Dear Rachel Reeves MP,
I have been a Labour member for four years now. I’ve got no idea how and why I’ve lasted for so long but I think I’ve got friends and comrades to thank for that. I lived through being a yes voting Labour member in the Scottish independence referendum, I survived the election of ruthless pragmatist and Blairite Jim Murphy as leader of the Scottish Labour Party and I will probably survive your interview to the Guardian today after getting a few things out in the open. I have on many occasions campaigned for the Labour Party, when I’d rather be doing other things. I have stood and put leaflets through doors in the pouring rain in Fife in November. I have worked through one of the hottest and warmest days of the year, putting leaflets through doors in Renfrewshire. I’ve dedicated a large chunk of my life to the Labour Party. When you said this today, I almost spat out my tea in disbelief:
“We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work,”
For the last six weeks, I have been unemployed. It isn’t the first time I’ve been unemployed. After graduating from university last year, I was unemployed for around two months. I didn’t claim Job Seeker’s Allowance because I had some money to keep me going. Thankfully I found a job quickly after graduating. But, it was only a six month, fixed term contract. This has now, sadly, come to an end. I am of the opinion that the Jobcentre make claiming benefits as miserable and as difficult as possible to get people into work as quickly as possible. It isn’t a pleasant experience, being on Job Seeker’s Allowance. There is a constant threat of being sanctioned. The experience of being in the job centre is totally demoralising. Job coaches are unhelpful- there is no uniform way to deal with people. Being unemployed begins to affect your mental health after a while, you begin to feel useless, you begin to find little point in putting clean clothes on when you wake up in the morning.
This is the harsh reality of the labour market today and what your interview showed was a concerning lack of knowledge. Given that you are the shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, this is terribly worrying.
It is becoming rare to find a permanent job today. Most public sector jobs are advertised as temporary so that temporary workers do not get the same rights as a permanent worker. Their contracts are often renewed, but there is growing uncertainty over whether or not workers will still be in a job in six months’ time. There is also a huge number of people on zero hour contracts- where people can still claim job seekers allowance if they are working less than sixteen hours per week. Are these people represented by the Labour Party? They are both in work and claiming benefits. How does that compute?
If the Labour Party does not represent people who are out of work, then what party does? If the Labour Party does not represent people who are temporarily unable to participate in the labour market through no fault of their own, then what party will? In this interview, you have pandered to right wing and neo liberal forces on welfare and social security discourse, that benefit claimants are lazy and feckless. If someone is being prevented from participating in the labour market then this is not the fault of the claimant. It is the fault of the market forces, it is the fault of the market determining employment and labour market figures, rather than the government.
Where Labour gets it right is identifying the link between the Tories’ disastrous handling of the Department of Work and Pensions and the rising number of people turning to food banks and the experience of unemployed people at the jobcentre. Labour has to reform this. They do not go far enough. Sanctions should not simply be reduced, but they should be banned altogether. Sanctions deprive people of basic human necessities such as heating, food and shelter- having a passport benefit such as JSA or ESA stopped has a knock on effect to housing benefit and can take months to be sorted out.
Ms Reeves, you say in your interview that you would never use language like “scroungers or shirkers” but by saying Labour is not the party of people who are out of work, that is what you are essentially doing.
Labour needs a radical new direction when it comes to social security policy. The Labour Party should be standing up for people who are out of work- we often lack the economic capital to do so ourselves and they also must realise that just because someone is out of paid work, does not make them any less of a worker and to suggest so is demoralising and borderline offensive. The scale of unemployment and underemployment should cause anger amongst the Labour benches. There needs to be good, permanent and well paid jobs across Britain.
Yes, the Labour Party was formed by working people, but it was not formed to reflect the interests of just working people, it was formed to reflect the interests of working class people. Pandering to middle England saying that Labour does not represent people out of work completely goes against the class politics the Labour Party was founded upon. You do not need to be in work to be working class.