Workfare casts a shadow over the Jubilee

The use of the unemployed as unpaid stewards is a symptom of a divided nation.

In his speech at last night's Jubilee concert, Prince Charles notably referred to the "difficulties and hardships" faced by many (before an unintentionally amusing reference to people proudly "lining the banks"). On the theme of hardship, then, today's Guardian reports that "A group of long-term unemployed jobseekers were bussed into London to work as unpaid stewards during the diamond jubilee celebrations." Worse, they were told to sleep under London Bridge the night before the river pageant, had no access to toilets for 24 hours, and were taken to a swampy campsite outside London after working a 14-hour shift.

The security firm in question, Close Protection UK, was operating under the government's Work Programme, which attempts to make jobseekers more employable by offering them "work experience" with selected companies. It's important to note that the programme is voluntary and does not affect jobseekers keeping their benefits. But it's not hard to see why the story has provoked such outrage this morning. There is something Dickensian about the unemployed sleeping under London Bridge in order to guard a hereditary monarch. Blogger Eddie Gillard (who first broke the story) reports that "some had been told they would be paid for working and that they should 'Sign Off' benefits before starting, which turned out to be a falsehood, mistake or lie, I cannot say which." Given that the government allocated £1.5m for stewarding, it is unclear why some were left unpaid.

The hope in Downing Street is that the "feel-good-factor" created by the Jubilee will improve the Tories' dismal poll ratings (one poll yesterday put them 16 points behind Labour). It may yet do so. The Guardian's story was not picked up by the BBC or the Times, both in full royalist cry. But the accounts of workfare are a symptom of why Cameron will find it so difficult to rally an increasingly divided nation behind him.

Update: The BBC have belatedly covered the story under the guise of "Prescott urges inquiry into Jubilee work experience claims".

A security guard stands beneath a large screen in St James's Park prior to The Diamond Jubilee Concert. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Arsène Wenger. Credit: Getty
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My biggest regret of the Wenger era? How we, the fans, treated him at the end

Arsenal’s greatest coach deserved better treatment from the Club’s supporters. 

I have no coherent memories of Arsenal before Arsène Wenger, who will leave the Club at the end of the season. I am aware of the Club having a new manager, but my continuous memories of my team are of Wenger at the helm.

They were good years to remember: three league titles, seven FA Cups, the most of any single manager in English football. He leaves the Club as the most successful manager in its history.

I think one of the reasons why in recent years he has taken a pasting from Arsenal fans is that the world before him now seems unimaginable, and not just for those of us who can't really remember it. As he himself once said, it is hard to go back to sausages when you are used to caviar, and while the last few years cannot be seen as below par as far as the great sweep of Arsenal’s history goes, they were below par by the standards he himself had set. Not quite sausages, but not caviar either.

There was the period of financial restraint from 2005 onwards, in which the struggle to repay the cost of a new stadium meant missing out on top player. A team that combined promising young talent with the simply bang-average went nine years without a trophy. Those years had plenty of excitement: a 2-1 victory over Manchester United with late, late goals from Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry, a delicious 5-2 thumping of Tottenham Hotspur, and races for the Champions League that went to the last day. It was a time that seemed to hold the promise a second great age of Wenger once the debt was cleared. But instead of a return to the league triumphs of the past, Wenger’s second spree of trophy-winning was confined to the FA Cup. The club went from always being challenging for the league, to always finishing in the Champions League places, to struggling to finish in the top six. Again, nothing to be sniffed at, but short of his earlier triumphs.

If, as feels likely, Arsenal’s dire away form means the hunt for a Uefa Cup victory ends at Atletico Madrid, many will feel that Wenger missed a trick in not stepping down after his FA Cup triumph over Chelsea last year, in one of the most thrilling FA Cup Finals in years. (I particularly enjoyed this one as I watched it with my best man, a Chelsea fan.) 

No one could claim that this season was a good one, but the saddest thing for me was not the turgid performances away from home nor the limp exit from the FA Cup, nor even finishing below Tottenham again. It was hearing Arsenal fans, in the world-class stadium that Wenger built for us, booing and criticising him.

And I think, that, when we look back on Wenger’s transformation both of Arsenal and of English football in general, more than whether he should have called it a day a little earlier, we will wonder how Arsenal fans could have forgotten the achievements of a man who did so much for us.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.