How Ed can counter the Tories’ attack lines

It wasn’t the “union barons” who elected Ed, it was thousands of ordinary workers.

Tory HQ hoped and prayed for an opportunity to present "Red Ed" as a union shoo-in and, in the event, they've got one. Despite winning fewer votes from MPs/MEPs and party members than David, Ed secured the leadership on the strength of his support among affiliated trade unions and socialist societies.

David won 53 per cent of the MPs' vote to Ed's 47 per cent, and 54 per cent of the members' votes to Ed's 46 per cent. It was in the affiliated section that Ed won a decisive 60 per cent, allowing him to take the leadership by 28,000 votes.

"Labour's new leader is in hock to the unions," was the attack line taken up by the Tories and by Sky News's Adam Boulton and Kay Burley, who spoke of trade unionists as if they were an alien species, rather than a group that no fewer than six million Britons belong to.

The Conservative Party chairman, Baroness Warsi, declared in a statement:

Ed Miliband wasn't the choice of his MPs, wasn't the choice of Labour Party members, but was put into power by union votes. I'm afraid this looks like a great leap backwards for the Labour Party.

So, how should Ed respond when the issue is raised, as it undoubtedly will be, on The Andrew Marr Show tomorrow morning? He could point that all of the candidates, including David Miliband, received union endorsements during the contest, dispelling the myth that the unions flocked to him en masse.

But, to be more convincing, he must mount a principled defence of trade unionism and argue that the diversity of Labour's electoral college is a strength, not a weakness. He should remind the public that the union block vote was abolished years ago and that he won the support of thousands of ordinary workers (nurses, teachers, carers), many of whom fit neatly into David Cameron's "big society".

The right's line of attack would be far more dangerous for Ed if he had the sort of agenda that the public associates with militant trade unionism. But, much to the Tories' dismay, he doesn't. Policies such as the introduction of a national living wage, the replacement of tuition fees with a graduate tax, the inclusion of Trident in the strategic defence review and a permanent 50p tax rate have broad and popular appeal.

The Tories' cynical attempt to smear Labour's new leader as a union sop is likely to backfire when they realise just how many people agree with Ed.

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.