The UK isn't a "safe haven", it's just stagnant

Lower borrowing costs are a reflection of economic weakness, not strength.

"The difficult decisions on the deficit have made the UK a safe haven in the recent economic storm," boasted George Osborne in his response to last week's anaemic GDP figures. Today, the Chancellor and his advisers are pointing to the fact that the cost of borrowing yesterday fell to its lowest level for over 50 years as proof of that claim. A spokesman for Osborne said:

"It's a vote of confidence, one of the key aspects of our plan has been a tight fiscal policy combined with a loose monetary policy, it's the right mix for economic growth, and the need to rebalance towards exports and away from consumption."

The yield on 10-year UK gilts has fallen to 2.76, which means far lower interest repayments on government debt, potentially saving the taxpayer billions of pounds. But is this really an unequivocally good news story, as Osborne suggests? After all, it's likely that the fall in rates has much much more to do with the fact that the Bank of England base rate is unlikely to rise until 2012, than it has with the supposed "strength" of the British economy.

Here's Paul Krugman's take:

Yields in the US have, of course, plunged rather than risen. And they've plunged for the same reason UK yields have plunged: a scarily weak economy suggests that it will be years before the central bank raises rates.

In a wonderful pay-off, he adds:

It's sad, actually: the wolf is at the door, and Osborne thinks it's the confidence fairy.

Over on his blog, Faisal Islam, Channel 4's excellent economics editor, makes the same point and highlights an important experiment by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. The NIESR points out that one would expect a fall in rates, if the result of increased economic confidence, to correlate with a rise in the FTSE-100. But after crunching the numbers, the body found no such relationship. NIESR director Jonathan Portes concluded: "Low long-term interest rates appear to reflect economic weakness and lack of market confidence in the prospects of the UK economy, not the reverse."

Over to you, Mr Osborne.

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.