Sadly, the current row about what Labour will and will not oppose from the Tory budget is pretty irrelevant in terms of actually helping the people who will be affected by the change. However we vote, the Conservatives will pass their budget and their welfare bill because they have a parliamentary majority. A lot of people are feeling sad and angry at our politics right now – but our task as a party is to bottle those feelings and turn them to something useful.
Last week’s budget made me cry. It made me cry for all those people I met during the election campaign, who were already struggling to make ends meet, and whose lives will be made unbearably harder by the attack on tax credits. It made me cry for those young people who will choose not to go to university because they will no longer get a maintenance grant. It made me cry for those mothers who will have to decide whether to label their child as the product of rape in order to get benefits for them. It made me cry for the country I want to live in, where we give people opportunities to fulfil their potential, rather than use poverty to grind hope out of them. Even before this budget, 25 per cent of children in Conwy council area were growing up in poverty. And it will get worse. It is barely two months after the election and we have almost five more years of this government.
The budget also made me cry at the frustration of opposition and the state my party currently finds itself in. The Labour party has five years in Westminster where we can decide what to say, what to oppose and what to argue for. But rarely, if at all, will we able to decide what to do. Of course we have opportunities to make choices at a local level, in the Welsh assembly and in local authorities, but those choices will be framed by Tory governments and Tory budgets. As individuals we will no doubt be active in our communities supporting local good causes that will improve people’s lives, but the base we will be improving them from will be set by a United Kingdom government that has little commitment to the betterment of ordinary people.
For all of us who supported and campaigned for Labour in the general election, the exit poll and the results that followed struck like a body blow which left us bruised and reeling. But the responses I have seen from some since leave me half-hoping they are still concussed. Let’s be clear: from whatever angle you are looking at it, we did not lose the election because we had too many people in our tent, so telling people who want to be part of it that they have no place in our party is counterintuitive on a generous interpretation. Successful political parties in electoral systems such as ours need to be a coalition of interests and thus inevitably involve compromise. In order to win, we need to come out of the leadership contest in a position to build a broad electoral coalition to win in 2020. And if we don’t, as ever, it will be the people of this country who most need a Labour government who will suffer most.
Our debate about where to go next is being conducted through the proxy of a leadership election. But it is a serious debate and one that deserves serious and civilised discussion recognising that many are still bruised from the election result and all of us need to do our best to respect that. I worry that it is a debate some people have been put off getting involved because of the level of bile and vitriol they have seen online. I know of two constituency Labour parties that have discussed not making a leadership nomination in case it proves too divisive. This is not a good place to be. That said, meetings I have attended recently have been comradely with a broad spectrum of party opinion in the room. We need to keep it like that and we need more debate, not less. But it needs to respect others’ opinions. It needs to focus on real differences of policy and qualities of leadership, not name-calling. We need to be asking how we grow the economy not just distribute what we currently have. Not to do so is to let George Osborne off the hook for his economic failure.
Little more than two months ago I was united with people across the country in campaigning desperately hard for a Labour government. I am going to offer others involved in that the respect of assuming that they have not changed their mind, and I would appreciate it if they did the same, even if we think different leaders are better placed to get us there. I will be going along to my constituency Labour party to argue for the candidate I want to lead us, but I will also be aware that I want us to come out of this leadership contest, ready to unite behind the leader who is elected and take on the real enemy, the Tory government, so that we can win in 2020. In five years’ time I want to see my party implementing a budget that improves people’s lives rather than making them cry. A budget where we can decide on our own proposals, rather than fall out about whether to vote for those put forward by other people.
Mary Wimbury is former parliamentary candidate for Aberconwy. She tweets @MaryWimbury
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