Balls strengthens his position at Treasury questions

The shadow chancellor enjoyed a better day in the House as he pinned down Danny Alexander on living standards.

After his much-panned response to George Osborne's Autumn Statement, Ed Balls enjoyed a better outing at today's Treasury questions. Noting that Osborne had claimed that living standards were rising (based on the flawed "real household disposable income measure"), but that the IFS had subsequently said that they were falling, he asked Danny Alexander (who stood in for the absent Osborne): "who's right?" After quipping that it was a "pleasure" to see the shadow chancellor in his place and mockingly condemning the "unattributable briefing" against him from the Labour benches, Alexander could only reply that "the whole reason why millions of Britons are under financial pressure is because Labour’s economic mess cost every household in this country £3,000". But while voters might have accepted this line in 2010, they are less likely to do so after three years of stagnation. 

Balls then noted that Osborne was away in Brussels, where "the government is taking legal action to stop a cap on bank bonuses", and asked: "are the Liberal Democrats really right behind the Conservatives on this one too?" Alexander replied by joking that the shadow chancellor had "appointed a new special adviser on hand gestures - Greg Dyke" (a reference to Dyke's cut-throat gesture), adding: "at least that's the gesture his colleagues are making every time they hear him in the House." One was left with the impression that Alexander was more interested in cracking pre-prepared gags than in responding to Balls's questions. 

The shadow chancellor undoubtedly has his critics in Labour. Some MPs believe that he remains too defensive over the record of the last Labour government and too preoccupied with proving that he was right about austerity. Others, on the Blue Labour wing of the party, argue that he is insufficiently committed to Miliband's reformist agenda (one told me that he was a "conventional Brownite" who "doesn't really buy responsible capitalism"). But after his strong performance today and his defiant interview (stating in response to briefing: "I couldn't give a toss") on Sky, the odds on him being replaced as shadow chancellor will lengthen again. As Miliband recognises, there is no one else with the rare combination of political cunning and economic aptitude required to do the job. 

Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.