Labour turns on Cable over "capitulation" to the Tories

Chuka Umunna says reforms to employment law are an attack on workers' rights.

Last week, Vince Cable was eulogised by Ed Balls as the Lib Dem who could no almost wrong. "Vince has distinguished himself by always making the argument about what's right for Britain," he said, as he beamed at the Business Secretary, sat beside him on Andrew Marr's sofa.

But Balls's colleague Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, isn't feeling so charitable towards Cable. Earlier this morning, Umunna took to Twitter to criticise the Business Secretary's reforms to employment law as an attack on workers' rights. He added that Ming Campbell, who has questioned Cable's textual relations with Labour, should worry more about "Cable's capitulation to Fallon, Hancock and co. on employment law"

While Cable will today formally reject calls for the introduction of "no-fault dismissal" or fire-at-will (a proposal that emanated from Tory donor Adrian Beecroft's now-infamous report on employment law), he will announce a significant cut in the cap on unfair dismissal payouts. The current £72,000 limit is expected to be reduced to an employee's annual salary, or another lower figure. In addition, employment tribunals will be sped up, so that costs are reduced and weak cases thrown out more swiftly. Though you wouldn't know it from the right's response, 80 per cent of Beecroft's recommendations have been adopted or put out to consultation.

Continuing his assault on Cable, Umunna declared, "We're not in a recession because of the rights our constituents have at work - its cos of the govt's failed economic plan." The Business Secretary, of course, wouldn't disagree. During his appearance on Marr last week, he sagely observed, "The problem of growth is that we have a very serious shortage of demand. It's nothing to do with those supply side measures basically. It's a demand issue."

As a result, suspicion persists among the Tories that Cable's heart isn't really in it. But whatever the Business Secretary's true feelings, a third successive quarter of recession persuaded the coalition partners to strike a grand bargain on growth. You give us supply-side reform, and we'll give you a small business bank (a measure that allowed Cable to hail the end of "pure laissez-faire" economics).

Umunna's decision to respond with an attack of rare ferocity suggests that not everyone in Labour is so keen to lure the Business Sectetary from the Tories' clutches.

Business Secretary Vince Cable will announce reforms to employment law today. Photograph: Getty Image.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

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. 

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