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

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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!

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