking: was it ethical, let alone legal, for the Telegraph to carry out this "sting" operation? Whatever happened to the privacy that MPs expect inside their constituency surgeries? Where's the public-interest argument for undercover journos secretly recording the gossipy views of an MP in his constituency surgery? I can't see it (though, as I said, I don't deny I'm enjoying the political and media fallout from the sting).

As the Guardian's Michael White writes:

My feeling is that there was no public-interest justification for the Telegraph sting. It's not as if the tape proved that Vince likes cocaine or underage rent boys, both illegal activities and thus legitimate targets of press inquiry – as was the News of the World's Pakistani match-fixing probe, but not its hacking into royal or celeb gossip.

. . . Vince will not walk the plank. He might well be within his rights to find a means to sue or report the paper for breach of parliamentary privilege – which the sting surely was in interfering with his duties as Twickenham's MP. But politicians have long been cowed and rarely take such steps unless the case is watertight and then some.

Oh, and on a side, side note, you've got to both laugh and groan when you hear the response of Labour's Douglas Alexander to the Cable comments:

He was supposed to be on Strictly Come Dancing, but in fact he's dancing on thin ice.

Boom, boom! (Hat-tip: James Kirkup)

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.