Johnson’s language is outrageous – but let’s not be side-tracked

Bill Esterson
©️ Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

Parliament, on a night that will live in infamy, became a bear pit on Wednesday. It was at its worst and was televised for all to see. It was ugly, too. Very ugly. As I listened to my colleague, Paula Sherriff, describe the threats of rape and murder that she has received, I was reminded how terrifying it is for her and for many MPs, especially women, to have to experience these appalling threats. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson responded to Paula by dismissing her very real fears as “humbug”. This is, of course, outrageous.

The natural and understandable reaction to the Prime Minister’s behaviour is to fight fire with fire. We should be in no doubt that the Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings wants to trap us into behaving as badly as Boris Johnson. It is a strategy that relies on all MPs being discredited, and on his supporters and those of the Brexit Party turning out in an election where a low vote share is enough for the Tories to win.

To the public watching, it sometimes appears as if all MPs are as bad as each other. My colleagues are perfectly justified to react with outrage. It is the natural response to the gross insensitivity and disgraceful manipulation we saw this week. But we cannot let Johnson and Cummings paint us as all the same. We are so much better than them.

We should refuse to dance to Cummings’ tune. We should keep our response to Johnson’s comments to a minimum and keep our cool when we respond as much as possible. Easier said than done – yet done it must be, if we are to prevail.

Labour MPs should be talking about the cuts to our NHS, schools and the police, rather than reacting to the divisive language of the Prime Minister. We must remind people that Boris Johnson has supported all of the cuts. His government has presided over a stalled economy and falling living standards. We face shortages in staff in our NHS and long waiting lists. Schools can’t balance the books. 21,000 police have been cut, no longer keeping our streets safe. Food bank use is at a record high. My disabled constituents face a £250 cut per month in their benefits from the botched move to Universal Credit.

And while the headlines may say there are more jobs, the truth is rather different. Many of the new jobs are zero-hour contracts or bogus self-employment, where people don’t have enough hours. Many people using food banks are in work but can’t pay the bills due to low pay and job insecurity.

Labour has the plan for our public services and for our economy. Our national transformation fund will help with the better public transport on rail and buses that we need, and decent broadband too. We’ll revitalise town centres and high streets. Our plan will help innovative industries develop jobs in the green economy in energy, transport and low-energy housing. The announcement at Labour conference by my colleague, Rebecca Long-Bailey, of the switch from petrol and diesel cars to electric cars is significant – not just because it will help address the climate crisis, but also because it will save every job in the car industry and create an extra 32,000 jobs.

Boris Johnson does not have any plans to reverse the damage done by his government. His announcements are reheated policies that have been promised before and not delivered. The upgrade of rail from Manchester to Leeds was first announced by George Osborne in 2014. Osborne failed to keep his promise, and Johnson will fail again. The extra police officers that he has promised will barely replace those who leave the service each year through retirement or ill health or disillusionment. And the promise of £350m a week for our NHS was never meant to be kept when he said it in the referendum, and will not be kept now.

Labour will revitalise our communities. We will boost living standards through our plan for a green industrial revolution, we will renew our public services and we will rebuild Britain. That’s the agenda that Labour should follow in parliament and in the country, rather than being side-tracked by the deeply unpleasant behaviour and language being used in public life.

To adapt a quote from Michelle Obama: when they go low, we should soar. When they inflame us, we should stay level-headed. And as they goad us, we should not rise to the bait. The offer of hope, not fear. That’s Labour’s recipe for success – just as it was for Michelle Obama’s husband.

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