All over the country, people will take to the streets today to protest against the Bedroom Tax. Battling against a government policy which targets a vulnerable minority, facing down apathy (not so much towards the cause, but the idea that we can do anything about it) a genuine, grassroots alliance has emerged. The campaign has been co-ordinated by those directly affected by the tax, local community campaigners and disability rights groups. It has brought different political strands together, with ordinary Labour Party activists joining with community activists in a variety of parties or none at all.
In a parallel universe, Labour Party members have been treated to Ed Miliband’s passion for a better politics (#betterpolitics), based on a bottom up, mass movement. This week’s instalment:
“I want to build a stronger Labour Party – a mass movement that can take on the Tories in 2015 and win – and I want you to be a part of this…I’ve always said change in our country must come from the bottom up, that politics is too important to be left only to politicians. That goes for our party too.”
It sounds like Ed Miliband and the Labour Party would want to be involved in the Bedroom Tax campaign, then. Not so much. One Nation Labour – and I mean by that, the leadership, our Parliamentary and local representatives – will be all but absent from this particular national, “mass movement”. Of course, there will be a few honourable exceptions. Today, Labour councillor David Stockdale will address the rally in Newcastle and in the North East more generally, people like Grahame Morris and the two Ians, Lavery and Mearns have been openly supportive of the demonstrations – but in a sense, that just goes to prove the rule. As was the case with Bedroom Tax protests earlier in the year, local party members will join these protests in the thousands, but without any official sanction from the party hierarchy.
I was involved in organising those earlier, fantastically well attended protests in March of this year. In Durham we had 300 people who came along to our protest in the Market Place. That might not sound like that many, but believe me, in Durham that is a very significant protest. It is no coincidence that since, we have had a number of other successful protests, stalls and events which have really lifted the political mood in previously sleepy Durham, including a 230-strong People’s Assembly just a couple of weeks ago. There was an awkward moment in the run up to the Durham protest when the organisers had to “un-invite” Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman to speak at the protest when it emerged that she had given an interview apparently supporting the Bedroom Tax in principle, while not in practice. After debating the matter for a while, we looked at the title of the protest (Durham Says No to the Bedroom Tax) and our banners and sent her a very politely worded “thanks, but no thanks”. This was perplexing, because Helen had been one of the best MPs in condemning the tax, even recording a video diary on it, but this was confusion at a national level being played out at a local level. As it turned out, that was just the beginning.
Watching the Bedroom Tax campaign from their Westminster bubble, the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party has skulked in the background. Like an uninvited kid at a party, it has hidden in the corners in the hope that it will still be able to get a party bag at the end. Because, ladies and gentlemen – unbelievably – the Shadow Front Bench still haven’t committed to scrapping the Bedroom Tax. I’ll say that again, because there does seem to be some confusion. The Labour Party leadership has said that the Bedroom Tax is cruel, inhumane, devastating to communities, unworkable. All manner of ink has been spilled to condemn it…but the Party itself has not found itself able to commit to scrapping the Bedroom Tax in Government. Both Eds – Miliband and Balls – even came to the Labour Party National Executive Committee meeting to say as much.
Why? The most unpopular piece of Government legislation since the Poll Tax; a tax that turns communities and people’s lives upside down; a tax that specifically targets those least able to deal with that upheaval and a tax that aims to divide communities; a tax that has seen thousands of the party’s own supporters out on the streets to demand an end to it – but the Labour Party in Parliament refuses to commit itself to ridding us of this evil.
How is this possible? Well, many reasons are proffered, but the overriding one is of “economically credibility”. Ed Balls has contended that the party cannot commit to scrapping the tax which we all agree is both vicious and unworkable because it will be an economic “hostage to fortune”. The Tories will get their calculators out and add that to the “Labour spending bombshell”. At the same time, they are briefing their own side (a message sent down through the Labour Party grapevine, the “loyalist” networks) that it’s ok, trust us…the Bedroom Tax will go – once we’re in Government. The message to Labour activists is – protest on your own, but come along to our #labourdoorstep sessions and you’ll be welcomed with open arms.
Of course, this is drivel. One thing has not changed since the Blair heyday – and that is the way that the party spins, even to its own members. The real reason why Balls and co will not commit to scrapping the Bedroom Tax is that they are (a) running scared of the tabloid press, who they fear will brand them “the scroungers friend” and (b) that they are unwilling to pose any alternative to the Coalition’s spending plans, wedded as they are to the death grip of austerity. If there is any further illustration needed of the political bankruptcy of this policy, it is Labour’s attitude to the Bedroom Tax. It is like having an open goal, shinning the ball and hitting the corner flag. Ed talks the talk on building a mass party, but it is literally an impossibility to do that while you are wedded to neo-liberal economic dogma. As Jim Royle would say, #betterpoliticsmyarse