Workfare: Why did so many Labour MPs accept this brutal, unforgivable attack on vulnerable people?

Labour's leadership is failing to uphold its party's values

Share

What a disgraceful, grubby chapter in the history of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Usually when a Tory Government is in power, giving working people and the poorest in society a kicking, any critical voices of the Labour leadership are savaged for aiding and abetting the enemy. It's the Tories we should be opposing, or so the line goes. But what happens when the Labour leadership actively rides to the rescue of the Tories, blatantly and overtly helping them as they attack some of the poorest in society while riding roughshod over British law?

Yesterday's vote should not have been clearer. A Tory Government was defeated in the courts because it broke the law. The Department of Work and Pensions, according to the Court of Appeal, had illegally sanctioned unemployed people who had been forced to work for free. Being forced to work for free – with the taxpayer picking up the bill for a measly £71 a week Jobseekers Allowance – is known as workfare. Those driven on to workfare had not been given properly informed about the schemes and – by violating the law - the Government was due to cough up an average of £550 to 231,000 illegally punished people.

The Government lost in part because a courageous young woman, Cait Reilly, refused to work for free in Poundland. In Cameron's Britain, unemployed people are often dismissed as workshy scroungers lacking any initiative. Reilly is a woman who dragged the British Government through the courts in the face of relentless snide attacks from overpaid journalists and ministers, exposing and utterly humiliating them. I hope she whacks all that on her CV.

So what was the Tory response? Not only to change the law, but to do so retrospectively. No laws were now broken, because those laws have been changed in hindsight. The Government has effectively declared that it is above the law. “The precedent is a terrifying threat to civil liberty,” says classical liberal think-tank Civitas. “The entire concept of 'Rule of Law' is undermined as soon as the government starts to cover its back like this.”

Gone missing

A straightforward argument for Labour, then. An honest day's pay for an honest day's work is at stake. The rule of law is being attacked. Every single Labour MP would surely near-instinctively file through the 'No' lobbies, proudly defending some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society, as well as the British legal tradition.

Think again. Labour's spokesperson on the welfare state, Liam Byrne, demanded that Labour MPs merely abstain; sit on their hands, hide in the toilet, whatever. It's actually worse than that: this Bill only received emergency timetabling with Labour's help. It was supposedly in exchange for a concession: that an “independent review of the sanctions regime” must report to Parliament. The history of “independent reviews” suggest that “pointless exercise” would be a generous description, at best.

Not that all Labour MPs disposed of their backbones at their parliamentary selection meetings. 40 Labour MPs took the revolutionary course of voting against a Tory government. Among them were the diminished group of working-class Labour MPs: Ian Lavery, a former miners' leader; Ian Mearns, a former British Gas worker; Graham Morris, the son of a miner; Steve Rotherham, an ex-bricklayer; John McDonnell, the son of a bus driver; David Crausby, a former turner; ex-miners like David Anderson and Dennis Skinner. Here are MPs who remember what the Labour Party was founded to do: to give working people a voice, not least when they come under attack from a Tory government.

Their speeches displayed their commitment to the original purpose of the Labour Party. “People want to work for the best intentions and the right reasons,” said Ian Lavery. 'They want self-esteem and finances... It is not right to talk about people as, 'This group of claimants.' They are ordinary people with feelings, and many of them want to get on in life.'”

They were joined by Scottish and Welsh nationalists and even the Ulster loyalists of the DUP, as well as the formidable Green MP for Brighton Pavillion, Caroline Lucas. “It's incredibly disappointing that Labour's opposition to these proposals appears to amount to nothing more than seeking very minor 'concessions' that don't touch the core principles of the issue,” Lucas says. “A meek call for a review of the regulations in a year's time is frankly no Opposition at all.”

Byrne's record

What do we learn from this debacle? Yet again, we learn that Labour will never offer a coherent alternative to the Tories so long as the likes of Liam Byrne wields influence. In contrast to the Laverys, Mearns and McDonnells, Byrne represents the worst elements of New Labour. The party's upper echelons became overrun with generic hacks with ambition in place of principle, with CVs that suggested no demonstrable commitment to what Labour was founded to do. Byrne is a striking case in point: a former management consultant and merchant banker, who has yet to provide any convincing case about why he even joined the Labour party in the first place.

Here is a man responsible for one of the stupidest acts in modern British politics: leaving a note in the Treasury for his successors that read: “I am afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck!” It summed up the abysmal failure of the Labour leadership to take on the Tory myths and lies about the consequences of the great financial crisis. It was perversely left to critics of Blair and Brown like myself to defend New Labour's economic record from their own supporters – that it was not public spending that sent Britain into the abyss.

Here is a man who happily participated in the shameful Tory attempt to turn the working poor against the unemployed. “Labour is the party of hard workers not free-riders. The clue is in the name,” he once said. “The party of workers, not shirkers.” Scrounger-bashing from a man who knows a thing or two about scrounging from the state: he once rented an apartment in County Hall overlooking the Thames, charging the taxpayer £2,400 a month for the privilege; claimed the maximum £400 a month for food; and even attempted to claim room service bills as expenses.

Here is a man who accepts the underlying principles of the Tory onslaught on the welfare state. His colleagues tell me that he did not even want to oppose the bedroom tax. It was of course New Labour who first introduced workfare, and Byrne has made it clear that “both he [Iain Duncan-Smith] and I believe that sanctions are vital to give back-to-work programmes their bite.”

Backbone

But there is another lesson. We desperately need more Labour MPs selected who have a backbone and do what the party was founded to do. Some on the left argue that this is a naïve exercise in abject futility. They are at best bemused as to why I have any faith in the ability of Labour to represent working people. It is not out of some misty-eyed nostalgia. As long as Labour remains linked with the unions – the biggest democratic movement in the country, representing nurses, supermarket shelf stackers, factory workers, bin collectors and other pillars of society – then there is a fight to be had. There has been no shortage of attempts to form new parties to the left of Labour: from the Independent Labour Party of the 1930s to the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, recently beaten by the Pirate Party in the Manchester Central by-election. Without exception, each and every attempt has ended in catastrophic failure, and in political conditions far better than our own.

A Labour Party worthy of the name: it must be fought for. But that is going to be a long haul, and the suffocating political consensus must be fought now. With the Labour leadership abdicating their responsibilities, we need a broad movement that can confidently and unreservedly challenge Tory attacks. That's why I'm throwing all my energy into building the People's Assembly, a new initiative being built by trade unions, community groups and activists, members of the Green Party, Labour Party and – most importantly – those with no political home at all. It will be a coalition of all those who despair of what is being inflicted on this country, and are determined to do something about it.

So yes, I'm furious about yesterday's vote, but I'm also bored of being furious. Throwing things at the TV isn't going to cut it. The likes of Iain Duncan-Smith and his de facto partner-in-crime Liam Byrne cannot be allowed to win, and if we do something about it, they won't. To paraphrase the 19 century US labour activist Joe Hill: Don't mourn, organise!

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker