Cameron's tweeting of the G8's luxury menu shows his blind spot

The Prime Minister's decision to advertise the lavish dinner enjoyed by the leaders is the quickest way of reminding everyone that we're not "all in this together".

As polls regularly attest, one of the biggest obstacles to a Conservative victory at the next election is the perception that the party is both of the rich and for the rich. One recent survey found that 64 per cent believe that "the Conservative Party looks after the interests of the rich, not ordinary people", while Labour enjoys a 17-point lead over the Tories as the party most likely to treat people fairly.

So it is unclear why David Cameron thought it wise to tweet the luxury menu enjoyed by the G8 leaders last night. No one would expect the leaders to dine on gruel and water, but Cameron's decision to advertise their lavish reception, before breezily remarking, "I'll chair a discussion on tax, trade, transparency and Syria", shows a remarkable lack of tact. It reminds everyone, in just eight words, that "we're not all in this together" and provokes exactly the kind of questions he should seek to avoid: "how many food banks have you visited recently?" Neither Tony Blair, with his finely-honed political antennae, nor Gordon Brown, with his hairshirt Presbyterianism, would ever have committed such a faux pas. 

Cameron's tweet is a good example of what Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston recently described to me as "a kind of blindness". Referring to the social narrowness of his inner circle, she said: "it's a kind of blindness to how this looks to other people and why it matters to other people . . . It’s not just the message, it’s the messenger. This is something that they obviously don’t see; they don’t see something that, to me, seems pretty obvious."

Similarly, Cameron, having enjoyed a fine (and taxpayer-funded?) meal, sees nothing wrong with sharing this fact with an austerity-scarred public. If the Tories are ever to win again, their next leader will need to be someone who does. 

David Cameron welcomes Barack Obama during the official arrivals for the start of the G8 Summit at the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.