How the left can be radical without spending money

Balls's speech made way for a new agenda that is profoundly exciting.

Balls's speech made way for a new agenda that is profoundly exciting.{C}

Ever noticed how shutting one door can open another? This week Labour's staunchest champion of growing our way out of the deficit acknowledged that he could well be making cuts in 2015. The left, personified by Owen Jones and Len McCluskey, were up in arms. They think we've lost the possibility of being radical. I say we've opened it up.

The modern left frequently makes one mistake. They assume that the most significant means government has of transforming lives is through taxing and spending, traditionally known as the "demand" side of the economy. They have left the supply side - the rules that govern the price of labour and capital - to the right.

But what if, at a time of pressure to reduce government spending, the left could develop an agenda for the supply side of the economy that delivered meaningful change?

It's not surprising we're sceptical. Because the right have dominated such policy in the past, such an agenda is associated with smashing unions to decrease the cost of labour, deregulating capital to enrich the fortunate or privatising at the expense of quality.

But supply side policy doesn't have to be regressive. It's just a tool that's been used in the wrong way. Most recently, Ed Miliband has been talking about a number of supply side policies that are courageous, imaginative and proudly consistent with the values of the left.

The most high profile example is his attack on certain energy and transport companies. We know that these markets are sown up, so increasing competition and regulation will deliver a fairer result. The living wage is another example. Government contracts that build in apprenticeships and local investment is another. The High Pay Commission's work on wage transparency and shareholder representation on boards is another. Cutting down on corporate tax havens as Miliband just outlined is another. Breaking up the banks takes this one step further.

Although it needs sexier branding, these supply side policies are all part of what Miliband calls "responsible capitalism". It's why Blue Labour is interesting.

These policies have three big advantages. First, they don't cost anything. Second, they make people's lives better. Third, they are much closer to where the public is at. I appreciate the arguments made by Owen Jones, but I don't think he has appreciated the scale of anger there is about a perceived waste of public money by Labour in the good times.

As someone who remembers what it was like to not have enough chairs in their classroom, I'm never going to apologise for investing in schools, and you'll never hear me say that government spending isn't essential and necessary. But waste on IT contracts, PFI and middle managers? I'm happy to apologise for some of that.

And as Ed Balls said this week, a true Keynesian is sometimes a hawk. If you genuinely believe we should be running a programme of increased spending now, then you have to acknowledge that we should have spent less when the economy was booming. The idea that Keynesians believe in high spending throughout the cycle misses the point completely.

So let's not get confused - Labour is still saying that we should cut less fast and less deep now, but with the OBR estimating we'll be 18 per cent poorer as a result of the recession, the state will be smaller once we're out of this mess. And that means a progressive supply side agenda.

If we do that, then Ball's speech wasn't a sign of giving up and following the Tories slowly back to the middle ground. It was a necessary part of gaining credibility with the public to make way for a new agenda that is profoundly exciting. Interestingly, it's one that Miliband is leading, not the shadow chancellor. The left shouldn't abandon ship, it should get on board.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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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.