Leveson, Workfare: Labour’s Double Betrayal

Oh, there was such hope at first. But Labour have done two things this week that made me seriously consider whether it’s worth voting for them any more.

First, Labour has conspired to implement state regulation of the media, which would impact upon not just Murdoch’s evil empire, but also small publishers, bloggers and websites. As the NYT puts it:

The parties agreed to replace the newspaper industry’s self-regulating body with an independent agency that could levy fines of up to £1 million, or $1.5 million, order editors to issue prominent corrections and provide arbitration for people who believed they had been wronged by the press. Publishers who do not agree to subject themselves to the jurisdiction of this body — and many have already said they will not — could still take their chances in court but could be hit with higher, punitive fines if they were found liable.

Prime Minister David Cameron has argued that the plan will keep the press free because it will be enacted through a royal charter, which is technically not a law because it is formally issued by the queen, not Parliament. But that is a distinction largely without substance. In reality the proposal would effectively create a system of government regulation of Britain’s vibrant free press, something that has not happened since 1695, when licensing of newspapers was abolished. But the proposals do not stop there. Lawyers who have looked at the proposal say it would also cover Internet news and opinion sites outside the country that could be read in Britain.

Hang on, though: isn’t Leveson about protecting people from the excesses of Britain’s tabloid culture? Certainly Ed played it that way. Miliband’s leadership is defined by Leveson and initially, sure, I think he was brave to break with Murdoch at the height of the phone hacking scandal. But censorship never comes to the ball as censorship and there is a reason serious people are worried about this. Kenan Malik explains why this is a bad precedent:

To those who insist that the regulator will wish to curb only the obnoxious practices by which we are all appalled, I would suggest that they study the history of every recent law restraining liberties. From the Public Order Act to the Regulation of Investigatory Power Act (RIPA), every such piece of legislation has, once on the statute books, vastly expanded in scope, and been used for restricting speech and actions far beyond that for which it was originally intended; collectively, this expansion has had a chilling effect on liberties.

But this week Labour delivered a double blow. As well as showing it didn’t care about liberal freedoms, Labour also gave a derisive salute to its struggling heartlands. The story begins way back when the geology graduate Cait Reilly took the government to court, after she was yanked off a voluntary placement to work unpaid in Poundland. Reilly took a lot of shit for this (her co claimant didn’t appear in much of the coverage, possibly because as a middle aged ex haulier he was harder to portray as a pampered ‘job snob’) but eventually the Appeal Court ruled in her favour. The DWP faced having to pay out millions to claimants wrongly sanctioned for not attending workfare placements. Iain Duncan Smith’s workfare schemes are worthless, both in terms of GDP, and in terms of finding people work. He lost the argument and lost the case. But instead of taking his defeat like a man, the Secretary of State rushed through retrospective legislation to avoid the big payout. And Labour stood by with folded arms.

Premier welfare blogger Johnny Void takes up the story:

The nasty little bill rushed through Parliament by IDS means that money illegally taken from claimants who were wrongly sanctioned will now not be paid back. This shocking move, which has even appalled right wing think tanks, means there is no longer any real point in taking the government to court as they can simply backdate changes to the law – seemingly with cross party support – to avoid any consequences resulting from their crimes.

The Labour Leadership could have stalled the timing of this bill until it had proper scrutiny. They could at the very least have voted against it. But instead they chose mass apathy, with just 44 Labour MPs defying Liam Byrne and voting with their consciences.

In a squirming piece on the Labour List website, Byrne claims that benefit sanctions were ruled illegal simply because Iain Duncan Smith bungled the legislation when he introduced workfare. The truth is that this is only half the story as Byrne himself well knows.

The judgement which ruled many workfare schemes, and the benefit sanctions which resulted from them illegal, was about much more than poorly drafted laws. The Appeal Court judgement also slammed the information given to claimants as inadequate, warning it was ‘unclear and opaque’ with one judge stating ‘the answer to my mind is plainly that there could be no question of sanctions being validly imposed if no proper notice of the sanction consequences was given.’

Simply put, claimants were not given the correct information about what would happen if they didn’t attend workfare. And many lost vital benefits as a result, plunging them into immediate poverty and in some cases probably facing homelessness.

No issue better illustrates the disconnect between the political class and the public. IDS’s legislation was a mean-spirited fuck you to the strivers, the struggling precariat, working class people looking for work in a stagnant job market, graduates entering the real world without the certainties and safety net enjoyed by their parents. Labour lost more support than it knew.

I have always voted whenever given the opportunity, but am seriously wondering whether there is a point now. Is it responsible of me to help the people who devise and implement these policies? If I lose my job, should I have to work unpaid for a failing retail chain, removing a paid job from someone else, and wasting time when I could be looking for an actual paid job for myself? Should I have to go bankrupt and my WordPress blog shut down because of some vexatious complaint from Milo Yiannopoulos, Stephen Leather or the BWA?

The conservative journalist Willard Foxton said it best: ‘Congratulations to the Labour Party on managing to fuck the country even when out of power.’


[Humorous caption pending assessment from Leveson Web Images (Amusement and Jocularity) Sub-Committee]

(Image: Telegraph)


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