Cameron warns Labour: if you oppose HS2, we'll cancel it

After renewed speculation that Labour will come out against the project, the PM warns that it "can't go ahead without all-party support".

The report in today's Sun that Ed Balls has been given the final say over whether Labour supports High Speed 2 has prompted further speculation that the party is preparing to come out against the project. It was Balls who moved to Labour to a more sceptical position when he said in his conference speech that it needed to consider whether it was "the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country".

Interviewed today on 5 Live, he warned: 

If the case is clear, the benefits are strong, it’s the best way to spend the money and the costs are under control, at that point I would be happy to say we’ll support it. But what I am not going to do is say we support it when the costs are rising, the benefits are unclear and the government are acting like cheerleaders rather than proper stewards of public money. That is not a road I am going to go down.

For the shadow chancellor, the attraction of a U-turn on HS2 is that would allow Labour to outspend the Tories in politically vital areas ("building new homes or new schools or new hospitals") while also remaining within George Osborne's fiscal envelope. 

But now, in a dramatic attempt to call Labour's bluff, David Cameron has warned that the project "can't go ahead without all-party support". At a press conference in Brussels he said:

It [HS2] does have all-party support. We supported it in opposition when Labour were in Government; Labour support it today, as I understand it, now we are in government; the Liberal Democrat party support it as well.

And that is all to the good because these multi-year, multi-parliament infrastructure projects, they can’t go ahead without all-party support – you won’t get the investment, you can’t have the consistency.

In other words, if the opposition comes out against HS2, the government will cancel it and pin the blame on Labour (on the basis that a 20-year project can't be sustained without bipartisan support). This would also allow the Tories and the Lib Dems to suggest their own uses for the £50bn budget, reducing the political advantage to Labour. But if Balls and Miliband believe that they would spend the money more wisely than the Tories, Cameron's intervention may not be enough to save HS2. 

A placard placed by the Stop HS2 Campaign sits in a hedegrow near to the planned location of the new high speed rail link in Knutsford. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.