Aura of success: the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff. Photo: Getty Images
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The view from Wales: the time for nostalgia about empire and union is past

Preserving the past in aspic risks neglecting the future.

As Scotland moves ever closer to the referendum in September that will deter­mine its future, Plaid Cymru looks on in anticipation. We may not be in the same constitutional position but the Party of Wales has good reason to be optimistic. Scotland’s steady advance creates great possibilities and opportunities for Wales to carve out a stronger position within these islands for ourselves.

It is clear that people in Scotland have already succeeded in moving to what I would describe as an independent mindset and to a point where the Scottish National Party First Minister commands respect, influence and authority on the highest stages. Alex Salmond continues to set out an exciting vision of what an independent Scotland will look like: a “people’s constitution”, a Scottish welfare state, and an economy that will compensate for the prominence of oil and gas revenues by investing heavily in renewables. The SNP government has been able to demonstrate that Scotland has all the tools to become a successful independent country.

It goes without saying that Plaid Cymru supports a Yes vote in Scotland, but the tectonic plates are now shifting to such an extent that there is bound to be far-reaching political and constitutional change whichever way the vote goes. This in itself should not come as a surprise, given that the current constitutional settlement in the United Kingdom is less than 100 years old and that matters like this seem to have a habit of changing once in every three or four generations.

There are poll results which show an increasing thirst for autonomy in Wales. A survey carried out on behalf of the Silk Commission, set up to examine the case for further devolved powers in Wales, shows that more than half of the population wants welfare and benefits to be controlled by the National Assembly for Wales. The same poll indicates that 70 per cent believes powers over renewable energy, including large windfarms, should transfer to Wales. On policing, 63 per cent says these powers should be devolved. In 2011, every Welsh constituency bar one voted for law-making powers to be transferred from Westminster in devolved matters. This is remarkable, considering it is barely a generation since devolution was rejected resoundingly here in the 1979 referendum.

The challenge will be to convert this pop­ular demand for greater control over our own affairs into electoral success for Plaid Cymru. One of the obstacles in matching the success of the SNP is, and has been, the strength of the Scottish economy compared to that of Wales. Scotland’s economic history exhibits all the signs of a country that formed a union with England. Wales’s economic history demonstrates a country that was conquered, annexed and absorbed by England, with only our distinct culture preserving the idea that we are a nation. It is one of the reasons why, under my leadership, Plaid Cymru is focusing on the transformation of the Welsh economy.

The Scottish referendum gives us in Wales a new opportunity to ask why the Union has failed consistently to enable Wales to become a prosperous nation. It also encourages us to keep asking questions about whether any government in London will be able to deliver for the Welsh economy, and spurs us in Plaid Cymru to set out a vision that involves us having more control over our affairs – including levers that would help us improve the economy, such as taxation, rail policy, ports and energy. While the people of Wales are not yet convinced that they will be better off as an independent country, they want substantial further devolution.

The spirit of Nordic co-operation could be a new way to look at the politics of the United Kingdom, or what will be left of it. New institutions could also be built around the sterling zone and the “social union” that the SNP is seeking to preserve, while retaining our domestic autonomy (and, of course, our rugby and football teams!). In such a scenario, Wales would look much more like a modern nation state than it ever has done.

A grouping of friendly and close-knit nations should always exist in these islands. But preserving the past in aspic risks neglecting the future. The time for nostalgic views about empire and union must now give way to a partnership of equal nations. Our diversity should be celebrated, not submerged. Solidarity is something that should be shared between equal nations.

The Scottish referendum, whatever the result in September, will establish a new, multinational era.

Leanne Wood is the leader of Plaid Cymru and the Assembly Member for South Wales Central 

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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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.