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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A progressive alliance in the Richmond by-election can scupper hard Brexit

Labour and the Greens should step aside. 

There are moments to seize and moments to let go. The Richmond by-election, triggered by Zac Goldsmith's decision to quit over a third runway at Heathrow, could be a famous turning point in the politics of our nation. Or it could be another forgettable romp home for a reactionary incumbent.

This isn’t a decision for the Tories and their conscientious objector, Goldsmith, who is pretending he isn’t the Tory candidate when he really is. Nor is it a decision for the only challenger in the seat – the Liberal Democrats.

No, the history making decision lies with Labour and the Greens. They can’t get anywhere near Zac. But they can stop him. All they need to do is get out of the way. 

If the Lib Dems get a clear run, they could defeat Zac. He is Theresa May's preferred candidate and she wants the third runway at Heathrow. He is the candidate who was strongly Leave when his voters where overwhelming Remain. And while the Tories might be hypocrites, they aren’t stupid – they won't stand an official candidate and split their vote. But will Labour and the Greens?

The case to stand is that it offers an opportunity to talk nationally and build locally. I get that – but sometimes there are bigger prizes at stake. Much bigger. This is the moment to halt "hard" Brexit in its tracks, reduce the Tories' already slim majority and reject a politician who ran a racially divisive campaign for London mayor. It’s also the moment to show the power of a progressive alliance. 

Some on the left feel that any deal that gives the Lib Dems a free run just means a Tory-lite candidate. It doesn’t. The Lib Dems under Tim Farron are not the Lib Dems under Nick Clegg. On most issues in the House of Commons, they vote with Labour.

And this isn’t about what shade of centrism you might want. It is about triggering a radical, democratic earthquake, that ensures the Tories can never win again on 24 per cent of the potential vote and that our country, its politics and institutions are democratised for good.

A progressive alliance that starts in Richmond could roll like thunder across the whole country. The foundation is the call for proportional representation. The left have to get this, or face irrelevance. We can’t fix Britain on a broken and undemocratic state. We cant impose a 21st century socialism through a left Labour vanguard or a right Labour bureaucracy. The society we want has to be built with the people – the vast majority of them. Anyway, the days of left-wing majority governments have come and gone. We live in the complexity of multi-party politics. We must adapt to it or die. 

If the Labour leadership insists on standing a candidate, then the claims to a new kind of politics turn to dust. Its just the same old politics – which isn’t working for anyone but the Tories. 

It is not against party rules to not stand a candidate – it is to promote a candidate from another party. So the way is clear. And while such an arrangement can't just be imposed on local parties, our national leaders, in all the progressive parties, have a duty to lead and be brave. Some in Labour, like Lisa Nandy, Clive Lewis and Jonathan Reynolds, are already being brave.

We can wake up the Friday after the Richmond Park by-election to Goldsmith's beaming smile. Or we can wake up smiling ourselves – knowing we did what it took to beat the Tories, and kickstart the democratic and political revolution this country so desperately needs.


Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.