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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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.