Balls love bombs the Lib Dems

Shadow chancellor says the Lib Dems should form a coalition with Labour before the next election.

Ever since the Lib Dems' humiliation over Europe, Labour has been reaching out to Nick Clegg's party. We heard Ed Miliband utter the immortal words "I agree with Nick", while, in an article for the New Statesman, ("Labour will make a big, open offer to the Lib Dems on Europe"), Douglas Alexander offered to work with the Lib Dems to try to get "a better outcome for Britain".

But the love bombing has entered a new phase this morning with Ed Balls's call for Clegg's MPs to form a coalition with Labour, not, as you might have assumed, after the next election, but now. In an interview with the Independent's Steve Richards and Andrew Grice, the shadow chancellor says: "I think it would be much better now and for the future of the country if they did. It would be in the national interest. I don't think they should wait until 2015." He maintains, lest there be any doubt, that Clegg's resignation would be a pre-condition ("I don't think it's possible for Nick Clegg to lead that move") but it's still a strikingly pluralist message from one of Labour's most tribalist figures.

He goes on:

Before or after the next election, if the parliamentary arithmetic throws up the need for a coalition of Labour and the Lib Dems, I would go into that with enthusiasm...I could serve in a Cabinet with Chris Huhne or Vince Cable tomorrow.

"They have got to decide whether they want to serve in a Lab-Lib Cabinet which is trying to protect the NHS, keep us a robust defender of the national interest in the EU and get unemployment down, or whether they are willing to go along with what they now find themselves bound into.

With intermittent rumours of Vince Cable's resignation, the shadow chancellor clearly felt that now was the time to make an intervention.

The problem for Labour, however, is that the coalition is entering 2012 in better health than many expected. It has, for instance, just reached agreement with most trade unions on the biggest reforms to public sector pensions for decades, continuing evidence of the government's general unity. What's more, the worse the economy gets, the stronger Clegg's argument for the coalition will seem. The original aim of eliminating the structural deficit in one parliament has gone but the shared determination to keep Britain out of "the danger zone" (and preserve our triple A credit rating) remains.

Clegg's own party, much to the disappointment of us hacks, remains surprisingly united. Not one MP has defected and the vitriol felt towards Labour (some will never forgive the party for Iraq, top-up fees and detention without trial) provides a continuing point of unity.

But with the party still flatlining around 10 per cent in the polls, unity could fray as the election draws closer. Most psephologists argue that only a change of leader could revive the Lib Dems' fortunes. And Balls is positioning Labour to take full advantage of these tensions.

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.