Campaign news

Labour mustn’t lose it’s way

17th July 2013

Jeremy Corbyn in the Morning Star

Last Saturday we saw the largest Durham Miners’ Gala in recent memory, with inspirational speeches from TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, Unite leader Len McCluskey and journalist Owen Jones among others.

This weekend we’ll see the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival in the historic Dorset village where modern trade unionism was founded in the teeth of opposition from landowners, judges and the ruling class.

Both of these iconic events serve to remind us of the traditions and strengths of the labour movement.

McCluskey rather politely reminded Labour leader Ed Miliband in his speech that Unite is ready for reform in discussions over the trade unions’ role in the party.

He went on to point out more bluntly that it was the unions which founded the Labour Party over 100 years ago and that all levy payers are part of the movement.

Miliband conceded before he became leader that unions were not a lobby group but an integral part of the party.

Things seem to have changed.

Miliband’s plan to make union members opt in to a union’s political fund rather than having the right to opt out as at present is not just a nicety of words.

It strikes fundamentally at the relationship between unions and the party.

The Labour right has always wanted to break the trade union link, especially since the new Labour clique took over, in order to present the party as being acceptable to our critics in the Establishment.

In other words to make us respectable in the eyes of the ruling class, a “safe pair of hands” for managing capitalist Britain.

The unique nature of direct trade union participation in the Labour Party means that Britain’s biggest voluntary organisations, the trade unions, should be able to have a direct influence on policy.

The leaders of all unions quite rightly make demands on Labour policy regarding the health service, wage legislation and public ownership.

Without union affiliation it’s difficult to see how some of the most important advances made in this country - the national minimum wage, health and safety law, rights at work or equalities legislation - would ever have been brought forward by Labour governments.

If one wishes to peep over the precipice of a Labour Party without trade union influence one can do no better than look at Labour’s recent record in opposition to the government’s attacks on benefits.

The first thing George Osborne did on becoming Chancellor was to take £40 billion out of the welfare budget.

His sanctimonious colleague Iain Duncan Smith has spent the last three years pretending to be concerned about benefit dependency while introducing measures that are driving many families into destitution and forcing their children to go hungry.

The Labour front bench failed to vote against the benefit cap when it was introduced, though over 40 Labour MPs did.

Capping benefits fails to take into account the very high cost of living in city centres, especially London.

But it also offends against the principle that the welfare state is there to prevent anyone from falling into destitution.

That was what Beveridge envisioned in 1944 and what the post-war Labour government put into practice - a safety net ready to help anyone fallen on hard times because it had been paid for by everyone.

You wouldn’t have known it from listening to shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne when the cap was put into effect two days ago.

“The benefit cap is a good idea in principle but it’s already fallen apart in practice,” he told us.

“Ministers have botched the rules so that the cap won’t affect Britain’s 40,000 largest families and so does nothing to stop people living their lives on welfare.

“The government needs to go back to the drawing board, design a cap without holes and put a two-year limit on the time you can spend on the dole like Labour’s compulsory jobs guarantee.”

The Labour Party was founded to end poverty and injustice. Statements like Byrne’s have forgotten all that.

Obviously people ought to be better off in work than on benefits.

But attacking the poorest and largest families and putting time limits on what people receive drives people into poverty while doing absolutely nothing to tackle the problems of unemployment, underemployment and low pay.

We should be defending jobs by ending the government’s assault on the public sector, which is throwing tens of thousands onto the dole, and we should be insisting that the national minimum wage is raised to the living wage.

It might not be popular with the editors of the Daily Mail or Evening Standard but it is right to defend the principle of a welfare state that prevents anyone from ending up homeless or unable to feed themselves.

An indication of just how nasty and divided Britain is becoming was indicated by the Resolution Foundation’s findings, reported in yesterday’s Morning Star, on the private rented sector.

The foundation revealed that rent is now unaffordable for low-income families in one-third of the entire country, including all of greater London and much of south-east England.

Unaffordable because the deposits required are huge, the rent levels are sky-high and the housing benefit cap is being set so low that it doesn’t even approach the rents demanded by private landlords.

The way out of this crisis is to put tough and effective controls on the private rented sector, including the letting agents, giving tenants the rights to long-term occupation, enforcing energy and quality standards and controlling rents, not housing benefit.

And the longer term solution is to provide more council housing and ban the obscenity of properties being left deliberately vacant while many families live in appallingly overcrowded conditions.

The labour movement exists to represent the interests of the working class, both at work and outside it.

Unless there is a clear social and political alternative presented by the Labour Party to the coalition’s policies of poverty and division then deep cynicism will set in.

Community events drawing crowds as large as those at the Miners’ Gala and Tolpuddle show that our traditions are not just steeped in history.

They are rooted in the realities of our present.

Jeremy Corbyn is Labour MP for Islington North

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