PMQs review: Miliband's New Statesman jibe backfires

After claiming that Cameron was "scraping the barrel" by quoting the NS, the Labour leader was promptly reminded that it endorsed his leadership.

Without wishing to appear unduly solipsistic, it was the New Statesman that was the subject of the most memorable exchange at today's PMQs. After Ed Miliband assailed David Cameron over the loss of Britain's AAA credit rating, the PM retorted that the NS ("the in-house magazine of the Labour Party") had written of the Labour leader's approach: 

His critique of the government strategy will never win back public trust, his proposals for the economy will never convince, his credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches.

The quote in question was adapted from Anthony Seldon's open letter to Ed Balls in last week's issue (not an NS editorial as Cameron implied) calling for the shadow chancellor to "fall on his sword" and it prompted this ungenerous response from the Labour leader: "I think he's scraping the barrel by quoting the New Statesman."
 
Thanks, Ed. (P.S. We hope you like our new logo). After a swift prompt from George Osborne, Cameron went on to remind Miliband that the NS was "the only newspaper that endorsed his leadership bid" (the People excepted), leaving the Labour leader looking rather foolish. By dismissing Cameron's NS quote out of hand, Miliband fell into a Tory trap.
 
Up to this point, the session had been dominated by last week's credit downgrade, with Miliband noting just how much store Cameron and Osborne once set by the retention of AAA. But to the inevitable riposte from the PM - "it's his policy to address excessive borrowing by borrowing more!" - Miliband could only fall back on the stock reply that 'I ask the questions". "Anytime he wants to swap places, I'll answer him," said Miliband. 
 
What should worry Labour is that Miliband has yet to settle on a convincing response to the politically potent charge that his party would simply "borrow more". The difference, of course, is that while Labour would borrow for growth (in the form of tax cuts and higher infrastructure spending), the coalition is borrowing to meet the costs of failure (in the form of lower growth and higher long-term unemployment). 
 
The problem for Labour, however, is that Balls and Miliband, aware that voters may not easily accept their distinction between "good" borrowing and "bad" borrowing, are unwilling to make the explicit case for deficit-financed stimulus. Earlier this week, George Osborne, not entirely unconvincingly, ridiculed it as "an economic policy that dares not speak its name".
 
Miliband may quip that he doesn't need to give answers until he's in Cameron place, but if he wants to continue to attack the coalition on this territory, let alone become Prime Minister, he will need to do rather better than that. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.