Let’s Put People before Profits – If not now, then When?

May 9, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

You might think that waking up to Labour’s electoral disaster and Boris Johnson’s election as mayor would be the worst hangover imaginable, but then the gripping reality of the social recession hit home – “more than two million people in Britain are forced to endure intolerably poor working lives and subjected to daily exploitation and abuse from employers”. My political hangover doesn’t compare with these stories from the report “Hard Work, Hidden Lives”

* “Construction workers who were injured at work but were not entitled to welfare protection.”

* “Workers who had spent 70-hour weeks on around £2 an hour who had no choice but to keep working when they were ill, as they could neither afford to lose a day’s pay nor risk the sack.”

* “I was so badly off that I was barely living”

It’s the people, stupid

Our government “has never talked openly and honestly about tax…every penny earned by hard work is taxed, while windfalls of those born lucky go free”.

Both the government and the opposition “outdo each other in their anxiety to appease the superclass”.

The New Labour strategy is indeed dead. Those struggling financially – whether they live in the Labour heartlands or the marginals, whether they constitute the so-called working or middle class – are all concerned about similar issues such as “insecurity and anxiety caused by flexible labour markets, the lack of affordable housing, sharp price rises, concerns about pensions, worries about securing places in local schools, immigration and the widening gap between the rich and the poor”. They have all suffered a “deliberate choice to give more to the better-off who…as ever…banked it and forgot it”.

While the lowest earners have just lost their 10p tax rate, the wealthy still get an unearned £700,000 untaxed. Every penny earned by hard work is taxed, while the windfalls of those born lucky go free.

Will Hutton argues that “there has not been a gap between the rich and poor on the current scale ever in history…It is unstable. Sooner or later, there will be popular outrage and a political response”.

Popular outrage but no political response

Despite the opposition having “little solid policy in key areas…big ideas…remain vague…conflicting messages about cutting taxes”, despite the government using “the language of the right”, Labour suffered a catastrophic electoral loss.

Despite the wristband diplomacy of the repetitive name-checking of the Make Poverty History campaign, “the young have never heard any politician explain what progressive tax is for”. It’s no surprise then that there was popular outrage against the government, despite the Tories offering no political response whatsoever.

In the words of one correspondent on the Compass blog, “most of them will tell you it doesn’t matter if the Tories get in, because they will get shafted again, but it’s what they expect, it’s not what was expected for their votes over the past 10 years. The majority would tell their children to vote Labour, most now tell them not to, or not to vote at all.”

Where do we go now?

With the campaigning and intellectual leadership of Crosby and Johnson, right wing activists mobilised to get out the vote for the Tories, but so did the left.

Despite being ignored and mocked for calling the government for fairer taxes and more equal rights for all, activists have been on the doorstep day and night still relentlessly trying to persuade voters that, this time around, the government would deliver a better deal for them.

These activists are all that’s left to save the Labour Party (no pun intended). Those who left the party and those who are still members but couldn’t face campaigning for a party that isn’t listening to them – those are the activists that we so desperately needed in outer London and across the country, and those are also the people that the party leadership thought wouldn’t leave as they had nowhere else to go.

Those are also the people that have been “prepared to endure being constantly slagged off by other members for even being a party member, or for having thoughts different to those of the isolated, disconnected, unchecked and unaccountable leadership.”

Chuka Umunna argues that “Labour needs to clearly and succinctly give the answer to the question “why and for what purpose?” in a way in which people can connect.” This goes for both the public and for the party’s own members and activists.

Let’s make inequality history

Labour has always been a necessary but insufficient vehicle to campaign for fairness and equality for all. Many activists might now wonder if it is even still necessary. But let’s try and be optimistic and consider that Labour is more than a government, and let’s not forgot the amazing work that many Labour activists and politicians have done despite the government –

“Livingstone’s 12% advantage over Labour’s national score – a sort of progressive premium – has important lessons for the party nationally as the battle over its future direction heats up. It’s also clear that the kind of progressive coalition and policies that Livingstone favoured – on transport, housing, privatisation and redistribution – are a good deal more popular with voters than the rudderless triangulation currently on offer from Gordon Brown.”

Andrew Rawnsley states “it is now possible to shut your eyes and imagine a smiling David Cameron strolling along Downing Street.”

When will the government learn to pass the shut-your-eyes test, so the public can seriously imagine that Labour can fight for better equality for our society and ensure everyone gets a fair deal?

How can we mobilise young people to make inequality history?

Compass’s Programme for Renewal offers some clues: “Democracy is about getting involved, being listened to, shaping events; they understand that it is never simply about voting. Clearly, mobilising people on the streets must never replace the formal process of representative politics, but political parties need to be able to connect to social movements that are expressing widespread concerns.”

At Compass Youth, we are trying to build and facilitate a dynamic and vibrant network that campaigns for greater equality and democracy and nurtures progressive values across society.

We recognise the need to engage the next generation in being the agents of that change. We feel it is time to engage in distinctive and influential ways to shape our future.

We want to make connections that will keep the Labour movement in touch with the most dynamic and innovative ideas and campaigns, but also improve understanding between the Labour party and the wider progressive movement. At the heart of what drives Compass Youth is that it is shaped by the ideas and people that form it.

Noel Hatch is International Officer for Compass Youth.

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This post was written by Noel Hatch

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