Ukip has come a long way in five years. Photo: Getty
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Maximising votes or MPs? Ukip's 2020 strategy

Ukip needs to decide whether it wants to maximise its total vote in 2015, or it wants to maximise its number of MPs.

Ukip’s conference feels very different to the grand conference venues favoured by the main three parties. Which, of course, is exactly the point. Doncaster Racecourse has been chosen to host Ukip’s conference to give it a grittier and more worldly feel than the three main parties’ offerings. Hell, at the media reception yesterday journalists, to their chagrin, even had to stump up for their own drinks.

But there is a very serious reason why Ukip has upped sticks to Doncaster this year, after slumming it with the metropolitan elite in London in 2013. It sends a very provocative message that Ukip is coming for Labour’s core vote.

The Racecourse is only a couple of miles away from the constituency of Doncaster North, seat of one Ed Miliband. While Ukip has no chance of winning there, the seat still stands as a symbol of Labour’s problems in its heartlands. The Labour vote here collapsed from 34,000 in 1992 to 19,000 in 2010. When Miliband mentioned his home in his conference speech, no one ever thought that he was referring to Doncaster North. “Whenever I go past his constituency office, it’s always closed,” complains a taxi driver from the Labour leader’s seat.

In Doncaster's three seats, Labour has lost 40,000 votes since 1992. Ukip’s choice of venue is therefore more than bluster. It reflects a desire to capitalise on the disconnect between MPs and the electorate in many traditional Labour seats. Above all, perhaps, it is pragmatic. There are not many more votes to be gained by the party on the right, so chasing them on the left is imperative for Ukip’s long-term future.

There are a couple of ‘Old Labour’ seats that could turn purple in May 2015. In Great Grimsby, for instance, the number of Labour voters collapsed from 25,000 in 1997 to 10,000 in 2010. Now, with Labour’s arch-Eurosceptic MP Austin Mitchell standing down, Ukip is poised to pounce.

But Ukip’s strategy of targeting Labour voters is about more than just 2015. As one Ukip MEP put it to me, “We’ve got a 2020 strategy.” A string of strong second-placed finishes in traditional Labour seats would set Ukip up for 2020. If Ukip becomes established as the most likely challengers to Labour in its heartlands, it would be ideally placed to benefit from an unpopular Labour government.

It all speaks of the ambition of Ukip. The party has a set of policies that extend far beyond Europe. It intends to be much more than a pressure group agitating for an EU referendum, but an intrinsic new part of Britain’s new political landscape.

Yet there is a basic tension in Ukip’s strategy, as the MEP I talked to accepted. The first-past-the-post strategy is unforgiving to small parties who try and over-reach. Ukip needs to decide whether it wants to maximise its total vote in 2015, or it wants to maximise its number of MPs after the election. It cannot do both.  

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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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.