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‘A Labour government will mean people don’t have to be scared any more’

Shadow labour minister LAURA PIDCOCK talks to Morning Star editor Ben Chacko about why her party is ready and able to transform the lives of millions

LAURA PIDCOCK, who addresses today’s Gala, is not surprised that the summer has seen media and Establishment hostility to Labour reach fever pitch.

“We’re in a quite extraordinary political situation,” she says, “every party is. Conservatism and ‘free market’ capitalism are getting difficult to justify.

“The right know that on social care, on the NHS, on schools, the idea that the market can do a better job than a public service is being hammered. We have the Care Quality Commission reports and the waiting lists and the public can see that the private sector has failed, and not just failed the workers but the patients and users too.

“Conservatives will remain the same, the protectors of the status quo, and they know we have narratives and policies that speak to public needs. So these attacks are aimed at putting us in a weaker position in advance of a general election.”

Much media coverage implies Labour couldn’t win any such election — though the press’s pro-Tory bias means a bad European election result for Labour has received far more attention than the dramatically worse performance of the Conservatives, with the party of government failing to hit double figures for the first time in its history.

Why’s that? “There’s very little space for anti-austerity messages to cut through when everything is dominated by Brexit. It’s an important issue and not an easy one. There are solid left comrades who voted Leave and solid left comrades who voted Remain, there are neoliberal capitalists who backed Leave and who backed Remain, so it’s not a natural division for us.

“We are the opposition, and we are in opposition to so much more than the government’s Brexit strategy, but the whole narrative has become about that.

“I can tell you that my constituents are not asking me for a second referendum. Some are saying get on and leave but most people are worried about good-quality jobs. Employment is quite high in my North West Durham constituency but most people are on low pay, 35 per cent of children are in poverty and most of those are in working households. 

“This is what matters to people, jobs, pay, schools and hospitals, and yet everyone acts like Jeremy [Corbyn] has done something outrageous if he brings up anything other than Brexit at PMQs.

“The media is completely obsessed. None of it is about what it will mean for people. I was on Politics Live with [BBC political editor] Laura Kuenssberg and [Politics Live presenter] Jo Coburn and it was all how will this play for Labour, how will this play for Tories. Not what will this mean for 14 million people living in poverty.

“They spin it so our message isn’t heard. I get people saying: ‘Oh why didn’t you tell us that you’re only supporting a second referendum if it’s no deal or a bad Tory deal as the alternative?’ They think we just support a second referendum.

“I get people’s frustration when they say they want a clean break and how there’s this narrative that ‘no deal’ is Brexit in its purest form. But a withdrawal agreement is just about the terms on which we leave, it’s still Leave.

“And what a nation state can do, in or out of the EU, is significant. Yes this is a fast-moving difficult process, but the idea that in one scenario or another none of our manifesto pledges count is ridiculous.

“To say if we leave all is lost or if we remain all is lost is too simplistic. It does matter who you vote for. Just in my area looking at the ministry of labour, there are significant opportunities in or out to advance workers’ rights and legislate for sectoral collective bargaining.

“If we get Boris Johnson as PM there will be zero change, again whether we’re in or out it will just be neoliberalism. There will be no attempt to look for an alternative.

“People need that alternative so they have to do what they can to discredit Labour now, before an election campaign where they’d have to give us equal airtime, ask us and the Conservatives similar questions, when people would be asking about more than Brexit — about public services, models of ownership, international policy — and would come away realising we’re not all the same.

“So you have this deeply concerning development with briefings from the Civil Service, and [US Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo saying the United States is trying to stop us getting elected, and the Panorama show uncritically repeating claims against us, all this heat on the Labour Party.

“Some of it could be seen as fair scrutiny, but when you look at how it’s framed and the difference from how other political parties are treated, it’s biased.”

That bias stems from Establishment fear of how radically Labour could change Britain. When I last met Laura at the Arise Festival of Left Ideas in London, she spoke of how the scale and ambition of the party’s plans to reshape the workplace and empower ordinary people sometimes left her feeling dizzy and “scared to look down.” What immediate changes would electing Labour deliver?

“Right away there will be a change in environment. Things will feel different, hopeful. Right now so many people are scared. Scared of the bank, scared of the Department for Work and Pensions, scared of the state in all its forms — what the council might do to them, what the social services might do to them, what the immigration authorities might do to them. 

“Overnight there would be a public proclamation, you don’t need to be scared any more. You are not going to be punished by the state.

“The Tories have built this complete Orwellian doublespeak situation where they get up and say ‘schools have never had so much money,’ for example, when teachers know they are buying materials out of their own pockets, that children are hungry, that special educational needs have never been so under-resourced — and that with academisation we’ve seen a massive land-grab where assets that used to belong to us collectively, our schools, have been effectively stolen.

“Labour isn’t shy of challenging all that. In my own area we would get started immediately, looking at which sectors we can begin to implement collective agreements that raise pay and improve conditions across the board. High on the list are social care, agriculture, retail. We will quickly ban zero-hours contracts and uplift national pay rates while not accepting that an hourly rate minimum is enough — there needs to be security on hours worked so you can live on your wage.

“Of course the enforcement arrangements to ensure everyone can realise their rights will take a bit longer to kick in but the difference will be seen before that. Even now we’re seeing some employers improve business practices because they know Labour is starting to plan these things.

“A Labour government will mean things start being built again, people have more money in their pockets, there will be provision for small businesses in communities like mine to borrow when the bank won’t lend. We will reshape the energy sector in public hands, we will own the railway system again. 

“Not everyone will agree with everything Labour are saying on public ownership. It takes time to raise consciousness on how different things really can be. But Labour’s offer can speak to everyone. What if you are raising three kids now and they all want to be doctors? University could cost your family £200,000. On that practical level we are pointing out the system isn’t working for people any more.”

It’s a powerful vision. But many say Labour should stop harping on about a general election when it doesn’t have the numbers in Parliament to force one.

“People get hung up on parliamentary arithmetic and I understand why. But never forget the significant pressure people can put on MPs from outside.

“Even Boris Johnson will be influenced by public pressure and discontent. Speaking as an activist and as an MP, protest is almost the most important element of our democracy. The status quo isn’t OK. People are dying because of benefit cuts, they’re dying on NHS waiting lists, children are going to bed hungry. 

“Protest puts pressure on MPs to do something and they’re vital for boosting our morale as MPs who want to do something, they strengthen Jeremy and the left, they give our whole movement confidence. We can’t have a tiny proportion of our country telling us who the next prime minister is going to be — the second unelected prime minister in a row. This isn’t working. The case for an election is strong.”

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