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1 July 2010

Rights at work should be back on Labour’s agenda

Trade unions have a say in this leadership election, too.

By Richard Darlington

This week, Ed Miliband backed the idea of extending the right to request flexible working to “every worker, not just those caring for families”. This is an idea first proposed in 2007 by Beverley Hughes. Back then, Hughes argued that “everyone has a life outside work, not just parents . . . many people make valuable contributions to their communities in their non-work time”.

When you read that quotation now it feels like a “big society” argument, yet the coalition is going in the other direction. The Tories campaigned on a platform to make Britain “the most family-friendly in Europe”. But for Ed Miliband, even though he’s a new father, the issue is wider than one of families. He highlighted this week that “we still work harder, for longer, than any other country in western Europe”.

Ed Miliband’s latest defence of the European social model — aligned to his promotion of a campaign for a national living wage and his call for Will Hutton’s review of top pay in the public sector to be expanded to include the private sector — will appeal to trade union members who have a say in this election. But it will also appeal to employees grinding out a living in low-paid or monotonous jobs.

All five candidates have said that Labour should have moved quicker on the Agency Workers Directive, a cause championed by Unite. Candidates will appear before the Unite executive this weekend and will be pressed not just on employment rights for individual workers, but also “collective rights” for trade unions.

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Repeal of Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union laws is unlikely to be offered by any candidate other than Diane Abbott, but the CBI has recently called for further tightening of the rules on strike ballots. Balls, Burnham and the Milibands might rule out allowing the 40 per cent turnout threshold that the CBI is lobbying for. 

Another issue that they would be wise to get ahead on is public-sector pensions, as that will be a major concern when the leadership candidates meet the Unison executive tomorrow. John Prescott has already labelled the Labour MP John Hutton’s decision to chair a review for the government as the act of a “collaborator”. Laying down red lines for Hutton not to cross would be a smart political move by the candidates. Actually making policy proposals could frame the review itself. 

It is important that Labour gets ahead of this debate, because there are some extremely distasteful views being expressed by Tories on this issue. Richard Balfe, Cameron’s trade union envoy, told the Telegraph.

Public-sector pensions are like lollipops for kids. You decide what sort of lollipop you’re going to give, and then you work out how you are going to pay for it. It’s perfectly possible to maintain public-sector pensions at their current level, if you make some fairly modest alterations to employee contributions. Public-sector pensions will clearly be a very significant issue in the wider relationship between the government and the unions.

For a serious analysis of the true costs of public-sector pensions, check out the TUC’s explanation showing how less than 0.2 per cent of teacher pensioners, 1.8 per cent of civil-service pensioners and 2.5 per cent of NHS pensioners get a sunset package of more than £40,000 a year.

Employment rights need to be on Labour’s agenda, because the coalition has them in its sights. And voters across the social spectrum, both parents and those without family commitments, working in both the public and the private sectors, want more control over their working lives.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.