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
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.