The Lib Dem grass roots deserved better from the leadership

The hundreds of activists stuffing envelopes in Eastleigh have been let down by the party's hopelessly inadequate response to the Rennard allegations five years ago.

As a white, middle class, Oxbridge-educated man, I’m in no position to pontificate about what it’s like to suffer any sort of discrimination, oppression or harassment  - although that doesn’t seem to stop a lot of folk in my Twitter stream diving in with both feet on any development in the Rennard affair.

It goes without saying that the most important people in all this, the ones we should be thinking about most, are the women who are the alleged victims – especially, in my opinion, those who want to stay anonymous and are probably living in trepidation of being ‘named’ at any moment.

But let me throw another group into the mix who I’m thinking about a lot. The grass roots members of the Lib Dems who have been turning up in their hundreds every day in Eastleigh, to canvass, to leaflet, to stuff envelopes, to do whatever they can to further the cause they believe in.

It’s been the most extraordinary effort; folk coming from all over the country to defend the seat, because they believe passionately in a political principle. It’s been clear all through the campaign that if we win, it’s a victory for the grassroots. If we lose, it’s a defeat for the leadership.

And now this happens. When you’re in a fast moving world like politics, I suspect it's always tempting to deal with the urgent, not necessarily the important. I would speculate that’s what happened here. Some anonymous rumours circulate, they reach your ears, but there’s a million other things going on - do you really want to open that can of worms?

The answer should be – yes, you do. Because the problem is – it’s going to get opened some time. At a time not of your choosing. At a time probably of great inconvenience. And when it happens, you’re shown not only to have let the people immediately involved down (on both sides, no one’s proved anything about anyone yet). You also find the whole organisation suffers.

The best thing anyone from the leadership has said about this yet is Tim Farron’s statement that "we screwed up". Yes, we did. Everyone closely involved has been let down by the party’s inadequate response to this five years ago. And so has everyone stuffing envelopes in Eastleigh. They deserved better. 

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference

Party members listen to a policy motion at the Liberal Democrat conference on September 25, 2012 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.