Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference on March 21, 2014 in Perth. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband shows his hand on English devolution

Labour leader promises to end a "century of centralisation" by giving city regions major new powers and funding.

Ever since Ed Miliband declared his support for localism in his Hugo Young memorial lecture, Labour figures have been looking for concrete evidence of his commitment to devolving power from Whitehall. It was one of the motivations behind the recent letter to the Guardian from left-wing think-tanks which called for "devolution of state institutions, by giving away power and resources to our nations, regions, cities, localities and, where possible, directly to the people."

In a major speech on the economy tomorrow in Birmingham, Miliband will go a significant way to meeting their demands. Announcing the interim conclusions of Andrew Adonis’s growth review, he will vow to end a "century of centralisation" by at least doubling the level of devolved funding to city and county regions to £20bn over the next parliament (a figure that Labour sources emphasise is the "bare minimum"). As one shadow cabinet member recently put it to me, to see the party's commitment to devolution, "follow the money". Alongside this, regions will be offered new powers over transport and housing infrastructure, the Work Programme, and apprenticeships and skills, a move described by the party as "the biggest devolution of power to England’s great towns and cities in a hundred years".

Miliband and Ed Balls are to write to the leaders of all local authorities, universities and Local Enterprise Partnerships asking them "to draw up joint plans to boost growth and private sector jobs in their regions." Those regions that bring forward plans in the first nine months of the next parliament, and that meet the tests set by the Adonis review, will receive a "devolution deal" in the first spending review period of a Labour government.

The aim of the policy is to bridge the huge productivity gap between London and the regions (thus rebalancing the economy), and to create the kind of high-skilled, well-paid jobs lacking in so many areas. As Miliband will say tomorrow: "Britain is the country of the industrial revolution and Birmingham was one of the great cities of that revolution. But the country of the industrial revolution has ignored the lessons of its own history for far too long: the country that once built its prosperity on the great towns and cities, like Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and Cardiff, has become a country which builds its prosperity far too much in one city: London.

"We need a prosperous London, but we also need to build prosperity outside it. Today, every region outside London is below the national average when it comes to productivity, while London is 40% above it."

Given the fiscal constraints a Labour government would face, Miliband is clear that it is the private sector, not the state, that will be the primary source of new jobs. After addressing prices (with announcements on energy and housing) and wages (by promising to strengthen the minimum wage and spread use of the living wage),  Miliband's focus on employment is the next strand of his plan to tackle the "cost-of-living crisis" (see my blog from this morning on why he's sticking with this line).

In his speech, he will contrast his commitment to devolution with the inaction of the coalition. Referencing Michael Heseltine's government-commissioned growth review No Stone Unturned (which was similarly launched in Birmingham), he will say: "This government had an opportunity to make a difference. Michael Heseltine’s review called for a massive devolution of funding from Whitehall to the cities. But David Cameron and George Osborne allocated just £2 billion for a Local Growth Fund in their Spending Review for 2015-16.  The best report this government has produced has been the one that they have most ignored.

“We can and must do a lot better than that. It is why nine months ago, I asked Andrew Adonis to recommend the way forward for Labour. We have heard his interim conclusions today and his message is clear: devolving power from Whitehall to our towns and cities is essential to generate the new jobs we need."

It would be fascinating to know what Heseltine, who shared a platform with Adonis at an event on London last week (the two are long-standing mutual admirers), makes of Labour's decision to go far further than the Tories in embracing his conclusions. Perhaps he'll be kind enough to tell us...

One other figure closely involved in the speech was Chuka Umunna (another Heseltine fan), who made the case for regional economic devolution in a piece for Centre for Cities in February, and who, along with Jon Cruddas, Liz Kendall and Hilary Benn, is the most fervent advocate of localism in the shadow cabinet. His "Agenda 2030" is crucial to Miliband's ambition to build "a different kind of economy".

Having so clearly recognised the merits of devolution, Miliband will now be pushed to go further, for instance by devolving housing benefit (allowing councils to invest any savings in housebuilding) and lifting the cap on council borrowing to allow local authorities to borrow to build. But those who have previously doubted his commitment to giving power away, will welcome tomorrow's speech as a significant downpayment.

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.