Government of the technocrats, by the technocrats, for the technocrats

Democracy must not be regarded as merely an optional extra when solving economic problems.

Greece and Italy now have new Prime Ministers. Neither of them have had to endure the indignity of actually standing for election. New Italian PM, Mario Monti, is a former European commissioner and an economist. Lucas Papademos, the new Greek Prime Minister, is a former Governor of the Bank of Greece (there is a great irony in a central banker being imposed as Prime Minister following a debt crisis fuelled by poor central bank decisions and a collapse of the banking system).

The European debt crisis has been almost as damaging for democracy as it has been for the economies of the Eurozone. In Greece and Italy, democratic legitimacy is clearly regarded as an unaffordable luxury.

If democratically elected leaders do not satisfy the markets, the IMF and the European Commission, they are now, in effect, summarily dismissed, without any reference to the wishes of the people. The unsubtle message coming out of Greece and Brussels is that international bodies believe that democratic governments have failed to tackle the economic crisis and should be replaced with more reliable (and controllable) technocratic governments.

Rule by technocrats has replaced rule by the people - with unelected, economically orthodox international bodies like the European Commission and the IMF working with unelected technocrats now heading up national governments to implement tough austerity measures that have never received public backing. The democratic deficit at the heart of Europe has become a democratic chasm.

The events of the past week are immensely important. For the first time in a generation, European countries are now headed by individuals who have had no popular endorsement at the ballot box. It is difficult to see why the people of Greece and Italy should see their new governments as representing their wishes when they have been imposed from above.

If people no longer see their Governments as being democratically legitimate and no longer see the ballot box as a legitimate way to express their grievance, they may be more likely to consider other ways to express that grievance. This is particularly dangerous at a time of painful austerity and falling living standards. Technocracy will have no answers for growing popular discontent.

The growing power of international bodies has steadily diminished democracy. Rule by place men has gradually replaced rule by democratically elected individuals who have been elected and can be removed. To an extent, the imposition of technocrats on Italy and Greece is the apotheosis of the technocratic concept that runs through bodies such as the IMF and European Commission

Indeed, Tony Benn famously warned of this threat in a mighty speech during the Maastricht debate, pointing out that, to a democrat, a good King is never better than a bad Parliament. He said:

We are discussing whether the... people are to be allowed to elect those who make the laws under the which they are governed... Secondly, we say to my favourite friends, the Chartists and suffragettes, "All your struggles to get control of the ballot box were a waste of time. We shall be run in future by a few white persons, as in 1832."

Government of the technocrats, by the technocrats, and for the technocrats is hugely undesirable and, by its very nature, bad for democratic legitimacy. It is not a long-term solution and should not have been considered as a short-term one. Democracy must not be regarded as merely an optional extra when solving economic problems.

If politicians do not bring their people with them, they risk creating extreme alienation and discontent. If politicians do not trust the people, why should the people trust their politicians? When they are working to solve the economic crisis engulfing Europe, the continent's leaders must be very careful that they don't create a new crisis of political legitimacy, which will have even more serious long-term consequences.

David Skelton is Deputy Director on Policy Exchange, an independent think tank. You can follow him on Twitter @djskelton

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton

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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.