Tony Blair attends the 2013 CCTV's China Economic Person Of The Year Award on December 12, 2013 in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Blair on Miliband: disagreement, but also consensus

The two men remain at odds over the financial crisis, but there is a meeting of minds over the EU. 

At the start of his speech at Church House in Westminster, the venue where he celebrated his election as Labour leader 20 years ago, Tony Blair declared: "I only ever want Labour to win." He made the point again in the Q&A that followed. On one level this was remarkable: why wouldn't the man who served as Labour leader for 13 years want his party to win? But of course on another it was not. Upon his election as Labour leader, Ed Miliband broke unambiguously with New Labour, the political project Blair founded, and has never wavered from this stance since. 

Ten months away from a general election, the former prime minister was too shrewd to be explicitly critical of Miliband, but his disagreement could be easily detected. He argued that the financial crisis was not a great turning point, but one that "simply reinforces what we have always known". For Miliband, by contrast, the crash was the disastrous collapse of an economic model that had failed Britain for three decades, and proof of the need for fundamental reform. Blair takes a far more modest view: "we adjust, we reform, we regulate and supervise with the knowledge of this experience". He warned that the crash "doesn't mean that the whole private sector is somehow contaminated". Miliband would not dissent from that, but it is clear that Blair disagrees about the level of market intervention now required (he is privately critical of policies such as the 50p tax rate and the energy price freeze). 

On public service reform, too, Blair is in a different place to his party. In a line that could have been delivered by Michael Gove, he called for Labour to be "iconoclastic in reshaping public services" and to be prepared to take on its own "interest groups" (for which read the trade unions). Frustrated at how the Tories have claimed ownership of education reform, he called for the party to "be leading the battle of ideas", adding that "where, as with the Academy programme, the Tories are forced to follow, that should be a matter for rejoicing, not anguish." When Blair urged progressives to "relax" about "a certain convergence of thinking with the centre-right" it was an acknowledgment that he often now agrees more with Conservatives than he does with his own party. 

But if the disagreement was striking, so were the points of consensus. Blair praised Miliband's speech at the National Policy Forum for its rigorous focus on "value for money" and argued that the party's recent policy work - the Adonis review, IPPR's Condition of Britain - "brilliantly" confronts "the hard realities we face with new policy solutions at a time of limited resources". He warned that the crash "doesn't mean that people have fallen back in love with the state", a point that Miliband made repeatedly in his recent Hugo Young Memorial Lecture and that has defined Jon Cruddas's policy review. 

It was on Europe, though, that the overlap was most notable. Blair passionately denounced the Tories for allowing UKIP ("a backward force that doesn't offer anything for our country") to shape their stance and said it was "important to give Ed credit" for making "the right call" (that Blair is prepared to publicly praise some of his stances is evidence that he disagrees with others). With Miliband promoting the case for EU membership as part of his US trip, one Labour strategist told me that this intervention, and Blair's other supportive words, were "helpful". 

While the ideological differences between Blair and Miliband will likely never be bridged, both sides are relieved that they have found something to agree on. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.