The message of the marriage tax: two people good, one person bad

A very odd tax break.

David Cameron believes in marriage. So do I, it would be such a weird thing to make up - so I'm not really sure why it needs a tax break to make it flesh.

The idea of a tax break for married couples has had an on-off relationship with the Conservative party over the years. Right now, Tim Lougton, a rebel Tory MP, has pressured David Cameron into bringing forward proposals to give married people £150 in tax breaks -  the "start of something bigger", says Lougton.

"It’s an important message and it’s also the start of something. £150 is a figure that was plucked out of the air as how it might start; the amendment I’ve been putting forward gives the Chancellor maximum flexibility as to how generous he can be," he told the Today programme.

But Nick Clegg slammed the policy - and I have to say I agree with him. Here's the first thing, whether the start of something bigger or not, £150 really is not very much. Not enough to maintain a loveless marriage over. Probably not even enough to stimulate passionate love where there was none. (My research tells me it took £10,000 a year for Elizabeth Bennet, and that's before inflation). No, the point is, as Cameron said later, it's symbolic. It's an "important message" from the Conservative party, and that message is: two people good, one person bad.

But we know this already. Everyone knows this. Even films know this - it's the key indicator of whether you're watching something arty and highbrow (sad lonely person at end) or something by Richard Curtis (Hugh Grant gets married). This is why people stay in relationships when they're not really sure they're enjoying it any more, or when they're suffering from domestic violence (2 women a week are killed this way).

It's like the Conservative party have become advocates for a 365 day Valentine's day.  Which is great, if you're married, but then it's already great if you're married.

Here's the wider point: we don't need to provide extra motivation for things we are already motivated to do. Policy doesn't always have to be about psychology. Sometimes it should be about support.

The Right often argue that their values are far more in line with our instincts. They're correct - and that's exactly why we need the Left.

David Cameron approves this cake. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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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.