Woolas pays the price

Labour faces a by-election after an MP’s election is declared void.

I've long highlighted the disgraceful election campaign run by the Labour MP Phil Woolas and, today, he's finally paid the price. A specially convened court has found him guilty of misrepresenting his Lib Dem opponent and has declared his election void. He becomes the first MP to be expelled from parliament for "corrupt practices" since 1911.

All of which makes Ed Miliband's decision to appoint Woolas as shadow Home Office minister last month look like a remarkable act of misjudgement. Even if Woolas had been found innocent, his campaign "tactics" were reason enough to exclude him. Miliband and Labour now face a by-election in the highly marginal seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth, which Woolas held by just 103 votes in May. (Though the smart money is on Labour retaining the seat.)

Below is the demagogic leaflet published by the Woolas campaign, which accused the Lib Dems of courting support from Islamic extremists.

The text reads: "Extremists are trying to hijack this election. They want you to vote Lib Dem to punish Phil for being strong on immigration. The Lib Dems plan to give hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants the right to stay. It is up to you. Do you want the extremists to win?"

Leaflet

Legal documents submitted to the high court proved that there was a calculated attempt by the Woolas campaign to whip up racial tensions in a bid to get the "white vote" behind him.

An email by Woolas's election agent, Joseph Fitzpatrick, to the candidate declared: "We need . . . to explain to the white community how the Asians will take him out . . . If we don't get the white vote angry, he's gone." Another from Fitzpatrick to Steve Green, the MP's campaign adviser, said: "We need to go strong on the militant Muslim [sic] angle" and proposed the headline "Militant Muslims [sic] target Woolas".

On another occasion, Woolas and his campaign team doctored a police photo (you can see it here) to make it appear as if Watkins had been arrested.

Why was this man allowed anywhere near Labour's front bench?

UPDATE: After some confusion over whether he is eligible to stand again, it has emerged that Woolas is banned for three years from being an MP. He is applying for a judicial review.

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.