No man: Jim Murphy and his Irn Bru crates hit Edinburgh's Grassmarket. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jim Murphy: on the road in Scotland for the No campaign

Barked at by a dog, watched by a Pet Shop Boy and heckled by a Yes-supporting horse.

Thursday

In the course of our tour of Scotland in the referendum campaign, we’ve changed the way we organise the meetings. We don’t invite an audience beyond a few supporters. Increasingly the meetings are about trying to persuade “yet to make my mind up” Scots. Many are now organised by word of mouth or are entirely impromptu. Fortunately for those of us campaigning for a No, Thanks vote, Scots have a very British attitude to queues. Often when they see a crowd forming they simply join in. So the meetings have sometimes started small and grown to a few hundred within minutes.

I did one such meeting tonight outside the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art with the Scots comedian Andy Cameron as my warm-up act. Hundreds of Glaswegians rushing home decided to miss their bus or train to join in the conversation. In the distance, at the back of the crowd, I saw Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys, who are in the city to perform for an admittedly bigger audience. No idea if I convinced him.

 

Friday

A day off from the tour to head back to the Commons and a vote on the bedroom tax. This unfair policy applied across the whole of the UK is another reminder that poverty and injustice are blind to nationality and don’t ask about passports before being visited upon families. But to listen to SNP activists during the campaign, you would think hardship is inflicted upon Scots because we are also British. In truth, it’s because we have a Tory government, not a “British” one, that so many families still suffer. The SNP cares nothing for the Labour Party and does little for the poor. Despite its social-democratic rhetoric, its only redistribution is from the poor to the more prosperous. They talk left and act right. As if to prove it, only a third of the SNP’s MPs bothered to vote today.

 

Saturday

Another impromptu meeting in Glasgow, this time in Argyle Street, with ten campaigners and hundreds of shoppers. The events in the Commons are already big news on Scotland’s streets. Halfway through my speech, I’m interrupted by a heckle featuring too many swear words for it to bear reprinting in the New Statesman. But it’s another reminder that not all of Scotland’s best comedians are on stage. Even though my tour had me making my debut at the Edinburgh Fringe, there’s more genuine humour in street politics than in parliamentary politics. In Bathgate, a man came out of a Poundland and placed a six-pack of toilet rolls on my crates, with a put-down of: “Big Man, yu’ve been talking shite for an hour, so here – that’s to clean yer mooth oot!” I’ve been barked at by a dog with the word “Freedom” scribbled on it in Biro and heckled by a horse wearing a Yes Scotland blanket. My favourite so far was a man claiming to be “the Oban Seagull Whisperer”. He turned up in the West Highland capital with the sole aim of persuading said seagulls to disrupt our session with the call of nature. I think the bag of chips in his hand was a bigger calling signal than any of his silent sounds.

 

Sunday

I’d always thought that the main risk of having so many public meetings would be Scotland’s unpredictable summer and now autumn weather. But only one meeting has been rained off. A few others have been disrupted in different ways. And while some focus settled on an egg thrower now carrying out community service, I couldn’t care less about how many eggs are aimed at me.

This was about something much more sinister and I’m glad that whoever turned on the tap of that type of aggressive nationalism then quietly turned it off again after I suspended my tour and took police advice. Today, the Daily Telegraph reported that an anti-English group, Siol nan Gaidheal, or “Seed of the Gaels”, was behind some of the disruption. They’d boasted “we have been following Murphy” for “in-your-face confrontations”. A bit like Johnny Cash, they seem always to dress in black. And while he did it for “the poor and beaten down/Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town”, their sartorialism is about our nation’s supposed oppression by our neighbours in the south.

 

Monday

The day starts with a hangover feeling – even though I’m teetotal. Scotland went toe to toe with the world champions last night and, for a while, we looked like we might win. A 2-1 defeat in Germany was the type of performance that feels like a giant step towards Euro 2016 qualification.

 

Tuesday

Early this morning, I used what’s left of my voice on Radio 4’s Today programme to talk about Labour’s plans for accelerated devolution. Gordon Brown announced an accelerated timetable for the Scottish Parliament. It’s the right thing to do and Gordon’s speech setting out the detail has thrown the SNP off its stride. On the radio, I asked Angus Robertson, the often assured SNP leader in Westminster, whether his party would join in the devolution consensus after a No vote. Instead of answering, he reverted to nationalist type by lashing out at John Humphrys and the BBC.

I’m finishing this diary while travelling between Falkirk and Stirling – stops 94 and 95 on my #100Streets tour of Scotland. It’s old-fashioned politics in 100 open-air meetings across the country. It’s just me, my two Irn-Bru crates, a microphone, and whoever turns up. Falkirk was busy and passionate. One of the few hecklers arrived with a violin and played “Scotland the Brave”. It has come to something when the playing of one of Scotland’s great anthems is considered a way of making a political point.

The truth is that the song, the St Andrew’s flag and the country belong to all of us, patriot or nationalist. So, rather than reacting in the way my polite and talented heckler had wanted, I challenged him to strike up our nation’s actual anthem. He and I did a duet – him playing and me singing – from my Irn-Bru crates. 

Jim Murphy is the former Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and leader of Scottish Labour 2014-15.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown

Getty
Show Hide image

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.