Defending Peter Watt over those Gordon Brown revelations

Why should the public only be told of the PM's regime after the election?

The backlash against Peter Watt for writing his memoirs was predictable, and he was braced for it.

However, I challenge anyone to read his full story, which I ghostwrote, and not understand and respect his decision to tell it.

Actually, the idea for the book was mine, not his, though he didn't take much persuasion. And let's get one thing straight: neither of us did it for the money. Indeed, for differing reasons, both of us were prepared to write the book for nothing. Until it was finished, we didn't even know if we would cover our costs.

The project began after I met Peter to interview him for a newspaper article in May last year. It was the day after the Crown Prosecution Service announced that he would not face charges, and after 18 months of forced silence, he was finally free to speak.

He poured out his heart about the way he had been treated by the Labour leadership, and the hugely damaging price he had paid for what he felt was a collective mistake.

He seemed more hurt than angry or embittered and was clearly desperate to set the record straight. He had so much to say that, there and then, I floated the idea of working on a book together.

Neither of us knew quite what we were getting into but, every time we met, he told me things I found funny, interesting or extraordinary -- sometimes all three. He was frank and self-deprecating, and the more we talked, the more confident I became that his story would interest others as much as it interested me.

I am not a big fan of heavy political books, and it was the sense that he had a compelling human-interest story as well as serious information that appealed to me. He spoke very movingly about the death of his father, his marriage and his role as a foster parent, and was very open about his feelings.

Timing was obviously a big issue. Peter was already sticking his neck out by revealing sensitive information and knew that publishing before the election would cause further anger. But there seemed little point in bringing out the book after everyone had lost interest. In any case, those who argue that he should have waited until after the election are in effect saying the public should be told about Gordon Brown's regime only after it is too late for them to do anything about it.

This seems a cowardly and dishonest way to treat the electorate.

It is easy for critics to carp about Peter's disloyalty, but I wonder how many of them would feel an iota of loyalty in his shoes? Make no mistake: this man almost lost everything, arguably through little fault of his own.

Expecting him to keep quiet about it, to spare the blushes of those who hung him out to dry, is a demand too far.

Isabel Oakeshott is deputy political editor of the Sunday Times

 

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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.