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‘A big part of my campaign is the way the government has treated the NHS’

RICHARD BURGON is on the campaign trail for re-election as Labour MP for Leeds East constituency in West Yorkshire. He talks to Morning Star northern reporter Peter Lazenby

“PEOPLE have suffered here, as they have across the country, as a result of austerity and the way the government has treated the NHS — and especially its shocking treatment of NHS staff,” Richard Burgon told the Morning Star as he prepared for the official launch of his campaign for re-election as Labour MP for Leeds East parliamentary constituency yesterday.

The particular mention of the NHS as well as austerity comes partly because his constituency’s two biggest employers are St James’s Hospital — Jimmy’s of past TV fame — and Leeds City Council. 

The Tory government’s butchery of local authority funding and its wrecking of the NHS are having a disproportionate effect on the people of Leeds East. 

The constituency figured among the top 20 for levels of poverty in a recent survey. He sees the evidence in the increasing use of foodbanks by his constituents.

“Low wages, rising bills, energy firms being allowed to rip people off — the use of foodbanks has been increasing exponentially,” he said.

“A big part of my campaign is the way the government has treated the NHS — especially its staff — and the way they have run down public services.”

Geographically the Leeds East constituency stretches from inner-city districts of York Road, Harehills and Burmantofts out to Garforth and Swillington, two small towns on the outskirts of the city which joined the constituency for the first time this year through recent boundary changes. 

Both were once mining communities, though Swillington’s last pit closed in 1970 and Garforth’s in the dim and distant 1930. Garforth’s Miners’ Arms pub now calls itself Miners Bar and Kitchen.

The constituency embraces council estates, among them Gipton, which has a history of poverty-related and social problems, and Seacroft with its high-rise flats.

“There’s traditional working-class solidarity,” said Burgon. Suffering the effects of austerity, he says, “local people look out for each other.”

The problems brought to his regular constituency surgeries are reflected in his campaigning work locally and nationally.

The appalling decline in social care provision after its takeover by privateers is one of them. The sector, once based on council-run care homes and home care run, is short of 100,000 staff under the private profiteers.

“We need a national care service based on the founding principles of the NHS,” he said — universal and free at the point of need, based on need and not the ability to pay.”

His current campaigns include the cause of the Women Against State Pension Inequality (Waspis) whose raising of women’s retirement age from 60 to 66 cost the worst-hit up to £60,000 in lost state pensions.

“I’ve worked with local activists and raised it in Parliament,” he said. “Before the election was called I was calling for the government to put forward compensation proposals. So many women were robbed of the money due to them.”

Another issue championed by Burgon, among others, is banning the practice of MPs having second jobs — a lucrative source of income which has seen mainly Tory members of Parliament collectively pocket as much as £10 million in extra income in a single year.

Burgon was the first MP to put down a motion in the House of Commons calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

With Imran Hussain MP he also recently went to the International Criminal Court in the Hague to present evidence when the court drew up charges of war crimes against Israel.

“We organised evidence-gathering meetings — evidence from medics and people who have been on the ground in Gaza, individuals and organisations,” he said.

At Westminster Burgon is secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs. He was also shadow secretary of state for justice when Jeremy Corbyn led the Labour Party. The post was appropriate. His job for 10 years before becoming an MP was that of trade union lawyer for Thompson’s law firm, representing workers from unions which included Unite, rail union RMT, public service union Unison and bakers’ union BFAWU.

Earlier this year RMT general secretary Mick Lynch and BFAWU general secretary Sarah Woolley attended an election fundraiser for Burgon at Harehills Labour Club in his constituency, so the union links remain strong and respect is mutual.

Burgon’s Leeds East constituency has been a Labour stronghold for decades. The previous incumbent was George Mudie, former leader of Leeds City Council who retired in 2015 after first being elected in 1992. Mudie is campaigning alongside Burgon.

Before that was the MP was Denis Healey, chancellor of the Exchequer in the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1970s.

One of Healey’s famous quotes was that he would squeeze property speculators “until the pips squeak” and his reference to being verbally attacked in the Commons by mild-mannered Tory Sir Geoffrey Howe as “akin to being savaged by a dead sheep.”

Healey, who was a member of the Communist Party from 1937 to 1940, was East Leeds MP from 1955 to 1992.

Labour’s majority in general elections in Leeds East has seldom fallen below 10,000 in the last 50 years. In the Blair landslide of 1997 it hit 17,466, its biggest-ever. Burgon should be able to look forward to topping that and returning to his place among those Labour MPs still fighting for socialism.

The district of East Leeds has had its moments in political and industrial history. Leeds was once the booming heart of the international tailoring industry, with household names such as Montague Burton and Alexandre.

At its peak the Burton’s factory in Harehills employed 12,000 workers, and its canteen fed 3,000 at a time in four sittings. The canteen also fed the Jarrow marchers as they as they rested in Leeds on their trek from north-east England to London during the Great Depression in 1936 demanding jobs and help for the unemployed.

The York Road area of East Leeds is home to Leeds’ Irish community. Among the community’s forebears, was Tom Maguire (1865-95), pioneering socialist, trade union organiser and poet and co-founder with Keir Hardie and others of the Independent Labour Party at its first conference in Bradford in 1893. He is buried in Becket Street Cemetery in the constituency.

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