Searching for Labour’s Soul

Originally published by the Morning Star on June 5th 2015

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“We want an Anti-Austerity Labour Leader Candidate to Stand” is the title of the petition we started 13 days ago. I say “we” because it isn’t any one person’s baby.
To ape some Ed phraseology, “let me explain why.”
Once the shock and horror of the election loss had sunk in, and Ed Miliband had stepped down, members of a 300-strong Facebook group called “Labour refocussed,” which I’d recently joined looking for solace and discussion, turned their attentions to the inevitable leadership contest.
As candidate after candidate threw their hat in the ring, members of our group began to declare their allegiances. “Umunna can connect to Middle England,” “Kendall will drag us onto the centre ground — the only place to win elections from,” “Creagh, I like her. She ‘gets’ business.”
And so on.
Personally, I leant toward Andy Burnham. I’d given him second preference in 2010 and he’d been a consistently good performer in the election campaign. That was until he said something that became a real sticking point for me.
He dismissed the mansions tax as the politics of envy. I literally shuddered when the words fell from his mouth.
I’m no economist. I’m just a middle-aged aromatherapist who left school with five mediocre O-levels.
One day I’ll get round to reading Thomas Picketty’s famous tome, Capital in the 21st Century … one day. But that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I’ve read about the growth of inequality. Even Barack Obama, emperor of the capitalist West, says we need to tackle it.
And I’ve seen how this growing gap between rich and poor affects people’s lives.
My ex-husband and I bought our first flat in Barnet in 1992 on a modest annual income of £11,000.
Yes, we’d needed help. Before that we’d been living in council accommodation, but due to a serious problem with homelessness, the council was offering grants of up to £13,000 to give tenants a leg up onto the housing ladder.
Without that help it would have taken us much longer, but we’d have got there eventually.
A young family hoping to buy an equivalent property in Barnet today, would have to be earning approximately £60,000 a year to be in with a shout.
Then we have the obscenity of a million people relying on foodbanks, in this, the sixth-richest economy in the world, while the wealth of those at the top grows exponentially.
This is why Miliband’s talk of tackling inequality lit the flame of hope in so many hearts — while making him the pariah of the right-wing press and big business — and why Burnham’s “politics of envy” statement killed that hope, for me, and many others. If you can’t tax wealth, you can’t tackle inequality.
It was during a back-and-forth discussion regarding the lack of leadership choice on “Labour refocussed,” that the idea for a petition was born, in part inspired by an open letter signed by 10 newly elected labour MPs.
To those people who argue we don’t need an anti-austerity candidate I say this — moving too far left didn’t cost us the election.
The same goes for a lack of focus on aspiration, anti-business rhetoric, or even nailing the lie we caused the economic crash.
We lost because we failed to inspire. Our offer to the electorate had been wishy-washy, even incongruent — for example talking about the cost of living crisis while also freezing child benefit.
We lost because we signed up to “our cuts aren’t as big as theirs” austerity.
We lost because Miliband listened to the anti-progressives in the party. And four of them are now standing for leader — four candidates who would rather pitch to the quarter of the electorate who voted Tory, than pitch to the third who weren’t inspired to vote at all.
Miliband was highly praised for keeping the party together, but at what cost?
Our petition — special thanks to Beck Barnes for her skilful wording and Naomi Fearon of Red Labour, for setting up the petition — had reached 5,016 signatures when we sent it off to the chairman of the PLP.
On the day we were due to send it off, we heard the left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn had decided to stand to give the members a choice.
This was wonderful news, our campaigning had paid off. But that wasn’t the end. A new campaign is now gathering momentum, this time to ensure Corbyn gets the nominations he needs. People are writing to their MPs asking for their support and Stuart Wheeler has started a petition on change.org which I urge everyone to sign.
The membership have made it clear they want an anti-austerity candidate to be a part of this leadership debate. The Labour party must not let them down.

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