Ed Miliband speaks at Senate House on November 13, 2014 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband comes out swinging for the mansion tax

The Labour leader has doubled-down on his strategy of painting Cameron as the friend of the rich and himself as the friend of poor. 

Rather than being unnerved by Ed Miliband's clash with Myleene Klass over the mansion tax on The Agenda, Labour aides regard it as a valuable opportunity to make the case for a popular policy. At today's PMQs, Miliband did just that, contrasting his support for the mansion tax (backed by 72 per cent of the public) with David Cameron's support for the bedroom tax (opposed by 59 per cent). In response, Cameron sought to defend the latter as the removal of the unjustified "spare room subsidy" but he was fighting a battle lost long ago. 

Aided by the proximity of tomorrow's Rochester by-election, and the Tories' now certain defeat to Ukip, Miliband had opened by dryly remarking: "Let’s see if they’re still cheering on Friday". He later declared: "Two of the people behind him have jumped ship. And the other people are waiting for the result to see if they should follow." Cameron predictably sought to turn Miliband's encounter with Klass to his advantage, deriding his "pasting from a pop star" and quipping: "We’re not seeing a Klass act". But his jibes only served to demonstrate how unwilling he was to make a principled defence of the mansion tax. 

In response, Miliband threw populist punch after populist punch (evidence of the fire inserted in the leader's belly by the newly-promoted Jon Trickett and Lucy Powell) . "He only feels the pain of people struggling to find a £2m garage. That is this Prime Minister," he declared (a reference to Klass's moan that it was impossible to afford more in London). He went on to turn to the NHS, Labour's strongest suit, and the promised recipient of the £1.2bn the party hopes the mansion tax would raise.

But it was Miliband's last line that will live longest in the memory. "We all know, Mr Speaker, why this Prime Minister thinks the bedroom tax is great and the mansion tax to fund the NHS is terrible. If you’ve got big money you’ve got a friend in this prime minister. If you haven’t he couldn’t care less," he cried. It was a reminder of how sharp the dividing lines will be at this election and a demonstration of Labour's belief that its best hope lies in framing the Tories as the friends of the rich and themselves as the friends of the poor. It is a strategy antithetical to that of New Labour, which sought partnership, rather than confrontation, with the elite. But defying the dissenters within and without of his party, it is one that Miliband has doubled-down on. Should he achieve victory on these terms, decades-long assumptions about the "centre ground" of British politics will be blown apart.   

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.