Labour is the loser from this shameful affair

The irony is that it should have been a good week for Brown

It's no surprise that Gordon Brown remains leader of the Labour Party this morning. This was the third coup attempt against Brown and the most inept yet. As Steve Richards argues in the must-read column of the morning, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt have inflicted terrible damage on the party, leaving Labour "the biggest victim".

The reason why the plot failed to prompt a cabinet resignation and attracted only minimal backbench support is that there remains no substantial evidence that Labour would fare better under an alternative leader. The polls show no popular enthusiasm for Harriet Harman, David Miliband or Alan Johnson.

The plot came in what should have been a good week for Brown. He turned in one of his best performances at PMQs, showing signs of the skill and wit that once made him a feared Commons opponent. He embarrassed David Cameron over his equivocations on marriage and tax, which forced the Tory leader to admit on the Today programme this morning that he had "messed up".

And now a new Sun/ICM poll shows Labour cutting the Tories' lead again, this time to 9 points, putting the party within reach of a hung parliament. The poll also confirms what we instinctively know: that Brown's removal would do little to boost Labour's ratings. Some 82 per cent of voters say it would either make no difference or encourage them to vote Labour if he stayed.

The lukewarm cabinet support for Brown confirms the alienation many ministers feel from his premiership, but there is a world of difference between discontent and outright rebellion. It was staggeringly naive of Hewitt and Hoon not to anticipate this reality.

Their intervention has gifted the Tories and Lib Dems the chance to argue again and again that Labour is a divided party at a time when the country needs a strong, united government. It may be a cliché to say that the electorate hates divided governments but, as Peter Riddell reminds us this morning, it is true. Hewitt and Hoon have done more damage to Labour in a day than Cameron could have hoped to achieve all month.

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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.