It won’t be enough to speak only to the poorest. Middle-income workers are also struggling to feed and house themselves, writes RABBIL SIKDAR
DOES anyone know what “One Nation Labour” meant? It was vague and unclear and summed up everything frustrating about Ed Miliband. Jeremy Corbyn is not a man troubled by such problems. He is defined by his beliefs in social justice and now the party is illuminated with that clarity too.
The Tories have already moved quickly to call themselves the party of workers. It feeds into that idea that those with strong work ethics don’t need any form of support, just ruthless individualism and a grotesquely unjust and unequal social order justified through the demonisation of the poor.
It subtly rebrands Labour as the party of the work-shy, tapping into the ageless myth of the poor being lazy. Labour for too long vacated the role of being an effective opposition, neither rebutting these myths nor offering policies that made genuine impacts on people’s lives. Until Jeremy Corbyn. Until the world started spinning faster and it seemed everything orbited around Labour conferences and tectonic plates collided and left the world shaking every time Corbyn spoke. The astonishment at his victory as Labour leader is nothing compared to what will happen if he becomes the prime minister.
Now it needs to counteract the Tory spin and portray itself as the party of the 99 per cent. It needs to convince people that it is not only working-class voters from Ukip or Scotland who matter, or just students who matter, but those on a middle income too. It needs to convince the middle class that they are part of the same struggle as low-income earners against the free-market neoliberalism enjoyed by the super-rich 1 per cent.
It was the Occupy movement that created a powerful sense of unity among ordinary people with the theme of the 99 per cent. It’s a symbol of solidarity that Labour should define their messages through.
While the working class are robbed by welfare cuts, low wages and having to pay almost half of their income in taxes, the middle class face a shortage of homes, a lack of middle-income jobs, cash-strapped NHS hospitals and tuition fee debts. A lot of these problems are shared by those at the bottom.
Yet at the same time the wealth of the richest 1,000 in Britain has reached over £500 billion while tax lost due to avoidance and evasion costs the country £120bn. The government refuses to build homes, provide free education or stop cuts to welfare but will subsidise businesses with £93bn a year. Rather than forcing employers to pay supermarket workers a living wage, the government happily subsidised the employer to keep paying poverty wages with £11bn spent on in-work benefits.
But with tax credits shredded now, the government has shifted the emphasis for a living wage onto the employer, freeing themselves of any burden. Yet how do they expect workers to collectively bargain for a living wage if they have some of the most draconian, undemocratic and restrictive laws regarding trade unions?
Everyone has the same hopes and fears: a good, secure job, decent home, excellent healthcare and education.
Aspiration has recently been defined through absolute individualism, through tax cuts and welfare cuts, but there is little aspiration for those suffering on the minimum wage or those students saddled with heavy debt, unable to progress in life.
Those in the middle have been squeezed by cuts. Rail fares are spectacularly high to the point where sometimes it’s easier to travel abroad than in your own country. Falls in unemployment statistics do not conceal the low-pay, low-skill job economy currently provided by Britain — unproductive and offering no long-term stability for the future.
In an economy that works for the masses, productivity is maintained by high wages as people are likely to invest their earnings in purchases, helping small and medium businesses. Banks can offer loans — as they once did — to help businesses struggling to pay their full-time employees a living wage, or just struggling to start.
There is a shortage of jobs and many communities need economic replenishment after Thatcher’s annihilation of the industries left behind a state of poverty and mass unemployment many communities could not claw themselves out of. Investing in the renewable energy industry would create hundreds of thousands of jobs for communities that need them, building their skills and rekindling that community identity the industries once gave them.
Failing to build homes while flogging off council homes has been disastrous, sending prices sky-high, with them fetching millions in poor areas. Powers have been given to private developers who have often hoarded land, such as Tesco have, or failed to build genuinely affordable housing. It’s resulted in many cities such as London being impossible to live in and the city being slowly socially cleansed of ordinary working-class families, with many relocated to cities like Stoke.
Young people have simply been unable to get onto the housing ladder, often forced to stay at home with their families.
For those at the bottom, it’s often meant overcrowded homes which have huge impacts on children’s health and education prospects. It’s made worse by the realisation that the rich have stockpiled abandoned homes worth hundreds of millions in London alone, at a time when families cannot buy homes locally, or are either made homeless or forced to relocate somewhere alien to them.
There is of course the rent crisis. Students, saddled with huge loan debt and a lack of genuine graduate jobs, often have to pay much of their income on rents and bills. Housing benefits have effectively subsidised private landlords, topping up wages of low-income tenants so they can pay extortionate rents. This does little for the prospects or ambition of students, middle class or working class, and simply fuels calls for rent controls to bring spending on housing benefits down and relieve the pressure on students.
For all families, it’s not just housing but the NHS and its increasing shift towards privatisation that is a well-documented fear. An astounding £780m was paid this year to private healthcare companies for NHS contracts at a time when the NHS is being starved of cash to make the process of privatisation inevitable.
That the NHS was a universal public healthcare system stripped of the profit motive appealed to all — something everyone shared, that bonded them together. This is the Labour legacy that Corbyn has to tap into.
What’s crucial is that Corbyn does not hesitate in setting out his political agenda. He has to make saving the NHS and solving the housing crisis the heart of his transformative vision for Britain. He has to show that Labour has policies that actually change people’s lives for the better. He has to empower all parts of the 99 per cent, not just those at the bottom.