Michael Gove is guilty of hypocrisy over the Labour heckler

Gove's call for the heckler to be "expelled" is at odds with his support for free speech.

Education provided a rare flashpoint at the Labour conference after a Year 11 pupil addressing delegates was heckled from the floor. When Joan al-Assam, a pupil from Paddington Academy (established by the last Labour government under the Academies programme), praised the arts programmes offered by her school, a woman in the audience shouted: "They do that at comprehensives too you know".

The intervention was immediately criticised by other delegates, with one woman responding, "Leave her alone", while the girl, apparently unfazed (hecklers are part of political life, after all), continued with her speech. But that didn't stop Michael Gove issuing a press release calling for the heckler to be "expelled" from Labour. He said:

Heckling a schoolgirl because she goes to an academy is disgraceful. But it also shows the real face of Labour – a party where aspiration and achievement gets booed. Stephen Twigg needs to condemn this and the culprit must be expelled from the party [emphasis mine]. This pupil is a credit to her school and proof that we need to expand the Academies programme.

It's a demand rather at odds with the Education Secretary's previously stated support for free expression. During his much-lauded appearance at the Leveson inquiry in May, Gove declared:

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time

Hear, hear. But judging by the response of Gove and other Conservatives to the heckler, she should have been frogmarched out as Walter Wolfgang was when he shouted "nonsense" at Jack Straw during the 2005 conference. Of that incident, David Cameron declared: "it lays bare the full absurdity of the Orwellian New Labour project". Indeed it did. But isn't there something similarly "Orwellian" about Gove's call for the heckler to be "expelled"?

The test of our commitment to free speech is that we grant it to those with whom our disagreement is at its strongest. It is one that Gove has failed.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said the heckler "must be expelled from the party". Photograph: Getty Images.

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.