George Osborne prepares to lead members of the Treasury team out of 11 Downing Street to face the media before the Budget. Photograph: Getty Images.
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George Osborne shamelessly courts the pensioner vote

The Chancellor's offer to the over-65s is rational but crude politics: they vote more than any other age group.

There is a simple explanation for the lengthy section devoted to supporting savers and pensioners at the end of George Osborne's Budget speech: they vote. In 2010, 76 per cent of the over-65s turned out, more than any other age group. If the Tories are to edge Labour in a close election next year, winning the support of this group will be crucial.

For years since the coalition was formed, Conservative MPs have been calling for the Chancellor to provide relief to the pensioners (a significant number of whom have defected to UKIP) whose savings have been hit by the "monetary activism" (ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing) he regards as necessary to support the recovery.

Today, he acted. He announced the abolition of the 10 per cent tax band on savings (taking at swipe at Labour by adding "when I abolish a 10p rate, I don't secretly turn it into a 20p rate") and the doubling of the zero pence band to £5,000, the launch of a new pensioner bond paying market rates, the removal of tax restrictions on how pensioners drawdown their savings pots, and a new "Right to Advice" for those retiring on defined contribution pensions. All of these measures were designed to match Osborne's rhetorical commitment to those who have "worked hard" and "saved" throughout their lives. His decision to exclude the state pension from the new cap on welfare spending is another show of support for this group. 

Many will rightly question his priorities. It is pensioners who have suffered the least during the long squeeze, with their benefits shielded from austerity, while the young have suffered the most. But Osborne's decision to favour the former over the latter is rational, if crude, politics. 

It is worth noting, however, that today's measures could well be a prelude to a Conservative pledge to means-test universal pensioner benefits, such as Winter Fuel Payments, free bus passes and free TV licences, in 2015. While the state pension has been excluded from the welfare cap, these payments have not. Osborne's "Budget for savers" may well be aimed at providing the Tories with the protective cover they need to execute this U-turn. 

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.