The Labour Party’s purpose is to create and lead change. Not for its own sake, but change in line with the progressive passions and priorities that brought us in to our movement. That is why we are a party which restlessly seeks government, the lever by which we can deliver our goals. But we must not be mistaken in thinking that because we are out of office today we are totally without power. As politicians and political activists we can pressurise and persuade to change regulation, legislation, culture or practice. Politics may be unpopular, but it is the principal means by which we can exert influence on the issues we care about.
For that reason earlier this year Labour wrote to major employers throughout the country with a simple but potentially meaningful proposition – to offer veterans a guaranteed interview for appropriate vacancies. 22 companies, including o2, John Lewis and Wickes, agreed to increase support for service-leavers seeking work. This was not a guaranteed job, but a foot in the door. The scheme, the Veterans’ Interview Programme (VIP), was launched on 4th July and since then many other businesses and agencies have expressed an interest.
Our motive was rooted in the knowledge that while our country is brilliant at turning civilians in to soldiers we are not good enough at turning soldiers in to civilians. We wanted to increase opportunities for those who fight for their country to start a new life on their return, easing the transition from military to civilian life and enabling veterans to provide for a family or simply put food on the table. Skills learnt in the Armed Forces can make a hugely positive contribution to business and we wanted to break down the dual barriers of access to employment and employers’ perceptions of veterans which can be misunderstood.
For some time I have been talking to DWP about the scheme and today the DWP is rolling VIP out nationally. All employers will be able to register through Jobcentre Plus and when veterans seek work they will be directed to participating businesses by advisers. Jobcentre Plus will help employers implement the programme and veterans who could benefit will be sought out. This is potentially a significant policy shift which could help the lives of thousands of veterans at a challenging time of low growth and mass redundancies from the Forces.
I know some readers may wince at such praise for a government Department overseeing a painful programme of cuts to essential welfare support. But our anger at the social hurt caused by current DWP policy can sit alongside a recognition that it is a matter of all-party consensus that those who return from the frontline, including Afghanistan, should be shown more respect than be asked to join the back of the dole queue. If Labour can influence change for the better we should do so, which is why we have persuaded DWP to make VIP a national scheme.
One Nation Labour is rooted in the belief that that we must share prosperity, give everyone a stake in society and defend the institutions which bind us. The Armed Forces Covenant is the embodiment of one nation politics, protecting those who protect our country, ensuring they suffer no disadvantage as a result of service and recognising that the Armed Forces are central to our national character just as they are our national security. Labour has a strong track record of supporting Forces’ employment – Jobcentre Plus has a national network of Armed Forces Champions thanks to the last Labour Government. Today’s announcement builds on this and shows that respect and reward for the service community is at the heart of One Nation Labour.
It is important we take action now not just because of the challenges facing UK veterans but because it will be harder to persuade the nation we are agents of change in 2015 if we do not demonstrate today our desire and ability to turn ambitions in to realities. Labour can be a constructive force for change, whether through opposition against or co-operation with the Government, as policy-makers in our Councils or as community activists.
A national VIP scheme can be a great Labour legacy achieved from Opposition. The more such achievements we seek to build from Opposition the more likely we are to be able to build a legacy from government.
Jim Murphy is the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence