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.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage