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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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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