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I know it’s 21 months away from the general election, but here in Brighton & Hove, the lines of divide between the parties are falling into a regular pattern. On four hotly contested political issues in the last few months, the same divides have emerged:
Bedroom tax: Brighton & Hove’s Green-led council was the first to say it would not evict people for non-payment of arrears arising from the bedroom tax. The Green Party nationally was unequivocal in opposing the bedroom tax and arguing the need to scrap it. Locally, of course the incumbent Tory MP supports the bedroom tax. The local Labour Party candidate, Nancy Platts, opposes it. But her national party refuses to promise to repeal it if Labour forms the next government.
‘Zero-hours’ contracts: Last week, the coalition government announced a ‘review’ of the use of ‘zero-hours’ contracts after reports that one million people were forced into them. Predictably, my opponent local Tory MP, Simon Kirby, supports the review, no doubt because its terms of reference have explicitly excluded banning them.
Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, the Green parliamentary candidate for Hove Chris Hawtree and I issued a joint press release calling for an outright ban, as did the national Green Party. Predictably, also, Nancy Platts publicly supported a ban, but the national Labour Party announced a ‘summit’ on the issue and argued ‘zero-hours’ should be ‘the exception not the norm’, ie. it sat on the fence and has not explained where its ‘red lines’ are between what is morally acceptable and what isn’t.
Fracking: As huge local protests mount in Balcombe, just up the road from Brighton, over Cuadrilla’s exploratory drilling prior to fracking, the same divide has appeared. The government wholeheartedly supports fracking and is issuing massive tax breaks to encourage it. The local Tory MP refuses as yet to be drawn (mindful of local rural opposition). My local Labour candidate opposes fracking. But the national Labour Party supports it! Needless to say, the Green Party nationally and all the local Green parliamentary candidates are completely opposed to it and have given huge support to the local protests. Good luck to the campaigners who are camping at the drilling site.
Rail re-nationalisation: Caroline Lucas MP has announced a parliamentary bill to re-nationalise Britain’s railways. I fully endorse this, as does the national Green Party. The Tories of course oppose it. Once more, my local Labour opponent supports re-nationalisation but of course the national Labour Party refuses to commit itself to such a ‘radical’ course of action.
For completeness, I should probably refer to other political parties (though the Lib Dems’ involvement in the coalition makes them in practice indistinguishable from the Tories).
UKIP likes to present itself as anti-establishment and an alternative to those tired of the major political parties. But in practice, of course, its policies are pretty similar to the Tories, albeit with a dash of extra racism thrown in. It supports fracking, opposes rail re-nationalisation and seems to have no policy on zero-hours contracts (though its general pro-employer stance suggests it probably supports them). The one exception to this dismal approach is that it has, in a rare moment of enlightened policy-making, called for the abolition of the bedroom tax!
All these issues are key dividing lines – real struggles, involving real people, on issues that have huge consequences for many people’s everyday lives. The coalition government and the local Tories are on one side. The Green Party and its parliamentary candidates are on the other side.
Labour is on the fence – on the wrong side of it. It remains silent or speaks with different voices locally and nationally. The local Labour candidate has taken the same position as the Greens. But everyone knows that when it comes to it, the national Labour Party will triumph over the lone voices in the party against its stance.
As for me, I hope people can see I’ve been putting my words into action – including being heavily involved in building up the Brighton People’s Assembly Against Austerity. The Brighton PA has significant support – the initial launch meeting had 400 people, and the subsequent ‘organising’ meetings regularly attract between 30 and 50 people. On 24 August, it is supporting a Mass Sleep-In in central Brighton to highlight the effects of the bedroom tax in creating further homelessness. It is producing simple anti-austerity leaflets (using the Red Pepper Mythbusters material!) and supporting local Defend the NHS campaigns. I have also been leafleting Brighton station around the re-nationalisation campaign, and supporting the anti-fracking protests at nearby Balcombe. Labour is nowhere to be seen in these campaigns, though I would welcome its involvement.
As I campaign to be elected to parliament, I want to build the broadest opposition to the terrible policies and actions of this government. But words are not enough: local Labour supporters, including its left-wingers, have to be involved in these campaigns, or they will be tarred with the same brush as their leadership.