by Ann Sinnott
The workfare court ruling deemed unlawful the regulations governing JSA-sanctions imposed on claimants Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson and thus opened the door to repayment of lost benefits to 230,000 other sanctioned jobseekers, a total of £130m. In response, the government rapidly drew up an emergency bill to retrospectively make those same regulations lawful; a shocking and unprecedented Kafkaesque step that, when Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson take their case to the Supreme Court, may well be challenged under EU Human Rights legislation.
Labour’s decision to abstain from voting on the emergency bill left many non-plussed, induced rage in others and generated a frenzy of press and blogger coverage running over several days. It goes without saying that “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” is part of the Labour party’s DNA, so for Labour not to reject a Bill that will prevent the repayment of withheld JSA is counter-intuitive; but look closer.
Drafted by swift-acting machiavellian brains (judging by Vince Cables’s more than usually self-satisfied smile the next day, his among them), the bill was neatly packaged-up and calculated to cause maximum trouble for Labour. It was effective and a stark display of the art of politics at its darkest.
The court not only ruled in favour of the two claimants but also removed from the DWP the right to impose sanctions, a power the department had held since 1911. The emergency bill will reinstate the DWP’s power of sanction. Labour supports fair and proportionate sanctions, though in the context of a guaranteed six-month minimum-waged job, so what better way to tie-in their support, tacit or otherwise?
If Labour had walked into the “Nos” lobby it would have been voting against its own policy. Bad enough, but just imagine the headlines and the everlasting government taunts: “Labour U-turn on sanctions for shirkers!”, “Labour lets skivers off the hook!”, “No need to work under Labour!”, and permutations thereof.
Some Labour critics have said, “Sod the headlines!” – but, with a largely right-wing press and public opinion still largely suckered by the government myth that Labour ran the country into the ground, headlines really do matter.
With a healthy lead in the polls, public compassion increasingly on Labour’s side and the truth finally beginning to get through that bankers, not Labour, were responsible for the crash, such damaging headlines had to be avoided for they would inevitably result in a setback; and a setback for Labour is a setback for those who it truly cares about: the poor and the vulnerable.
It was a no-win choice for Labour. “Sitting on hands” was the least worst option but, as those Machiavellian brains well knew – as did the Labour leadership – this choice would still hurt Labour, for Labour’s critics and enemies are not only on the right but also on the left.
Those left of Labour, both inside and outside of the party, were every bit as enraged by abstention as they would have been had Labour trotted into the “ayes” lobby with the government; a perceived betrayal either way.
Many loyal Labour members and supporters floundered, confused and devastated: “Labour should have voted No!”, “I can’t believe Labour has done this!” and an agonised and agonising repeated chorus of “Why?” feverishly circled and re-circled in Twitterland, alongside reports of cancelled Labour party memberships.
The 44 Labour MPs who disobeyed the party whip to vote against have been lauded and at times denigrated in dozens of tweets and retweets. And for the far left still dreaming of revolution, it was a not-to-be-missed opportunity. Thunderings bellowed from blogs and mainstream-press platforms: ‘Labour betrays claimants!’, ‘Labour spineless on workfare!’, ‘Labour leadership failing to uphold its party’s values!’ – accompanied by the skirmishes and all-out battles between Labour loyalists (patient reasonings) and hard left activists (bitter barbs and insults) that for days raged on Twitter’s highways and byways.
Yet there are aspects to the bill that were either little understood or ignored.
Ian Duncan Smith had let it be known that if the £130m were to be repaid, JSA would be reduced across the board. The losses of the 230,000 already sanctioned were thus pitilessly pitted against potential losses for millions of other jobseekers.
Labour, stuck between a rock and a hard place, had no way out; no way, that is, that wouldn’t involve pain and hardship for jobseekers and injury to Labour. There was nothing on the table but damage limitation.
The restoration to the DWP of the right to impose sanctions created an opportunity for Liam Byrne (perhaps a “sitting on hands” bargain) to wring important concessions: protection of the 13 month appeal window against an imposed sanction, a wide-ranging list of good causes for refusing a workfare placement and an independent review of sanctions to be brought before parliament.
Abstention, with bolted-on concessions, was the least worst of all possible hurts. Subsequently, emerging tales from the workfare-coalface of sanctions-targets set for job centre staff and the ferocity and patent inhumanity with which sanctions have been applied points-up the importance and value of the concessions obtained by Labour.
A dark week in politics it certainly was; yet it was a darkness that cast light: on the depth of the government’s hounding of jobseekers; on how Labour, from a stitched-up, no-win situation yet managed to wrest precious rights for jobseekers; and on the government’s undoubted flair for dark politicking – a flair woefully lacking in the practicalities of the economy, where ever-deepening darkness prevails.
Ann Sinnott is an author and a journalist and a member of Cambridge CLP