PMQs sketch: Labour leader shoots, and finally scores

As Dave dodged, dived and rambled on, even his own MPs drew blanks.

Let us hear it for Ed Miliband, who finally took the foot out of his own mouth today and stuck it firmly down the throat of David Cameron.

It helped that the subject was Europe and that the path to the Prime Minister's tonsils had already been greased by buckets of unmentionable awfulness poured on him by former friends and eager foes.

But even outside help could not disguise the Labour leader's pleasure at finally getting a hook into someone who has A-levels in being out of the room, if not out of the country, when the smelly stuff hits the fan. And of course that is why Dave cannot wriggle out of this one, since its out of the country where the problem lies. And you could see that is just where he wanted to be when Ed asked him what exactly he planned to do about Europe.

You could tell he was in trouble by the number of words used in the answer and the increasingly blank looks of those around him. Ed wanted to know which powers Dave would be asking Brussels to hand back to Britain in the event of a renegotiation of the treaty. Any proper answer to this question would drop Dave in it, so he mumbled, waved, pointed and threatened his way through a full set of sentences and sat down.

There was a short silence as the listeners translated what he had said back into English and realised they had just lost two minutes out of their lives. Dropping Johnny Foreigner into the conversation is still enough to get handfuls of votes for Tory wannabe's, and pledging to widen the English Channel will certainly win the backing of such democratic institutions as the Sun and the Daily Mail; not to mention the usual suspects at the Daily Telegraph.

But the relative silence in the House of Commons during Prime Ministers Questions made you wonder just how many had really meant their anti-European stance, now that doing something about it might be a possibility.

As Dave dodged, dived and rambled on, further down the front bench slumped -- but not quite sleeping -- sat Ken Clarke, who had further rattled his leader by saying out loud earlier what Dave wants to say but dare not: that no powers can be won back and he was only joking if anyone thought he wanted a referendum.

Ken, who must check under his ministerial car every night, slumped further when Dave was asked if he agreed with him. Tory MP after MP was sweetness and light as they questioned Dave over his plans, but a study of his coded replies revealed only that he wasn't going to hang himself today.

As he rambled on, his Deputy Nick looked alternately pained and alarmed at what was going on. He knows a referendum would crush the Coalition and any draw back from Europe would be deadly for him.

As PMQs staggered towards closing time the Father of the House, Sir Peter Tapsell, shook himself awake and asked Dave to make sure when he is in Brussels to ask the Germans to study the Boston Tea Party. "No taxation without representation", said Sir Peter, as MPs cheered and wondered if he had been around for the original drafting.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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.