Labour say that if they win the election they intend to force employers to give workers who are struggling on zero hour contracts the right to demand contracted hours in order to provide their household finances with a more secure income flow. This is important to those of us in Scotland because, firstly, SNP MPs at Westminster are likely to want to support the move and, secondly, it’s a policy which makes Labour appear as if it’s at least looking leftwards, even if it’s not exactly planning to really set off in that direction just yet.
What I want to present here, however, is the radical left-wing case for zero hours contracts in combination with the basic income guarantee offered at the current election by both the Scottish Greens and the Green Party down south. Seeing as part of the argument involves the claim that our economy needs less human labour and more investment in labour-saving technology, I may as well quote from something I published during the referendum:
[My radical vision for Scottish independence would aim to re-articulate] elements of the neoliberal framework in a way which works primarily with people’s subjective desires (rather than prioritising, in an ideological way, their perceived material needs), but only when those desires go distinctly against the grain of capitalism. Let us take a very concrete example: the dreaded zero-hours contract. Of course, the problem with employers keeping workers tied into exclusive contracts with no guaranteed working hours is not that people want to be working all week; the problem is that the wealth and profits created by increased industrial efficiencies are used as tools of social domination when those same efficiencies of production could, instead, become a socialised wealth of reduced working hours for all. Obviously, we have a system of production which does not permit those who actually do the work to appropriate the profits they produce in their own interests. So where does subjective desire enter into this and how could desire be used to rearticulate the zero-hours contract in a radical, post-capitalist subjective formation? Zero-hours contracts – even with the insecurity of income they imply – manage to feed a desire many workers have in the morning to simply not go to work, and it is these subjective desires which could be used to rearticulate leftist politics along more autonomist lines (basic income for all rather than guaranteed work for all, workers cooperatives rather than state nationalised industry et cetera). For me, this is the lesson of 1968: the students, the Situationists and so on didn’t want what the Old Left offered (a job for life, class solidarity as struggle rather than desire and so on); by ignoring these aspects, they left the field open for neoliberalism to offer something which did respond to these subjective forces – albeit in a way which was ultimately to serve one class against another.
So, for me, the zero hours contract offers an opportunity for the left, in its struggle against neoliberalism, to use capitalism’s own weight against itself – but only in combination with a commitment to a universal basic income (UBI). For those who have never heard of UBI, the idea is that the government pays an amount of money to all citizens, unconditionally, absolutely no strings attached (of course, for higher earners, the money is clawed back through income tax). For many economists, it is considered one of the key ideas for solving the problems of income inequality, low growth, stagnant wages and potentially widespread redundancy caused by an anticipated gear-change in the amount of automation in the economy.
At the moment, the government gives a huge amount of money to workers in the form of tax credits, free childcare and other benefits. These benefits are paid on condition that the individuals receiving them are either working or are looking for work and they are paid because employers no longer pay their workers a living wage. What would be the effect of the government starting to hand out these tax credits and the like with no strings attached? The biggest impact is that it would immediately strengthen the hand of the working class whose members, having a degree of economic independence, would be able to negotiate better terms with employers.
Independence Live recently broadcast a public meeting, held by the Scottish Socialist Party, at which the topic of zero hours contracts and the living wage campaign were central. But what occurs to me is that, in the British Isles, the labour movement at this present moment is extremely weak in terms of its organisation. To resurrect a true “workers’ movement” today would take an enormous amount of time and energy. In and of itself, of course, the sheer size of a task is certainly no reason to avoid pursuing a particular strategy – nobody said ending capitalism would be easy. But given that the government is borrowing huge sums of money in order to supplement the poverty wages of employers, surely it would be more efficient to focus on political power – rather than industrial organising – to simply change the conditions under which governments hand out tax credits etc. (I should mention that the Scottish Socialist Party also support a basic income, although it wasn’t mentioned at the meeting they held.)
Let us look more closely at the way in which the conditions attached to Universal Credit (the replacement for tax credits) would end up working in relation to Labour’s proposal that, after 12 weeks of regular hours, workers on zero hours contracts will have the right to demand that their employer gives them a contract with guaranteed hours. A part of Universal Credit is something called “in-work conditionality” which requires not just unemployed people to undertake steps to find work in return for their unemployment benefit, but also requires people who receive Universal Credit because they are in low-paid work to take steps to find either more hours or better paid work. It’s not unreasonable to assume that, if a Labour government brought in their proposed new law, it would quickly become part of Universal Credit’s “conditionality regime” (as it is called), as workers who have been on zero hour contracts for 12 weeks will be instructed to exercise their powers under the new legislation to get off the zero hour contract. Labour may be promoting this policy as a way of appearing to look leftwards, but it may turn out that they were actually looking rightwards as usual.
From the perspective I’ve just outlined, then, the Conservatives’ insistence on retaining the flexibility of the existing state-of-affairs might actually be more appealing to some workers (especially, perhaps, young workers with few financial commitments such as children), as they might prefer the idea of getting regular days off, away from the work regime, in return for having to complete a few application forms just for the purposes of demonstrating to their JobCentre advisor that they are looking for other work elsewhere. The Tories claim that surveys show most workers who are on zero hours contracts “like” such precarious employment – but whereas the Tories say this is because workers like the alleged flexibility, could it not be as simple to say that people like doing less work and that, in combination with the tax credits paid by the government, they are given an alibi for doing so? As I explained in the quoted passage, above, this a question of a politics of desire rather than a politics of demand.
There is, as I hoped to have shown here, a whole other way of looking at this question of zero hour contracts, but only if we do so in conjunction with the idea of a universal basic income. In fact, if I could legislate in this way (which I obviously cannot), I would make it a “rule” of progressive politics that whoever wants to be progressive and speak out about zero hour contracts, he or she should also be required to mention the basic income. Otherwise, we risk ending up where Labour is on the issue i.e. claiming to stand up for the economic interests of workers, whilst aiming later to crush the desire of those individuals who don’t want to work full-time hours (or even work at all, for that matter).
I spot the potential for a new politics of honesty, here. A new political movement in which people do not feel ashamed to say that they would like to work for only a few hours each week. A movement which, with confidence, will state plainly that if employers (who are already reaping the rewards of labour-saving devices and products such as self-service checkouts and open source software) will not pay the living wage, then the movement will not waste much time and energy pursuing a long and bitter struggle in the workplace but, rather, will vote in a government which will just hand out the money unconditionally. A great strength of this politics of honesty would be its openness about existing desire: something which we would talk about which would be real, relevant, credible and radical. We are told all the time that radical politics is neither real nor relevant nor credible. Radical politics, we are told, is irredeemably utopian and irrelevant. But this would not be the case at all for a movement which took the risk of starting with an honest conversation about work and people’s true feelings about it. This would be a movement with its origins in the positive, inspiring and consciousness-expanding Yes movement. It would be one more step along the path of our ongoing political liberation.