The EU treaty is a disaster for the left

Stop crowing about Cameron – this is just the latest attack on European democracy.

Stop your crowing about Cameron leaving Britain marginalised, lefties. The proposed EU treaty is perhaps the biggest catastrophe to befall the European left since the Second World War.

Sounds like semi-deranged hyperbole? Consider this: as Paul Mason has written, "by enshrining in national and international law the need for balanced budgets and near-zero structural deficits, the eurozone has outlawed expansionary fiscal policy".

Read that last bit carefully. Left-wing governments of all hues will, in effect, be banned by this treaty. If the French or the German left returns to power in the near future (and both are in a good position to do so), it will be illegal for them to respond to the global economic catastrophe with anything but austerity. An economic stimulus is forbidden – because the treaty has buried Keynesianism.

Cameron opposed the treaty because he feared the effect it would have on the City, which, after all, bankrolls his party. But just because he opposed the treaty doesn't mean the automatic response of the left should be to throw its weight behind it. I proudly marched against the invasion of Iraq; I wasn't deterred by the fact the BNP opposed it, too.

François Hollande – the Socialist candidate for the French presidency – has already spoken out against a treaty cooked up by Europe's overwhelmingly right-of-centre governments. If we're going to listen to European leaders, Hollande is a sounder bet than avowed right-wingers like Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel.

After this stitch-up, the left really needs to have a long, hard think about its attitude to the EU as it is currently constructed. There's still a sense that any criticism of the EU puts you in the same box as swivel-eyed Ukip-ers who rant about gypsies in shire inns. But there's a powerful left critique that needs to be made.

We've already had elected governments in Italy and Greece toppled by the bond markets with the complicity of senior EU figures. Successive compacts (such as the Lisbon Treaty) have enshrined the privatisation of public services. It was EU Directive 9/440 that made it a legal requirement for private companies to be able to run train services, and the European Court of Justice has issued judgments that have attacked workers' rights, much as making it possible for individuals to sue unions.

The new treaty is just the latest attack on European democracy – and against the European left. So let's stop taunting Cameron, and start working out how we can unite with the European labour movement to stop this total disaster in its tracks.

Owen Jones's "Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class" is published by Verso (£14.99).

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.