Rights at work should be back on Labour’s agenda

Trade unions have a say in this leadership election, too.

This week, Ed Miliband backed the idea of extending the right to request flexible working to "every worker, not just those caring for families". This is an idea first proposed in 2007 by Beverley Hughes. Back then, Hughes argued that "everyone has a life outside work, not just parents . . . many people make valuable contributions to their communities in their non-work time".

When you read that quotation now it feels like a "big society" argument, yet the coalition is going in the other direction. The Tories campaigned on a platform to make Britain "the most family-friendly in Europe". But for Ed Miliband, even though he's a new father, the issue is wider than one of families. He highlighted this week that "we still work harder, for longer, than any other country in western Europe".

Ed Miliband's latest defence of the European social model -- aligned to his promotion of a campaign for a national living wage and his call for Will Hutton's review of top pay in the public sector to be expanded to include the private sector -- will appeal to trade union members who have a say in this election. But it will also appeal to employees grinding out a living in low-paid or monotonous jobs.

All five candidates have said that Labour should have moved quicker on the Agency Workers Directive, a cause championed by Unite. Candidates will appear before the Unite executive this weekend and will be pressed not just on employment rights for individual workers, but also "collective rights" for trade unions.

Repeal of Margaret Thatcher's anti-union laws is unlikely to be offered by any candidate other than Diane Abbott, but the CBI has recently called for further tightening of the rules on strike ballots. Balls, Burnham and the Milibands might rule out allowing the 40 per cent turnout threshold that the CBI is lobbying for. 

Another issue that they would be wise to get ahead on is public-sector pensions, as that will be a major concern when the leadership candidates meet the Unison executive tomorrow. John Prescott has already labelled the Labour MP John Hutton's decision to chair a review for the government as the act of a "collaborator". Laying down red lines for Hutton not to cross would be a smart political move by the candidates. Actually making policy proposals could frame the review itself. 

It is important that Labour gets ahead of this debate, because there are some extremely distasteful views being expressed by Tories on this issue. Richard Balfe, Cameron's trade union envoy, told the Telegraph.

Public-sector pensions are like lollipops for kids. You decide what sort of lollipop you're going to give, and then you work out how you are going to pay for it. It's perfectly possible to maintain public-sector pensions at their current level, if you make some fairly modest alterations to employee contributions. Public-sector pensions will clearly be a very significant issue in the wider relationship between the government and the unions.

For a serious analysis of the true costs of public-sector pensions, check out the TUC's explanation showing how less than 0.2 per cent of teacher pensioners, 1.8 per cent of civil-service pensioners and 2.5 per cent of NHS pensioners get a sunset package of more than £40,000 a year.

Employment rights need to be on Labour's agenda, because the coalition has them in its sights. And voters across the social spectrum, both parents and those without family commitments, working in both the public and the private sectors, want more control over their working lives.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Beware, hard Brexiteers - Ruth Davidson is coming for you

The Scottish Conservative leader is well-positioned to fight. 

Wanted: Charismatic leader with working-class roots and a populist touch who can take on the Brexiteers, including some in the government, and do so convincingly.

Enter Ruth Davidson. 

While many Tory MPs quietly share her opposition to a hard Brexit, those who dare to be loud tend to be backbenchers like Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan. 

By contrast, the Scottish Conservative leader already has huge credibility for rebuilding her party north of the border. Her appearances in the last days of the EU referendum campaign made her a star in the south as well. And she has no qualms about making a joke at Boris Johnson’s expense

Speaking at the Institute of Directors on Monday, Davidson said Brexiteers like Nigel Farage should stop “needling” European leaders.

“I say to the Ukip politicians, when they chuckle and bray about the result in June, grow up,” she declared. “Let us show a bit more respect for these European neighbours and allies.”

Davidson is particularly concerned that Brexiteers underestimate the deeply emotional and political response of other EU nations. 

The negotiations will be 27 to 1, she pointed out: “I would suggest that macho, beer swilling, posturing at the golf club bar isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

At a time when free trade is increasingly a dirty word, Davidson is also striking in her defence of the single market. As a child, she recalls, every plate of food on the table was there because her father, a self-made businessman, had "made stuff and sold it abroad". 

She attacked the Daily Mail for its front cover branding the judges who ruled against the government’s bid to trigger Article 50 “enemies of the people”. 

When the headline was published, Theresa May and Cabinet ministers stressed the freedom of the press. By contrast, Davidson, a former journalist, said that to undermine “the guardians of our democracy” in this way was “an utter disgrace”. 

Davidson might have chosen Ukip and the Daily Mail to skewer, but her attacks could apply to certain Brexiteers in her party as well. 

When The Staggers enquired whether this included the Italy-baiting Foreign Secretary Johnson, she launched a somewhat muted defence.

Saying she was “surprised by the way Boris has taken to the job”, she added: “To be honest, when you have got such a big thing happening and when you have a team in place that has been doing the preparatory work, it doesn’t make sense to reshuffle the benches."

Nevertheless, despite her outsider role, the team matters to Davidson. Part of her electoral success in Scotland is down the way she has capitalised on the anti-independence feeling after the Scottish referendum. If the UK heads for a hard Brexit, she too will have to fend off accusations that her party is the party of division. 

Indeed, for all her jibes at the Brexiteers, Davidson has a serious message. Since the EU referendum, she is “beginning to see embryos of where Scotland has gone post-referendum”. And, she warned: “I do not think we want that division.”

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.