Osborne in Scotland: right message, wrong messenger

The Chancellor is on strong ground when he highlights Scotland's difficult currency options but his toxic reputation could damage the unionist cause.

Which currency would an independent Scotland use? Alex Salmond's answer to that question used to be the euro. Back in 2009, the Scottish First Minister quipped that sterling was "sinking like a stone" and argued that euro membership was becoming increasingly attractive ("the parlous state of the UK economy has caused many people in the business community and elsewhere to view membership favourably"). But that, to put it mildly, is no longer the case and so Salmond has changed tack. The SNP leader's new preference is for Scotland to retain the pound in a formal currency union with the rest of the UK after independence is declared. 

But that isn't as simple as it sounds. As a new Treasury report makes clear, the UK would only agree to a currency union were significant constraints to be imposed on Scotland's tax and spending policies, the lesson of the eurozone crisis being that monetary union is inherently unstable without fiscal union. Were Scotland to reject such restrictions, it would be left with three options: to continue to use sterling unilaterally (rather like Panama uses the dollar and Kosovo uses the euro), but without any say over monetary policy, to adopt the euro (if it is able to join the EU) or to form its own currency, a hazardous path at any time for a small country but most of all during a global economic crisis. 

George Osborne, who will launch the Treasury paper in Glasgow today with Danny Alexander, made the essential point on the Today programme this morning when he remarked that "If Scotland wants to keep the pound, the best way to do that is to stay in the UK." Why, at a time when economic insecurity is hardly in short supply, create even more? The polls suggest it is an argument the voters readilty accept. But while this is the right message, one doubts if Osborne is the right messanger.

The reputation of the man who has presided over a double-dip recession and may yet preside over a triple-dip does not improve (nay, it worsens) if one travels north of the border, where the Conservatives still have just a single MP and typically poll around 15 per cent. A recent Ipsos MORI poll showing that support for the coalition's economic policies plummets when Osborne's name is mentioned was a warning to the "submarine Chancellor" to remain below the surface. His decision to take the fight to Salmond allows the First Minister to cast himself in his favoured role as the resistance to the English Tories. 

Since the independence campaign began, David Cameron has wisely taken a backseat as Alistair Darling and other centre-left figures have led the charge. If Osborne wants to help rather than hinder the unionist cause, he should do the same.  

George Osborne addresses the CBI Scotland annual dinner on September 6, 2012 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.