What is Liam Byrne playing at? There has been exasperation and annoyance that Labour MPs were instructed to abstain on last night’s DWP Commons vote. This was to retrospectively revoke workfare recipients’ right to claim compensation in light of the so-called Poundland ruling. Readers will recall IDS and his minions fell foul of an especially badly-worded set of rules that sanction dole recipients who "refuse" to take up compulsory work experience “opportunities”. It was a classic case of Tory incompetence and the DWP looked set to pay out approximately £500 to 230,000 JSA recipients who had been penalised under the regime. It would have cost a couple of hundred million.
Last night’s vote was IDS desperately scrambling to clarify the rules and retrospectively amend the act to avoid the pay out. It was a grubby subversion of the court’s ruling and will come as a kick in the teeth to some of our poorest people. So why did Liam Byrne insist Labour give the government a free pass by convincing the leader’s office to whip an abstention?
Unfortunately, the two articles setting out the DWP shadow’s thinking in advance are practically inscrutable. The official justification for the PLP's official position turns mainly on technical as opposed to political arguments.
First, there is the principle of sanctioning social security recipients if they do not meet expectations under the rules. All throughout the New Labour years these measures were enthusiastically embraced by a succession of DWP ministers. So it continues under Ed's One Nationism, although the intention is to marry the responsibilities that come with JSA to the right to a guaranteed job after six months. As far as Liam is concerned, the abstention reaffirms a principle present in social security going back to the initial legislation in 1911, while making plain Labour's displeasure at the Department's incompetence.
So, is that it? A technicality? No. While the only politics in the two pieces contain are found in his attacks on the government's complacency over jobs and unemployment, it's what goes unsaid that matters. After all, as Freud liked to observe, absences can be as equally significant. The last big Tory cock-up - the West Coast Rail Line franchise fiasco - will empty the Treasury to the tune of £50m. Making good the court judgement would cost substantially more. The problem is politically, it would appear the leadership have made a calculation. The real term cuts to JSA and ESA between now and 2015 has proven far less popular than the government thinks. But, unfortunately, this does not mean the public have done an about turn on attitudes towards unemployment. The tendency to hold unemployed people responsible for their circumstances remains strong, and the obligation that they should "do something" for their dole commands majority support. In the toxic and febrile social security "debate", having Labour seen to be urging the government to fork millions out to the "undeserving" poor is a triangulator's nightmare. Sticking up for the "skivers" costs votes.
This is political reasoning at its coldest. But it could have been different. As part of the unending policy review, Labour is trying to rethink the welfare state. The announcements on the jobs guarantee and stronger emphasis on the contributory principle signpost the direction of travel, and a 'One Nation' social security system is looking like a great deal will be owed to social contract thinking. But winning support for this demands benefit bashing be resisted. A balanced system that can meet need cannot be built when the policy and political environment around it is bounded on all sides by tabloid hysteria. Labour have to seek to lead public opinion, not reactively bend with it and, unfortunately, last night's whipped abstention was a fortuitous opportunity lost to begin changing the welfare conversation.