Labour promises "action" on zero-hours contracts - its supporters want a ban

One challenge facing Miliband is that many would like him to back more radical solutions to the problems the party is highlighting than he is prepared to support.

After the shadow cabinet's alleged summer slumber, Chuka Umunna is busily touring the studios this morning attacking the growth of zero-hours contracts. As he has noted, figures from the ONS (collated by the Resolution Foundation) show that employees on these contracts, which offer no guaranteed work and require workers to be permanently on-call, are paid 40% less than others. In addition, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development estimated earlier this month that up to a million workers could be employed on them, four times larger than the most recent ONS figure of 250,000. 

Later today, Umunna will host a summit on the issue with representatives of employers and employees, including the CBI, the TUC, the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the British Chamber of Commerce, the Local Government Association and Unison, the TSSA, the GMB, the CWU and the NUT (Unite is a curious omission). He said:

David Cameron says he's fixed the economy, but for hard working families things are getting harder not easier. For too many things have become more difficult and less secure as they face a cost of living crisis in David Cameron’s Britain.

New evidence highlights that there could be hundreds of thousands more people on zero-hours contracts than previously thought. That’s hundreds of thousands of people in insecure work earning far less than average pay. Flexibility works for some, but the danger today is that too often insecurity at work becomes the norm.

The huge spike in the use of zero-hours contracts has brought increased reports of abuses and bad practice. There should be zero tolerance of such abuse. That is why Labour has convened this important summit bringing together representatives of employers and employers to consider what action must be taken. In contrast, this Tory-led government has refused to have a proper and full consultation on the rise of zero-hours contracts or to treat this issue with the seriousness which it deserves.

Labour has previously said that it is "determined to stamp out abuse of zero-hours contracts" and is "looking at how to do so" as part of its policy review. The phrase "abuse of" suggests that it recognises that the contracts do have some benefits. As Vidhya Alakeson of the Resolution Foundation recently noted, "If you want to combine work with studying or childcare then you can juggle things around more easily." Nicola Smith, the TUC's head of economic and social affairs, has similarly suggested that an "outright ban" would be a mistake and that the "the vast majority" of employers (including Labour councils) do not use them in an exploitative fashion. 

But it's worth noting that many in Labour would like it to pledge to abolish them. In a notable piece of policy freelancing earlier this year, Andy Burnham said: "A living wage could really help to address that and I would say to Ed, personally, go further and ban things like zero-hours contracts. That is a Labour response to the debate about work and benefits." Labour MP Andy Sawford has attracted significant support for his Private Members' Bill to scrap the contracts. And the voters are on his side. A YouGov poll in August found that 56% of people (including 71% of Labour voters) "support a ban on zero-hour contracts", with just 25% opposed. 

One challenge that Miliband faces is that many in Labour would like more radical solutions to the problems the party is highlighting, such as low pay and insecure work, than he is prepared to support. Rather than increasing voluntary use of the living wage, for instance, most party activists would prefer him to introduce it on a statutory basis. But Miliband, aware that studies suggest this would cost around 150,000 jobs, will almost certainly not pledge to do so.

The Labour leader's mantra is "radicalism and credibility". Unless Labour offers a distinct alternative to the Tories, voters will see little reason to support it, but unless it is also viewed as a responsible opposition it won't be trusted with power. Whether or not the party wins a majority in 2015 will depend on him perfecting this balance. 

Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna speaks at last year's Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood