Cameron's reliance on the boundary changes is a sign of weakness

The PM needs the reform because he is short of ideas to inspire the country - and Tory MPs know it.

For several weeks now the Lib Dems have been making threatening noises about the connection between their ambitions for House of Lords reform and Downing Street’s desired alteration of the boundaries delineating parliamentary constituencies.

Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg’s outgoing strategic advisor, has today given the most explicit warning yet that the junior coalition party would sabotage David Cameron’s pet constitutional change in revenge for failure to whip Lords reform through parliament.

Clegg has decided that he simply cannot be seen to have lost all of his political reforms while allowing the Tories to get theirs through in time for an election. (Besides, the Lib Dems come off worst of all three parties from the boundary changes.) As I noted last week, senior Lib Dems have been briefing that they are confident that Cameron and Osborne recognise the scale of their determination and have offered the necessary reassurances. Tory MPs, meanwhile, do not seem much more cowed by the whips  – but that isn’t so surprising. Downing Street’s inability to read and control the mood in the Conservative ranks is becoming a recurrent theme of this parliament.

It is worth noting too that the Tory leadership is much more wedded to the boundary changes than most ordinary Tory MPs. Many of them will have to be reselected in the newly drawn constituencies, fighting unnecessary battles against candidates from neighbouring seats. They will all be competing to energise demoralised activists, several of whom will be flirting with thoughts of Ukip. The whole process will remind many Conservative incumbents how far removed their Prime Minister is from the mood of the party’s grass roots. That process will be a catalyst for further disloyalty.

Why have the boundary changes become so vital - so very precious - to Cameron and Osborne? Obviously a tweak to the electoral map that could automatically gift the party a dozen or more seats at the next election is a prize worth having. But it says something about the shortage of strategic vision in the Tory high command that they expect to be so reliant on a psephological fix to help them to a majority in the next parliament. The awkward fact for Conservative strategists remains that Cameron and Osborne struggled to beat Gordon Brown, a reviled incumbent, in an election when the left vote was split by disillusioned Labour voters backing Nick Clegg. For all Ed Miliband’s weaknesses as a candidate, he has acquired a higher, plumper cushion of a core vote from Lib Dem refugees. Cameron, meanwhile, hasn’t made much progress in the north or Scotland or among swing voters who considered backing the Tories last time but weren’t quite persuaded.

As I noted in my column this week, Labour focus groups are routinely expressing the view that they thought Cameron would bring a change and are disappointed to discover he just represents “more of the same.” The Tories are in a quiet panic about where to find some deep, un-mined seams of voters. There simply aren’t fat bundles of Conservative voters stuffed down behind marginal constituency sofas that weren’t found in time for the last election.

In other words, Cameron and Osborne need the boundary changes because they are short of ideas to inspire the country and bring about a national swing in their direction. Tory MPs know it and they have their own ideas about what sorts of things the party should be doing and saying to win over the nation - ideas that aren't reflected by coalition policy and definitely don't include House of Lords reform. The fact that the threat of losing the boundary changes is a such a big deal for Downing Street just confirms Conservative MPs’ suspicions that their leaders are adrift, short on imagination or inspiration and weak in the face of Lib Dem blackmail. That is not a recipe for parliamentary obedience.

The Lib Dems have threatened to block the proposed boundary changes if House of Lords reform is rejected. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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.