Cameron's East Germany comparison was absurd and offensive

The Prime Minister's Tea Party-esque caricatures are a substitute for real debate.

In her 2003 book Stasiland, Anna Funder documents what life was like for millions of people in East Germany, the inaptly named German Democratic Republic, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She describes the way the Stasi kept control by spying on people, recruiting half a million people to spy on their neighbours or members of their own families, tapping phones, generating files on their fellow citizens which, laid upright end to end, would have formed a line 180 kilometres long.

In East Germany, political prisoners were jailed. People who attempted to leave were arrested, or even shot as they crossed the border. East Germans voted by approving the only name on the ballot paper, or by putting a line through it. Those who chose not to support the approved candidate - the ballot was not secret - could lose their job or be expelled from university, and would come under close surveillance from the Stasi.

You might think that, whatever arguments and differences British politicians have with each other, we can all agree that nobody wants to change our open, democratic society into anything like East Germany. We have our arguments in public, we campaign for support, we win or we lose and we argue again.

Yet in describing Ed Miliband's superb speech to the Labour Party conference last week, David Cameron was quoted in the Sun as having said, “He might believe in One Nation, but I thought it sounded more like East Germany than Great Britain.”

He might think this is funny. It's unlikely he thinks it's clever. You can tell by the mess he's made of the economy - a double-dip recession and borrowing going up - that David Cameron isn't any good at economics, but surely he's better at history than this. He surely doesn't believe it. If he does, he needs to explain himself.

Here are some of the things Ed Miliband called for last week. Better vocational education and more apprenticeships. A proper split between high street and casino banking. Making it easier for businesses to plan for the long term. An end to rip-off pension charges. I don't know why those things sound like East Germany to David Cameron. They don't sound like East Germany to me. A divided Germany is not the most obvious model for a one nation politician.

The last thing we need in this country is to import the worst elements of US Tea Party politics into our own. It's dishonest, it's fatuous and it debases our politics. We don't need to start comparing our opponents to regimes which in reality epitomise worse evils than anything we see in Britain today, either on the mainstream left or the mainstream right. We don't want politics in which offensive caricatures take the place of arguments, or in which a genuine issue of conscience like abortion becomes a party political dividing line.

I'm sending David Cameron a copy of Stasiland. I genuinely hope he reads it. And then I hope he will realise that he made a bad mistake in stooping so low as to invoke one of the most despicable regimes of the 20th century in describing a contemporary mainstream British political party. I hope the Prime Minister will reflect on what he said, and take it back.

Tristram Hunt is MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central.

David Cameron listens to Foreign Secretary William Hague during the opening day of the Conservative Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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.