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

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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.