Diane Abott: The political debate is starting to shift in Britain

Despite the relentless media attacks on Corbyn, more and more people are coming to understand that Tory austerity is a political, ideological project, not an economic necessity, says DIANE ABBOTT


AS WE approach 2016, we are faced with arguably the most right-wing programme in recent British history.
We live in the most unequal country in the EU in terms of wages. The growth in inequality here is of such a scale that it is helping to drive increasing in–equality across Europe as a whole. It is utterly staggering.
Five years of vicious cuts have made matters worse — and the Tories’ deepest cuts are still to hit.
Under the last government, each household across the country lost £1,127 on average just through tax and benefit changes. Real wages fell for seven years — and this decline has only stopped because inflation has dropped even lower than wages. The Tories’ age of austerity has ushered in a boom in low-paid, insecure jobs with few or zero guaranteed hours.
At the same time the wealth of the richest 1,000 people in Britain has doubled since the financial crash. Measures such as cutting the top rate of income tax have given the lie to the notion that the government is somehow strapped for cash.
Despite the increase in inequality — and accompanying rise in poverty — it was only a few months ago that many were telling us that cuts and austerity cannot be challenged, that — in Thatcher’s infamous phrase — “there is no alternative.”
But the political landscape started to shift on September 12, when I attended the packed special Labour Party conference to see the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s resounding victory in the Labour Party leadership election with more than 251,000 of 422,000 votes. As John Prescott commented at the time: “The party gave an overwhelming endorsement to this man [who] got more votes than Tony Blair.”
In electing Jeremy Corbyn, Labour members chose a leader whose platform was clear — saying that if we are going to improve people’s living standards and basic rights, if we are to build a more equal and just society, we need to unite against these attacks and present a clear, positive alternative to austerity.
One hundred days on — and despite much media coverage being relentlessly anti-Jeremy — we can see that the new way of doing politics Jeremy stands for is starting to shift the political debate Britain, shaking the government on key issues — most notably cuts to working families’ tax credits — and bringing new support to the Labour Party.
In short, with shadow chancellor John McDonnell playing a central role, we are seeing stronger Labour opposition to ideologically driven austerity measures from the Conservative government that attack people’s living standards and threaten the economy’s fragile growth.
The government retreats on tax credits cuts and proposed police cuts were a clear vindication of this stance.
But there have been important achievements in other areas too where Jeremy has made clear his principled stance and Labour has provided a clear opposition to the Tories.
A clear agenda is coming forward that can win in the years ahead and more and more people understand that austerity is a political, ideological project, not an economic necessity.
Other new ways of doing things have emphasised how Labour can become the party of public opinion rather than the Westminster bubble.
Using questions from members of the public in Prime Minister’s Questions has been effective and popular. Adopting an attitude of working constructively with the movements and campaigns that exist across civil society in Britain against the Tories’ devastating cuts agenda will also help strengthen Labour’s support.
Labour conference was a breath of fresh air and extremely positive for the party.
Indeed, in terms of the Labour Party itself, membership has doubled since May’s general election, mostly due to the entry of Jeremy into the race and then his subsequent election as leader.
And this stronger Labour Party was on show last month, when I and hundreds of others were out in the rain campaigning for Jim McMahon in the Oldham West & Royton by-election.
The whole Labour family came to Oldham in the course of the campaign: Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, MPs, councillors and activists from all over Britain.
There were also four coach-loads of supporters from Momentum, who Jim McMahon thanked for their positive contribution.
London-based commentators and MPs took pleasure in claiming that the by-election was a “referendum” on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. They said confidently that the majority would drop or we could even lose. Well, if it was a referendum on the new leader, it was one he won handsomely. Not only did we win in Oldham, but we won with an increased share of the vote.
In terms of the national issues, the key to this result — and good early opinion polling for next year’s London mayoral race — is that Labour has started to become the party that clearly stands up for the interests of the majority and defends their living standards from the cuts.
We are opposing the assault on civil liberties and human rights that this government wants to inflict. And Labour has shown by opposing the Tories’ unworkable Immigration Bill that we can embrace Britain’s rich diversity and extol its economic, social and cultural benefits.
My constituents and Britain as a whole need a Labour Party that comes together to oppose the Tories and delivers a Labour government the country so desperately needs, an equal and fair society with housing for all, a world-class national health system, plus well-paid and high-skilled jobs.
Let’s make it happen in 2016.
  • Diane Abbott is shadow international development secretary and Labour MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington.
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