Labour’s shameful abstention allows the government to force Jobseekers to work for their Job Seekers Allowance

Labour’s abstention on the government’s emergency legislation, the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) was a shameful episode even by the standards of ‘New Labour’. The legislation passed all stages in the Commons last Tuesday, establishing the government’s right to reimpose “mandatory work activity”; that is, forcing somebody to work for no pay on pain of having their benefit withdrawn should they refuse.

44 Labour MPs did refuse to follow the whip and voted against the government, with one PPS, Ian Mearns resigning rather than follow the Party line.

This extraordinary action by Labour has accepted the principle of a retrospective change to the law to overturn a legal judgement which found the government to have been in breach of the law. The retrospective action was designed to prevent compensation to benefit claimants who had been “unlawfully made to work unpaid”. 

A report by the Lords constitution committee on the Bill questioned whether it was “constitutionally appropriate” for the legislation to be retrospective. They also said that they were “unable to agree with the government’s assessment that it was necessary for the  Bill to be fast-tracked.”

A report of Labour’s NEC which met on March 19th says that “the NEC expressed anger  at the front bench decision to abstain”. Ed Miliband’s was reported as saying

“…this was not just about Poundland, where Cait Reilly lost her job seekers allowance for refusing to work without pay, but could mean refunding money from all the 230,000 sanctions imposed since 2011. This would be out of line with Labour’s consistent support for sanctions as a vital element of back to work schemes.”

Labour had apparently ‘secured protection of appeal rights and an ‘independent review of the sanctions regime”.

Do Byrne and ‘red Ed’ believe they can depend on the ‘fairness’ of this government? As Labour MP Michael Meacher has pointed out “Labour has already sold the pass in exchange for a nebulous offer which remains entirely within the gift of the government.” It will decide the terms of reference, choose the chair and members of the enquiry, decide the timescale and decide whether or not to accept any recommendations.

Labour’s failure to come out and declare that claimants should not be forced to work for free shows how they have failed to break with the politics of New Labour. We can only assume they were concerned that the government would point the finger at them and say they were supporting the ‘skivers’ rather than the ‘strivers’.
For Miliband to talk of a sanctions regime being a vital element of ‘back to work schemes’ implies that the main problem is the lack of willingness of claimants to work rather than the existence of mass unemployment and the shortage of jobs.

Instead of supporting a ‘review’ they should have come out against claimants being forced to work for the miserable pittance of £71 a week (£56 if under 25). They are providing free labour to participating companies. This is part and parcel of the demonisation of claimants which was pioneered by New Labour and has been taken up with a vengence by the coalition. They act as if the reason that people are unemployed is because of their lack of effort rather than the scarcity of jobs when there are 2.5 million unemployed and nearly 1.5 million forced to take part-time jobs because they cannot find a full-time one.

In recent days the open secret that Job Centre managers are pressuring staff to reach targets for ‘sanctioning’ claimants has been exposed by the release of internal emails. They are being sanctioned not for what they are or are not doing but because management is operating on the basis of the government’s policy of driving people off of benefits, regardless of their circumstances. This makes Labour’s abstention even more reprehensible. We don’t need a review to know that this is what the government is doing.

Len McLuskey, UNITE general secretary responded to the abstention by saying that:

“Those Labour MPs who voted against the government saved the Party’s honour. Abstention in the vote risks being seen as tacit acceptance of forced labour.

Labour needs to understand that it is the opposition to a disastrous government waging class war against the poor. Labour failed to provide that opposition, with the honourable acception of the 44 MPs who stood up for core Labour values of decency and justice.”

Well, Len, it is tacit acceptance of forced Labour and you should be demanding of the Labour leadership that they oppose people being forced to work for their JSA. After 13 years of New Labour the party has no honour.

What are the affiliated unions, UNITE included, going to do in relation to their sponsored MPs? – all those who capitulated to the whips and the Party leadership. If they can’t follow the principled vote of the 44 on an issue such as this what use are they to trade union members, some of whom are facing the ‘sanctions’ regime as claimants?

Shouldn’t the affiliated unions be putting their sponsored MPs under severe pressure? It’s not a case of instructing them what to do on each and every occasion, but so long as these unions remain affiliated to Labour then they should be organising to pressure a change of direction, with a break from all the New Labour baggage, otherwise, what’s the point of being affiliated?

For too long many sponsored MPs were given a free ride despite the fact that they were supporting New Labour government policies which were contrary to the interests of union members. Privatisation, PFI, opening up the NHS to the private sector vultures, selling off our council housing, no policy was too much for some of them to swallow. (See the example of the GMBfrom 2007.)

Despite all the talk from Miliband of ‘going beyond New Labour’ his ‘innovation’ was to dream up ‘One Nation Labour‘ inspired by the bizarre example of Benjamin Disraeli, monarchist and imperialist. This should have been warning enough to the affiliated unions. The idea that Labour can represent ‘the whole country’ is absurd. As we have just seen it cannot even support JSA claimants against government persecution.

With two years to go until an election the affiliated unions will be drawing the wrong conclusion if they mute their criticism for fear of Labour not being elected. Many people will vote Labour because the alternative of the Tories or the continuation of the coalition is too dreadful to contemplate. But the failure of Labour to break from New Labour’s politics makes the prospect of a Labour-Liberal coalition more likely. If they can’t mobilise their traditional supporters in the face of a government which is doing more damage than Thatcher did then the chances of a parliamentary majority will be slim.

Sponsored MPs should not be given carte-blanche. If they can’t oppose persecution of job seekers by this government then they should not be supported by the affiliated unions.

Martin Wicks

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