Will Cameron attempt to understand the riots?

In 2006, he said: "Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn't mean excusing c

Harriet Harman is normally one of Labour's best media performers but she was badly outclassed by Michael Gove on last night's Newsnight. Her first mistake was to claim that Ed Miliband had been "well received" in Peckham because of his opposition to "the trebling of tuition fees, the taking away of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, the cuts". Her words appeared to imply that the riots could, at least in part, be explained by anger over these policies.

Scenting blood, Gove replied: "Harriet, do you think there are people breaking into Currys to steal plasma TV screens and breaking into Foot Locker to steal box fresh trainers who are protesting against tuition fees or EMAs?" To which Harman rather limply responded: "No. Don't put me in that position", ignoring the fact that she'd done that all by herself. From that point onwards, Labour's deputy leader was constantly on the defensive as Gove demanded repeated condemnations of the violence from her ("Michael. Did you hear that? Did you hear that? I totally condemn it," she said, appearing to protest too much).

Harman's confused performance contrasted with an earlier BBC interview in which she robustly condemned the violence and emphasised that "most young people, whatever their circumstances, do not resort to criminality." But her mistake was not to suggest that we must examine the underlying causes of the violence, rather it was to fail to identify the correct ones. It is absurd to claim that the riots were triggered by the tuition fees rise and by the abolition (or, rather, replacement) of the EMA, policy changes that many of those rioting are not affected by and have no awareness of. But they were a symptom of a profoundly unequal society in which many feel they have no stake. As The Spirit Level pointed out, the most violent countries in the west are also the most unequal ones. Thus, Harman was right to declare: "I don't agree wth Cameron when he says it is simple. It is not. It is very complex. But unpicking those strands is for another day." (If only she had taken her own advice.)

In his short statement outside No. 10 yesterday, Cameron argued: "This is criminality, pure and simple". But while the Prime Ministers' desire not to be seen to explain away the riots was understandable, he must eventually offer the thoughtful, analytical response of which he is capable. In 2006, in what was dubbed his "hug a hoodie" speech (though he never used that phrase himself), Cameron argued: "The first thing is to recognise that we'll never get the answers right unless we understand what's gone wrong. Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn't mean excusing crime but it will help us tackle it." Without this, he warned, "we'll forever be dealing with the short-term symptoms instead of the long-term causes." Cameron was talking about youth crime but he could have been talking about this week's riots.

That speech was delivered during Cameron's "detoxifying" phase, before the hiring of Andy Coulson and his swerve to the right. But if he still believes in tackling the causes of crime, rather than merely the symptoms, he must revisit these early insights. His statement to Parliament tomorrow will be the first test of whether he is prepared to create the intellectual space for a more thoughtful debate to begin.

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.