Boundary changes will hit Welsh Labour MPs hardest

There is a clear political dimension to the way that the coalition’s proposed boundary changes will

There is a clear political dimension to the way that the coalition’s proposed boundary changes will be implemented.

Today during Deputy Prime Minister's Questions, the shadow Treasury minister Chris Leslie raised the matter of House of Lords reform, asking Nick Clegg whether the proposed reduction in the number of MPs, accompanied by new coalition appointments to the Lords, was intended as a political move against Labour.

Clegg responded by confirming that the Labour-instituted method for appointing peers will remain in place until a full review of the second chamber has taken place, and also pointed out that a number of Labour peers have just joined the Lords, appointed as part of the Dissolution Honours list in May.

However, the Deputy Prime Minister did not really address the main point of Leslie's question: under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010-2011, which is now making its way through the House, 50 MPs's seats will be scrapped, and it looks as if a significant proportion of them will be in Labour-supporting areas.

Yesterday, the House of Commons Welsh affairs committee published a report which concluded that not only does the coincidental clash of the referendum with the next Welsh Assembly election raise concerns, but that Wales would be affected disproportionately by the cut in the number of constituencies. The report reads:

The reduction in the number of Members of the House of Commons proposed by the bill would affect Wales more than any other part of the UK; the evidence we have received suggests that Wales would lose at least ten of its 40 MPs, a 25 per cent reduction (in comparison to a 17 per cent reduction for Northern Ireland, 16 per cent for Scotland and 5 per cent for England).

Of the 40 Welsh MPs, 26 are Labour, eight are Conservative, and the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru have three each. Reducing this total by a quarter would inevitably impact more on Labour than any other party, purely as a result of it being the largest political grouping.

The new boundaries would be drawn in order to create constituencies of roughly equal size – each consisting of roughly 76,000 voters. The rights and wrongs of the changes themselves will no doubt still be debated at length before the final vote on the bill. But, without doubt, the boundary changes will have a heavier bearing on the opposition than the government, and clearly there is a strongly political dimension to the way the coalition has gone about delivering its "new politics".

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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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.