By Gavin Callaghan
THERE is no doubt that 2015 was not the year Labour members and supporters hoped that it would be.
It was a year in which we lost, failed to learn lessons and are now at risk of becoming irrelevant, to thousands of voters in Essex.
If you had said to me on 1st January 2015 that by New Year’s Eve, Labour would have been reduced to just 232 MPs, the Conservative Party would have a Commons majority, Labour would be all but wiped out in Scotland and Jeremy Corbyn would be the Leader of the Opposition, I probably would have emigrated to Australia.
And yet as I reflect on the past twelve months, the biggest frustration for me and many of my colleagues in the South Essex Labour Party is that nationally, we do not appear to have learnt a single lesson from the election.
The buzz word during the Labour leadership election was ‘austerity’. Those rallying behind Corbyn pointed to a belief that our failure under Ed Miliband to properly oppose austerity led to our defeat in key marginal seats such as Thurrock and South Basildon.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Over the course of the 18 months leading up to the General Election, my campaign team and I in Basildon and Billericay had conversations with more than 11,000 people.
I can put my hand on my heart and say that not once did anyone ever use the word ‘austerity’ with me on a doorstep.
That’s because it’s the preserve of the Islington-intelligienca, university text book reading, academic wing of the socialist left that has dominated Labour Party thinking for a decade and which has proven twice that it cannot win General Elections.
To the man and woman going about their shopping in Lakeside or Basildon town centre, Labour’s position on austerity was not the decisive factor that would determine how they would vote in the election.
In fact in Thurrock and in South Basildon, Labour lost the election, not because the public believed Ed Balls was going to be too tight with the purse strings, but because they thought that as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Balls would simply spend, spend and spend.
They didn’t believe us when we said we understood their concerns on immigration, because we didn’t. To the scaffolder in the Plough and Tractor pub in the heart of Basildon who was laid off because he was earning Â£11.50 per hour and the foreman had found a Romanian willing to work for Â£7.50 per hour, how was I supposed to explain to him that immigrants had made a net economic contribution to the country, when it had come at his expense?
I didn’t have the answers to the questions that people wanted on the economy and immigration in May and I certainly don’t have them under Jeremy Corbyn now. What is perhaps worse is that I understand that under Jeremy’s leadership, I never will get these answers, which throws our ability to win again in South Essex into jeopardy.
And it’s a tragedy.
Writing this blog fills my heart with complete sadness. I’m someone who has devoted the majority of my working life to the Labour Party and to its values.
I live my life by those values too; of solidarity, of common decency and of respect for others; for a belief in the dignity of work, equality for all and in a society where we can achieve more by working together than we can alone.
I recognise the awesome impact that the application of these gentle and compassionate values can have on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across Thurrock and South Basildon if Labour is given the chance to serve again.
I say that with confidence because under Tony Blair’s Labour government – the most radically reforming socialist government in our party’s history – the lives of thousands of families in Thurrock and Basildon (including my own) changed for the better. More money was invested in our schools, hospitals, railways, roads, councils, police and fire services than ever before; for the first time in history a student who was good enough to attend university was judged on the basis of their results rather than on the bank balance of mum and dad; apprenticeships were revived and almost 250,000 new, multi-year, multi-award apprenticeships were created; families moved up the income scale and they felt they had a stake in the success of the British economy.
In other words, for people in Thurrock and Basildon, under Blair and Brown, doors of opportunity were opened for men, women and their children that had been closed to them under Margaret Thatcher and John Major and which no longer even exist under David Cameron.
People responded to their lives changing positively under Blair by voting for Labour three times in a row.
Today I ask, why would Labour members and activists choose to distance ourselves from these socialist successes? Because in doing so, we alienate the very people who had previously voted for us and who we need to vote for us again if we are to return to government.
Our collective failure in 2015 to bury our ‘Blair-demons’ that continue to dog the left and the right of the party, has meant that we have allowed our country to embark on a one-party state. Labour has chosen to turn in on itself rather than put the party at the service of the public.
People within the Labour movement must realise quickly that the reality facing Labour is stark. The challenge is not only difficult, it could become insurmountable if the Conservatives gerrymander in the way they plan to.
In the next three years, the Conservative Party will do four things to radically reduce Labour’s chances of ever winning again.
They will undertake and implement a parliamentary constituency boundary review that will reduce the number of MPs from 646 to 600. The overwhelming majority of the 46 seats that will disappear will be safe Labour seats.
They will continue to stoke the fires of separatism and nationalism which will strengthen the SNP’s grip of constituencies in Scotland, allowing them to win the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2016 and keep the idea of independence alive for another generation.
They have already reduced the amount of money that the state provides to opposition parties to allow them to scrutinise the government. This is called short money, and it is used to hire special advisers, policy experts and make party political advertisements that hold the government to account. It’s a key part of any opposition’s arsenal, and it has been reduced to the tune of Â£6million by David Cameron.
Finally, the Tories will introduce and implement a Trade Union Bill that will limit the amount of money that the Trade Unions will be allowed to donate to the Labour and Scottish National Parties. They will say it is to ‘clean up campaign finance’ whilst doing nothing to tackle the millionaires who offshore their tax and donate to the Conservative Party. The net result will be that Labour will lose, Â£43 million by the time of the 2020 election, meaning we will not be able to fund effective campaigns.
To many reading this, it won’t sound like a big deal. The first you will really notice of this will be in late April 2020 when you haven’t received any literature through your door from the Labour Party or seen any TV or YouTube adverts from the Leader of the Opposition.
Stop and pause for a moment to consider whether you think it a good idea for David Cameron, George Osborne, Jackie Doyle-Price and Stephen Metcalfe to have a decade more in power, free from strong and effective accountability? A decade in which they are free to ride roughshod over the vulnerable? Where they can continue to sell off the NHS? Where they can continue their relentless focus on the top 25% of pupils by bringing back selective schools while the 75% of other children are left behind in their reforms to Education? Where our housing and infrastructure continues to stagnate because the wishes of developers are more important to Tory ministers than your sons, daughters and grandchildren’s schools, homes, GP surgeries and hospitals?
That is where we are heading.
Labour’s alternative Prime Minister is a serial rebel. In his 32 years as an MP he has voted against his own party more than 200 times. Jeremy Corbyn is arguably the most disloyal MP that parliament has ever seen. Principled or not, disloyalty is not a trait that appeals to the Essex Man.
For South Essex Labour the result of 2015 means we will be relying on our councillors, (hoping they regain seats despite the national picture) to fly the flag for Labour. Selection of parliamentary candidates is likely to be put on ice until after the boundary review in 2018 meaning we have a three year void where Labour has no parliamentary voice in Thurrock and Basildon.
Having been born and bred in South Essex, this is my home and I understand the people here. I know why Labour lost their trust in 2010 and why we didn’t do enough to get it back in 2015. I will be working hard, along with my Labour friends and colleagues to demonstrate to the people of Thurrock and Basildon, that there are
Labour politicians who can and will speak for them.
It promises to be a great political challenge and it is one that I am well and truly up for in 2016 and beyond.
Cllr Gavin Callaghan
Leader of the Basildon Labour Group
Labour Councillor for Pitsea North West (South Basildon & East Thurrock)