Opposition is underrated. You can spend your whole time pointing at Expensive Things and complaining that the Government Should Do Something about their cost, and grumbling about other things you don’t like either, like a mother-in-law wearing a party rosette. What’s not to like about being a professional complainer?
The problem is that at some point you have to stop just pointing at things and complaining about them, and instead actually give a sense of what you would do instead. And if you’ve been too fussy to begin with, you end up disappointing people who thought you really were going to do something about everything you complained about to begin with. The Tories know this, and so are having a little bit of fun today with Liam Byrne’s welfare speech. They have produced an infographic reminding voters of the party’s record on benefits reform so far. But another example of Labour’s over-fussing problem is the noise it has made about zero-hours contracts.
For all the raging about these scary-sounding examples of labour market flexibility, you might think that Labour plans to outlaw them outright. Many of its backbenchers and shadow ministers do want just that: Corby MP Andy Sawford has a Private Member’s Bill calling for a ban, and Andy Burnham wants them outlawed too.
But Chuka Umunna didn’t mention a ban at all yesterday when launching his ‘summit’ (another substitute for a judge-led inquiry, along with cross-party talks) with organisations representing businesses and trade unions. He said:
‘Flexibility works for some, but the danger today is that too often insecurity at work becomes the norm.
‘The huge spike in the use of zero-hours contracts has brought increased reports of abuses and bad practice. There should be zero tolerance of such abuse.’
So Umunna wants to rule out abuse of zero hours contracts, which is what the Coalition government is already working on. For what it’s worth, the Coalition – particularly the Tories – could have made a much better job (more on this here) of explaining why these contracts don’t represent Britain going to the dogs but are a necessary ingredient in a flexible labour market that keeps people in jobs, even if they don’t have the terms that every single employee would want. But ministers have seemed content to cede this debate to Labour, which has served the opposition well thus far as it looks for things to be cross about. The problem now, though, is whether Labour will really match its mouth with some trousers? At some point the party will have to respond to calls from MPs like Sawford and Burnham. And if Ed Miliband and Umunna do understand that they could do more damage to the labour market by outlawing these contracts, then they will have to spell out that even though they once made a lot of noises about these contracts being terrible, they now have to accept that they can’t ban them. Which is a lot less fun than pointing at things and fussing.Tags: Chuka Umunna, Employment, Labour, UK politics, zero hours contracts