I joined the labour party the day after the 2015 general election and resigned on 19th January 2017. Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on the Article 50 bill was the final straw but I had been feeling uncomfortable for months. Labour should have been a natural fit, the more so for some of Corbyn’s policies, but it wasn’t. What had gone wrong?
Working class ethics
My dad’s family were solid labour: working class, mining, pottery and mill workers. As far as I could tell my mum’s family was never considered “proper” working class, although they worked as hard as anyone I knew. They owned their own business, a small bakery making traditional Staffordshire oatcakes and pikelets. I never knew how my mum voted and still don’t.
If you only count money, we weren’t rich. I suspect that at times my parents struggled financially, but we had opportunity.
My parents encouraged my siblings and me to get as much from the education system as possible, to believe in ourselves, gain qualifications, develop our skills and go out into the world and work hard. Working class ethic and aspiration. That was how we could secure a future for ourselves and provide for our children.
Family values and social justice
I was the first in my family to go to university. My paternal grandparents did not see the benefit; they still believed only boys needed education. Sexism was rife but I was prepared for it by my dad. I still remember him saying: “Don’t believe anyone who says, and they will, that you can’t do it because you are a girl. The only thing men can do that women can’t is father a child”.
His attitude to gender and race equality, social justice and equal opportunities provided a political backdrop to my childhood which I hadn’t realised at the time. He made us aware of discrimination and the dangers of deference. He encouraged us not to restrict ourselves by conforming to stereotypes and accepting prejudices as laws of nature. It was our responsibility to ourselves and a small contribution to making a better society.
I went to university. The state paid for the tuition and I got a grant to cover my living expenses. The state invested in me. When I left I got a good job, most graduates did in those days.
Through the eyes of others
My first vote was in the European referendum in 1975 shortly before I went to university. I voted for EEC membership. Nine years later I moved to the Netherlands for work. I worked at a subsidiary of Phillips with Dutch, German, British and Saudi people.
I would advise anyone who has the chance to live or work abroad to do so. It helped me to see my own country through other eyes and to get a wider perspective on everything from social justice to world history. I realised that only reading history written in your own country (whichever one it is) can produce a very distorted view.
In the late 70’s and early 80s the UK was the poor relation in Europe but I never met anyone who told me to go home. There were no complaints that we British were lowering their pay or taking their housing and benefits. No one suggested I should pay when my British husband, whom I married there, needed extremely expensive medical care.
I had started work in 1978 when most people with a job could expect to earn a living and rely on the state to provide a safety net to tide them over periods of hardship. Falling ill or being laid off work were not considered personal failings and people were not branded as scroungers if they needed to claim on their National Insurance.
When I returned to the UK in the late 1980’s I was shocked. Public services were much worse than when I had left and attitudes had changed beyond recognition. The social approach to mutual contribution and support was gone and in its place was an “I’m all right Jack and what I’ve got is mine” approach. The prevailing attitude seemed to be “why should I pay tax for things I personally don’t need or use?”
I argued that anyone could be taken ill unexpectedly, as my husband had been, so no one could say they would never need the services. Shockingly few people had the imagination to see that but for luck it could have been them. For some it was a case of shit happens, suck it up (as today’s favourite expression of the victors to the vanquished would say), others were starting to believe that misfortune was ones own fault and that it could not happen to responsible people such as themselves. They were frogs being slowly boiled but believing the warming water was for their own benefit; I was a frog tossed into the hot water and it hurt.
Horses for courses, not ideology
After nearly ten years of living under capitalist policies, suffering the affects of under investment in public services and transport, and watching “charter mark” type feeble attempts to improve public services delivered by undervalued and demoralised public sector employees, I was delighted and relieved when the 1997 Blair government was elected. At last a political will to invest, to really direct resources towards people who needed them and a renewed recognition that in many areas the state had a real and important role to play. Horses for courses, not ideology, in the choice of public or private.
As a regular user of the NHS, albeit vicariously through my husband, I can tell you the transformation was dramatic. The physical environment, attitude and efficiency had all improved. We were once again confident of a service we could rely on. The placebo effect of the cheerful surroundings and positive atmosphere must have been worth millions.
In 1995 one of our daughters started school and I saw a similar improvement in the school facilities in the first years following the election of a labour government.
Achievements not acknowledged
I was completely against the Iraq war and disagreed with many of Blairs policies, particularly in criminal justice. I thought he was becoming too cosy with big business, losing his direction and his ability to listen. Early success and the flattery of business men had gone to his head. I agreed with his critics: he was becoming a lighter version of Mrs T. As a result I did not vote Labour in 2005. But Blair and his team had put public services well on the road to recovery and made them something we could, collectively, be proud of.
Following years of decline, social inclusion and cohesion were, even if slowly, improving. Unfortunately it did not last long, but for those on the left of the party to ignore it now is to re-write history. While many of their criticisms are, in my opinion fair, it undermines the Labour party and its aims if the good Blair’s government achieved is not acknowledged.
Lurching to the right
Blair and his team planted a PFI time bomb (whether it was a bad idea, inept negotiation, or a step to the dark side to enrich their new found city mates I can’t say), they did not rein in the banks and financial sector and they misjudged the damage an unregulated free market could cause, but they did not create it.
While extremely rich speculators were syphoning money out of the real economy into their off shore tax havens and corporate executives, arrogantly believing they made the world go round, assumed an entitlement to feather their own nests, inflation in property prices helped maintain a feel good factor for many ordinary working people.
Labour’s hands were on the wheel when the car crashed, even though the original fault lines had been in place years and the opposition was standing in the gallery cheering them on and promising more of the same. But by the 2010 general election their recovery plan seemed to be working.
I’m not an economist, but I took to reading articles by well known economists, and those that made most sense to me were the ones who, paraphrasing in my own words, said: When an economy is weak feed it, don’t starve it. While it is weak it can’t work to generate income. Strengthen it by growing it and the income will follow.
There has been a lot of soul searching and analysis of what went wrong for labour in 2010. In power for too long and now it was someone else’s turn. A poor election campaign. Too left wing. Too right wing. Too arrogant. To detached from real voters. Negligently crashing the world economy. Incompetent with financial management. And maybe Nick Clegg, aided by memories of the Iraq war and his smooth appearance on TV, won over disillusioned labour voters and split the left wing vote. Spilt milk.
Whatever went wrong the more serious “offence” in my view was buying into the Tory rhetoric of reckless overspending and causing the credit crunch; believing that to move on and gain credibility it was necessary to confess to mistakes never committed. This not only undermined Labour’s credibility and competence, it furthered the belief that the only way is the austerity way.
Failing to fight back for fear of the name calling or political ridiculing lurched the country a long way to the right. Economic fallacies such as national budgets operating like household budgets took hold. Simplistic but incorrect explanations gained ground and the facts became surplus to requirements.
By the time Ed Miliband tried to put the record straight it in the run up to the 2015 election it was too late and another election was lost. Disastrously the Liberal Democrats were wiped out and without them in coalition the Tories lurched the country further to the right, although they insist on calling it the centre ground.
A viable alternative?
With nothing in sight but endless neoliberal policies, widening inequality and the privatisation and collapse of public services including the NHS I decided to join the Labour party. In times of crisis everyone needs to lend a hand, and for me this was it. Even if I did nothing but add one to the count of members to signal my moral support for policies with more social conscience, it would be something.
At the time I had not heard of Jeremy Corbyn but when he stood for leader I voted for him. Why? I’m more centre left than hard left and I liked most of what Blair did but someone had to argue the case for socialist policies, remind people there were options and almost no-one else would do it. The belief that the neoliberal policies of the Tories were somehow common sense, centre ground was so entrenched, no career politician was going to stick their head above the parapet to argue seriously against them.
Corbyn was prepared to advance left wing policies. He would say what he believed regardless of how it would play in the the mainstream media or Westminster gallery. At the time I thought it it was more important to raise viable alternatives to right wing orthodoxy than to play to the media and presume the wishes of the electorate by offering slightly softer options. Significant experts leant their support: tax, economic policy, public ownership, anti-austerity. Enough to raise interest, begin a mass movement and an upsurge of support and to make people stop and think.
In the 1980s I thought Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Baker were right wing, but listening to them recently on Radio 4 Reflections, they sounded far to the left of what is currently described as centre. A clear illustration of how the ground has shifted.
Communist bogy man?
There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there on the left, some bordering on paranoia, but the reaction of the establishment to Corbyn is not inconsistent with the suggestion they are worried. They fear a credible challenge to the idea that a free market ideology is synonymous with democracy and the only way to manage a modern economy.
I am sure that the voters who moved to UKIP do not worry the establishment nearly so much because, although they have upset traditional party lines, they are playing straight into the hands of the neo-liberal set, particularly those behind the scenes who pull the strings to protect the vested interests of the rich and powerful.
Corbyn has attracted new members and appears to work well at the grass roots level. He meets people person to person, not as a media shaped character with soundbites and spin. Connecting with people can only be a good thing. Corbyn has simultaneously won over mass support for his policies (as Gile’s Brandreth demonstrated even with the Tory “blue rinse brigade”) and failed to gain credibility as a leader.
The establishment rhetoric that he is offering pipe dreams or trying to returning us to the 1970s has been successfully deployed. Quite why the 1970s are the last great glory days of independence if you support Brexit, but the days of deepest gloom and economic misery when linked with Corby policies I haven’t yet understood. Fact free, rose tinted Brexit spectacles or communist bogy man. Take your pick.
Civil war, tantrums and a distraction from the disasters of government
The Tories lose their big gamble on the Brexit vote, their leader resigns, a cabinet with a significant number of clowns and clueless ministers is appointed, there is no plan for what to do next. So what does Labour do? Start a civil war of its own, to the delight of the media.
The PLP is represented to the outside world like a group of toddlers having a tantrum because they didn’t get to play in the sand pit while all around them the nursery is burning down. The NEC pursued court cases against its own recent members, denied them a leadership vote promised in their joining terms, but then offered them a vote on payment of another £25. Votes for money. Unethical. Hypocritical. Unbelievable.
But worse. A distraction from the disasters of government. No opposition to austerity, the erosion of living standards for the majority while the country gets richer for the enjoyment of the few. Party politics was swamping national need. Not why I joined!
The Leadership election
So to the second leadership vote in a year. Who to vote for? Over time I saw that economists, tax accounts and others who had agreed to provide professional consultancy to Corbyn and his team had begun to distance themselves. MPs had resigned from the shadow cabinet citing what I can only describe as poor team and resource management: failure to support plans for implementing his policies; not following through on promised actions; failing to realise a casual remark from him could divert the press away from a major policy launch. Team work and execution did not come across as his strong point.
Corbyn also has a problem with the press which he seems to ignore. Like it or not he needs a more effective communications strategy. Most people do not go to listen to him speak in person. They receive filtered news and the mainstream media applies a negatively biased filter. However popular his policies may be in a ‘blind tasting’, the minute his name is linked to them they lose their appeal. His critics have successfully made Corbyn’s name a byword for extreme left wing, idealistic, unaffordable, unattainable dreams. Fair or not polls repeatedly suggest people would rather vote for a competent devil than an incompetent angel.
I didn’t vote for Corby the 2nd time. Why? He was the leader of the opposition and he wasn’t opposing. He was criticising, he was pointing out problems, he was gaining members but he was not putting effective arguments in parliament or winning votes despite the governments very narrow majority.
Significantly for me he was acting as though Brexit wasn’t an issue. Most of his his voters had voted Remain but he was not representing them. He was letting Mrs May dictate, he was hiding behind the ‘will of the people’ and abdicating his responsibility to oppose and moderate. The ‘will of the people’ was not at all clear and Corbyn had a responsibility to represent his voters and explore and fight for the less damaging options. He wasn’t doing it.
More of the same
Jeremy was re-elected as leader and I started to wonder if I was in the right party. Should I be in any political party at all? The Liberal Democrats has spotted, presumably through social media, that I was a keen Remainer and had begun making approaches for support.
The branch meetings which had been suspended were resumed. I went to the first one, it was my first and as it turned out, only one. Everyone was concerned about major issues: the NHS, hospital closures, cuts to benefits for disabled people, zero hour contracts and sham employment. Really serious issues which united everyone there. I thought that if I got involved it might help. But it didn’t.
I knew when I joined that I wan’t ideologically “Labour”. I wanted to support policies that would benefit the people in my area, the hard working people more often patronised than listened to. I wanted to fix the things that people now think Brexit will fix (but which I don’t). I didn’t join to support the Labour party for its sake. I joined because it had the best fit between its policies and my views.
The austerity measures introduced by Osborne will be introduced this year. People’s lives will be made more difficult. The government is focused only on Brexit and Corbyn is waving it through. No-one is focusing on the real issues affecting the people in this area. The recent by-election turn out shows how few people think that voting makes a difference.
The trust paradox
The ‘will of the people’ has become an excuse for politicians of all shades to ignore their duty. Most people who voted leave did so because they thought it was in the best interests of the country and of themselves. I disagreed and voted Remain. Whatever the ‘will of the people’ I am completely certain that it does not give the government or parliament the right to abandon their duty to act in the best interests of the country.
I spoke to a lot of people who voted Leave and almost all have said that if Leaving was so bad for the country David Cameron would not have offered the referendum.
Politicians are widely distrusted, considered self-serving, out to build careers and feather their own nests at the tax payers expense. On the other hand if my contacts are typical, the average voter still wants to trust them on matters of such great importance as Brexit. “I’m not an expert. It’s their job.”
Putting the choice in a referendum makes no sense to the voters I know if either outcome isn’t equally acceptable but for political preference. It’s not their job to do in depth analysis or make recommendations. It’s their job to chose between viable alternatives.
That isn’t what happened in the EU referendum. It was no more than a political gamble that went wrong. I wanted the Labour party to speak out; to have the courage to explain the risks and potential impacts to the voters and to demand that the government provides realistic pros and cons of the multiple alternatives.
A good opposition could argue against the ‘not showing our negotiating hand’ claims if they had the motivation to do so. But they haven’t. Has the ‘Project Fear’ smear become an effective gag? Has her Majesty’s fearless opposition accepted Brexit as an article of faith and raising legitimate concerns as sacrilege?
I don’t expect the Labour party to overturn the result of the referendum but I do expect them to represent their voters and hold the government to account.
When the rumours began that Corbyn was intending to instruct the PLP to vote for the triggering of A50 rather than leave it to their own consciences I finally decided to leave the party.
Jeremy Corby was elected in large part because he was seen as honest but on the biggest single issue which is overwhelming all others, threatening to extend austerity and damage the NHS, I can’t see that honesty.
What is the point in being in an opposition party that waves through bills which many of their MPs genuinely believe could damage most the very people they entered politics to help?
If the Labour Party is no more than a glorified campaign group, I prefer to stay independent and chose for myself the campaigns I support.