Labour MPs fail to oppose the Tories’ vicious benefit cuts, meanwhile the rank and file members seem to be increasing backing the ‘loony left winger’ Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election.
It seems to me that this shows the different approaches to politics that the Labour Party ties to straddle. The way to win elections is to tailor your policies to swing voters in the key marginal constituencies. Forget about places like South Leeds, they will always vote Labour, after all what choice do they have? This approach worked for Tony Blair, three times, so it must be correct. He’s even turned up again this week to remind party members what works.
The strategy does work if your activist base has dwindled and you are reliant on the mainstream media to get your message over. But in the long term it’s pretty corrosive, turnout declines and disillusionment with all politicians increases.
To be fair, those three Labour governments did make some significant changes – the national minimum wage, sure start, rebuilding of schools and hospitals (albeit via PFI), the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, civil partnerships. One reason Blair’s Labour was able to deliver these was that they were swimming with the tide, if not exactly booming, the economy was strong and these reforms didn’t threaten the status quo.
Times have changed. We had the economic crash (not caused by Labour, by the way) and in its aftermath we have zero hours contracts, payday loans and the bedroom tax – the whole austerity agenda.
In face of this the Labour leadership hang on to trying to influence swing voters and represent all sides in the country – business as well as workers. In doing this they end up voting for benefit cuts.
Contrary to popular belief, I’m not a member of the Labour Party and never have been. I am a socialist and usually vote Labour as the ‘least worst’ option on the ballot. I have few illusions in the Labour Party’s ability to change society, but this week was deeply depressing.
We send MPs to Westminster to represent the people living in the constituency, in our case Leeds Central. The Tory benefit cuts will hit thousands of people in South Leeds. Cuts to Working Family Tax Credits will hit the ‘working poor’ many of whom already have to resort to food banks. Cuts to disability benefits will hit a population that has worse health than other parts of the city, let alone the country. Cuts to housing benefits for young adults will force some to remain in the pressure cooker of troubled families. Our representative, Hilary Benn, let those people down this week.
There is an alternative as the SNP in Scotland and Syriza in Greece have shown. You can campaign and you can win with an anti-austerity message. After all austerity is bad for the vast majority of the population and therefore the electorate. But you can’t rely on the media to get your message out. You have to get out and speak, not to the swing voters, but the people who have given up voting.
Jeremy Corbyn, who is only on the leadership ballot out of a British sense of fair play, has spoken up for this approach and it chimes with the activists. With the other candidates offering no hope and just different versions of austerity-lite, it’s hardly surprising. They say you can’t oppose austerity and win, but that’s precisely what the SNP did in Scotland and they wiped out Labour in the process.
Of course the SNP / Syriza strategy has its limits as Greece has discovered. If you want real change and limit yourself to only using Parliament as a lever, you are doomed to fail. Greece has been told by the Eurozone that it can’t buck austerity. Things would play out differently in Britain, but ‘the markets’ wouldn’t like the policy and there would no doubt be a run on the pound, putting pressure on a British anti-austerity government to u-turn.
Real power lies in the workplace. At the moment it rests in the board room, but it doesn’t have to be like that.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.