Vince: minister for almost being on the left

The Business Secretary's review of "zero-hours" contracts is hardly distinguishable from Labour policy.

A couple of newspapers have today reported that Vince Cable wants a review of "zero-hours" contracts – a system accused by trade unions (among others) of being exploitative.

Around 200,000 British workers are estimated to be tied into these deals, especially in the fast food and other high street retail sectors, which require a commitment to be available for work without any guarantee of shifts. In other words, you can be on call enough to make it hard to look for or do another job and yet get to the end of the week with barely a penny to show for it.

The TUC has welcomed the new review. It isn’t often that union leaders have kind words for coalition ministers, but then again, this is Vince, Secretary of State for tantalising proximity to the left. The terms of Cable’s investigation aren’t all that different from official Labour policy, which is also to review zero-hours contracts, tighten rules and and clamp down on abuses.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham recently told the BBC his party should look at banning the practice (which has its own specific and pernicious impact in the NHS) but Labour sources today confirm that a ban is not the official line. The reservation comes from recognition that at least some employees like the flexibility of a zero-hours deal.

The Business Secretary has also clearly picked up that ambivalence. In parliament today, Cable’s response to a Labour question on zero-hours deals was markedly more neutral than this morning’s newspaper briefings. He would not be drawn on whether they represented healthy flexibility or mean exploitation:

"We do indeed have anecdotes about abusive practices in that area. We also have a lot of other anecdotes to show that the system works very well for a large number of workers and companies. I am not jumping to any conclusions; I am just trying to gather the facts."

Labour people I have spoken to are pointing to that as a retreat from the tougher-sounding headlines. They are keen to raise the question of whether Cable’s intervention represents a new government position or an out-riding Lib Dem position within government – the two aren’t necessarily the same thing. Reviews can be commissioned and come to nought. Recommendations can be implemented or ignored or, indeed, shelved with a view to being inserted in a future party manifesto.

On which subject, some Lib Dems are increasingly of the view that the party can and should show a little more flexibility on economic policy so as not to preclude any future partnership with Labour by marching too briskly to the beat of a Conservative drum. Such "equidistance" has become much more plausible now that Ed Balls has accepted the broad fiscal parameters of austerity into the next parliament. The big argument is shifting away from the question of whether the time is right to impose budget discipline (where the Lib Dems and the Tories are locked in consensus) to questions of how to impose discipline in a way that is fair and protects public services (where there is more room for Lib Dem flirting with the opposition).

Crucial to that conversation will be an argument about the appropriate balance between tax rises and spending cuts and in that debate I gather there is a movement afoot in the Lib Dem ranks to move the party much closer to Labour by supporting a restoration of the top 50p tax rate. There is even talk of formalising that position as early as this year’s annual conference. (Labour has yet to commit to doing the same but, given the fuss the two Eds have made about tax cuts for millionaires, it seems unlikely they will fight an election accepting Osborne’s gift to the rich as a fait accompli.) Labour, meanwhile, has already embraced the mansion tax – a policy very close to Lib Dem hearts.

If Labour has a mansion tax in its manifesto and the Lib Dems have a top rate of 50p and both are committed to cracking down on zero-hours contracts, the first morning of coalition negotiations in a hung parliament will break for an early lunch. 

Business Secretary Vince Cable arrives at 10 Downing Street on May 20, 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder