The Tories' "decapitation" strategy is likely to backfire

And why are the Tories so keen to oust Ed Balls if he would trigger a Labour civil war?

In the wake of the Lib Dem surge (which shows little sign of abating) it looks like the Tories have all but given up on certain seats. The party has decided to scale back its campaign against the Lib Dems and instead aggressively target up to 20 more Labour seats.

Here's what a senior Conservative strategist told the Telegraph: "As one door closes with the surge in Liberal Democrat support, so another door has opened with the collapse in Labour support." Another said: "We have completely ripped up our plans and changed strategy in order to keep up with the changing situation out there."

This approach is at least consistent with electoral reality. Recent polling in Lib Dem-Tory marginals suggests that Nick Clegg's party will keep almost all of the 23 Lib Dem seats David Cameron needs to win for a majority.

But the decision to adopt what amounts to a "decapitation" strategy, targeting cabinet heavyweights including Ed Balls (notional majority: 9,784), Jack Straw (notional majority: 8,016) and John Denham (notional majority: 8,484), looks like a misjudgement.

As the Lib Dems learnt to their cost in 2005, if you announce your targets in advance, you look rather foolish if you then fail to defeat them. The strategy may have the potential benefit of diverting Labour resources away from less prominent candidates but it's still a risky enterprise.

Meanwhile, in the case of Balls, who George Osborne flagged up as target in a recent campaign bulletin, i'm confused. Tories like Michael Gove never cease reminding us that Balls is a Brownite tribalist whose leadership ambitions could plunge Labour into civil war. So why, in this case, are they so keen to oust him?

 

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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.