Why Ed Milliband will continue to disappoint
This week at theTUC conference Ed Milliband promised to take action to end the blight of zero hours contracts which cruelly impact so many people’s lives. It was a speech of good intent which revealed little of specifics of any future policy. How did Ed propose who was going to end this problem? No specific details, just another promise left floating in the air not anchored in the firm ground of policy detail. The problem being for Ed is that he is part of that broad Parliamentary consensus that seeks to combine right of centre economic policy with a left of centre social policy, a tendency that can be identified as starting with John Major.
These politicians believed supply side economics, or what is more popularly called Neo-Liberalism, was necessary if Britain’s moribund economy was to be revived. He recognised that by adopting such a brutal free market economy there would be losers, but in order to create a flexible labour market the protections that secured fair wages and security of employment would have to be removed. This would mean that there would be a large part of the work force that would experience a combination of job insecurity and low wages, combined with a future of low wage employment punctuated by periods of unemployment. Essentially low cost workers who would be willing to work for whatever wages the employer was willing to offer. However he did recognise that there must be a social policy in place to pick up the pieces, that is a welfare state. A state that would offer unemployment and housing benefit for the losers in the labour market. It is this policy that made zero hours contracts possible.
A policy of ‘tough love’ was adopted to ensure that the low paid or unemployed would be willing to take whatever work was available. Benefits were to be so low as to make any work attractive and sanctions were introduced to make people work. This policy has been adopted with enthusiasm by Ian Duncan’s Smith Department of Work and Pensions. Recently it has been suggested by them, that the low paid will be penalised by further benefits cuts if they don’t make sufficient effort to secure a higher wage.
As if to add insult to injury, when elected New Labour promised to continue the policies of the consolidators but with more efficiency and fairness. One of the first acts of the Labour government was to introduce working tax credits, to top up the wages of the low paid. This wage subsidy enabled companies to keep costs low by continuing to pay wages that were so low as would otherwise have left workers in poverty. They also believed in the ‘stick’, they introduced welfare reform by setting up an assessment scheme run by Atos whose main purpose was to reduce the numbers on benefit by defining many of the formerly disabled as fit for work.
This unforgiving social policy is Ed Milliband’s heritage, the inheritance of an inhumane economic and social policy whose sole aim was to keep large numbers of people in poverty and living lives of misery. While he seems genuinely appalled at the misery and despair government policy creates, he realises that there is little he can do about it. He has inherited the belief that the British economy needs to be regenerated through free market reforms which will create millions of losers and few winners; so there is little he can do about ending the misery of zero hour contracts. While Andy Burnham has said that he will end the use of zero hour contracts in the NHS. There has been no such promise from Ed Milliband, he remains trapped within the cruel brutal Neo-Liberal ideology that allows him to make no more than gestures to improving the lot of the great mass of the British population. Yesterday’s debate in Parliament demonstrates this when he failed at Prime Minister’s Question Time to quiz David Cameron on the very critical report made by the UN Rapporteur on the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’, as Observers commented because he did not want to make a commitment to repealing it. While Ed Milliband remains committed to supply side economics and all the indifference to human suffering that implies, he will do little more than offer some amelioration of zero hours contracts. Whatever he might say, little will change.