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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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