George Osborne is given a tour of the production line at Bentley Motors on December 4, 2014 in Crewe. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What happened to Osborne's deficit trap for Labour?

There is no sign of the updated Charter for Budget Responsibility that the Chancellor promised would be published by now. 

It was supposed to be George Osborne's great trap for Labour. In his recent Autumn Statement, the Chancellor promised an updated Charter for Budget Responsibility committing the government (and in theory a Labour administration) to an aggressive pace of deficit reduction. He said: "Next week we will publish a new Charter for Budget Responsibility that will reinforce our commitment to finish the job in the next Parliament, and we will ask the House to vote on it in the new year."

The implicit aim was to force Labour to either match his plans, and commit itself to billions of pounds of additional cuts (something which wouldn't be well received by the left and the trade unions), or to oppose them and be denounced as fiscally irresponsible. Such was the pre-briefing around the move that there was speculation Osborne would publish the new Charter immediately after the Autumn Statement and stage a vote the following day. The Chancellor's Autumn Statement downgraded this to "next week", with the vote to follow in the new year. But the week referred to by Osborne has now been and gone and the promised Charter still hasn't been published. 

This delay follows confusion over what target MPs would be invited to vote on (as I reported last month). In his Budget in March, Osborne suggested that it would be on his commitment to achieve an overall surplus by the end of the next parliament. But later briefing suggested it would be on the alternative target of eliminating the structural current deficit by 2017-18. This aim, unlike that of a surplus, is endorsed by the Lib Dems. But with Nick Clegg's party focused on differentiating itself from the Tories (even as it prepares for another coalition), it was unclear whether it would be prepared to line up with the Tories. Without support from the Lib Dems, Osborne would be unable to achieve a majority for the Charter. Whatever the reason for the delay (I am awaiting comment from the Treasury), Labour has been quick to pounce. The shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Chris Leslie said:

In the Budget George Osborne was talking about a vote on balancing the overall budget. Then last month the Treasury tried to lay the ground for a big u-turn by briefing that the vote would only be on balancing the current budget, excluding capital investment.

And now, after all the hype and promises that a new Charter would have been published over the last week, the government has totally failed to publish anything. This is a total mess. As ever, these so called Tory traps are backfiring on the Chancellor.
 
Labour has set out a tough but balanced approach to get the current budget into surplus and the national debt falling as soon as possible in the next Parliament.

Our first election pledge announced this week is that we will balance the books and cut the deficit every year, while securing the future of our NHS. This will require sensible spending cuts in non-protected areas, fairer choices including reversing the Tory tax cut for millionaires and a plan to deliver the rising living standards and stronger growth needed to balance the books.
 
In contrast the Tories are pursuing an increasingly unbalanced and extreme approach. They have chosen to pencil in even deeper spending cuts, which would return public spending to a share of GDP last seen in the 1930s.

They are refusing to ask those with the broadest shoulders to make a greater contribution and ignoring the need for a plan to deliver the rising living standards that are vital to getting the deficit down. And they have now made £7 billion of unfunded tax promises, which can only be paid for by even deeper cuts to public spending or another Tory VAT rise.

George Osborne should spend less time playing silly political games and more time sorting out the economy and trying to make his sums add up.

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.