The real reason the UK fears an EU Tobin tax

French farmers are set fair to do well out of an European Tobin tax.

Sometime today, in a conference room in Berlin, David Cameron will indulge in a certain amount of spleen venting. No doubt a little tapping pointedly on the table will take place. Who knows, maybe he'll even advise his interlocutor to "listen to the Doctor dear".

And then with a bit of luck, Angela Merkel, bedecked in Lincoln Green, will lean over the table, and whisper "But David. I thought we were all in this together?"

What will have brought all this unpleasantness to pass? Why it's that new favourite wheeze of German and French politicians: the Tobin Tax.

Now, the Tobin tax is that strangest of beasts, a popular levy. One that the public would welcome with open arms. So how come we have the German Chancellor offering to take from the rich to give to the poor, while Cameron, Osborne, Balls and Cable all scramble to play the Sheriff of Nottingham, shouting "no, no, no"?

When all three major parties pass up the opportunity of a populist open goal, you know there must be more to this than meets the eye. And there is.

Firstly - and it would be easy to miss this -- the Lib Dems, Tories and Labour are all actually in favour of the Tobin tax. Everyone thinks it's a grand plan. Just not right now. And not in the form the Merkozy axis has proposed.

"Give me a Tobin tax and fiscal continence. But not yet," they are saying, in a St-Augustine-sort-of-a way.

So what's the problem?

Well the financial implications to London have been extensively written about already.

But there's another issue: French farmers.

No, really.

Of course, it's not just Normandy cheesemakers and the like. It's every other thing the EU spends money on -- though with large parts of the total EU budget going on the Common Agricultural Policy, French farmers are set fair to do well out of an EU wide Tobin tax.

How come? Because as things stand, revenue raised from The City of London would go, not to the Treasury, but to Brussels. You can write your own Daily Mail headlines, can't you? I expect Paul Dacre already has.

And that's the nub of the problem. With 70 per cent of its potential revenue coming from the UK, even the most pro-European British politicians fear that the Tobin tax, excellent idea though it is, may prove rather less popular with the British public when they see what the money is being spent on.

Because given the state of the Eurozone, Angela Merkel knows we're all in this together. But some of us are in it rather more than others.

 

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.