Labour Party conference is in town, and it’s fascinating in a way it hasn’t been for decades. Here are a few more words on how I see things developing. As I said before, now that we live in a world where six impossible things can happen before breakfast, I think it’s foolish to be too certain about anything – all my conclusions are tentative.
Let’s not mistake debate for division
I went to the Red Pepper fringe meeting last night, which was a really interesting discussion about the future of social movements, with Corbyn in the leadership of the Labour Party. There were excellent contributions from a range of thinkers and activists on the platform – most impressively, in my view, Neal Lawson of Compass and Ewa Jasiewicz, whose track record as an activist and organiser is phenomenal. She is involved in Fuel Poverty Action, Reclaim the Power and is now a Unite union organiser, working with hotel workers.
Ewa talked about the way Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had been stalwart supporters of all the campaigns she’s worked on – they would turn up at the demos, put down Early Day Motions in Parliament, listen to and represent campaigners. To have people like that on the opposition front bench is a scenario none of us predicted, only a few months ago. Ewa clearly wants to offer them support in return, to defend them against the onslaught from the media and the right wing within Labour – but she is still undecided about whether joining the party is the best way to do that.
Neal Lawson told an oft-repeated story about Roosevelt, lobbied by union leaders soon after he became president, who concluded the meeting by saying “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Neal’s point was that progressive political change always happens because of popular pressure. Corbyn’s leadership relies on the massive wave of popular support he has attracted, and we have to keep that pressure up to keep him afloat.
Neal also spoke about the old ideas about vanguard leadership having been swept away. He said Facebook has replaced the factory as a location for communication and organising. Far from the masses needing to be mobilised and led by tactical thinkers, the wave now carries everyone and everything before it. A good social media campaign, such as the one that supported Corbyn’s leadership bid, is about making space for discussion, sharing resources and tools, and empowering people to take action, not about broadcasting the line.
If anyone thinks that “we” – whether that means Corbyn’s team, the activist left, the left within the Labour Party, or any defined group of people that can agree on a course of action and carry it out – can control what happens next, they are sadly mistaken.
It seems to me that there might be more than one right thing to do now. If Corbyn’s leadership has brought the Labour Party back to its rightful position as part of the wider labour and social justice movement, then that movement needs to remain vibrant, diverse, autonomous and challenging.
If the debate turns inwards, all is lost
Over 60,000 people have joined the Labour Party since Corbyn was elected leader. Together with the thousands who joined during the leadership election campaign, these new members have a unique opportunity to give the party’s culture a much needed overhaul.
But cultures are resilient things, and there is a grave danger that instead, the new members will be “ground down with endless canvassing and procedures”, as Anthony Barnett warns in this excellent piece today.
Worse, they may find themselves sucked in and spat out, exhausted, by a vicious internal debate, as the new leadership’s policies bump up against the habits and preferences of unaltered local leaderships around the country.
I think the recent experience of socialists in the Green Party in Brighton is a timely warning. The party’s surprise success in the 2011 local elections turned its internal debates into damaging divisions. As I said in 2013, the ensuing focus of the Green left on winning arguments within the party left campaigners outside feeling abandoned and ignored. At a time when we hoped for real resistance to the assault on local government, with some of our people on the inside, our allies in the party switched their focus to an internal battle which they were unable to win.
As an alternative to this unappealing prospect, I was pleased to see this initative by Red Pepper, to build a network of anti-austerity activists committed to working together within and outside the Labour Party.
Can Brighton show the way?
In many ways, the success of Corbyn’s campaign was prefigured in Brighton. In 2010 we elected – against all odds – the first Green MP ever elected under First Past the Post. In 2011, Brighton & Hove voters surprised everyone by electing more Green councillors than representatives of any other party. In 2015, we bucked the trend again, returning one Labour and one Green MP to Parliament, amidst a sea of blue in the rest of the South East.
Caroline Lucas’s increased majority was built on her reputation for straight talking, honest politics, her commitment to clear principles and her untiring hard work as a constituency MP. She, like Jeremy Corbyn, has not forgotten her roots in the activist movement, and has been prepared to stand – and sit – with us on the streets as well as in Parliament.
The wave that swept Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party began to swell in 2009 with the expenses scandal. It gained momentum in Brighton, with those unprecedented Green victories, and elsewhere took a more frightening form, with the growth of UKIP. It brought down the News of the World and is painfully unravelling the dark web of abuse at the heart of the political establishment. It forced the BBC to include the Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru in the 2015 general election televised debates – bringing anti-austerity arguments to more people than ever before.
Corbyn’s extraordinary success is built on all these extraordinary happenings, driven by the hunger of British people for justice.
The result of the 2015 general election was a blow to that sense of justice and the reaction has been powerful. In Brighton, hundreds more people have begun to take action on a whole range of issues, raising money for refugees, organising events on climate change, thinking about new forms of democracy, calling for an end to the housing crisis and challenging political parties to work together for the common good.
Brighton People’s Assembly against Austerity is one strand in this fast-developing movement. Everyone is invited to the next People’s Assembly meeting on October 7th, to talk about how we can work together to have maximum impact locally. I hope members of all progressive parties – and none – will join the discussion.
Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party.
I’m still having to repeat it to myself occasionally to remind myself that it’s true. And I think none of us yet knows what it really means.
For the whole of my adult life, I’ve been wishing for a Labour Party leadership that really stood up for the interests of working class people. I’ve been part of lots of campaigns and movements that have been hampered by the fact that we didn’t have that kind of representation and support in Parliament.
Over the last five years, its absence has been acutely galling – as disabled people, women, benefit claimants, immigrants, tenants, the NHS and public services have faced attacks that left thousands despairing, while the Labour Party meekly acquiesced.
So the overwhelming election of Jeremy Corbyn is an incredible boost for everyone that has been campaigning against austerity. It gives us a much louder voice in Parliament and shatters the Westminster consensus, giving courage to many within the Labour Party whose natural inclination to speak out against the unjust austerity regime has been stifled by their wish to remain loyal to their party.
Of course, Corbyn has a fight on his hands in the Parliamentary Labour Party. He’s going to need the backing of the massive wave of supporters that swept him to the front bench.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t believe anybody does – we are in uncharted territory. Although it’s tempting to come up with a bunch of predictions and prescriptions, I think it’s too soon to say what’s likely or possible, or to advise anyone about what they ought to be doing now.
So my observations are tentative and incomplete, and possibly contradictory.
The Labour Party needs to be redesigned from the bottom up
It needs to turn away from a narrow focus on electoral campaigning and develop an open, outward-looking and democratic culture. Policies must be determined by members, not handed down from above.
If this doesn’t happen quickly, many of those new members will drift away. Here’s some good advice for Jeremy Corbyn, from Compass.
The Labour Party should be the political wing of the wider anti-austerity movement
That means we need to keep campaigning on the issues that are affecting people now, and welcome Labour Party members, old and new, to work alongside us.
Jeremy Corbyn has always believed in the power of protest to force political change. He was right.
Corbyn’s base is in the activist movements whose members have had to get used to working round the Labour Party, not through it. But the Labour Party and the activists can no longer afford to ignore each other. The adjustment will be tricky on both sides.
Rather than angrily standing outside the Town Hall while Labour councillors vote to make people on benefits pay 67% more council tax, for example, can we shift their position from within the Labour Party? I truly don’t know – we never succeeded in doing this in the 1980s and 90s, when the party’s structures were nominally much more democratic than they are now. On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn was never leader of the Labour Party then, so who knows?
Climate change remains a global emergency
In the leadership election campaign, Corbyn said that as leader he “would establish an Energy Commission to draft a fundamental shift in UK energy thinking.” He should appoint Caroline Lucas to chair it.
In Brighton, Labour and Greens need to start working together
There have been some excellent steps towards this, initiated by Brighton & Hove Compass. I hope that Corbyn’s election, and Caroline Lucas’s positive response to it will give a boost to these initial ideas. For local party politics, this is the key problem that needs to be resolved.
As the cuts bite deeper, progressive voters (many of whom were part of the Corbyn wave) have less and less patience for turf wars and point scoring between Labour and Green councillors.
Labour will benefit from a big influx of members in Brighton, as elsewhere, in the wake of Corbyn’s election. But they will have to accept that many of these members will continue to vote, and even campaign, for Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion. That is the nature of the new style of politics, and I think we all have a lot to gain by embracing it.
So I went to Calais as part of the Critical Mass to Calais bike ride last weekend.
A week later, I am no closer to having anything coherent to say about it, but I thought I would put down some of the disjointed ideas it sparked anyway.
As David Charles pointed out in his excellent piece about the bike ride, cycling is not the most efficient way to get bikes from London to Calais. But the process of travelling there under (to some extent) our own steam gave me plenty of time to think about what such journeys mean for people in different circumstances.
I spent some days thinking about what to take with me, trying to imagine what I would need and what would be unnecessary weight on my bike. Everyone planning a long journey must make decisions like this, especially if their journey is on foot or by bike.
It is quite a satisfying experience, to pack your bags well and efficiently, to know where to find the things you need along the way, to be pleased with what you have brought and what you have left behind. But I was haunted by the thought of people packing for a journey they could not imagine and could not prepare for. I thought about what that process would feel like if every decision brought with it a pang of sorrow.
Before I left, lots of people told me I was doing a great thing. My journey was admirable. I realised that for people like me, travel is always to be admired. Even if I had been heading off on a holiday, people would have been pleased with me, congratulated me on my spirit of adventure. Our culture celebrates exploration, exertion and discovery.
In Kent, our route incorporated paths and roads now marked as the Pilgrim’s Way, a reminder of an older tradition of journeys made for the sake of journeying, and in the hope of hospitality along the way.
But for the people we met in Calais, and those trapped in Greece and Hungary, hospitality and admiration have been much harder to find.
Refugees and migrants
Nearly all the people we saw at the camp in Calais were young men. 90% of those stuck there are men, though I did see a young child in the brief time I spent there.
When I say young men, I mean very young. I spoke with one young man who was probably no older than my daughter, about to set off on her own big adventure to university in a couple of weeks’ time. He told me he wanted to reach the UK, so that he could work and send money back to support his family in Sudan.
I think Paul Mason is right in this piece, when he says that the distinctions between people fleeing war and poverty are increasingly meaningless.
Why is getting on your bike to find work the right thing to do if you are unemployed in the north of England, but the wrong thing if you are in Sudan? (clue: racism)
Charity and solidarity
The spontaneous mass movement of people all across Europe wanting to welcome refugees and share their belongings, and even homes, with them has been astonishing.
Just as the political institutions of Europe are being swept away by the sheer numbers of people arriving, so the power of the media to determine public opinion is being undermined by the swifter and deeper communication of Facebook.
As this excellent piece by Plan C describes, there is not a clear distinction between charity on one hand and political pressure on the other. David Cameron has been forced to shift his position in just a couple of days. All four Labour leadership candidates declared themselves in support of offering sanctuary to more refugees in the Sky News debate on Thursday, in terms that would have been unutterable by most Labour candidates before the election.
The camp at Calais is hardly built at all. All the buildings are made of wood and tarpaulin, those that are not simply tents. There is a tap, but no sanitation to speak of. When it rained on Sunday night (after I had left), many structures were simply washed away.
And yet, there are systems. There are roads. There is a shop and a cafe. There is a church, a mosque, a library and a school. There are neighbourhoods, marked with signs showing the countries where people have come from – Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia. People make society, whatever their circumstances.
I didn’t take any photos on my trip. Here is a photo album taken on the same day by Natasha Quarmby, who was careful not to compromise anyone’s immigration claim or exploit their plight for sentimental or campaigning purposes.
I’m glad I went. I wish I had stayed longer in the camp (as it turned out, my ferry didn’t leave for another six hours, so I could have done). I hope we can keep up the pressure on the governments of Europe long enough to make a real change for everyone who needs a safe haven here.
There have been a series of leaks and announcements in the past few days, as the government prepares to unleash its emergency budget on us on Wednesday. Amidst the rumoured horrors of cuts to tax credits, lowering of the benefit cap, abolition of the work related activity group and a new system of housing benefit that will never cover your rent, I spotted two – seemingly minor – announcements, which give us a clue as to why the Tories are confident enough to be pushing through with this smash & grab on the welfare state.
Printing the cost of medicines on the packaging
Jeremy Hunt has announced that from next year, all prescription medicines will be marked with ‘funded by the taxpayer’ and medicines costing over £20 will also show this price on the label.
The official reason for this move is apparently to encourage people to take their medicine. I’m not sure I understand how this is supposed to work – I guess on the basis that people only value things if they know the price of them – but it doesn’t really matter, as this is of course not the real reason.
Some people have (not surprisingly) interpreted this as a personal attack on them – not only do they have to put up with being chronically sick and dependent on medicines, but now they are expected to feel guilty about it too! The originators of this petition, for example, point out this and several other drawbacks to the plan, and come up with a few better suggestions for dealing with the purported problem of wasted drugs. But that’s not the real reason either.
No, Jeremy Hunt himself told us the reason on Question Time last week. In answer to a question about whether patients should be charged for missing GP appointments, he said:
“I think in practical terms it could be difficult to do, but I’ve taken a step towards that this week by announcing that when people do miss an appointment they will be told how much that’s cost the NHS.”
There you have it, from the horse’s mouth. Telling people the cost of something is a step towards charging them that cost.
This is not the first step towards charging people for their prescription medicines. Prescription charges, introduced by the Tories in 1952, were the first step. Until the late 1970s, these were very low (they were increased to 20p in 1971), but they were increased rapidly under the Thatcher government. Even an administrative charge undermines the whole concept of a free service, as Aneurin Bevan understood very well, when he resigned from the Labour government (in part over this issue) in 1951.
Next, it was important to make sure everything was allocated a price and to put in place all the mechanisms for ‘buying’ and ‘selling’ services between different parts of the same organisation. The Tories introduced an internal market into the NHS in 1991 and New Labour left it there. They even chipped in themselves with a series of reforms in the early 2000s, to promote the idea of patient choice. There’s no evidence that any of this has improved health outcomes, and plenty of reason to believe it is draining the NHS of billions of pounds each year.
As soon as the internal market was in place, a key cultural shift happened. According to a 2010 review of the academic literature by thinktank Civitas,
“Several changes in the organisational culture of the NHS were noted. … There was an increase in cost – consciousness throughout the NHS, and physicians saw their historically unquestioned authority at times equalled by, at times surpassed by, NHS managers. For the first time, it seemed, the concepts of consumerism, value for money, and accountability for output permeated the NHS. While Kirkup and Donaldson (1994) observed early on that many of the reforms failed to realise their full potential to achieve beneficial change … Rudolf Klein considered these changes to be so significant that ‘No future government could return to the pre – 1991 situation’. This cultural shift remains the most unquestioned outcome of the first NHS quasi market.”
Once the idea of a market in healthcare is established – right in the very heart of our NHS – the foundations are laid for expanding the market to new providers and new purchasers.
This is the reason for printing the cost of medicines on the packaging. Jeremy Hunt even said it out loud, and nobody seemed to notice.
Charging higher rents to council tenants on higher incomes
The deliberate dismantling of the system of council housing is one of the most complete achievements of the Thatcher government. The method used – Right to Buy – was a quintessential divide-and-rule move, designed to wipe out in one stroke the idea of council housing as a collectively owned resource, available to anyone.
This mob – perhaps wishing to emulate their heroine, or just to finish off her work – are now planning to put the boot into council housing’s almost lifeless corpse with two further moves, along the same lines. One is the almost laughable (if it weren’t so tragic) idea of extending the Right to Buy to Housing Association tenants.
In order to compensate the Housing Associations, the government plans to force local councils to sell off the most valuable of their remaining stock as it becomes vacant. So the policy will grab housing out of the social sector with both hands, undoubtedly worsening the housing crisis that is already causing so much suffering.
The second move, which I want to discuss here, is the idea of charging higher rents for council tenants whose household income is over £30,000 or £40,000. Here’s another story on it. That one calls it a ‘crackdown’.
Both those pieces – presumably echoing the language used by the government in announcing this plan – talk about council rents as “subsidised” and contrast them with “the full market rent”. But council rents are not subsidised. There is no flow of money from general taxation towards council housing. In fact, for many years money flowed exactly in the opposite direction – there was a ‘negative subsidy’ from council rents into the treasury. That system has since been changed, following the successful and tenacious Daylight Robbery campaign by tenants. But the fact remains that council rents more than cover the cost of maintaining the stock of council housing.
If council rents are not subsidised, why are they so much lower than rents in the private sector? How come people can live in council houses, get their rent paid by housing benefit and be left with more disposable income than people who have worked hard, saved up for a deposit and got a mortgage?
The answer is that house prices (in the south east) are still hugely inflated by a bubble of unsustainable private debt. And private rents are even more out of control. Rather than let slip that it is council rents which relate more closely to the ‘true’ or ‘real’ cost of providing a decent home, the government is desperate to have us believe that these ridiculously puffed up private sector costs are in some way natural (“the full market cost”).
This is a genius policy for the government. Not only does it wipe out the threat of a good example from the public sector. It also throws in a big helping of divide and rule between council tenants and everyone else, and between council tenants who are working and those who are not.
And – most importantly of all – it reinforces the idea that council housing, and all public services, are some form of charity, only to be made available to the most needy and most deserving of the poor. If you can redefine those ‘needy’ and ‘deserving’ categories to be mutually exclusive, all the better!
We have been disarmed
These are Tory ideas, building on Tory foundations. But Labour kept those foundations in place when in government. They never challenged them and they still don’t.
Labour don’t support the NHS Reinstatement Bill. They say it requires too radical a reorganisation of the NHS.
Labour support the Right to Buy in the council housing sector. It is not even certain that they will oppose its extension to Housing Association tenants.
Their silence and collusion with these ideas has weakened those of us who want to oppose these (and all the other) attacks on working class people.
Markets are not the right solution for healthcare, or housing. But in an atmosphere of political consensus, it is hard for voters to see collective solutions based on solidarity as a meaningful alternative. Voting for Jeremy Corbyn is a small part of challenging that consensus.
But much more important is providing practical solidarity for people who are at the sharp end, and creating spaces in which people can start to develop a different way of organising things.
Balls to the Budget! Let’s build something better.
British political culture is obsessed with leadership. Leaders are required to be visionary, charismatic, good looking, inspiring, firm but fair, correct in all things and (most crucially of all) victorious. If they miss the bar on any of these aspects, they must resign.
The fact that the Labour Party’s response to losing the election was to immediately start a process of electing a new leader is just the latest manifestation of this obsession.
This attitude prevails not just for the leaders of political parties and football teams, but for senior managers in all walks of life, especially in what used to be known as public service. We are told, for example, that our local council needs a Chief Executive on a salary of well over £100k, in order to ensure that we attract a “high calibre individual” able to “provide leadership”. [PDF] Unfortunately, the job of Chief Executive at Brighton & Hove Council now seems to be endangered by every shift in the political balance of the council.
The combination of (real or perceived) political patronage with salary levels that mimic those of private sector CEOs, has proved pretty expensive for the council’s budget over the past few years.
Maybe we should try organising our local services without a Chief Executive for a while. While we’re at it, we could get rid of all the managers and trust the front line staff to make decisions about how to organise their work. Maybe it would save enough money to pay care workers a decent wage.
It’s not just the mainstream that looks for answers in leadership. The left is always in search of new leaders whom we can idolise, and later despise. The political tradition in which I was educated (the Trotskyist Fourth International) held that there is a crisis of leadership in the working class, and that overcoming this is crucial to getting out of the pretty pass we find ourselves in.
So wedded are we to the leadership model of political organising that we simply don’t know how to respond when people (even famous people) speak about something quite different.
What Russell Brand has brought to the national conversation is a recognition that there is a crisis, not of leadership, but of representation and accountability – a crisis of democracy. Our elected representatives are distant from the true centres of power and our voting system denies most of us any meaningful choice, even from within the diminished pool of candidates presented to us.
The Labour Party should not be asking “who will be the leader who can return us to electability?” They should be asking “how can we represent and support the people who are at the sharp end of austerity?”
In the absence of political representation, some of those people have been organising themselves. In the absence of media coverage, people have been making and sharing their own news. The internet has been used to create the networks of knowledge, support and resistance that the traditional political system has failed to offer over the last five years.
The victory of the Tories at the election has driven people to take action – hundreds of people from Brighton joined the demonstration in London last week, including many who had never been on such a demonstration before.
This is the constituency for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party. His Facebook page has over 30,000 likes. Labour MPs were pestered and petitioned to nominate him, not by the dwindling Labour left but by the growing movement of activists who are angry that the official opposition seems to find it so difficult to actually oppose anything.
I first met Jeremy Corbyn around 30 years ago, when I was a rising young thing in the peace movement and he was a relatively new MP. For a few years, he would recognise and acknowledge me when we turned up at the same meetings and demos.
Jeremy Corbyn is not leadership material. He is not charismatic, firm but fair, correct in all things or victorious. I will leave the question of his looks to people more qualified than I to comment. He is an inspiring speaker, who articulates a vision, shared by many people, of a world that is more just, more peaceful and more sustainable than the one we are living in now.
He is the kind of MP most people would love to have – the kind we are also blessed with here in Brighton Pavilion – a hard working, principled advocate and representative. A kind of anti-leader. He, like Caroline Lucas, stands in solidarity with the people who are fighting for justice.
That’s why I’ve registered as a supporter of the Labour Party, in order to vote for him in the leadership election. Not because I think the Labour Party can be reclaimed. Not because I think electing a new leader is the best way to do that, even if it were possible. But because his candidacy amplifies the voice of those grassroots campaigns and their demand for representation.
Into the vacuous soundbite-filled “debate” between Burnham, Cooper and Kendall, the Corbyn campaign brings real politics and an understanding of the need to build a movement for real change.
God knows, we need some of that!
This afternoon, hundreds of people marched through Brighton to protest at the continuing austerity that is being imposed on us by the Tory government. We ended the march at Preston Circus, where a former bank building that has stood empty for some years has been reopened and is currently being cleaned up in preparation for use as a community space and food distribution centre, following the example of the Bank of Love in Liverpool.
I spoke briefly at the start of the march, on behalf of Brighton People’s Assembly against Austerity. Here’s (more or less) what I said – with bonus links if you want to find out more about any of these issues:
The government are liars
They are lying when they say there’s no money
There’s enough money to spend £100 billion on renewing Trident – our own weapon of mass destruction.
There’s enough money to spend billions every year subsidising the fossil fuel industry.
There’s enough money to hand over £9 billion a year to private landlords in housing benefit payments.
There’s apparently enough money in the treasury that they don’t need to deal with the corporate tax avoidance and evasion that costs us £120 billion every year. [PDF]
They are lying when they say that austerity will help get the economy back on track
The opposite is true. Holding down wages and benefits just means people have less money to spend and the economy stays stagnant.
It was reckless gambling by bankers and unsustainable levels of private debt that caused the crisis in the financial industry, not spending on public services.
They are lying when they say that we’re all in it together
In a single year under the coalition government, the richest 10% of people in the UK increased their incomes by 4%, while the incomes of the poorest 10% went down by 15%.
They are lying when they say that workers from the rest of Europe are putting pressure on public services
They are lying when they say they will look after the most vulnerable
A government that cared about looking after the most vulnerable wouldn’t be closing the Independent Living Fund, which enables 17,500 people with the highest levels of need to enjoy fulfilling lives and contribute to their communities.
A government that cared about looking after the most vulnerable wouldn’t cut £20 billion from local government funding, leaving care services stretched to breaking point, with devastating knock on effects on the NHS
A government that cared about looking after the most vulnerable wouldn’t have allowed refuges all over the country to close down, so that women fleeing domestic violence have fewer safe places to run to.
A government that cared about looking after the most vulnerable wouldn’t have introduced a punitive sanctions regime that leaves people without any money for food for weeks on end.
A government that cared about looking after the most vulnerable wouldn’t be planning to stop all housing benefit for people aged 18 to 21.
They are lying when they say they have a long term plan
Their plan is embarrassingly short term. They are just setting things up for themselves and their mates to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible.
A long term plan would involve increasing the minimum wage to a living wage and capping rents at a level people can afford, so that we can build stronger communities.
A long term plan would involve investing in health and social care services, and getting rid of the destructive and costly internal market in the NHS.
A long term plan would involve a massive investment in insulating and renovating housing to make it energy efficient.
A long term plan would involve redirecting investment in technology and skills away from the arms industry that fuels wars around the world and into renewable energy, which is urgently needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.
They are lying when they say they have a democratic mandate
They are not as strong as they think. Their majority in parliament is very small, and only a quarter of the population voted for them.
Before the election there were a small handful of anti-austerity MPs in the House of Commons. Now there are nearly 70, including 56 elected following an extraordinary upsurge of democratic engagement by people in Scotland.
Let’s focus on creating practical solidarity and real democracy. Let’s support each other, expose the government’s lies and fight back against their vandalism.
We can’t rely on the Labour Party to save us.
We have to do this ourselves.
What’s the story of the 2015 general election? Over the past few days, many competing explanations have been flying around the internet and the media, as we all try to make sense of an unexpected result.
One thing we’ve seen in the course of this election is that stories are often more powerful than facts. Stories don’t have to be true to be powerful, but they do need to be attractive; they need to make the listener feel better, or feel that she is not alone.
Here are a few attractive but untrue stories about what happened on Thursday.
There’s no money left, so we all have to tighten our belts
This story has been told to us by all the main political parties and all the mainstream media for the last five years. No wonder people believed it.
It is a lie, of course – one of those big lies that 20th century dictators were so fond of. As Caroline Lucas says, there is plenty of money – the question is, who has it?
The story works because it makes sense in the world most of us live in – the real world where most of the money we earn goes to pay our bills and rent, and more debt means we have less to put food on the table each week.
But when it comes to managing a national economy, that story doesn’t make any sense at all.
A lot of the money the government has coming in is from taxation. That goes up and down according to how much income and profit is being made in the economy. If people are earning more and spending more, and businesses are making more profit, then there will be more taxation coming into the government’s coffers. And vice versa.
If we all individually tighten our belts – spend less, put more away in the bank if we can, get made redundant when businesses tighten their belts – then there is less money circulating in the economy and less tax being paid to the government. That makes the gap between what’s coming in and going out (the deficit) bigger, not smaller.
The reason the deficit has increased is because the government had to borrow a lot of money to stop the banking sector going bust in 2008. The crash happened because the global financial sector gambled with unsustainable lending. It was nothing to do with the Labour government having spent money on public services in the UK.
Borrowing money to save the economy from crisis is one of the special things governments can do, which households can’t do. It’s one of the reasons why that story doesn’t apply to the national economy.
I understand why people believe the story that we all need to tighten our belts. In many ways it’s more believable than the true story – the banking industry gambled with money they didn’t have. When they lost, we all paid the price because the Tories preferred to punish poor, sick and disabled people, rather than their schoolfriends in the City.
The Tories are extremely popular in England
Looking at the new political map of the UK, it’s easy to understand why anyone might think the election result represents a big leap in Tory popularity in England. However, this is also not true.
Despite the Tories gaining 21 English seats in Parliament, their vote share hardly increased between the 2010 and 2015 elections (it went up by 1.4 percentage points to 41%). Labour’s vote share in England increased by 3.6 percentage points to 31.6%, and they too gained seats in England – there are 15 more Labour MPs representing English constituencies than there were before the election.
The real story of this election in England is, of course, the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote and the rise of UKIP and, to a lesser extent, the Greens.
In seat after seat, the same pattern is repeated. Labour and Tory votes both increase by a small margin, the Lib Dem vote is slashed to around a fifth of its previous level and the UKIP vote increases massively to put them in third or second place. In many constituencies, Greens are attracting between 1000 and 2000 votes, even where they have never stood a candidate before.
There is no evidence of voters switching en masse from Labour to Tory, nor, I would guess, are many people swapping their vote directly from Lib Dem to UKIP.
I think the former Lib Dem voters are either staying at home or voting Labour or Tory, or Green. Meanwhile, both Labour and Tories are losing votes in substantial numbers to UKIP. Because UKIP haven’t won many seats, this trend is not easy to see, but the map of second placed candidates shows it much more clearly.
The election doesn’t demonstrate the overwhelming popularity of the Tories, it shows how badly our electoral system is broken, and it shows that there is a sizeable minority of voters, even in England, who are not persuaded by the mainstream consensus represented by Labour and the Tories.
The success of the SNP represents an upsurge in nationalism
I don’t think even Ed Miliband believes this one, though it keeps popping up in the media and in the mouths of flabbergasted Scottish and English Labour politicians.
I know very little about Scottish politics, but as far as I can tell, what happened in Scotland was that people were looking for an alternative to that Westminster consensus. They saw very clearly that they could not hope to find it in Scottish Labour, after the naked display of establishment solidarity between Labour and the Tories at the referendum.
And the SNP was able to tell a better story – one that didn’t rely on the twisted logic of austerity but which offered hope, and a way to make a real difference.
The SNP managed to do in Scotland, what the Labour Party has long failed to do in England – truly listen to, and stand up for, the people who are being done over by capitalism. Mhairi Black MP puts it well:
“The thing that got me fired up [during the referendum campaign] was standing listening to people pouring their heart out to you, telling you how much they were genuinely struggling. You’re used to hearing statistics about poverty, but then you realise these aren’t numbers, these are people’s lives, filled with anxiety and struggle.”
The presence of 56 MPs who have been elected to the House of Commons on a clear anti-austerity mandate is a massive change in the make-up of Parliament. Before the election, there were a small handful of MPs who were prepared to challenge the lie about austerity and speak up for the millions suffering through benefit cuts, sanctions, the housing crisis and the privatisation of the NHS. Now, their numbers have been multiplied tenfold.
Just as the presence of Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett changed the terms of the debate before the election, the fact that the SNP is now the third largest Parliamentary group will make a difference to the stories that can be told in Westminster.
UKIP voters are racist fools
Far from immigration being a subject which it is somehow taboo to discuss, the last two general elections have been about little else. Other – arguably more pressing – issues (climate change, anyone?) have not made it onto the agenda of the so-called national debate.
Racism, on the other hand, is rarely discussed in a serious way. It is furiously denied by everyone, as if it were an unsavoury drug habit, but never acknowledged as a structural power imbalance with deep roots in the cultural and economic history of our country.
I’m sure UKIP voters are racist. White people generally are. If we don’t want racism to be an attractive story in politics, we need to start by recognising that racism permeates society at every level. It’s not an unfortunate character trait of people who are ignorant or have been misled, and it can’t be magicked away by the training courses and monitoring forms which seem to be all that survives of the 1980s anti-racism efforts of the Labour left.
The rise of UKIP doesn’t reveal a big upsurge in racism. It does seem to have brought racist sentiment out into the open and given it legitimacy. But it also represents the filling of the vacuum left by Labour in the face of five years of austerity, and the failure of the anti-austerity movement to tell a convincing story about the reasons for low wages and poverty.
There’s nothing we can do now
What’s happened in Scotland shows that it is possible to change the story. But we won’t do it by continuing to do what we’ve done for the last five years.
We need to reach beyond the left, and beyond those who are already voting Green or Labour, to the people who are disengaged and disenfranchised by the political process.
Locally, in Brighton, the People’s Assembly against Austerity has an open meeting coming up. I’ll be there, hoping to hear new ideas for getting our stories told better and louder.