A "one nation market" could turn the economy on its head

Far beyond calls for a "responsible capitalism", Miliband should push for a "one nation market" that can really benefit the many, rather than the few.

We have absorbed the narrative and enjoyed the dynamism, but the great challenge will now rest in its practical execution. In the run up to the next election, the crucial divergences between the major political parties will concern the conversion of their philosophy into practice. While the underpinning philosophy can lend itself to subtlety, its execution will inevitably be quite different.

We have only glimpsed forthcoming Labour policy this conference season, but perhaps enough to gauge its general direction and approach. From Caroline Flint, the shadow energy and climate change secretary, have emerged plans to abolish the present energy regulator, Ofgem, and impose greater regulation on the country's retail energy market. And Gareth Thomas, the shadow minister for civil society, and Chris Leslie, the shadow financial secretary, have called for more stringent requirements on the banks to deliver on transparency and to invest a proportion of profits in communities - much like the Community Reinvestment Act pioneered in the US.

All of which is very well for those footing the bills. But for the "one nation" philosophy to really succeed, Ed Miliband - and those of all parties and none - must complement such regulation with a far more ambitious agenda. Far beyond calls for a "responsible capitalism", Miliband should push for a "one nation market" - a market that can really benefit the many, rather than the few.

Increased regulation of the energy retail market, for example, could see caps on energy bills and a relief for consumers, but will not in the long-term decentralise electricity distribution, or create greater retail competition to break up its supply. Policy should instead seek to grant "the many" the power to take hold of such markets and indeed open up the opportunity for communities and smaller groups to enter in.

As argued in a ResPublica paper published earlier this year, communities could  themselves be perceived as the potential producers and owners, rather than simply passive consumers, of their electricity generation and supply. A recent growth in co-operative energy models and a greater interest in community shares, have really revealed the nation's appetite for such widespread ownership and devolved investment to take place. "Responsible capitalism" may hold large energy companies to account, but a "one nation market" could turn a consolidated economy completely on its head.

Miliband's "one nation" call, coupled with Jon Cruddas's drive for a politics of the "common good" and a better "big society", has opened up the opportunity for such an agenda to emerge. Turning the philosophy into transformative practice will now be the challenge, and may indeed be the pivot upon which the next election is won or lost.

Caroline Julian is a senior researcher and project manager at the think-tank ResPublica, and co-author of Re-energising Our Communities: Transforming the energy market through local energy production

Ed Miliband applauds shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper at the Labour Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Julian is Deputy Director, Head of Policy and Strategy at the thinktank ResPublica.

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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.