Crossing borders: choosing hearts and minds

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This article is from Our Labour, Our Communities – a pamphlet of 10 PPCs essays, published by LabourList in partnership with Lisa Nandy MP.

“I am not voting as you are all the same.”

These are the words of Mary, a 67-year-old woman who shared this with me when I asked who she was going to vote for.

Mary’s feeling about party politics – and those of thousands of others like her – are a testimony to the disengagement running through our communities and the crisis we face within our political worlds. This sense of isolation creates environments where sores fester, leaking the nothing-to-lose pus. Not engaging becomes a powerful motivator because in a vacuum where does one turn?

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For many like Mary, the choice will be to stay at home, not participate nor give legitimacy to a system that they feel has failed them. The ‘none of the above’ argument is not necessarily about informed choices but a feeling that the established elite is not interested in listening to their voices.

For others, it will be the draw of a new outfit in town – one that thrives on waxing lyrical through a haze of the politics of despair by giving the impression that they’re listening. The ridicule and stigma attached to showing support for far-right parties is deflected by the belief that at last someone is listening, even if the price in small print has yet to be cashed in.

The political elite’s failure to stem the sheer hopelessness from our communities is a fundamental one. One that I believe will change the political landscape permanently.

These are uncomfortable truths for the powerful, for many of our politicians, our media, our policy makers and our academics. There are no easy short terms answers to reverse this trend and reactive clinical methods cannot stem the flow.

The unwelcome truth is this is about hearts not minds. For example, Mike, a neighbourhood manager told me “a community that has become atomised and fragmented is going to find it much more difficult to have a collective voice.”  In a society that sells heart to us through a permanent cycle of advertising, bombarding us with material goods to fulfil our lifestyles choices, it is now falling short. Unable to translate those hearts tugging strings to our political and policy work – this is revolutionary.

This is the state of play of modern day politics and unless we immerse ourselves in the coffee, bathing in it until we are cappuccino hued and the stench radiates from us, party politics, as we know it is in terminal decline.

To start understanding the wider malaise, we must firstly look inward and ask why people get involved in formal politics. For me this is not a job, it is an actualisation of my values. I believe in people. I love the human race. While humans can be the worst of beasts, we can also be the best of beasts. And it is with some of those best I share my home within the Labour Party, whom I knock doors with week in and week out.

The reality is, if I as a working class woman who left school at sixteen, left home at seventeen, was pregnant by eighteen, had two children by twenty and was a single parent of four children by thirty can still fight, then anyone can. The difference between pedalling hope and fear is demonstrated by the fact under the Tories I would have been classed as Broken Britain. But under the Labour Party I am a parliamentary candidate.

Giving up on people is not an option.

Instead, as Harry Leslie Smith explained, it is “hope, decency and empathy” that “are the building blocks for our civilisation, and every human being shares those character traits.”

In that context the policy backdrop we offer has got to be right. Labour is the only party creating policy that protects the many and is indifferent to the privileged. We know fighting for the NHS cannot be an abstract notion. It is about an elderly person going to see their family doctor with the security that even if they haven’t got a pound in their purse, they will be seen.

It’s about remembering that when I was giving birth as a twenty year old and my son came out blue (not quite Tory blue but not far off) there was a room full of midwives and doctors there to save his life.

It is about having localised integrated transport networks that mean people outside the cities can catch the bus to work. It is creating employment markets that pay a living wage with secure employment. It’s about the letting go of power for individual gain and placing it in the middle of our communities for all people to shape.

We need to discard the emperors’ new clothes and don Joseph’s Technicolor dreamcoat.

However the policy context cannot happen unless reform takes place within politics and our relationship with the electorate. The heydays of blind faith and tribal loyalty are quickly eroding. The answers lies in politicians across the board changing and renegotiating this relationship. Especially with the poorest, the voiceless and the left behind – for it is those groups who are changing the landscape at an unprecedented rate. The chattering classes have had their time and need to sit quietly while Set three gets some attention and reluctantly bask in the streetlight.

What’s its going to take?

It is changing the way we behave. We need to listen more, get out more, be more open and direct. At times it is saying sorry, we got it wrong and most importantly we are with you and we will hear your voice equally. Often these are the hardest things you can ask someone in power to do. Moral conviction is not measured through KPIs that can be scored on balance sheets. Rather the voting public measures these KPIs and the score sheet is not up for compromising.

Secondly, politicians need to be more diverse and change the way they do things. The Fabians found that “in 1979 over 90 MPs came from working class backgrounds and by 2010 it was less than 20 with more former university lectures then blue collar workers.”  We have a political electorate that is not representative of the country in terms of class, race, gender or experience. The majority of the traditional parties come from an increasingly narrow gene pool and are seen as inward looking, London-centric and out-of-touch. Opening up the system so it is more reflective is a necessity if politicians are serious about engagement.

Adopting a candidates contract for all elected representatives, very common in the Labour Party, would allow all parties to be transparent and accountable. MPs should have a publicly available contract, laying out the basic requirement of their job.  Most good Local Government leaders sign up to these and many of them manage budgets and make decisions carrying far more weight than backbench MPs.

Thirdly, let’s change the way parliament operates both in its form and function. Reforms have already taken place and need to be built on. An MP’s role needs to be strengthened so it is focussed on legislating and holding the Executive to account. Alongside that the practical week needs to be reformed to be a Monday to Wednesday week in parliament, with the rest of their time spent in constituencies. Not only will this stem the rot from setting in, it would actually give MPs a better work/life balance, encouraging more diverse applicants.

In many ways this last point is the most important. Politics is fundamentally changing in the UK. We need a new model that reflects a less centralised state, a more accountable national executive and the possible reality of coalition governments more often.

In this vein, it is not only prudent but vital that our national politics becomes less partisan and works more in the national interest. There needs to be significant policy areas where parties work together for the common good whilst setting aside the areas they disagree on.  This is not revolutionary but entirely possible as has been demonstrated in combined authorities like Greater Manchester. The image of some of our national politicians scrapping like public school boys is a disgrace and entirely improper for a mature democracy like the UK.

The time has come for people who hold power and influence to step up and none more so than our elected representatives. In these changing and troubled times, people need hope and inspiration. We need to be bold and step outside our comfort zones. To lead and bring people with us.

I need my leaders to inspire me. I want them to give me hope. I want them to fight for all of us, believe and deliver on the values that brought me to the Labour party that I love. We must put the heart back into politics otherwise we become extinct.

Now, more than ever, we should take a leaf out of Mo Mowlam’s book: “Bloody well get on and do it, otherwise I’ll head-butt you.”

Amina Lone Director is the PPC for Morecambe and Lunesdale

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