Why the Lib Dems should not threaten to block the boundary changes

It only encourages Tory and Labour MPs to rebel against Lords reform.

Last week, Simon Hughes said that Nick Clegg's outgoing director of strategy, Richard Reeves, was wrong to warn that the Lib Dems could block the boundary changes if the Tories failed to support House of Lords reform. But on the Today programme this morning, the Lib Dem deputy leader made the connection himself. He told John Humphrys:

We're clear you can’t have a deal broken by one side without consequences, there would be consequences if they broke it ... The one thing that is obvious that the Tories desperately want is the Boundary Commission proposals to go through.

The Lib Dems' anger is not unreasonable. One reason that so many (91) Tory MPs rebelled last night is that they were unsure where David Cameron actually stood on the issue. The Prime Minister, in common with William Hague, the man charged with talking the rebels round, has rarely appeared convinced of the need for reform. To many Tory MPs, this lack of conviction was an invitation to rebellion.

But there are two good reasons why Hughes and others should avoid linking Lords reform to the boundary changes. The first is that it is seen as an act of bad faith by Tory MPs. It was the AV referendum that was the quid pro quo for the changes, not Lords reform. The second is that it encourages Labour MPs to rebel in the hope that the boundary reforms, which will disadvantage their party more than any other, could yet be derailed.

If the Lib Dems want to secure Lords reform, as all democrats should, the best thing they can do is to continue to make the principled case for an elected second chamber better able to constrain an overmighty executive.

Nick Clegg sits in the royal box during the men's singles final at Wimbledon. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.