Workfare casts a shadow over the Jubilee

The use of the unemployed as unpaid stewards is a symptom of a divided nation.

In his speech at last night's Jubilee concert, Prince Charles notably referred to the "difficulties and hardships" faced by many (before an unintentionally amusing reference to people proudly "lining the banks"). On the theme of hardship, then, today's Guardian reports that "A group of long-term unemployed jobseekers were bussed into London to work as unpaid stewards during the diamond jubilee celebrations." Worse, they were told to sleep under London Bridge the night before the river pageant, had no access to toilets for 24 hours, and were taken to a swampy campsite outside London after working a 14-hour shift.

The security firm in question, Close Protection UK, was operating under the government's Work Programme, which attempts to make jobseekers more employable by offering them "work experience" with selected companies. It's important to note that the programme is voluntary and does not affect jobseekers keeping their benefits. But it's not hard to see why the story has provoked such outrage this morning. There is something Dickensian about the unemployed sleeping under London Bridge in order to guard a hereditary monarch. Blogger Eddie Gillard (who first broke the story) reports that "some had been told they would be paid for working and that they should 'Sign Off' benefits before starting, which turned out to be a falsehood, mistake or lie, I cannot say which." Given that the government allocated £1.5m for stewarding, it is unclear why some were left unpaid.

The hope in Downing Street is that the "feel-good-factor" created by the Jubilee will improve the Tories' dismal poll ratings (one poll yesterday put them 16 points behind Labour). It may yet do so. The Guardian's story was not picked up by the BBC or the Times, both in full royalist cry. But the accounts of workfare are a symptom of why Cameron will find it so difficult to rally an increasingly divided nation behind him.

Update: The BBC have belatedly covered the story under the guise of "Prescott urges inquiry into Jubilee work experience claims".

A security guard stands beneath a large screen in St James's Park prior to The Diamond Jubilee Concert. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition