Balls's job guarantee is a left-wing idea wrapped in right-wing rhetoric

Labour's 'tough' message risks encouraging the belief that benefit claimants seek to avoid work.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls announced plans today for a compulsory jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed to be funded by reducing tax relief on pension contributions for those earning over £150,000.

Balls details the policy in an article written for PoliticsHome. In the piece he blasts the coalition for labelling "people who want to work" as 'scroungers'; he describes their rhetoric as "divisive, nasty and misleading". But the subtext of much of his own article is also that benefit claimants are a drain on public money, and that their claims are often fraudulent, as shown by the headings of his "three tests" for welfare reform: firstly, "it must pay more to be in work than live on benefits", secondly "we must get tough on the scourge of long-term unemployment by matching rights with responsibilities", and thirdly any welfare reform "must be fair to those who genuinely want to work." Does this language not sound familiar?

Between the headings, Balls makes the nuanced - though rather obvious - point that "the vast majority" of Job Seeker's Allowance claimants "desperately want to find a job". But elsewhere in the piece, the shadow chancellor says that Labour are proposing welfare reform on the grounds that "we won't get the costs of welfare down if adults who can work are languishing on the dole for year".

So is Labour's proposal doing the long-term workless a favour, or is it threatening them? And is Labour a group of reformers masquerading as moderates, or a populist centre party that wants to appear to sympathise with the poor? The policy would suggest the former, the rhetoric the latter.

The latest YouGov poll puts Labour on 43 per cent, compared to 32 per cent for the Conservatives. With the collapse in support for the Lib Dems from left-leaning voters and widespread public anger about cuts and inequality, Labour has the chance to present a real alternative to the coalition's austerity agenda. But in order to win votes it must be seen to be consistent and strong in its message, or it risks appearing ridiculous, as we saw when Ed Milliband refused to get off the fence on union walk-outs in 2011.

In order to harness dissatisfaction, Labour needs to walk the walk, but it also needs to talk the talk. Go on, say it Eds – 'I am left-wing'.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said that Labour would match "rights with responsibilities". Photograph: Getty Images.
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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.