Goodbye to all that? Photo:Getty
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The suicide of Britain? Not yet, and here's how it can be avoided

The election has put the Union at risk. Here's how it can be saved. 

The Suicide of Britain. Shocking as this sounds, this was the title of an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times two days after the general election. The article warned that the forces of nationalism were now on the brink of overwhelming the 300 year old Union. It was not wrong.

The election and the Scottish referendum have sent a message loud and clear from all parts of this island that the constitutional status quo is no longer tenable. This is more than just a case of rampant nationalism. The country as a whole, all of it, rejects and repudiates the Westminster bubble. Those Labour activists knocking on doors during the referendum will know what we mean when we say that the anti-Westminster feeling in Scotland was all too familiar. It was the same angry disenchantment found on doorsteps in Doncaster and Dudley, not just Dundee. It is now clear that the defining mission of the future and of our party is nothing short of a constitutional revolution to save our United Kingdom. Like every cause worth fighting for it will be a struggle of the highest order. It will be a desperate battle and carry the most enormous risks. It will involve actually leading people not just listening.

Yorkshire votes for Yorkshire Laws

The ‘vow’, the Kelvin Commission and the Silk Commission were all about powers to the nations, but do nothing to address our country’s rotten, increasingly irrelevant core. Yes, devolution has caused deep imbalances in our constitution. Of course there must be changes so that English MPs can scrutinise English only legislation, but in reality there are few truly English only pieces of legislation. ‘English votes for English laws’ is just the sort of divisive, wedge-driving populist dissimulation the Tories would champion. The imbalances in our constitution go beyond that and now mean that London MPs vote on Yorkshire issues such as transport, but Yorkshire MPs do not have a say on London’s. The answer cannot be one that demotes MPs from other parts of our country and creates constitutional chaos, with different majorities needed depending on the given issue.

Therefore the answer to these problems lies in devolution within England itself - moving power away from the centre. A Devolution that is more than just money and city deals. A Devolution, which is more radical and far reaching than we have ever contemplated before. Ignore what happened before in another political age when Scotland was painted political red and Labour understood middle England – regional government is back. While the Tories and SNP promote politics of division in order to secure power, our abiding mission will be winning power to give it away. Let the forces of conservatism and nationalism play north against south, England against Scotland, rich vs. poor and public vs. private. We will recognise the strength of our common endeavour as a union whilst pushing power down beyond national assemblies and town halls. Putting power as close to citizens as possible as the only sensible policy in this age of permanent technological revolution.

The British are coming

We must also understand that nationalism, be it the SNP version or the English brand the Tories have created, is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. The real issue continues to be disenchantment with our system and if we are honest the failure of Labour to connect with the voters who swept it to power in three successive elections. Labour’s founding father, a Scot, said that our fight is not with a class but against a system. He argued that we must offer a platform broad enough for all to stand upon. Such a platform exists that reflects our Party’s values. It is a greater, more expansive, nationalism than Sturgeon or Cameron offers. A confident nationalism that is resilient and outward looking. A nationalism that embraces those of many identities. On its platform and with its values we created institutions such as the NHS - won conflicts to protect the freedoms it stands for. It won a referendum in Scotland and dominated our Olympic Games. It is Britishness.

The article ‘The Suicide of Britain’ lamented that no one was making the argument for our country’s future. That no one was leading the charge for Britain. This is strange - not because support for Britain is so weak, but because the reality is if it were articulated properly its strength would be unbeatable. It is the British mantle that Labour must pick up. Championing a Britishness built on the values of tolerance, creativity, fair play and an outward looking approach to the world. Yes, there is a big tent for Labour to use on the path back to government. Attlee and Blair used it before. Its name is Britannia.

Tim Roca was Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Macclesfield, and tweets at @timroca85. Michael Payne was Labour parliamentary candidate for Newark, who tweets @MichaelPayneUK.

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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.