Why Balls would be a difficult shadow chancellor for David

Their disagreements over the deficit would be effortlessly exploited by the Tories.

The intermittent rumours that Ed Balls would drop out of the Labour leadership race and endorse David Miliband may have come to nothing, but relations between the two camps have improved in recent weeks.

In an interview in today's Financial Times (where he once worked), Balls points out that the pair "go back a long way" and that he knew Miliband long before he knew Tony Blair.

Yet the idea that Balls is virtually guaranteed the shadow chancellorship, should Miliband win, is wide of the mark. The piece notes:

David Miliband's supporters say they cannot see Mr Balls being made shadow chancellor, should their man win. They fear he might use the Treasury role as a chance to build an alternative power base, replicating the old Blair-Brown feud.

A potentially greater obstacle is the disagreement between Miliband and Balls over the deficit. While Miliband has defended the Brown-Darling pledge to halve the £155bn deficit by 2014, Balls has criticised the target and admitted that he privately opposed it.

He told the BBC in July:

I always accepted collective responsibility but at the time, in 2009, I thought the pace of deficit reduction through spending cuts was not deliverable, I didn't think it could have been done.

Last week he said: "Going forward, I think even halving the deficit in four years was too ambitious . . . I think to do a slower and steadier pace going forward is actually more likely to support jobs and growth, more likely to boost financial-market confidence and likely to be fairer as well."

By contrast, in his recent speech at the King Solomon Academy, Miliband declared:

I will not cede ground to the government when it comes to tackling the deficit. They are the ones in denial, not us. It is right to cut the deficit in half over four years starting next April. That would mean very difficult choices.

Given this very public difference of opinion, I'd be surprised if Miliband handed the Tories a perfect opportunity to yet again exploit the disagreements between a Labour leader and his (shadow) chancellor. One can imagine Conservative backbenchers quoting Balls's criticisms as Miliband defended Labour's deficit reduction plan from the despatch box.

Should Miliband win, Balls is more likely to be appointed shadow home secretary, a post ideally suited to his forensic mind and combative style.

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.