Alan Watkins, 1933-2010

Former NS political columnist dies at 77.

Alan Watkins, one of the longest-serving political columnists in British journalism, died yesterday at the age of 77.

He wrote his last column for the Independent on Sunday on 18 April, shortly after the first of the three leaders' debates. And it is a perfect illustration of Watkins's artistry (not too strong a word, I think, for what Watkins did week in, week out for well over 40 years; his former colleague on the Observer, Robert Harris, describes Watkins's weekly despatches from the heart of British politics as "unsurpassed in [their] wit, [their] knowledge of parliamentary history and the quality of [their] prose").

Beneath a headline that now looks unusually prescient ("Clegg's soft touch will be hard to sustain"), Watkins displayed an attractive imperviousness to the conventional wisdom that too often asphyxiates political journalism in this country:

From the acres of opinion on display on Friday, I seem to find myself in a minority of one. The "great debate" has been pronounced an outstanding success. Hardened political commentators journeyed all the way to Manchester for . . . for what exactly? They might just as well have watched the proceedings from the modest comfort of their own sitting rooms, as I did myself.

Indeed, I watched part of Coronation Street, with the sound turned down. The first time I have done so, on that previous occasion turned up, for about 20 years. I watch a good deal of Channel 4, but to the main ITV channel I give a wide berth. There it is.

Not only was Watkins immune to debate-hysteria, he was also sceptical of "Cleggmania". Too many commentators, he suggested, were mistaking a minor earth tremor for a permanent shifting of the tectonic plates -- a judgement that, for all the unprecedented excitement and intrigue of this weekend's behind-closed-doors horse-trading, looks pretty secure in the wake of the Lib Dems' disappointing showing on Thursday:

Politically, the effect of Mr Clegg's appearance on Thursday evening was the same as the effect of a Liberal Democrat win at a by-election. For many years there was almost a guaranteed supply of Liberal Democrat upsets. In later years, the supply was in danger of drying up. There is no comparable peril on 6 May. Mr Clegg can say: vote for me. There is bound to be a Liberal Democrat somewhere within easy reach.

The New Statesman is proud to be able to say that, for several years, Watkins was one of our own -- as political correspondent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, under the editorships of Paul Johnson, Richard Crossman and Anthony Howard. In 1968, the magazine sent Watkins to Blackpool to cover the 100th Trades Union Congress:

Who is the windblown figure, battling along the front at Blackpool? Past "Seaview" he goes, past the Belgrave, past the Cliffs, sharp left and past Yates's Wine Lodge -- where Labour ministers will drink a glass of lunchtime champagne to demonstrate their solidarity with the workers -- and finally to the Winter Gardens, in which the only visible form of plant life is the fruit machines. Is it? Can it be? Indeed, it is: the Political Correspondent of the New Statesman, refreshed after several weeks' holiday, come to the one hundredth annual Trades Union Congress.

You can read the rest of his report here.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture 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.