Should the public have a vote in Labour leadership elections?

Allowing “registered supporters” to vote would create a disincentive to membership.

It might seem an odd time for Ed Miliband to reform the Labour leadership voting system. After all, if things go to plan, the party won't need to hold another election for many years. But the case for reform is undeniable.

Labour is now the only one of the three main parties that does not use a one-member-one-vote system (Omov) to elect its leader. As a result, some people's votes are worth significantly more than others. Under the electoral college system, the vote of one MP is worth the votes of about 608 party members and 12,195 affiliated members.

Miliband hasn't embraced Omov, but his proposed reforms are, if anything, more radical. A new party document, Refounding Labour: a Party for a New Generation, written by Peter Hain, revives the idea of "registered supporters" – non-party members who would be given a vote at conference and in leadership elections.

The implications are significant. Were "registered supporters" inserted directly into the electoral college, the MPs, affiliated trade unions and party members, who each enjoy one-third of the vote, would be left with a quarter each. The logic is clear: in a less tribal age, Labour needs to find new ways to reach out.

But the reform raises at least as many questions as answers. For a start, it creates a disincentive to party membership. One of the few reasons people still join political parties is to have some say (however small) over the leadership. Indeed, more than 30,000 people joined Labour during last summer's contest. Why should non-levy-paying supporters enjoy the same rights as those who pay £41 a year?

Such a system would also be open to manipulation by political opponents. The supporters of the ill-fated "Conservatives for Balls" movement, for instance, would have leapt at the chance to vote.

It would not be surprising if existing members were opposed to the change. A LabourList survey published in February found that just 4.5 per cent of readers wanted this reform, with 55.8 per cent in favour of Omov. One suspects that unless the reforms are coupled with new rights for members, Miliband might find himself on the wrong side on the debate.

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.