Labour was right to abstain on workfare

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

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17 Responses to “Labour was right to abstain on workfare”

  1. Felix says:

    “and a setback for Labour is a setback for those who it truly cares about: the poor and the vulnerable.”

    That’s a pile of hogwash. Go and ask them on the council estates, they won’t even get out of bed to vote for the party anymore, that’s how disinterested in their lives Labour is.

  2. aragon says:

    Applying sanctions to people between a rock and a hard place (no vacancies) is immoral and futile. Something the ‘Bedroom Tax’ demonstrates.

    Give people the opportunity to work in well paying and rewarding jobs and expect to be trampled in the rush.

    1,700 applicants for eight jobs, five of which are part-time, with wages between £6.10 and £10, not even bankers rates !

    In areas of high employment (South East England) even the demand for DLA is reduced. People with disadvantage of disabilities find work.

    People want better lives that the dole offers, they don’t have to be driven to it, unless the jobs are demeaning and underpaid. But people have to be able to cover their living costs, wages may fail this test, with housing and the general cost of living so high.

    The job guarantee does not require sanctions to work, after all you have to endure two years of unemployment to become eligible.

    George Osbourne and Ian Duncan Smith’s inadequacies as human beings and economic ignorance are not justification for voting for the bill.

    “we’ve been really encouraged to see so many people wanting to work at their local Costa store.” or driven by the threat of sanctions or just a sign of desperation ?

  3. Felix says:

    “important concessions for Liam Byrne”!

    Oh my aching sides, he just got dumped on from a great height in the Lords, his concessions swiftly dispatched down the pan, exactly as others had predicted would happen.

  4. Felix says:

    A where does Labour end up finding itself? As a guarantor to the government never having its abuses of the sanction system exposed, that’s where.

  5. Felix says:

    “from a stitched-up, no-win situation yet managed to wrest precious rights for jobseekers;”

    No it hasn’t. You should have read the news yesterday before writing this.

  6. John Reid says:

    Felixstowe, I think the precious rights quote was silly, but you can’t deny that Liam Byrne as shadow minister did get concessions on what he felt was right, whether you disagree with them is your view, but to say that .Ann’s view in this article is one that you laugh at ,is ignoring the facts,

  7. Amber Star says:

    @ John Reid

    Byrne got nothing. Tory Lords gutted the legislation of everything which Byrne claimed to have achieved. Byrne was conned. He ignored rule 1 in the handbook: Never Trust a Tory.

  8. John Reid says:

    But it wasn’t Tory lords amber they’re were liberal lords, rule zero in the handbook, labour will never have an overall majority in the Lords, and Liberals don’t always back labour as their second choice, we need to engage with liberals

  9. e says:

    Grubby Tory hands own this almighty social security mess. It was the right decision to not enter the space that gives room to doubt this…

  10. LesAbbey says:

    …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.

    This is the core argument and everything else is an excuse to give reason for being afraid of the press. Living in fear makes for a rather unattractive face on the party. It’s a shame the SDP didn’t keep its independence as it was a good home for these scared people.

  11. Gareth says:


    They should have voted against. And for one simple reason – retrospective legislation. Its bad and its wrong.

    Amusingly enough, when discussing Abu Qatada the other night when asked about retrospective legislation to deport him Dominic Raab said “We don’t want to go down that road, one thing we can agree on is that retrospective legislation is bad”, it seems its only bad for someone like Qatada!

  12. Ian Blackburn says:

    We should call on a boycott of ASDA after they teamed up with Birmingham council to use food vouchers. And call on Labour in Birmingham to stop this discrimination against those on welfare. If this is done just to show we are as good at hurting the poorest as the Tories, then that is a disgrace. If Labour want to hit the Tories, return ALL social policies and spending back to the government. Let Eric Pickles and Ian Duncan-Smith get the blame for cuts, not Labour councilors.

  13. Robert Exley says:

    Opposition to Workfare is simple and easy to argue.

    If the taxpayer doesn’t owe the unemployed a living why does it owe companies like Tesco a source of cheap labour.

    A really wish the Labour Party would become a party that spoke on behalf of work class people once again instead the spineless party they have become that have abandoned their core voters

  14. fran says:

    Ann , we get that you’re afraid of the right wing press and their anti-fact agenda. We’ve been getting it up here in Scotland for years whenever we try to debate more powers for our Parliament. But why not just acknowledge this bias publicly rather than justify this. Who are you representing ? Surely it points to Labour’s failure to build a compelling narrative that bursts the right wing bubble.

  15. John Reid says:

    Yes les abbey, you fell it was a shame that the SDP didn’t continue as the right wing of the Labour Party would have been better there, do you also feel the 5.6 million Labour Party supporters who left the Labour Party between the 50’s and ’83 also had stayed with the SDP, and away from labour,

  16. Lou says:

    Sorry John Reid and Anne Sinnott – Labour got nothing out of this except disgrace and loss of grassroots support.

  17. @MrFrankZola says:

    DWP confirms it will be refunding Workfare Conscripts just £2 million pounds of benefit sanctions to “3789-4305 individuals“, that breached their Human Rights during 2011-2013. The refunds should be more like £130 million [1] for all the 231,000 conscripts that experienced penury for refusing to be subjected to the DWP’s morally repugnant forced-labour [2] schemes.

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