Workfare Not the Olympics is the Legacy of Britain in 2012

13/08/2012 13:06 BST | Updated 11/10/2012 10:12 BST

For the past two weeks Britain has been engaged in something akin to a group hug over the success of the London Olympics and the achievement of Team GB in amassing enough medals to make us seem a nation of winners. This has been reflected in the BBC's blanket coverage of the event, which early on abandoned objectivity for jingoism to the point where on day eight of the Games, when Team GB won six golds, you could have been forgiven for expecting a squadron of Lancaster bombers to come flying over the Olympic stadium accompanied by the theme from Dambusters.

The uplift the Games have given to the nation is undeniable, as has been the extent to which the likes of David Cameron, Boris Johnson and the government as a whole have sought to extract as much political capital from this event as they possibly can. Cameron in particular would appear to have lost any and all sense of perspective as he sets about using the event as a launch pad for the promotion of competitive sport in schools, equating Britain's future prosperity with sustained Olympics success. Running faster, throwing farther, and jumping higher are the ingredients of a healthy society all of a sudden, one in which everything will be rosy and bright if we can just harness the competitive spirit and achievements of Team GB as the template for the next generation to follow.

This of course chimes with the fulminating one nation Tory 'we're all in this together' mantra of the current government, the very same it's been spouting since entering Number 10 two years ago whereupon it set about implementing the vast experiment in human despair it has the gall to describe as an economic policy.

The disconnect between the world of sporting heroes portrayed on our TV screens and covering the front and back pages of the nation's newspapers these past two weeks and the reality of the misery and despair which daily engulfs the lives of more and more people was made stark at the High Court last week. There Cat Reilly and Jamieson Wilson, both from Birmingham, learned from Mr Justice Foskett that workfare - the scheme whereby people claiming Jobseekers Allowance are compelled to work in return for their benefits - is not a violation of the litigants' human rights and does not constitute slave labour.

The importance of this decision, whilst overshadowed by the Olympics, cannot be overstated. It impacts tens of thousands of people up and down the country, currently working for their benefits in charity shops, supermarkets, and other assorted workplaces, where they are typically engaged in menial tasks designed to acquaint or reacquaint them with the world of work regardless of age, qualifications, and/or individual career goals.

The controversy surrounding the scheme, highlighted by campaigners earlier this year, has forced some businesses to back out, fearing the bad publicity that has come to be associated with it. Though trumpeted as providing invaluable work experience to the long term unemployed, the scheme's opponents allege that it is merely a source of cheap labour for employers and a form of punishment being meted out to those claiming benefits. In this regard workfare fits in with the philosophical bent of the Tories, for whom society is defined by the deserving rich at one end of the spectrum and the undeserving poor at the other.

Cat Reilly, a university graduate, was volunteering at a museum before being forced onto an unpaid work scheme at Poundland for a period of six weeks, where she claimed she spent her time cleaning and stacking shelves. Jamieson Wilson, unemployed since 2008, was informed that he must complete 30 hours of unpaid work every week for six months or else lose his JSA for up to 26 weeks. He refused and had his benefits stopped, forcing the father of three to live on the charity of family and friends.

While Justice Foskett did acknowledge that the DWP had made errors in the way it communicated details of the work programme - the right in the case of Reilly to opt out for example - and sanctions if the claimants refused to take part, he refuted the allegation that it amounted to forced labour. Here he focused on a somewhat quixotic interpretation of Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), prohibiting forced labour and slavery. Instead of understanding Article 4 as a constitutional protection against the aforementioned, he chose instead to focus on its association with the colonial exploitation by a state of a subject people. Given that the European Convention on Human Rights was drafted just after the Second World War, with Article 4 framed in that context, this interpretation is clearly a narrow one.

In his ruling, the judge stated, "The convention is, of course, a living instrument, capable of development to meet modern conditions, and views may reasonably differ about the merits of a scheme that requires individuals to 'work for their benefits' as a means of assisting them back into the workplace."

Predictably, the government was delighted with the ruling. A spokesman for the DWP said, "Comparing our initiatives to slave labour is not only ridiculous but insulting to people around the world facing real oppression."

Also delighted was the usual chorus of right wing commentators for whom the unemployed need whipped into shape and are suffering not from an economic policy which has deepened the recession rather than reversed it, but from nothing more serious than moral turpitude. Among the many words condemning those who brought the High Court action, this from Dominique Jackson writing in her blog for the Daily Mail on July 4 deserves pride of place.

"The German slogan 'Arbeit Macht Frei' is somewhat tainted by its connection with Nazi concentration camps, but its essential message, 'work sets you free' still has something serious to commend it."

These clearly can only be the words of someone who long ago swapped their moral compass for a mince pie.

In the midst of Olympics fever young people in Britain are being inculcated with the belief that they can be the next Jessica Ennis or Chris Hoy if only they dedicate themselves to the task. The energy being expended by Cameron and co in spreading this message calls to mind Bertolt Brecht's dictum: 'Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.'

Moreover, given the increasingly vicious attacks on the poor and the unemployed in the country, Britain increasingly becomes a nation more in need of the next Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin than either of the aforementioned Olympians.

As they say, 'they that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.'