A grassroots lesson for Labour

How the party is leading the fight to save Cromer's crab factory.

Read my Observer article today, and you'd think that a bunch of celebrities are leading the fight to save Cromer crabs in North Norfolk. Stephen Fry, Matthew Pinsent and Alan Titchmarsh have been catapulted to the front of the campaign for doing little more than sending out a couple of tweets. The real story - cut down by my editors - is much more interesting. It's about the rejuvenation of real grassroots organisation in the Labour party, and it holds lessons for us all.

It started when Samuel Rushworth, campaigns co-ordinator for North Norfolk Labour, heard that the factory processing the iconic Cromer crabs was likely to close at a cost of some 230 jobs. The largest private sector employer in the town, this would have huge knock on effects. Youngs Seafood, which owns the factory, said there was no alternative. They had recently undergone a large merger and the proposals were backed by their venture capitalists, Lion capital. Interestingly, Rushworth said the news came the day Ed Miliband made his conference speech on market "predators", which he said seemed eerily appropriate.

Within three days Rushworth's local party had launched the "Keep it Cromer" campaign. They sent out press releases, designed leaflets and made banners. They produced a red crab logo, and put up flyers in local businesses. Their petition has already amassed some 6,000 signatures and support continues to grow. Their literature reminded residents that seven other businesses had also gone bust in the town and gave the closure a political and economic context. Rising inflation, unemployment and VAT meant that people just didn't have enough money to spend.

The first and most important advantage of such a campaign is obviously that it serves the interests of the workers and the town. Sitting in their canteen smelling faintly of disinfectant, the mood of workers I spoke to this weekend was otherwise low. Fathers at the plant were talking about how the choice between going on benefits locally or moving away from their families to find work. I can still hear the words of one guy as he stamped out his cigarette, "It's going to be a real happy new year".

But by actively campaigning in their community, North Norfolk Labour is also gaining political support. Rather than making empty statements on leaflets, they are winning votes by earning trust and walking their talk. They are also attracting new members and rejuvenating the party. Two years ago the local group had just six active members; now thirty are regularly attending meetings because something is actually happening. Dispelling the myth that areas without safe seats can't do anything, they have rattled the high profile Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb, who is having to follow their lead.

Of course there are challenges. The first is a real tension between wanting to speak for the whole community, and branding the campaign as party political. At the moment there is no Labour badge next to the Keep it Cromer logo - is that strategic? The group don't want to come across as running the campaign for simple electoral advantage, but they need to make sure that local people know it's Labour putting in the work.

The second problem is that the factory workers themselves are not taking a leading role. North Norfolk Labour leaders are local, hardworking and dedicated, but none of the factory workers I spoke to were attending their meetings. We need to reach out beyond the usual suspects, so workers don't feel that something is being done for them, but with them. The unions could also do more here.

But what's happening in Cromer shouldn't be underestimated. The local party has captured the attention of the town and the country. Whatever the challenges, that's a lot more than celebrities like Stephen Fry are doing for Cromer. The rest of Labour should take note.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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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.