Are two Eds better than one?

The appointment of Balls is a superb move by Miliband.

Alan Johnson's departure has shocked hacks and politicos alike. I'm told that AJ told Ed M he'd be quitting "several days" ago -- in the words of one shadow cabinet minister I spoke to, "I'm amazed it didn't leak out earlier."

Whatever Johnson's "personal reasons" are for quitting the Labour front bench -- and I suspect we'll know in the not-too-distant future -- I'm delighted to see that Ed Balls, Labour's pre-eminent economist, has succeeded him. I made my own views clear in a column ("Only Ed has the balls for shadow chancellor") back in September 2010:

Balls's speech at Bloomberg in the City of London on 27 August, in which he set out a coherent and credible alternative to the coalition's fiscal sadism, has since been hailed by respected commentators such as Martin Wolf and Samuel Brittan of the Financial Times as well as leading Keynesian economists.

Memo to the Milibrothers: be bold. Ignore the deficit hawks, the Tory partisans and the faint-hearted on your own back benches. There is no alternative to Ed Balls as shadow chancellor at this time of national emergency.

So Balls's time has, finally, come. And he won't be needing an economics primer or textbook to help him prepare for his new brief. He was born to be shadow chancellor in an "age of austerity" and a Tory-led government. I suspect Theresa May will be delighted to see the back of this tenacious Labour attack dog; George Osborne, meanwhile, will be rather nervous to face Ed B at the next Treasury questions in the Commons. In the words of one wag on Twitter:

What's that I hear? Must be George Osborne's knees knocking together . . .

The problem Balls will have, however, is how to reconcile his own oft-stated and legitimate Keynesian criticisms of the Alistair Darling deficit-reduction plan -- ie, halving the deficit over four years -- with Ed Miliband's and Alan Johnson's adoption of the Darling plan as official Labour Party policy in October 2010. Here is Balls speaking at Bloomberg last August:

I told Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling in 2009 that -- whatever the media clamour at the time -- even trying to halve the deficit in four years was a mistake.

The pace was too severe to be credible or sustainable.

As both history and market realities teach us, the danger of too rapid deficit reduction is that it proves counterproductive . . .

Will Balls have to swallow his views in the name of collective responsibility and deference to his party leader?

On a side note, Gordon Brown might be joining the Home Secretary in cracking open a bottle of champers tonight. The top four jobs on the Labour front bench -- leader (Ed M), shadow chancellor (Ed B), shadow home (Yvette Cooper) and shadow foreign (Douglas Alexander) -- are all held by children of Brown.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.