Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference on March 21, 2014 in Perth. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why has Labour watered down its plans to tackle zero-hour contracts?

The party previously suggested that workers would be offered a fixed-hours contract after 12 weeks. But that period has been extended to a year. 

The only one of the three main Westminster parties that can confidently take the fight to the SNP is Labour. Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are now too toxic to do so. North of the border, the Tories have just one seat to Labour's 41, while Nick Clegg's party will be lucky to have many more after May 2015 (psephologist Lewis Baston recently predicted that they would lose 10 of their 11 Scottish constituencies). 

For Ed Miliband, a No vote in the independence referendum is crucial, not just to preserving Labour's Scottish MPs (without whom it would become far harder to govern), but also to reinforcing his argument that a unified, social democratic Britain can be built. Ahead of the vote in September, he has travelled with the shadow cabinet to Glasgow today, as part of two days of campaigning across Scotland - and has brought a new policy along. 

In his speech in Motherwell, he will announce Labour's plans to end the use of "exploitative" zero-hours contracts (which offer no guaranteed work and require workers to be permanently on-call) following the conclusion of an independent review by Norman Pickavance, a former director of Human Resources at Morrisons. He will promise to legislate to ensure that the estimated one million people (3.1 per cent of the workforce) on the contracts are offered:

- The right to demand a fixed-hours contract when they have worked regular hours over six months with the same employer. 

- The right to receive a fixed-hours contract automatically when they have worked regular hours over a year - unless they decide to opt out.

- Protection from employers forcing them to be available at all hours, insisting they cannot work for anyone else, or cancelling shifts at short notice without compensation.

In adopting this stance, Miliband is again smartly positioning Labour to the left of the SNP, which has moved to ban public sector contractors from using the contracts (albeit with some exemptions), but has not announced proposals for the wider private sector. As well as attacking Alex Salmond's party for promising to cut corporation tax by 3p and for refusing to commit to reintroducing the 50p tax rate, he will say: 

The reason the SNP has nothing to say about ending the abuse of zero hours contracts is simple: they know that if Scotland left the UK it would harder to end the abuse of zero hours contracts either here or in what is left of the UK.

Once again, this shows the truth: we can best deliver social justice for working families by working together across the UK with a Labour government in Westminster and a Labour government in Holyrood.

But while Miliband has gone further than the SNP and far further than the coalition (which will shortly publish its response to Vince Cable's consultation) is likely to go, it's worth noting that Labour's policy doesn't just stop short of the outright ban that some in the party, such as Andy Burnham, would like to see, but actually represents a watered down version of previous proposals. 

Back in September, when Miliband addressed the TUC conference, Labour briefed that anyone working for a single employer for more than 12 weeks on a zero-hours contract would be given the automatic right to a full-time contract based on the average time worked over that period. Yet that period has now been extended to 12 months. In other words, workers will now need to wait four times as long for fair treatment. (An additional problem, as the trade unions will be quick to note, is that employers will simply dismiss workers ahead of the deadline before later rehiring them.)

No doubt Pickavance's review concluded that the previous proposals would unreasonably limit employers' flexibility. But if so, Miliband should explain why the rights of the bosses have trumped the rights of the workers. 

Update: A Labour source points out to me that "our original press release back in September, announcing the principles of our proposals and the Pickavance review, didn't actually include the 12 week element, so I wouldn't necessarily see today's announcement as a climb down." He added that "what is announced today goes far further than the government consultation." 

That may all be true, but it is undeniable that the 12 week pledge was briefed to several journalists, including me, back in September. Just check the stories from the time. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.