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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Commons Confidential: What happened at Tom Watson's birthday party?

Finances, fair and foul – and why Keir Starmer is doing the time warp.

Keir Starmer’s comrades mutter that a London seat is an albatross around the neck of the ambitious shadow Brexit secretary. He has a decent political CV: he was named after Labour’s first MP, Keir Hardie; he has a working-class background; he was the legal champion of the McLibel Two; he had a stint as director of public prosecutions. The knighthood is trickier, which is presumably why he rarely uses the title.

The consensus is that Labour will seek a leader from the north or the Midlands when Islington’s Jeremy Corbyn jumps or is pushed under a bus. Starmer, a highly rated frontbencher, is phlegmatic as he navigates the treacherous Brexit waters. “I keep hoping we wake up and it’s January 2016,” he told a Westminster gathering, “and we can have another run. Don’t we all?” Perhaps not everybody. Labour Remoaners grumble that Corbyn and particularly John McDonnell sound increasingly Brexitastic.

To Tom Watson’s 50th birthday bash at the Rivoli Ballroom in south London, an intact 1950s barrel-vaulted hall generous with the velvet. Ed Balls choreographed the “Gangnam Style” moves, and the Brockley venue hadn’t welcomed so many politicos since Tony Blair’s final Clause IV rally 22 years ago. Corbyn was uninvited, as the boogying deputy leader put the “party” back into the Labour Party. The thirsty guests slurped the free bar, repaying Watson for 30 years of failing to buy a drink.

One of Westminster’s dining rooms was booked for a “Decent Chaps Lunch” by Labour’s Warley warrior, John Spellar. In another room, the Tory peer David Willetts hosted a Christmas reception on behalf of the National Centre for Universities and Business. In mid-January. That’s either very tardy or very, very early.

The Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, is a financial maestro, having cleared the £25m debt that the party inherited from the Blair-Brown era. Now I hear that he has squirrelled away a £6m war chest as insurance against Theresa May gambling on an early election. Wisely, the party isn’t relying on Momentum’s fractious footsloggers.

The word in Strangers’ Bar is that the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock held his own £200-a-head fundraiser in London. Either the financial future of the Aberavon Labour Party is assured, or he fancies a tilt at the top job.

Dry January helped me recall a Labour frontbencher explaining why he never goes into the Commons chamber after a skinful: “I was sitting alongside a colleague clearly refreshed by a liquid lunch. He intervened and made a perfectly sensible point without slurring. Unfortunately, he stood up 20 minutes later and repeated the same point, word for word.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era