Osborne attacks people in tenuous employment

Life on a zero-hour contract looks set to get much harder.

As George writes, unemployed people were the biggest losers in the spending review. The overall welfare bill is to be capped (although pensions, inevitably, won't be included in that cap), and a new raft of punitive measures have been brought in to make unemployment as painful as possible. In full, they are:

  • introducing upfront work search, requiring all claimants to prepare for work and search for jobs right from the start of their claim;
  • introducing weekly rather than fortnightly visits to Jobcentres for half of all jobseekers;
  • requiring all unemployed claimants, and those earning less than the Government expects them to, to wait seven days before becoming eligible for financial support;
  • requiring all claimants who are subject to conditionality to verify their claim every year;
  • requiring all claimants whose poor spoken English is a barrier to work to improve their English language skills; and
  • requiring lone parents who are not working to prepare for work once the youngest child turns three.

All will make life significantly harder for the groups hit by them. But by far the worst are the first and third policies. All claimants will now need to jump a significant hurdle before they can register for benefits – being asked to write a CV, register with the Government’s new Universal Jobmatch service, and start looking for work on day one, as well as having longer [read: more probing] initial interviews with Jobcentre staff. Then, once the hurdle is jumped, there will be a seven-day wait before any funds are actually transferred, up from the three days required now.

A third of British households have no savings at all. Pushing the wait up to seven days will ruin them – or, more likely, drive them into the arms of payday lenders. Robert Peston called it the Wonga budget, and he's not far wrong.

But there's an even more long-reaching effect of the changes. It's counterintuitive, but they will act as a disincentive to work.

In effect, taking short-term work actively costs £71.70. That's how much JSA you lose in the week after you finish your job; and, of course, that's on top of the fact that you can't claim JSA and work more than 15 hours a week.

Here's how that works in practice: you are unemployed, and have the opportunity of temp work at a local event for a week. It will pay £247.60 at the minimum wage. That's an increase of £175.90 over what you would be getting otherwise. Except now you have to take into account that you'll be losing another £71.70 in the week after the posting is over. Suddenly a week's work provides an actual pay increase of barely £100, and even that's neglecting to cover the costs of actually getting to and from work.

Even worse, the news applies to people getting income support on low-or-zero-hour jobs, as well. So, it appears (and we'll have to wait for the details to come out in the wash to be sure) that if you work the sort of job where you work 20 hours one week and 10 hours the next, you will have the wait a further week to get a top-up. By which time you make have worked another 20 hour week and reset the clock again.

That's where this change will really hit home. We've covered the forward march of zero-hour contracts before, but now life is set to get a lot harder for people signed up to this precarious work.

A bartender pours drinks. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.