Dennis Skinner’s best Queen’s Speech jokes

The finest republican quips by the Beast of Bolsover.

Dennis Skinner's republican quips during the State Opening of Parliament have become as much of a tradition as the rest of the occasion.

Today, as the Yeoman of the Guard (Black Rod is ill) summoned MPs to hear the Queen's Speech in the "other place", the Labour MP joked: "No royal commissions this week," a none-too-subtle reference to Sarah Ferguson's unfortunate offer of access to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew, in exchange for cash.

So, in tribute to the Beast of Bolsover's verbal agility, here is a selection of his finest Queen's Speech jokes from the past two decades.

1990

Skinner quipped: "It tolls for thee, Maggie", a reference to Margaret Thatcher's imminent departure.

1992

As pressure grew on the Queen to pay tax on her personal income, Skinner ordered Black Rod: "Tell her to pay her taxes."

1997

Skinner cried out: "New Labour, New Black Rod", an adaptation of the campaign slogan "New Labour, New Britain".

2000

Skinner shouted out, "Tell her to read the Guardian" after the newspaper launched a new campaign calling for Britain to become a republic.

2003

Following a series of break-ins at Buckingham Palace, Skinner asked: "Did she lock the door behind her?"

2006

In reference to the new film The Queen, Skinner asked Black Rod: "Have you got Helen Mirren on standby?"

2007

After two protected hen harriers were shot dead on the royal family's Sandringham estate, Skinner cried out: "Who shot the harriers?" Prince Harry was questioned by the police but no charges were brought.

2008

Skinner quipped: "Any Tory moles at the palace?", a reference to the recent arrest of the Tory MP Damian Green in connection with Home Office leaks.

2009

As Black Rod arrived in the Commons, Skinner joked: "Royal expenses are on the way."

PS: If you missed it at the time, you can read our special anti-monarchy issue in full here.

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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.