Continental drift

Cameron plays to the eurosceptic gallery, but where does this leave the coalition?

There's only one story in the Sunday papers this morning: Nick Clegg's"fury" (the Observer) at David Cameron's refusal on Friday to sign up to a revision to the Lisbon treaty. For the first 19 months of its existence, the coalition has managed to choreograph the tensions between its constituent parts reasonably effectively, helped, it has to be said, by the Lib Dem leader's emollience. As Marina Hyde put it in the Guardian yesterday, Clegg's instruction to his party in government appears to have been to "take bucketloads of crap and wield none of the power". But not any more, if newspaper reports are to be believed.

According to the Observer's source: "[Clegg] could not believe that Cameron hadn't tried to play for more time. A menu of choices wasn't deployed as a negotiating tool but instead was presented as a take it or leave it ultimatum. That is not how he would have played Britain's hand." Clegg is said to fear that Cameron's flounce in Brussels on Friday will leave Britain the "lonely man of Europe". This is a view echoed by one of his predecessors as leader of the Lib Dems, Paddy Ashdown. In a piece for the Observer that runs beneath the headline "We have tipped 38 years of foreign policy down the drain", Ashdown argues that Cameron succeeded merely in "isolat[ing] [Britain] from Europe and diminish[ing] ourselves in Washington":

[W]e have used the veto - but stopped nothing. In order to "protect the City" we have made it more vulnerable. At a time of economic crisis, we have made it more attractive for investors to go to northern Europe. We have tipped 38 years of British foreign policy down the drain in one night. We have handed the referendum agenda over to the Eurosceptics. We have strengthened the arguments of those who would break the union.

These latter, Ashdown argues, include not only the 81 eurosceptic Tory MPs who are now effectively "running" the prime minister, but also Alex Salmond, for whom the fiasco on Friday represents an "unconvenanted gift": "If England is to be out of Europe, why should Scotland not be in?"

What of Labour? Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander gave a rather assured performance on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show this morning, arguing that the upshot for Britain of the negotiations in Brussels last week were "economically inadequate and politically disastrous". There was a deal to be made, Alexander insisted, but Cameron never wanted to make it: "This was about the politics of the Conservative Party." That's true, but Labour oughtn't to derive too much comfort from their opponent's misfortune. Andrew Marr asked, reasonably enough, what deal Britain might have made. Here Alexander was evasive, content simply to point out that there are no "legal protections" for the City of London in place today that weren't in place on Thursday.

Much the most interesting part of the interview concerned Alexander's view of the deal that was cooked up by the other European leaders, with Germany and France in the vanguard. As Owen Jones pointed out in a blog here on Friday, "François Hollande - the Socialist candidate for the French presidency - has already spoken out against a treaty cooked up by Europe's overwhelmingly right-of-centre governments," one that effectively outlaws Keynesianism. Hollande has argued that deficit reduction in Europe is a necessary but not sufficient condition of economic recovery: "Without growth, budgetary readjustment on its own will not achieve the desired results." Alexander, for his part, wondered how the "austerity package" agreed on Friday, which will work for Germany, will work for Italy or Greece. It's a good question, and one that Labour, together with its social-democratic partners in Europe, ought to pressing in the coming months.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Taking back control... in the workplace

It’s time to reboot dignity and respect at work, says Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC

Jess* lives in a small town in the north-west and is on a zero-hours contract. Some weeks she could work up to 50 hours, but others she works as few as 30. And when she got ill, her company refused to pay her sick pay. Sarah* is 38 and lives in a big city. She is employed through an agency and although she has worked more than 12 weeks for the same employer, she feels like she’ll never get the same status as permanent staff. She told the TUC: “I feel frustrated at the lack of permanent jobs in the market and how little control you have as an agency worker. Everything in my life feels temporary at the moment. My experience of agency working is that you are on the bottom rung. You can’t speak out or you won’t get work.”

Wherever you go in the UK, the story is the same. Too many working people are stuck in jobs that don’t offer enough pay or enough security to build a life on – in short, there’s not enough control. Working for the TUC, I hear these stories every week. Stories of workers who don’t know from one day to the next whether they’ll work that day. Working people in all sorts of jobs who can’t raise problems at work, because on today’s “flexible” contracts: the boss doesn’t need to sack you, he can just take away next week’s hours. Delivery drivers who have found themselves deactivated without warning. Warehouse pickers red-flagged by a gadget that decides they are too slow. And stories from careworkers whose work lives are governed by the ping of an app – but who never get enough time to meet their elderly clients’ needs.

This is the reality of work for too many people now. Isolated from colleagues and at the beck and call of their boss. Without the small measure of security granted by a permanent contract and some basic employment rights. It all leaves hard-working people with precious little dignity or control. The time is ripe for a new deal for working people – and that’s what must be on offer at this election. For a start, as we leave the European Union, every party must guarantee that our rights at work don’t go backwards. Hard-won rights such as holiday pay and protection from pregnancy discrimination came from the EU. We can’t afford to lose these rights after we leave – and we need to know that they can’t be watered down on the quiet by judges or by parliament.

And in the years to come we have to make sure that hard-working Brits won’t miss out on new protections that Dutch, Spanish and German workers get. That’s why the final Brexit deal has to include a level playing field on workers’ rights – making sure they will always be as good as or better than what’s on offer to the rest of the EU. Second, the rules to protect working people haven’t kept up with how working lives have changed. One in ten workers is already in insecure work – and if nothing changes, 290,000 more people will join them by the next general election in 2022. That’s the equivalent of 13 extra Sports Directs, or the entire working population of Sheffield.

These jobs don’t pay enough and they push all the risks on to the workers. Paying rent and bills can be a nightmare when you don’t know how much you’ve got coming in each month. Britain’s 900,000 zero-hours contract workers earn a third less per hour than the average worker. And every worker pushed into false self-employment loses their rights to sick pay and paid holiday. If Britain aspires to become a high-skill, high-productivity economy, the next government must drag the rules about work into the 21st century. Promising a review isn’t enough; every party must make real commitments to crack down on zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment, and make sure agency workers always get the going rate for the job.

And Britain still needs a pay rise. Rising inflation and slow wage growth means a new living standards crisis is coming. And we’re still in the longest pay squeeze since Victorian times: workers are on average over £1,000 worse off each year in real terms than they were in 2008. Over the coming parliament, the minimum wage needs a serious boost, so that it reaches £10 per hour as soon  as possible. We need to get more people covered by collective bargaining agreements that raise wages and skill levels. And it’s time for the government to stop artificially holding down public servants’ pay. By 2020, midwives and nurses will have seen their real pay fall by over £3,000 – scarcely the right reward for years of dedicated public service.

Of course, the best way to raise wages is to bring great jobs to every corner of the country. In both 2014 and 2015, London’s growth was double that of the average across the rest of the UK. We still lag behind our competitors on the infrastructure we need to help the whole country – such as modern transport links and fast broadband. And our investment in infrastructure is the lowest in the OECD. More than ever we need an industrial strategy that delivers good jobs to the parts of the UK where they’re needed most. Improving the lives of ordinary working people and giving them back control of their rights – that’s what all of the major parties should be prioritising this election.

** Names have been altered to protect people’s anonymity.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC. 

0800 7318496