This is a tale of two campaigns. One succeeded this week in the most spectacular victory over Tory ministers since the poll tax; the other was swept away from the streets like so much litter. There are interesting lessons from both.
Let’s take Occupy St Paul’s first, removed from their tents by the City of London Police in the early hours. Rev. Giles Fraser, the former canon who invited the protestors to pitch their tents at St Paul’s, said ‘you cannot evict an idea’. But this highlights the reason for their failure: there was no idea. There were as many disparate ideas as tents, ranging from the vaguely laudable to the downright dangerous. They lacked a coherent strategy, leadership, articulate spokespeople, clear demands, compelling messages and any links to organised labour. They did, however, have composting. Their public relations effort was not helped by tales of British Legion poppy sellers being barracked as ‘warmongers’ and stories of defecation in the cathedral. By the end, the Hunter wellie brigade had gone home to Shoreditch, not before arranging to meet up at Glasto. What they left behind were the most vulnerable and desperate of London’s underclass: homeless people, people with multiple addictions, and mental health problems. The walkways around St Paul’s have been returned to the worshippers and workers, and the memory of Occupy will have faded within months.
The other campaign, Right to Work, must be reeling by their success in forcing Chris Grayling to remove the sanctions against those benefits claimants who fail to turn up for their work experience. They should be popping the champagne corks, if champagne were not such a bourgeois affectation. Right to Work, as any fule kno, is a front for the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), with various other of the far-left groupings in tow. Chris Bamber, one of its organisers, recently split from the SWP after 30-plus years, to form, in true Trotskyist fashion, his own revolutionary party in Scotland. The backbone of the campaign is the SWP’s membership, and its political direction comes from the central committee of the SWP. If you look, it’s obvious they also share a web designer.
For the SWP, success must come as something of a surprise. After years of failing to prevent New Labour, or the war in Iraq, or the spread of capitalism, to actually win something must feel strange. But won they have. Their central demand – that benefits should be paid to people on work experience, regardless of whether they turn up or not – has been met in full, much to everyone’s surprise. It’s worth unpicking what has happened.
Politicians and journalists have been falling over themselves in recent days to describe their first experience of work, the dirtier the better. Powder monkey on a Man O’ War, trapper down a coal mine, chimney sweep, operator of a Spinning Jenny, it seems our political class has done them all. Liam Byrne has worked in McDonalds, Dan Hodges was been a scene-shifter at the Old Vic. I did my work experience on a local newspaper, where I learned how to operate a manual type-writer, how to use carbon paper, what chemicals are used in a darkroom and other soon-to-be-useless skills.
Of course work experience is a valuable thing. Just the act of having to get dressed and washed and arrive somewhere by a certain time is a useful experience. The worse thing about being unemployed, apart from daytime television, is the disconnect from the world of work. The longer the disconnection lasts, the further away it gets. So schemes which put people into the world of work are a useful first step (alongside the macro-economic policies to deliver jobs, but that’s another story.)
What Right to Work achieved was to present the government’s work experience scheme as the wrong side of a line marked ‘fairness’. The absence of wages, and the sanction of a stoppage of benefits, were presented as modern-day slavery. Other, better, writers than me, have done to death the notion of ‘slavery’ as applied to stock-checking in supermarkets. But the campaign’s use of digital media and direct action, coupled with evocative, emotional language, was compelling. It stuck in the public mind, with clarity and impact. It was straight from the pages of the Political Brain by Drew Weston, which explains why emotion trumps reason every time in political communications. I spoke to a PR manager from one big firm involved in the government’s apprenticeship scheme this week, genuinely worried that their good intentions would be twisted into a picture of Victorian exploitation. Once the big companies started to wobble, ministers were bound to follow.
But what about the element of compulsion? The benefits system was designed to apply sanctions to those receiving unemployment benefits. William Beveridge wanted work camps for those refusing to seek a job. If you fail to turn up to the Job Centre, without a very good reason, they stop your benefits. Everyone at the top of the Labour Party, from Clement Attlee to Gordon Brown, has supported the idea that unemployment benefit should be paid, on condition that the recipient is trying to find a job. The other side of the coin is that governments should provide full employment, which Beveridge was at pains to stress as he launched his system of social insurance, and Liam Byrne has repeated until blue in the face. Tory ministers have historically broken the covenant by failing to provide full employment. Now they have removed, in part, the reciprocity inherent in one area of welfare.
That means that an unemployed person, offered a job with a major retailer or caterer, knows they will get their money whether they turn up or not. The experience of work has been turned on its head. Right to Work should rename themselves the Right Not to Turn Up to Work (RNTTUTW). Their victory must taste sweet, except for the thousands they’ve just condemned to a life on the dole.