'Whatever works': a New Labour mantra worth saving

There are tentative signs that ministers may now be genuinely neutral between public and private

The most important section of James Purnell's piece in today's Guardian concerns the delivery of public services. From its inception onwards, New Labour claimed to be ideologically neutral over the public and private sectors; 'whatever works' was its mantra. But in practice, Tony Blair allowed reform to become synonymous with privatisation. Purnell suggests he's now prepared to reconsider this disastrous approach. He writes:

Once we're clearer about our goals, we will be forced to be bolder about our methods. So, if allowing state schools to be run by profit-making companies encourages equality of capability, we will have to allow it. If educational selection by religion increases inequality, we will have to start a difficult debate about it. If child poverty wrecks any possibility of equality of capability, then we will have to make abolishing it our top priority.

It may seem somewhat counter-intuitive to cite a passage in which Purnell appears to advocate greater use of the private sector in education but it's the pragmatism that counts.

New Labour's fetishisation of the private sector made it no better than those socialists who supported public ownership not on practical grounds, but because they believed each successive nationalisation brought them one step closer to a socialist Valhalla. There are now tentative signs that the humiliation of big finance and the nationalisation of swathes of the banking sector has freed Blairite ministers up to be genuinely neutral between public and private.

In his interview with my colleague James Macintyre earlier this month, Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, who is usually dismissed as a free-market fundamentalist, said he wished Labour could have pulled the plug on rail privatisation in the mid-1990s. He also described the nationalisation of the East Coast Main Line as a "pragmatic" step. And why should it have been anything else? There is now no justification for supporting either the public or the private sector on anything other than pragmatic grounds.

If more ministers can follow Purnell and Adonis, then 'whatever works' will be one piece of New Labour wisdom worth salvaging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.