Close to 600,000 workers or 2 per cent of the workforce are employed on a zero-hours contract. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We should reform zero-hours contracts, not ban them

Abuse needs to be addressed, but we must maintain flexibility for employers and workers.

There is still much that we don’t fully know about zero-hours contracts – contracts that do not guarantee any hours of work. Estimates about the number of people working on zero-hours contracts vary significantly and the jury is out as to whether their use is cyclical (driven by years of economic downturn), structural (a permanent feature of the labour market) or both. But there is already enough evidence of misuse to create a strong case for action on certain fronts to improve security for workers, while rejecting an outright ban. Our new report, Zeroing In, puts forward a set of recommendations for the reform of zero-hours contracts, including, but going beyond, a ban on exclusivity clauses already suggested by the government.

The latest estimate from the Office for National Statistics is that close to 600,000 workers or 2 per cent of the workforce are employed on a zero-hours contract. Health and social care, hospitality and administration account for over 50 per cent of these workers. Zero-hours contracts are intended to offer flexibility to employers and workers. Employers can quickly change their staffing levels at no cost and workers can work when they choose, helping to balance family and other commitments. However, in reality, a quarter of those on zero-hours contracts work a fixed pattern of hours each week; a third of employers expect workers to be available for work at all times; and four out of ten zero-hours workers would like to work  more. Flexibility for employers too often comes at the expense of workers.

To address this imbalance, anyone who has been employed on a zero-hours contract for at least a year and works a relatively consistent pattern of hours should have the right to a fixed-hours contract, if they choose. Under these circumstances, zero-hours contracts are not being used to respond to changes in demand. Workers are simply being denied employment rights to which they are entitled, such as Statutory Sick Pay and paternity and maternity leave. Introducing this right after 12 months rather than 12 weeks, as has been suggested, recognises that employers need time to plan how best to use their staff.

We should also extend the right to a set of employment terms to all workers not just employees. This would help to address the fact that anecdotally many people who take up a zero-hours contract do not know they have no guaranteed hours  until their hours are cut and are frequently not aware of their entitlements. In addition, Acas should work with business representatives and unions to set out a good practice guide to increase employer awareness of how to use zero-hours contracts fairly and more funding should be available for enforcement to proactively clamp down on employers who misuse these zero-hours contracts.

This is a deliberately cautious approach, seeking to address abuse, while maintaining flexibility for employers. As the recovery strengthens and the data on zero-hours contracts becomes clearer, we will need to keep the situation under review. If improvements are not forthcoming, a stronger, more statutory approach could be justified.

Vidhya Alakeson is deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad