Labour must counter the Tories' "nasty" narrative on welfare by focusing on people

We should be talking about the pointlessness of finding someone “fit for work” when there is no work for them to take.

Last month the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Cait Reilly who sued the government for forcing her to work at Poundland for free. Otherwise, she was told, she would lose her benefits. This is Workfare – a scheme which the Labour Party deplores.

The vast majority of people on benefits are desperate to find work. To be on benefits is to be poor. It chips away at a person’s self-esteem. Losing your job is frightening. Benefits are essential to allow people to survive until they find another job.

But there is a small minority of people who would rather be on benefits than to find work. If they don’t take the work or training, they should have their benefits stopped, sanctioned.

But the Court of Appeal ruling went so wide that it opened up to challenge all sanctioning decisions made in the last two years. It meant that even those people who had their benefits sanctioned for not taking a job or training would be able to get compensation from the government.

The ruling was as a result of the government’s bad drafting of the original law. They should have got it right in the first place. So whilst I agreed that all sanctioning decisions should not be open to challenge on a technical detail, I thought we were right to abstain since it was a headache of their own making.

At the same time, we finally had evidence that Jobcentre Plus has been working to sanctioning targets. Staff at Jobcentres are being forced to sanction a certain number of people every week. It explains some of the terrible decisions they come to and which we as MPs see in our surgeries every week.

The Labour Party is therefore using this emergency legislation to ensure that all bad sanctioning decisions can be appealed and even more importantly, that the whole sanctioning regime is reviewed.

But this debate, and the vote last week, are about something else, and that is the Labour Party’s difficulty in getting its welfare message across.

The Tories have successfully managed to convince people that there are deserving and undeserving poor: strivers and scroungers. This is a nasty view of the world. If someone is poor, they are poor. Since when did people have to pass a niceness test before being allowed to get benefits?

But this is exactly the narrative the Tories are using to get support for cutting the welfare bill.

We, the Labour Party, must not position ourselves in relation to this nasty narrative by also only talking about cutting the welfare bill. This is not what should motivate us.

As the Labour Party, we should be talking about people – the Minimum Wage workers at the Tesco distribution centre near Chesterfield that is moving south, leaving people in the north without jobs through no fault of their own.

We should be talking about the pointlessness of finding someone “fit for work” when there is no work for them to take. To that person, it amounts to the same thing. We need to focus on creating growth in the economy to encourage more and better jobs.

And we should be asking what is happening to those people whose benefits are being sanctioned and who are disappearing. They turn up at foodbanks and rely on friends, family and loan sharks to see them through. How many of them ever find a job? Very few.

The system that is being created by this Tory-Liberal government is forcing people from the poverty of welfare to the abject poverty of nothing at all.

If claimants are offered a reasonable job, and they refuse to take it, it must be made clear to them that they can't stay on benefits. But if they go to work, they must be given an income by the employer.

Let’s make sure we focus our narrative on the people who claim the benefit rather than the benefit they claim – because the language we use matters.

Losing your job is frightening. Photograph: Getty Images
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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain