'Labour is recovering, but we cannot reunite the country if we remain divided ourselves.'
Across Great Britain last week, voters went to the polls and rejected the scandal-plagued government of Boris Johnson.
In London, Conservative citadels of power – like Westminster and Wandsworth – were swept away in an outpouring of revulsion at the goings on in Downing Street. On the south coast, Worthing turned Labour red for the first time in its history. In Wales, the Conservative Party no longer runs a single council in the country, and in Scotland the Tories were pushed back into third place.
The public aren’t just appalled by ‘partygate’ and the lies that were told before the truth was exposed. Across the country, millions of people are struggling to make ends meet because of rising energy bills and prices in the shops. Wages, benefits and pensions are all failing to keep pace.
The consequences of this are real: workers including nurses working in covid wards queuing at food banks, families being evicted, the stress of final notice bills dropping through the letterbox, parents skipping meals so they can feed their kids. Pensioners riding the buses just to keep warm.
Yet in his rent-free accommodation in central London, our super-rich Chancellor says it would be “silly” to offer more help now. But Rishi Sunak isn’t just failing to help, he’s actively dragging people down. Last autumn the Conservatives took away the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, just as inflation began to rise. This April – a month after forecasts that inflation would average 7.4% – the Chancellor increased Universal Credit and other benefits by just 3.1%.
Low paid workers, many of whom we applauded during the pandemic, are reliant on Universal Credit to top-up low wages. More and more families are struggling to make ends meet.
The story is no better for pensioners. Last year, the Government broke their manifesto pledge and suspended the triple lock – which means pensions increase by inflation, wages or 2.5% (whichever is higher). This in real terms is a pension cut to some of the most vulnerable in society.
The Conservatives were punished at the ballot box – with voters booting out over 300 of their councillors in England. Despite some impressive victories, Labour did not do as well as we should have. In England, the Liberal Democrats ended up with 191 more councillors and the Greens with an extra 61, Labour only has 29 more councillors than we had in 2018.
Our Welsh Labour colleagues made significant gains, and in Scotland Labour overtook the Conservatives to come second.
But even in London – with Labour’s iconic victories in Barnet, Westminster and Wandsworth – we suffered setbacks too: losing control in Croydon, Harrow and Tower Hamlets.
After the divisive Brexit election of 2019 Labour is recovering, but we cannot reunite the country if we remain divided ourselves. I have said it before and I will say it again, nobody likes a divided party.
Keir Starmer was convincingly elected Labour leader by members two years ago. In that contest he said, “We cannot fight the Tories, if we’re fighting each other. Factionalism has to go”. I wholeheartedly endorse that sentiment – and it applies to everyone in the party, from the leader’s office to local party activists, from the shadow cabinet to Labour councillors.
I was a Minister in the New Labour government, and I served loyally in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. There is no contradiction there. Unity can’t just be wished for, it has to be worked for. And that means making compromises, not asserting your will and demanding others follow. It also means confronting those peddling division whether it comes from your closest allies or your harshest critics.
When people are struggling to make ends meet they don’t want to turn on the TV and hear Labour in-fighting. And Labour members who overwhelmingly voted for Jeremy Corbyn to be leader before Keir Starmer don’t want to hear he’s about to be expelled when he’s loyally been out campaigning for Labour councillors in Islington.
People in England are turning away from the Conservatives, but too many people don’t yet have the confidence to put their faith in Labour. We won’t convince them by in-fighting, in fact we’ll turn more people away.
Leadership comes with responsibilities. It’s tough sometimes, but you have to be disciplined and remain focused on what matters. Keir is trying to paint himself different from the liar that is our Prime Minister. And it is true not all politicians are the same. We owe our great country so much more than it currently has. People are experiencing the most intense cost of living crisis I have ever known – and it’s going to get worse this year.
What people need to hear from Labour is that we’re focused on that issue, and have got real solutions to make people’s lives better. So I urge everyone in Labour to focus on that. It is much harder on the doorstep if we haven’t got a positive vision of what the country will be like under Labour to focus on.
We should be saying Labour would protect your income – inflation-proofing wages, benefits and pensions – and cracking down on those energy companies profiting in a crisis. We should be relentlessly asking why the Tories are not doing this, instead they are standing idly by as people suffer.
This is a focus that would unite the party. As my former boss Gordon Brown said, we are “best when we are bold – best when we are Labour”.
Dawn Butler is the Labour MP for Brent Central
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