Is Labour heading for election meltdown?

Private polling suggests the party could be reduced to 120 MPs

Jackie Ashley's column in today's Guardian includes this remarkable detail:

Some Labour people may think I'm sounding too gloomy, but those who have been privy to recent private polling are a lot more than gloomy. This suggests that Labour could return to the Commons with just 120 MPs or thereabouts, taking the party back to 1930s territory. As ministers look for jobs to keep themselves going after politics, a Miliband move to Europe looks sensible.

This would be Labour's poorest result since the 1931 election, when it was reduced to a rump of 52 MPs after the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, split the party by forming a coalition with the Conservatives.

I think there's little chance of Labour suffering a defeat of that magnitude, but it could lose more MPs once the Tories are in office, as a new Compass pamphlet, The Last Labour Government, warns.

First, David Cameron's plan to reduce the number of MPs by 10 per cent will hit Labour hardest by scrapping seats in Wales and industrial areas that have seen population flight. One expert prediction suggests that 65 seats that would go; of these, 45 are Labour-held.

Second, the election of a Conservative government could trigger Scottish independence, with a referendum due to be held before the end of 2010. Of the 59 Westminster seats in Scotland that would be lost automatically, 41 are Labour-held.

The latest polling figures suggest that Labour will be left with 209 seats after the next election, but the combined effect of Cameron's cull and Scottish independence could leave the party with as few as 123 seats.

I am increasingly doubtful that Labour has either the activists or the funds required to mount anything like an adequate general election campaign. The party now has just 150,000 members, down from 405,000 at the height of New Labour in 1997.

The Sunday Times reported yesterday how the party's cash crisis has hit its campaign offices: "Labour's banks have imposed a recruitment freeze on head office, and the party is operating just 20 of the 80 telephone lines it usually runs at its call centre in the months leading up to an election."

Those on the left who want to see the Labour Party survive as a viable force in British politics (and many now don't) should start paying their dues.

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.