Peter Mandelson delivers a speech at the Policy Network conference held in the Science Museum last week. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The centre ground isn't where Peter Mandelson thinks it is

The claim that Labour has moved too far to the left is based on a misreading of public opinion. 

There has been no more vociferous critic of Labour's direction in recent years than Peter Mandelson. In an interview in the new issue of Progress, he repeats a familiar charge against Ed Miliband (albeit without mentioning him by name): that he has vacated the centre ground in pursuit of an imaginary left-wing majority. 

Those who don’t give their political loyalty automatically to left or right – whose votes, therefore, are up for grabs – are a greater segment of the electorate now than they were when New Labour was being created in the 1990s. Therefore, it is even more important now to win the centre-ground to win electoral victory. Just as it is essential still to win on leadership and the economy, and to demonstrate that we are a party of conscience and reform that will talk to people’s values and concerns, not simply keep driving an agenda of our own regardless of the electorate’s views. That is why I get frustrated sometimes when people argue now that the country has moved to the left, therefore if we are more unambiguously leftwing and raise our ideological vigour, we are more likely to win the next election. 

For "people", read Miliband and his supporters. 

It is an echo of the point made by Tony Blair in his article for the centenary edition of the New Statesman last year, in which he wrote: "The paradox of the financial crisis is that, despite being widely held to have been caused by under-regulated markets, it has not brought a decisive shift to the left. But what might happen is that the left believes such a shift has occurred and behaves accordingly." Blair is likely to repeat this warning when he delivers the Philip Gould Lecture on 21 July to mark the 20th anniversary of his election as Labour leader. 

For the former PM and Mandelson, remaining in the centre ground means, among other things, refusing to support higher taxes on the rich, avoiding policies that could be attacked as "anti-business" and advocating increased use of the private sector in public services. Labour's leftwards trajectory is, they argue, one of the main reasons why it may struggle to win next year. 

The party has certainly moved to the left under Miliband, but it is wrong to suggest that it is now further from the centre. As I’ve noted before, if the Labour leader is a "socialist", so are most of the public. Around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a compulsory living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities (actually putting them well to the left of Labour leader). 

The insight that defines Miliband's project is less that the centre has moved leftwards since the financial crisis, but that it was further to the left to begin with. It was New Labour's failure to accurately reflect public opinion that led to the loss of five million votes between 1997 and 2010. Too often, for Blair and Mandelson (as for others), the "centre ground" simply means "policies that I support". 

While voters continue to lean right on issues such as immigration, the deficit and welfare, Labour's stances have reflected this. It has pledged to reduce low-skilled migration (and apologised for refusing to impose transitional controls) and has promised to eliminate the current deficit by the end of the next parliament. The only welfare cut that it has committed to reversing is the unpopular "bedroom tax". 

Labour needs to do more to improve its credibility as a government-in-waiting, to win back economic trust, and to attract voters with a vision of national renewal. But the suggestion that this can only be achieved on a Blairite policy platform remains devoid of evidence. 

 

See more:

Have we become more left-wing? (8 July 2014)

 

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.