The parties should be figuring out ways to make people want to jump into the world of work. Photo: Getty
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Why we can no longer say any job is a good job

The political issues of work are not just employment and low pay; the idea of good work is also gaining political momentum, and should play a big role in policy after 2015.

Recently, a friend of mine lost his job. He worked for a small, trendy start-up and, along with many other employees, was paid far less than his employers. The business recently folded due to money-mismanagement, pricing of their products and a confused identity. The business also happened not to pay their employees for their last moth of work.

When the employees were given notice that the business would be closing, they were told by one of the business’s founders, who had just arrived in his new sports car. Although the sports car part of this story is perhaps unusual, the rest speaks to the insecure nature of work in modern day Britain. 

A recent poll in the Guardian looked into the anxiety felt by many over the economy. According to the poll, 56 per cent of people said that they believed economic recovery is underway but less than one in five said that they felt that were benefitting from this. Looking into the root causes of economic anxiety, the poll found that 46 per cent of people felt that because of migrant labour undercutting wages, closely followed by 42 per cent who believed the fault lay with "ruthless companies". As for the major worries that people had about working life in Britain, the gap between wages and the cost of living scored highest, followed by fear of redundancy, lack of permanent posts and inadequate pensions amongst many other concerns. Although the cost of living was the top concern, worries around the insecurity of work also ranked highly, which begs the question, how do we tackle issues of the quality of work alongside low pay?

The Labour party is fast approaching its National Policy Forum, where the policy review, led by Jon Cruddas will be presenting their stream of research on work. The policy review recently hosted a symposium where they discussed an ongoing project looking into the world of work with the Smith Institute. The purpose of the research is not just to look at the issue of low pay but also the average and normal experiences of work. More intangible ideas like job satisfaction are being prioritised alongside the more traditional concerns of unemployment, underemployment, low pay and job security.

The Labour party are not the only ones interested in this area of policy The Work Foundation is launching research later in the year into insecurity in the work place. The Green Party also wants to see reforms to the world of work, with their aim to see the UK move closer to the situation of mainland Europe, where the average working week is shorter and where greater emphasis is placed on worker’s rights and low pay is more fervently tackled. This week, the Greens released a statement on the Living Wage Commission, backing the recommendations to the hilt as a means of tackling in-work poverty. This all supports the idea that the political movement toward "good work" is one that is slowly but surely picking up steam.  

Prioritising the quality of work helps to answer the question of what will come after the "cost of living crisis". There is often an assumption politically that any job is better than no job, but as someone once said to me, we used to put young boys up chimneys because labour was so cheap and workers' worth so low. While the coalition government is determined to push people off benefits, Labour should be figuring out ways to make people want to jump into the world of work; the party needs to live up to its namesake and put quality of work front and centre. All we need now is for Ed Miliband to live up to the legacy of his party and put "good work" policies into next year’s manifesto. 

Dan Holden leads on political research at ComRes. He tweets @DanSHolden.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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