Labour spent much of the summer telling voters how badly off they were under the coalition. Real wages had fallen in 37 of David Cameron’s 38 months in power (the exception being April 2013 when deferred bank bonuses were paid out to benefit from the cut in the top rate of tax), making Cameron the worst prime minister for living standards in history. Youth unemployment and long term unemployment remained at near-record levels, with millions of others trapped in part-time or temporary work, or on zero-hour contracts.
But if Labour is to win the election, it won’t be enough to convince voters that they’re poorer under the Tories. It will also need to convince them that they’d be better off under Labour. In the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney similarly resurrected Ronald Reagan’s famous line – “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” – but the electorate stuck with Obama because the numbers were moving in the right direction and they doubted Romney could do any better. The Tories hope and expect UK voters will take the same view of Labour in 2015.
It’s for this reason that party activists and MPs have been so desperate for Ed Miliband to fill the policy vacuum. In his speech tomorrow at the TUC conference, Miliband will start to do so, offering voters concrete examples of how they would benefit from a Labour government.
After highlighting research over the summer showing that around a million workers are employed on zero-hour contracts, which offer no guaranteed work and require workers to be permanently on-call, Miliband will outline clear measures to prevent the exploitative use of the contracts, effectively outlawing them in their present form. He will ban employers from forcing workers to be available even when there is no guarantee of work, pledge to outlaw employers from requiring workers to work exclusively for one business, and promise to give anyone working for a single employer for more than 12 weeks on a zero-hours contract the automatic right to a full-time contract based on the average time worked over that period.
Miliband will say: “We need flexibility. But we must stop flexibility being used as the excuse for exploitation. Exploitation which leaves workers carrying all of the burdens of unpredictable hours, irregular pay, no security for the future.
Of course, there are some kinds of these contracts which are useful. For doctors, or supply teachers at schools, or sometimes, young people working in bars. But you and I know that zero hours contracts have been terribly misused. This kind of exploitation has to stop. We will support those businesses and workers that want to get on in life. But we will ban practices which lead to people being ground down.”
With his proposals, Miliband has smartly pre-empted the conclusions of the review currently being led by Vince Cable into zero-hours and has addressed an issue of increasing concern to voters, particularly the young. A YouGov poll in August found that 56% of people (including 71% of Labour voters) “support a ban on zero-hour contracts”, with just 25% opposed.
The test of Miliband’s conference speech, the theme of which will be the cost of living crisis, will be whether he can offer convincing solutions to the other problems the party has highlighted: the wage squeeze, the housing crisis and soaring energy costs. Between now and 2015, this is likely to mean pledges to build a million affordable homes, to create living wage zones (and make its use mandatory in the public sector), to abolish the bedroom tax and to introduce free universal childcare for pre-school children. How much of this makes it into Miliband’s speech remains uncertain, but with today’s announcements, the Labour leader’s gear-change has begun.