One Nation Labour and its challenges

There is a tension between Miliband's centrist language and his left-wing policies.

Initial reactions to Ed Miliband’s Labour conference speech have been overwhelmingly positive, with even Tories praising the delivery, if not the content. And it really was an excellent conference speech – by far Miliband's best, potently argued without over-doing the wonkish language.

It was a speech that signalled the birth of "One Nation Labour"– a potentially election-winning concept. While Miliband didn’t deliver any new policy announcements, the theme of unity is well-judged for the current climate. It also fits neatly with Labour attacks on Conservatives as elitist and out-of-touch, and criticisms of David Cameron for failing to govern in the inclusive manner he promised. So far, so promising.

But the life of "One Nation Labour" will not be without its challenges. Here are a few that it will have to successfully overcome if it is to secure the party a majority in 2015.

1. ‘New Labour in disguise’

The most obvious Tory attack line will be to remind voters of New Labour and argue that "One Nation Labour" merely amounts to the same ideas in a new disguise.

Miliband has said before that "the era of New Labour has passed". But a new catchphrase for the party, appealing as it may be, will meet with cynicism from the millions of voters for whom "New Labour" merely equates to dashed dreams.

2. Who does One Nation Labour speak for?

One of the curious aspects of Miliband’s speech was that, while it was delivered in decidedly centrist terms, its concrete policy content did not reflect that. To put it another way, this speech would have been viewed as a lurch to the left had it lacked the "One Nation" theme. The stern words about immigration were pure Blue Labour. And on education and health, Miliband’s trenchant criticisms of the current government’s policies were, by extension, rejections of New Labour’s reforms too. With this Parliament not quite yet into its second half, there is ample time for him to deal with these issues. But the crux of his problem is that as the election nears, the double act of pleasing the left with policy announcements, while speaking in rhetoric aimed at winning over swing voters will no longer be viable.

3. Committing too soon? 

Although Miliband has been shy of making concrete policy commitments, he risks future policy being hemmed in by his criticisms of the current government.

Take the 50% tax rate and the NHS. While his opposition to the government’s policies in these areas has broad appeal, it would be easy to believe that Labour have made concrete promises to restore the 50% tax in 2015 and repealing the NHS bill – neither of which are true. In the case of the NHS bill, this may simply not be viable by 2015; indeed, repealing the bill on account of its expensive and top-heavy nature would require more expensive and top-heavy policies.

4. That crowded centre ground

Taking the speech on its ‘One Nation’ theme, this was a plea for the centre ground. But, even if it was successful in helping to establish Cameron’s Conservative Party as not being of that centre, Labour face other challenges for it.

Nick Clegg’s former director of strategy Richard Reeves recently argued that “the left-wing votes 'borrowed' from Labour in 2010 will not be available in 2015" and, accordingly, that the Lib Dems should focus on making themselves the party of the "radical centre". The trouble for Miliband is that such a political space seems little different from his own "One Nation" theme. And predictions of Lib Dem wipeout have become less fashionable, recognising both the party’s long history of defying grim circumstances and, more importantly, the immense personal popularity of many of its 57 MPs. It will be very difficult for Miliband to make inroads into the 57 – as he must – without offending some of his own core support.

 

Ed Miliband delivers his keynote speech at the Labour Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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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.