How Miliband's TUC conference speech could work to his advantage

Should the Labour leader be booed and heckled, as on previous occasions, it will undermine the Tories' claim that he is the plaything of the union leaders.

After a summer for Labour to forget, Ed Miliband's fightback will begin at next month's TUC conference. Today's Times reports that the Miliband will address the annual union gathering for the second time (having first done so in 2011) on 10 September. 

At first there might some be glee among the Tories that the Labour leader has, as the paper puts it, "chosen an audience of union bosses" to hear his first speech since the party's recent woes began. But it's worth pointing out how the occasion could work to his advantage. 

Every time Miliband has addressed a large gathering of trade unionists since becoming Labour leader he has been booed and heckled (at the 2011 anti-cuts march, at the 2011 TUC conference and at the 2012 anti-cuts march), usually after warning that the party will have to keep most of the coalition's spending cuts and make some of its own. After the Labour leader's recent clashes with Unite over Falkirk and his pledge to match the coalition's current spending plans for 2015-16, it would be surprising if history did not repeat itself. 

While the Tories might try to present this as evidence that Miliband is a "weak" leader who presides over a divided party it would sit uneasily with their recent narrative that it's Len McCluskey and co. who call the shots in Labour. Far from writing the party's policies (as the Tories would have it), McCluskey has entirely failed to persuade Miliband to embrace his "no cuts" stance. A common joke among Unite activists is that they wish they were as influential as the Tories claim.

After months in which he has been framed as a leader in hock to the unions, footage of Miliband being booed could be just what he needs to expose the Tories' fantasies. 

Ed Miliband addresses trade unionists in Hyde Park after a march against the coalition's spending cuts on 20 October 2012. 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.