Miliband's plan to crackdown on zero-hour contracts is the start of Labour's gear change

After spending the summer telling voters how badly off they are under the coalition, Miliband plans to spend the autumn outlining how they would be better off under Labour.

Labour spent much of the summer telling voters how badly off they were under the coalition. Real wages had fallen in 37 of David Cameron's 38 months in power (the exception being April 2013 when deferred bank bonuses were paid out to benefit from the cut in the top rate of tax), making Cameron the worst prime minister for living standards in history. Youth unemployment and long term unemployment remained at near-record levels, with millions of others trapped in part-time or temporary work, or on zero-hour contracts.

But if Labour is to win the election, it won't be enough to convince voters that they're poorer under the Tories. It will also need to convince them that they'd be better off under Labour. In the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney similarly resurrected Ronald Reagan's famous line - "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" - but the electorate stuck with Obama because the numbers were moving in the right direction and they doubted Romney could do any better. The Tories hope and expect UK voters will take the same view of Labour in 2015.

It's for this reason that party activists and MPs have been so desperate for Ed Miliband to fill the policy vacuum. In his speech tomorrow at the TUC conference, Miliband will start to do so, offering voters concrete examples of how they would benefit from a Labour government.

After highlighting research over the summer showing that around a million workers are employed on zero-hour contracts, which offer no guaranteed work and require workers to be permanently on-call, Miliband will outline clear measures to prevent the exploitative use of the contracts, effectively outlawing them in their present form. He will ban employers from forcing workers to be available even when there is no guarantee of work, pledge to outlaw employers from requiring workers to work exclusively for one business, and promise to give anyone working for a single employer for more than 12 weeks on a zero-hours contract the automatic right to a full-time contract based on the average time worked over that period.

Miliband will say: “We need flexibility. But we must stop flexibility being used as the excuse for exploitation. Exploitation which leaves workers carrying all of the burdens of unpredictable hours, irregular pay, no security for the future.

Of course, there are some kinds of these contracts which are useful. For doctors, or supply teachers at schools, or sometimes, young people working in bars. But you and I know that zero hours contracts have been terribly misused. This kind of exploitation has to stop. We will support those businesses and workers that want to get on in life. But we will ban practices which lead to people being ground down.”

With his proposals, Miliband has smartly pre-empted the conclusions of the review currently being led by Vince Cable into zero-hours and has addressed an issue of increasing concern to voters, particularly the young. 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. 

The test of Miliband's conference speech, the theme of which will be the cost of living crisis, will be whether he can offer convincing solutions to the other problems the party has highlighted: the wage squeeze, the housing crisis and soaring energy costs. Between now and 2015, this is likely to mean pledges to build a million affordable homes, to create living wage zones (and make its use mandatory in the public sector), to abolish the bedroom tax and to introduce free universal childcare for pre-school children. How much of this makes it into Miliband's speech remains uncertain, but with today's announcements, the Labour leader's gear-change has begun. 

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London on 10 July. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.