A wee guest this morning from Duncan Hothersall on the Westminster workfare vote. Duncan’s a Labour member who (he says) talks too much on Twitter. He used to be big in LGBT rights, now he dabbles in broader politics. He helps to run Scottish Fabians, a left-leaning members-led think tank, blogs less often than he’d like to for various sites including Labour Hame and Bella Caledonia, and eschews the description “unionist” despite favouring Scotland remaining within the UK. In real life he works in online education.

Liam ByrneYesterday evening the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party in Westminster followed instructions and abstained on a vote about the government’s widely disliked workfare scheme. Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne is not a popular figure on the left – or even in the centre – and if anything the list of rebels who voted against was smaller than might be expected.

After all, it is not hard to understand the principle that work without pay is immoral, anathema to Labour values, and Labour should oppose it at all costs.

And indeed the wailing and gnashing of teeth has been loud and long, and Byrne is probably only spared a more vicious bout of in-fighting by virtue of the fact that the budget will take over the headlines tomorrow.

But why would Labour fail to oppose workfare? Why would we abstain on a measure which is clearly an undermining of the fundamental right to fair pay? The answer, it seems to me, is that this vote was not about workfare or the right to fair pay. It was, as real life often is, far more complex, and messy, than a choice between right and wrong.

First of all, we need to remember that last month’s judgement by the Court of Appeal did not rule workfare to be forced labour, for all the rejoicing at the outcome. In fact the court ruled substantially in the government’s favour, only failing them on how they described the schemes in regulations. So far from welcoming this judgement, we should have been regretting it, because all the government needed to do was change the regulations – which they did the very same day – and then work out how to avoid repaying docked benefits, which was always going to be relatively easy for a government with a working majority.

And that solution – not workfare as a whole, not the principle of withholding benefits, just the issue of avoiding repaying previously docked benefits – was the subject of yesterday evening’s vote. So Labour did not abstain from a yes/no vote on workfare after all. Workfare is already in place, and the result of the vote would not have changed that.

Byrne has been criticised most vocally for asserting that Labour agrees with the principle that the DWP should have the power to impose sanctions. This has been painted as a shift to Tory ground. But in reality, Labour’s flagship programmes of recent decades – including the widely praised New Deal – had sanction provisions. This is no change in Labour policy, and those making hay out of it now must surely know that.

Messiest of all, Byrne believed he could, in return for abstention, secure concessions from IDS which flat-out opposition would not achieve. Among them, he sought a guarantee that wrongly sanctioned JSA claimants could still appeal that decision. And he asked for an independent review of the sanctions regime, to report to parliament quickly. Most significantly, he called for a Real Jobs Guarantee for young people, involving a paid job for six months, rather than unpaid workfare. It remains to be seen whether these concessions have been achieved, but they are surely worthy aims.

There is no question that yesterday evening’s vote didn’t look good, and those who want to will be able to make trouble within the party over it. And Liam Byrne may quite reasonably be unpopular for past choices. But if we are to debate the rights and wrongs, let us at least do so with reason. This was not a vote in favour of unpaid workfare; it was abstention on an issue the government would win anyway, in order to try to achieve a slightly better outcome for those affected.

That’s not a great soundbite, is it. But aren’t we always saying how much we hate soundbite politics? Here is politics in the raw. It’s an ugly thing and people get hurt by it. Let’s make sure we argue it honestly, and place the blame correctly.