How Labour can still win

A four-point plan for Labour to build a new coalition of voters

The 2010 election is the first since 1992 when the question "Who will govern?" could be genuinely at stake. The first New Year skirmishes of the long campaign showed the Conservatives surprisingly underprepared, but Labour vulnerable to self-harm.

This Saturday's Fabian New Year conference "Causes to Fight For", with the New Statesman as a media partner, will examine how the left could influence the election-year agenda. Labour is a clear underdog, yet even the current 10-point poll deficit may not translate into a Tory Commons majority. To close the gap, Labour needs to persuade the fragmenting coalitions of voters which brought it three victories that the election result matters.

Can Labour persuade working-class voters that the threat of Tory austerity is sufficent reason to turn out?

And, on the liberal left, will Staggers readers, many of them disillusioned with Labour, feel they have a stake in the outcome? How might Labour seek to re-engage?

Be honest about the record

An honest account of Labour's record on progressive causes would argue that it is substantial but mixed. Labour could not have done a great deal more on international development, but some will never forgive it over Iraq. There was significant progress on pensioner and child poverty, but not in reversing inequality. The minimum wage and more money for schools and the NHS made a difference, but there was an uncritical reliance on finance-led growth.

Ed Miliband has belatedly brought more vigour to a pale green record. Key constitutional reforms -- freedom of information and devolution -- will endure, but a new constitutional settlement was kicked into the long grass. Britain is more socially liberal, with the quiet revolution of civil partnerships, yet arguments about crime, immigration and welfare have often become harsher.

In each of these areas -- excepting civil liberties, the most significant blind spot -- the Conservative leadership has conceded significant territory to Labour's record, rhetorically at least. It is now for Labour to show that its future agenda has substantively more to offer those seeking a fairer, more equal and greener society.

Ensure Labour has a positive message

The focus of Labour's campaign has been on ensuring that the Conservatives face the scrutiny of a would-be government-in-waiting. That the Conservatives are ahead in framing the election year can be seen in how often ministers seem forced to contest Tory narratives -- a debt crisis, the broken society, or the (ludicrous) idea that Labour has declared "class war".

The related charge that Labour has a "core vote" strategy does not stack up: the party was rather more vocal in its condemnation of lack of "fat cat" support for a windfall tax and over "rewards for failure" under Tony Blair in 1997 than it is over banker bonuses now.

The intention is to intimidate Labour into muting its positive argument. This should be framed around the idea that "fairness doesn't happen by chance", and is a question of policy choices not political language, with substantive tests -- in whom we tax and where we spend -- of what a politics of fair chances and fair rewards means as distributional choices get tougher.

Be clearer about spending

But that also depends on Labour opening up the "what not to spend" debate. The Conservative strategy is "safety first and run down the election-year clock". The fledgling centrist Cameronism of 2006-2007 has shrunk to pledging the status quo on the NHS (and development) in exchange for a "doctor's mandate" for austerity and cuts everywhere else. (The opening "Trust Dave" poster is explicit about this offer). Only by being more open about its own future spending plans in the March Budget, however painful, will Labour open up what cutting faster and deeper entails.

Sow the seeds of a new pluralism

Whatever the outcome in 2010, the economic and political crises of the past two years make new thinking necessary on key questions, from a more sustainable "next capitalism" to new ways of doing politics, too.

Both Stuart White on the Staggers and Will Straw on Next Left yesterday made the case for a more pluralist left movement politics.

Restarting these conversations can be difficult. Despite its broad popularity in the mid-1990s, New Labour narrowed into a politics of certainty that repelled those not part of "the project" -- a sharpness reciprocated in critiques from those to its left.

Pluralism needs to be a two-way street. Labour is essential, but probably not sufficient, to future governing projects of the left. Debate is the stuff of politics. One of the first challenges of a new pluralism is whether, where we disagree, we can do so with mutual respect.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society. He blogs at Next Left

 

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Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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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.