The Labour leadership contenders at the Progress conference last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Could Labour still make it easier to remove its leader?

MPs consider alternatives after "break clause" is rejected by acting leader Harman. 

Labour's comprehensive election defeat left many MPs regretful at their decision not to oust Ed Miliband before facing the voters (as was the case with Gordon Brown in 2010). It was this that inspired the proposed "break clause" for the next leader, who would face re-election after three years under the plan. The idea won the support of Tristram Hunt and leadership contender Liz Kendall, who said: "I think the idea that people are asked to make sure that you're up to the job that you're doing is an interesting one, actually, those three years or whatever. We have to do it as MPs, I think it's an interesting idea." Such an innovation would have acted as an automatic check to Labour's sentimental tendency to stand loyally by failing leaders (in contrast to the regicidal Conservatives). 

But the proposal has been rejected by acting leader Harriet Harman, who told the Observer that once a leader was elected it was "for them to be getting on and doing that job" for five years. Some in the party feared that the new leader would face endless derision from the Tories for being on a "temporary contract". But after the rejection of a break-clause, MPs are considering other ways in which Labour's rules could be amended to make it easier to remove Miliband's successor. 

At present, the leader faces annual re-election at the party conference (a mere formality) with no other official means available to challenge him or her. This contrasts with the Conservatives whose leader faces a confidence vote if 15 per cent or more of the parliamentary party write to the chairman of the 1922 Committee requesting one (a threshold almost reached in the last parliament). A Labour MP suggested to me that this option should be considered, describing it as a "trapdoor". An anonymous ballot of the PLP would make it far easier to remove leaders by reducing the need for a shadow cabinet revolt. But others will argue that rather than amending its constitution, the party should simply have the guts to act if necessary. 

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.