PMQs sketch: Ghostly George and Mottled Dave

Did Cameron own up to the “omnishambles”?

 

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland brought his bottom to the House of Commons today and got it a good kicking.

Having spent much of the last month on the run abroad he finally bowed to the inevitable and appeared in public to face the charge of being guilty for the crime of Budget 2012.

Flanked by his co-defendants George Osborne and Nick Clegg,  he was accused of presiding over the “omnishambles” which has led to the worst four weeks in his political life and a double-digit lead for Labour in the opinion polls.

To be fair to David Cameron, he also brought his brass neck to the Commons to help him through the half hour of ritual humiliation otherwise known as Prime Ministers Questions.

But even that was not enough to save him from the taunts of Ed Miliband who happily listed all the disasters and u-turns from pasties to charities which have characterized the Coalition since the budget leaked its way into the public domain.

Even his topped-up tan could not disguise his nervousness as PMQs got underway, and encouraging asides from the architect of the disaster, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, did little to calm him down.

Knowing a beating was on its way had led to survival plans being drawn up. These seemed to include handing out megaphones to selected back benchers who always shout in direct proportion to the trouble their leader is in. The problem for the Prime Minister today was working out who was shouting for him and who at him and that was just from his own side.

Survival Plan Two is the one that Dave has increasingly adopted since Ed M finally got his measure at PMQs, which is to ignore the bit which says "PMQs". So today when Ed asked about cutting taxes for the rich, Dave replied by asking the Labour leader about Ken Livingstone’s opaque attitude to the inland revenue. 

Ken might have been heartened to get more name-checks in 30 minutes from the Prime Minister than he has had in as many months from Ed M, but as ever in his career he was being conjured up to beat his own party around the head.

But even Ed was only momentarily unsettled by this, Dave’s best shot, and pounced back to list the disasters that have turned this budget into a how-not-to-do-it lecture for politicians in years to come.

In one fell swoop the Prime Minister and his pals have managed to upset pensioners, the churches, philanthropists, caravan owners not to mention the population of Cornwall who apparently subsist on a diet of pasties. In fact so loud was the clamour that the good people of Cornwall could have listened to it merely by opening a window.

Speaker Bercow, himself rested after the Easter break and no recent TV appearances by his spouse, was forced to his feet to complain which only served to remind Tory back benchers of someone they dislike maybe even more than Ken.

There have been concerns in Labour circles that Ed M is too nice to out the boot in properly - unlike his Tory opposite number who has at least an A Level in bullying. But it was no more Mr Nice Guy today as Ed, egged on by his much more qualified namesake Ed B, laid it on.

Indeed, as Dave now appeared to be shouting himself down, the two Eds made a joint appeal for calm.

This had the required effect and the Prime Minister’s face took on a mottled hue only spotted towards the top end of the colour chart as he tried to roar his way out of trouble.

All this contrasted well with the ghostly pallor of the Chancellor and his deputy Danny Alexander who have clearly spent the last few weeks hiding out.

Earlier the fourth member of the Quad who collectively delivered the budget had appeared on the Today programme for a light toasting from Evan Davis. In a bravura performance and not withstanding his collapse behind Ukip in the polls, Nick Clegg admitted he would love to be Prime Minister.

But probably not today.

Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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.