Like several other local Labour Party members, I have spent a little time in the last couple of weeks putting leaflets through letter boxes in Hadleigh, as there is a County Council by-election on Thursday. Doesn’t sound all that exciting, I appreciate. But it matters. Not just because it matters anyway, but particularly because at the moment our county council (Suffolk) is one of those which is squirreling away reserves whilst cutting public services such as community transport, library funds and putting vulnerable elderly people into privatised but failing care homes. And there is always the possibility of a by-election getting the council to a tipping point where, with enough opposition, some of this damage can at least be paused, if not reversed.
Protecting public services is the kind of result local people – of all political hues – generally want. Which is why many, more active, party members across the country get through a lot of shoe leather every week, pounding pavements and knocking on doors in attempts to persuade people of the case for voting Labour – or indeed for voting at all. (And despite the bad press given to most politicians, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a committed member of any party who hasn’t done the same, in their attempt to persuade people that their answers to the big and little questions of public policy are the best solutions.)
But yesterday I hesitated before putting the leaflet through one of those letterboxes with a ‘No Junk Mail’ sticker. There are, sadly, many people who think that political communications are junk mail. Maybe they have bought into the discourse that all politically-active people are ‘in it for themselves’; maybe they just aren’t interested in much at all. Either way it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs. But if it is because they are disillusioned with the state of the debate at national level, I’m with them. I was actually rather relieved that no-one was about to talk to, as it’s rather embarrassing being in the Labour party at the moment.
I’m a member of the party. That doesn’t make me a crazy Corbynista, a machiavellian plotter, an infiltrator or (what seems the worst insult of the moment) a ‘centrist’. It doesn’t make me a supporter of Momentum, nor does it make me proud of the MPs who decided that just when the country most needed strong opposition, they would create political havoc (all to no avail, it would appear) – even though, like them, I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn is the best person to lead the party. Like, I think, many thousands of party members, it makes me someone who wants Labour values to influence public and community life, and good left-wing policies in place at local and national level: things that make a positive difference to our lives and our children’ futures. But the present narrative in the mainstream media and the social media whirlwind is that Labour members are all new or old, democratic or anti-democratic, naive or selfish. There appears to be no middle ground. Well, I don’t want to be pigeon-holed, and nor do most of the people I know. Nor do I want to abandon the party just to get stuff done.
A couple of weeks ago, I voted for Owen Smith. Not because he has all the answers, but because he at least represents an opportunity to start a new conversation. This time six years ago I was in the room at Labour party conference when Ed Miliband won his surprise victory. It’s no exaggeration to say the atmosphere was tense. I’d voted for him, for a number of reasons. And I know, it didn’t work out. Doesn’t look as if my candidate is likely to win this time round, but what is most frustrating is that whichever of them wins, neither of them is making things happen locally.
The everyday things that get discussed in councils – like whether 17-year-olds should have to pay to get to school, or which town can do without a fire engine – really do make a difference to people’s lives. The deeper that austerity bites, the harder it is for councillors (with the right values but the wrong budgets) to fight for the right answers. But the more we and the media focus only on the people at the top of the party, and on the splits in the party, the less room there is to actually discuss those issues and support the councillors and their supporters trying to stand up and make the right choices every day. Last week, the Labour opposition on the County Council proposed a motion aimed at improving the way elderly care home residents are treated in Suffolk – including the requirement that the county stop placing people in poorly-rated care homes. The Conservatives voted it down.
That by-election? It’s to replace a Conservative councillor who swanned off to live in the USA and refused, for eighteen months, to resign from his seat. The kind of self-serving caper that makes it into Private Eye, embarrasses even the Tories, and gives politicians of all hues a bad name. Whatever is going on in the national Labour Party on Thursday, and however it is played out through mainstream and social media, let’s hope the people of Hadleigh can see the wood for the trees and vote for the right candidate (which would be Sue Monks).