In this week’s New Statesman: Dinosaurs vs modernisers

David Skelton: what the conservative modernisers must do next. PLUS: George Eaton on council tax reform, Rafael Behr on Miliband and the EU, and Ian Sansom pens an ode to paper.

David Skelton: What’s wrong with the Tory Party?

In our cover story this week, David Skelton – director of Policy Exchange – argues that David Cameron’s “modernisation” project did not go far enough. To return to power and win a majority in parliament, the Conservatives must learn to reconnect with the north and ordinary working voters. He describes how the public thinks that the Tories are “out of touch” and are “a party for the rich” – and outlines what they should do next.

When he became leader of the Tory party, David Cameron said that it had to “change to win”. He noted that the Tories had been stuck on about 33 per cent of the vote for many years. And that is exactly where they are in the polls now. Cameron has rescued his party from the scrapheap once, but his modernisation is still a job half done.

Last year, Policy Exchange and YouGov carried out a major polling exercise about what voters want, and there are lessons from it for all the main parties. For the Conservatives, it highlights four (overlapping) ways in which the party needs to do better:

First, they need to do better outside their southern heartland . . .

Second, they need to do better in urban areas . . .

Third, the Conservatives do badly among ethnic minorities . . .

Finally, the Conservatives need to do better among ordinary working people. Polls show two-thirds of voters agree that “the Conservative Party looks after the interests of the rich, not ordinary people”.

Skelton argues that cutting the cost of living – particularly housing costs – is the best way for the party to win back the working-class vote:

Driving down the cost of living should be one of the core ideas of Tory modernisers. Cutting tax for low earners, reducing the cost of living and reducing unemployment are the main ways it could shake off the tag.

The biggest cost of all for most people is housing. Rents are still rising sharply, and house prices have risen three times faster than wages over the past decade. The average age of a first-time buyer is now 37. Reviving housebuilding is also crucial to getting the economy moving.

We could also learn from the Continent. In France and Germany people have the right to buy a plot of land on which to build a house. For the millions of people priced out of owning their own home, a “right to build your own house” could have the same political impact as the “right to buy” did in the 1980s.

 

Rafael Behr: Ed Miliband is about to have the burden of defending the EU foisted on him. Is he ready?

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr writes on Ed Miliband and the EU. The Labour leader has been called “perhaps Labour’s most pro-European leader ever”; he has no intention of matching the Prime Minister’s commitment to a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU. But can Miliband afford to become “Britain’s lead advocate for the status quo” when even “the mistiest-eyed Europhile” can see that the EU needs reform? Read his column in full on the NS website now.

 

George Eaton: Is this the coalition’s poll tax moment?

In Observations, George Eaton writes that the coalition’s reform of the council-tax system risks provoking a poll-tax-style revolt. The government has cut the fund for Council Tax Benefit by 10 per cent and millions of households will be forced to pay the charge for the first time.

Because the government has stipulated that the state must maintain current levels of support for pensioners, the burden will fall entirely on the working-age poor, many of whom are already facing large cuts to their benefits. Read his piece in full on the NS website now.

 

Ian Sansom: Bury me in paper

In the NS Essay this week Ian Sansom, author of Paper: an Elegy, writes a sweeping ode to the ‘Zelig of all materials’, and asks how printed matter will fare in the digital age. He begins:

Let me tell you a story. It’s a story that has not been told enough, and that we need to remind ourselves of as we grow ever further from its simple meanings and its truth. It is a creation story…

The story begins around 105AD with our eunuch, Cai Lun, a court official of the Han Dynasty, reporting on an invention that used mashed-up tree bark to produce an extraordinary material. Macerated bark fibres, says Cai Lun, are being mixed with water in a vat, into which a mesh or mould is dipped and from which the excess liquid is drained; the resulting pulpy mass is then hung to dry. This thing, this thin white precious thing, is – of course! – paper. And the story paper tells is the story of civilisation.

As we are weighed down with our ever-proliferating items of corporatised, licensable digital kit, and become ever more like anthro-info-conduits – walking, talking human slurry pits of undigested data – it is often easy to forget that paper was and is and is likely to remain the most ubiquitous, the most useful and also the most easily recyclable of man-made communication devices. Indeed, paper is still the ancient communication device that all modern communication devices seek, pathetically, to emulate: cheap to make and easy to inscribe; durable, readable, portable, disposable; the screen as the ultimate page.

But that is not all. Paper is and always has been more than just a medium for commu­nication. It’s more than just the archetypal data storage system. It has a much darker, stranger, more profound history. It performs numerous other obvious and important roles in our lives, roles that our tablets ande-readers and smartphones can’t even begin to emulate or adopt. What is the biggest difference between an iPad and a notepad? Honestly? Seriously? You can’t wipe your arse with an iPad – not yet. Paper still reaches the parts that other products cannot reach.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE:

 

Mark Leonard: The affluence trap

Our reporter at large Mark Leonard writes an extended report on the new China, transformed by wealth and social upheaval. We used to think that as the Chinese grew richer they would become more like us in the west. But now, at the peak of unprecedented growth in China, internal disputes are stirring. What are the consequences for the country and the world? Leonard writes:

For most of the past 30 years, China’s leaders have been kept awake at night by worries about their country’s poverty and the problems of a socialist economy. Today, it is China’s affluence and the problems of the market that are causing sleepless nights . . .

Last year began with a series of powerful signals of change. In February, the World Bank and the Chinese Development Research Centre released a report on the country in 2030, calling for a wave of market reforms; in March, a village in Guangdong was allowed to hold an election, having ousted officials suspected of selling off communal land at artificially low prices . . .

Since the global financial meltdown in 2008, China’s intellectuals have diagnosed a crisis of success. Each of the three goals of Deng’s era – affluence, stability and power – is seen as the source of new problems... China 3.0 will be defined by a search for solutions to these three crises.

Laurie Penny: In the red

Laurie Penny writes this week about the fallout from the Leveson inquiry, the Hacked Off report, and why “good journalism is as necessary as ever”:

The British press is about to change for ever but that’s no thanks to the Leveson report. After another round of back-room, minute-less meetings between ministers and managing editors, it has become clear that the bland tome of equivocation and suggestion that was the ultimate result of a media and parliamentary corruption scandal that nearly brought down the UK government is going to make almost no difference.

In 2013, the Murdoch media empire continues to profit from the muckraking, misogyny and celebrity-gossip dross that it uses to buy and sell electoral influence to the highest bidder; Jeremy Hunt is still in the cabinet and David Cameron remains Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Jonnie Marbles went to jail for throwing a plate of shaving foam at an aged media baron and I’m beginning to suspect that he might have had the right idea all along. This was our Watergate and the political establishment has been allowed to wipe its hands on its trousers and walk away.

In The Critics

  • In Books, the Conservative peer and former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd reviews Britain’s Quest for a Role, a memoir by the former diplomat David Hannay.
  • Our critic at large this week is Ryan Gilbey, who writes about Steven Spielberg’s landmark biopic Lincoln, released in UK cinemas on 25 January.
  • Rachel Cooke watches the Danish political drama Borgen and wonders what all the fuss is about.
  • Our pop critic Kate Mossman writes on David Bowie’s comeback, and in a seperate piece assesses the songs in Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables.
  • Leo Hollis explores the ways in which digital technology is “mediat[ing] our experience of the city”.
  • Margaret Drabble reviews John Burnside’s short story collection Something Like Happy.
  • Helen Lewis finds precious little illumination in the pages of Anne H Putnam’s weight-loss memoir, Navel Gazing.
  • In the Books interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to George Saunders, master of the real voice, about his latest novel – Tenth of December.

Read more in our "In the Critics this week" feature on Cultural Capital.

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: www.newstatesman.com/subscribe

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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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.