By Theresa Byrne, previously published here
Ok I’ll start in the traditional style, and confess: I pinched the headline from Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to Scottish Labour. But it summed up my feelings and emotions over the last few days. Yes politics is a struggle, yes it is a constant push for progressiveness. And that is why most of us are in it.Change is not easy, whether it is changing a habit or changing a mind set. That is a psychological and emotional given. The Labour party is about change. Change in society, change in economics, change in politics. Many within the party forgot that after 1997, because the changes in society that were introduced were easily done. And were in many ways relatively superficial.
Take an example. The National Minimum Wage was introduced in 1999. It was profound in many ways, as the government said via the Low Pay Commission ‘this is the minimum people can be paid’. Many people on very low wages received a significant increase in their wages, the threatened job losses never materialised in the numbers forecast, the amount of the NMW slowly crept up, and the Tories accepted it as inevitable. But the amount of the NMW was not a significant amount of money, not really enough to live on and still required additional benefits from both government and local councils in order for families and people to survive. The concept was excellent but the execution left much to be desired. The underlying philosophy of poorly paid jobs with poor prospects was not directly challenged by the government, it was accepted. A superficial change to the pay structure was introduced but the two or three tier job market remained. Where was the necessary investment in manufacturing that could have created better jobs? Where was the governmental challenge to repeated outsourcing of work by business which encouraged the minimum level jobs and eventually to zero hours work?
Opportunities to challenge and significantly change the way society operated at an economic level were missed by the Labour Government between 1997 and 2010. We missed the chance to have the arguments and discussions about the links between taxation and public services, preferring to allow PFIs to pay for new hospitals and schools, and to allow the financial services bubble to pay for other investments. We did not regulate the financial markets so the crash that happened in 2008 caused horrendous problems to the economy and to people, as the Government scrambled to save the banking industry. We also then allowed the Tories to set the myth that we overspent, even when they had agreed with our spending plans back in 2007.
If we had made the case for taxation paying for public services, people would have understood that Labour was not overspending. We were providing those services such as the Health Service, social care, education etc in common, as common goods where we share the responsibility and the cost of provision together because we share the goods. We pay for the services, they are not ‘provided’ for us through a vague government spending concept but through taxation paid by everyone and a progressive taxation system where the more income you have the more you pay is the balanced and fair way to tax. But this argument was not made. And by the time we needed to challenge the myth it was too late, our opportunity has passed by. We have to remember that in 1997 the schools, hospitals and local services were in such a dire situation that the people understood that (i) a new government was needed and (ii) that serious investment was demanded. That was our opportunity to make the case for taxation to pay for the services and people were open to us, to our new ideas. We failed to make that case. Again we superficially changed by investing through PFIs but the underlying philosophy of linking taxation to public services as a part of a civilised society to challenge the economic view of taxation as a necessary evil that should be reduced for a small state was not made.
Our struggle now must be to understand, explain and argue for fundamental change in society, in economics and in politics which is what Jeremy Corbyn is about. The policies he has put forward, with John McDonnell, about investment in housing, in education, in the Health Service and local government, in secure jobs are all direct challenges to the neo-liberal free market knows best economics that have been in existence for over 30 years. The struggle is about asking questions about people’s perceptions, talking with them about why we believe that investment in housing is not just good for providing a home but for jobs, for increasing taxation in the economy, allowing people to establish themselves and build a community. Talk with them about the importance of security in work, how it builds community, allows children to feel secure, allows more people to become active and involved in their local community at a volunteer level because they can relax and not worry so much about still having a job tomorrow or next week. Talk with them about a good quality Health Service where having a serious illness is not a cause for money worries but an opportunity to focus on the importance of getting better, or dealing with the psychological consequences of illness. Talk to people are having a good social care system integrated with health, housing, community links so that elderly people, those with disabilities can be part of the community and know that their needs are being dealt with not just adequately but well and with respect.
We are facing a challenge, the challenge to change and more importantly to struggle to get our voices heard. We are being challenged but we must rise to the struggle together. We have a leader who wants us to be with him, to stand alongside him in the fight. If we are to be true to our comradeship, then we stand shoulder to shoulder, in solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn ready for the struggle, for the fight. We are doing it with and for the people, lending our strength and voice to their struggle as all in solidarity. We must not be found wanting, and I am sure we will not be. We will change the world, to a world of peace and justice where no one and no community is left behind step by step by step.