The Angel of The North is seen prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Manchester City at St James' Park on January 12, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour needs to go much further to give real meaning to devolution

A council tax revaluation, local proportional representation and participatory budgets should all be on the table.

Last week was all about devolution. Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas led the charge with a pair of visionary but detail-light speeches about the ways a Labour government will start to hand power down to councils and communities. Even this rhetorical shift towards localism is remarkable following the centralised control-freakery of the New Labour years. The promise is clear – better designed, more efficient services and much deeper engagement with citizens.

But while it may be a little early for hard and fast policy, Labour does need to start working through the practical issues it will face very quickly. Meaningful devolution cannot be achieved through a few tweaks here and there. If Miliband and Cruddas are serious, they will have to commit themselves to one of the largest programmes of institutional change that England has ever seen.

Real devolution will mean tackling a trifecta of challenges – making council finances sustainable, reforming the civil service and addressing the local accountability deficit. Not only are these problems big, difficult and often considered too dull for leaflets and PPBs, they are also the sort of problem that need addressing in the first six months of a new administration before ministers lose their reformist momentum and fall back. overwhelmed into the arms of the mandarins.

Local government finance is the trickiest of the three. The system as it stands is a mess. Council tax is set against property values from 1992, and so completely fails to reflect the massive relative increase in southern house values. It has effectively been capped by the coalition for the past three years, with the effect that its claim to be in any sense a local tax is slowly dying. Business rates have not risen in real terms since 1992 and is also effectively treated as a national tax.

With a double whammy of government cuts and rising demand meaning councils face a £16.5bn spending gap by 2020, Miliband will need to find a way to pass more revenue-raising power down to the local level. This means, at the very least, a council tax revaluation and new bands so the very wealthiest pay more. More likely, a whole new system for local taxation will be required.

Civil service reform is probably more achievable – it is, after all, within the direct grasp of the prime minister, who has only to appoint a reformist Cabinet Secretary and demand change. If Miliband is serious about pooling money from different services into a single 3-5 year pot and devolving this to local level, he will need to manage the budget process in a very different way.

Instead of handing separate budgets to, say, the Department of Health and the Department for Communities, and then hoping they will cobble it back together into a single budget, he will have to bypass departments entirely and pass pooled funding to local government. This will require new lines of accountability to ensure that councils are spending the money well. It may also require the new prime minister to revisit Blair-era plans for a new US-style Office of Management and Budget to take on the public spending aspects of the Treasury’s work.

Finally, Miliband must confront the very real challenges facing local democracy. It is striking that neither he nor Cruddas seem overly worried about the role of voting in a new devolved settlement. In their vision, low turnouts are managed by lots of co-production and involvement of citizens in managing and designing the services they receive.

This will not be enough. With council election turnout flatlining in the low 30s, ministers need to consider how to get the public involved in big choices about the future of their places. Radical ideas such as local proportional representation or compulsory voting should be on the table, as should mandatory use of local participatory budgets combined with jury service-style selection of participants.

Localism represents a gigantic, but necessary, reform agenda. Are Miliband and Cruddas really up for it? We must hope so, because Labour has been trying to do piecemeal, pragmatic reform of local government for a very long time, and it has not delivered. England’s governance is groaning under the weight of decades of accumulated pragmatism. If we are going to make a reality of a more devolved nation, we need a government that will make a fresh start.

Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network

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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.