Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt pictured in Stoke On Trent during the 2010 general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tristram Hunt calls the Tories' bluff on profit-making free schools

The shadow education secretary pushes Gove to say whether a Conservative government would allow for-profit schools to be established. 

Were it not for the Lib Dems, profit-making free schools would likely have already been introduced by Michael Gove. The Education Secretary has long made his attraction to the idea clear, stating in May 2012 that they could be established under a Conservative majority government. He said then: "There are some of my colleagues in the coalition who are very sceptical of the benefits of profit. I have an open mind. I believe that it may be the case that we can augment the quality of state education by extending the range of people involved in its provision." Many of Gove's allies believe that it is only once the profit motive is introduced to the system (as it was in Sweden) that free schools will be able to open at the rate required to deal with the school places crisis. 

This raises the question of whether the Conservative manifesto will endorse the idea. In his speech at the Fabian Society today, Tristram Hunt will call the Tories' bluff, declaring that "Beyond 2015, whether it admits it or not, the Conservative Party intends to introduce the profit motive into English education". He will attack "the aggressively competitive,  fly-or-fail ethos that the Conservative Party aspires to bring to our school system" and warn that "There is almost no public policy… with more capacity to damage the fabric of our society – let alone the educational values we cherish."

It's a strong dividing line for Labour. As I've noted before, the existing free schools are hugely unpopular with voters and would be even more so were they allowed to be run for profit. The most recent YouGov poll found that just 23 per cent of voters support the schools compared to 53 per cent who oppose them. Whether the weakened Education Secretary will now run shy of the idea (or be forced to by David Cameron) is one of the big questions over the Tories' election programme. 

Update: Team Gove have been in touch to point out that the Education Secretary has more ruled out the introduction of for-profit free schools. Asked by Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh last year "Do you think that you will ever see tax-funded schools run for profit?", he replied: "No". They also noted that, contrary to Clegg's protestations, it was Lib Dems - Julian Astle, Richard Reeves, Jeremy Browne - who were cheerleading for profit-making schools. An Education Department source told me: "If Labour want to campaign against profit in schools, they should direct their fire at the Liberal Democrats, not us."

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.