Nigella’s media marriage, staying out of the Middle East, and a future “Sir” Andy Murray

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Ed Miliband may be right to propose that union members should opt in to paying fees to Labour, rather than be affiliated automatically unless they opt out. If nothing else, it would give Labour access to the names and addresses of those who are nominally its supporters.

Yet what applies to union members surely should also apply to company shareholders and even customers, whose money finds its way indirectly to political parties – usually the Conservatives – without their consent. If state funding of parties goes ahead, perhaps this should apply to taxpayers, too. Ask all taxpayers, on their annual return, if theywish to donate £5 to a political party and, if so, to tick from a list of parties that won at least 5 per cent of votes at the previous election. HMRC would then forward the money. Has anyone thought of this idea before?

Fawlty logic

It’s not just trade unions that sign up Labour members to seize control of candidate selection. Nor is the practice new. When I was a member of the Brighton Kemptown party in the 1960s, two proprietors of boarding houses on opposite sides of a street off the seafront were rivals for the council nomination in our local ward. In those days, Sussex University parked its students in Brighton hotels, which eagerly accepted the off-season custom.

Early in the autumn term, one hotelier signed up several of his resident students and brought them to ward meetings. At the selection meeting, his rival, who owned a slightly larger hotel, appeared with at least twice as many. The first hotelier flew into a Basil Fawlty-style rage and challenged the validity of their membership. Amid what newspapers call “angry scenes”, the meeting was adjourned. After a constituency party inquiry, both hoteliers were expelled. I hope Miliband can bring the troubles in Falkirk to an equally neat conclusion.

Minding our own business

No matter how much westerners dislike Mohamed Morsi, the deposed Egyptian former president, he and the Muslim Brotherhood won free and fair democratic elections. Moreover, he commanded overwhelming support from the poor, as Islamists do throughout the Middle East. The liberal, secular, “modernis - ing” politicians preferred by Britain and the US are seen by poor people, many of them scraping a rural subsistence, as a threat. They want governments that will maintain a stable social and economic order on traditional lines.

Our frustration with the Arab masses who back illiberal, reactionary parties echoes the frustration of Lenin and Trotsky with the Russian peasantry, mired in a world of icons and cockroaches. To echo Brecht, we wish to dissolve the Arab people and choose another, designed to please our enlightened, metropolitan sensibilities. Which is why, whether it’s Libya, Syria or Egypt, we should mind our own business and stay out.

Image problems

When spouses disagree, they usually have a row and then forget about it. With celebrities, it’s different. The argument between Charles Saatchi and his wife, Nigella Lawson, at Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair, London – apparently over whether a child should go to Oxford or take up a permanent role at the Economistmagazine (if only we all had such troubles) –occurred on 9 June. It culminated, as photographs show, with Lawson leaving in tears after Saatchi gripped her throat. According to the Mail on Sunday, the couple then carried on as normal, planning summer holidays and returning to Scott’s for another meal. Only when pictures were published on 16 June did their marriage fall apart.

Lawson consulted her PRs. They probably ruled – here I speculate – that images of her as an abused wife would damage the “brand” of a domestic goddess. Saatchi, I imagine they said, must confess publicly his “shame and humiliation” (or so the Mail reported). He refused, perhaps fearful for his own image. Now, he announces he will divorce Lawson.

You could accuse wicked newspapers of wrecking a marriage. However, Saatchi and Lawson live in a media-driven world: they first met at the Ivy, another celebrity restaurant in London, at a dinner organised for Tina Brown, then the editor of the New Yorker. In Jane Austen’s novels, relationships are mediated by property. Today, to borrow from Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, celebrity relationships are mediated by images.

Sports knights

Can David Cameron seriously intend to recommend a knighthood for Andy Murray, Britain’s first Wimbledon men’s champion since 1936? Until recently, sporting heroes were rarely knighted. W G Grace was never honoured, nor was Fred Perry. Harold Larwood got a belated MBE at 88 when the cricket-mad John Major was PM. Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton also received gongs after their careers were over. Ian Botham got his for services to charity, not cricket. Stanley Matthews was the first to be knighted for services to football while still playing but, by then, he was nearly 50 and appearing for Stoke City reserves.

The rot set in under New Labour, with Olympic gold medallists receiving instant knighthoods and the entire England cricket team awarded MBEs (and one OBE) for winning back the Ashes in 2005. Unlike their predecessors, many of whom played for nothing, today’s sportsmen receive handsome financial rewards. At least until they retire, that should be enough.

Arise Sir Andy? Photograph: Getty Images

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.