The revolt against workfare spreads

Grayling struggles to defend scheme as Poundland pulls out and Greggs raises concerns.

"A big internet campaign that's being run by an organisation that's a front for the Socialist Workers Party." That was how Tory welfare minister Chris Grayling described the revolt against the government's workfare scheme during his appearance on the Today programme.

Reports this morning suggest that Poundland has pulled out of the programme, while Greggs has raised concerns over its involvement. Grayling was unable to confirm which, if any, scheme Poundland had left (indeed, he insisted that "not one single company" had withdrawn) but he conceded that employers were "very jumpy". What began as a revolt against a Tesco job advert which notoriously offered a salary of "JSA + Expenses" has thrown the entire future of the programme into doubt.

The scheme, in brief, attempts to make jobseekers more employable by offering them "work experience" with companies like the ones above. The programme is voluntary, not least because participants will only be paid expenses for the 25-30 hours they work a week. However, should they pull out of the placement, for whatever reason, after more than a week has elapsed, they could lose their benefits. It's this draconian sanction that has led a significant number of companies (Argos, Waterstones, Maplin, TK Maxx) to reconsider their involvement. Tesco has already suggested to ministers that "the risk of losing benefits that currently exists should be removed", a demand now echoed by Greggs.

The bakery's chief executive Ken McMeikan told Newsnight:

If after a week or more you decide as an individual that it's not working for you and you leave the scheme, we don't believe at Greggs that the benefits should be taken away.

Our view is if they are volunteering to come on this scheme, and for whatever reason they come off, then they go back onto benefits.

If the government wants the scheme to survive, it's increasingly hard to see how it can avoid backing down. Large companies, for understandable reasons, are uncomfortable with the impression of slave labour created by the threat of benefits removal. And, contrary to Grayling, it isn't only Trotskyists who are troubled by the scheme. The element of compulsion involved (keep working or you'll lose your benefits) offends against basic fairness. Unless ministers concede this point, they could soon have a workfare programme without any work.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.