Miliband and the myth of the "35 per cent strategy"

Aiming for 35 per cent would mean settling for less. But it would be foolish not to recognise that, as in 2005, it could prove enough for a Labour majority.

Rachel Sylvester's Times column has caused a stir in Labour circles this morning, with its claim that some in the party believe Ed Miliband is pursuing a "35 per cent strategy". This would amount to securing the 29 per cent of voters who backed Labour in 2010, and adding on another six per cent of Lib Dem defectors in order to inch over the line. Dan Hodges similarly claims on his Telegraph blog: "Labour’s leader thinks that if he can convince just 35 per cent of voters to give his party the benefit of the doubt in 2015, he’ll win. Tony Blair is not alone in thinking it’s a strategy that is fundamentally flawed." 

It's hard to reconcile this with Miliband's aspiration to be a "one nation" prime minister and the "35 per cent" line is a fairly obvious and crude attempt to undermine his leadership. As one source close to the Labour leader told me this morning, "Aiming for 35 per cent suggests we'd settle for less, which is one of many reasons why it would be stupid to have that as our strategy." 

There isn't (and nor should there be) a "35 per cent strategy" but the debate over it is a good example of the increasing disparity between politics and psephology. After all, Labour's last victory in 2005, which saw it win a majority of 66, was achieved on a vote share of 35.2 per cent. Miliband will rightly aim to improve on this performance but with the boundary changes now abandoned, it is true that Labour only needs a small lead to secure a stable majority. The divided right (UKIP is now certain to improve on its 2010 share of 3.1 per cent) and the collapse of support for the Lib Dems in Tory-Labour marginals are strong points in the party's favour. There is no contradiction in wanting Labour to win on its terms, while also recognising these advantages. The disdain for Miliband's alleged "35 per cent strategy" says much more about the disagreement some have with his political choices (a different debate) than it does about Labour's prospects of victory. 

Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.