Big business, bad bankers and hard times for Northern Ireland, by Peter Johnson

When it comes to its relationship with private industry, Labour can’t seem to win. In the period before the New Labour adventure, the party was perceived as being anti-business, the big battalions of which wasted little love on us in return. To prove that we had changed our ways, Blair and Brown “wooed big business and acted as if they were in awe of it”, to slightly re-cast Andy Burnham’s phrase.  In this critical respect the Blair-Brown journey, with the party dutifully in tow, went too far. We should have stuck with our instincts about the barons of business.

In contrast to our tentative trust in it, big business – or specifically banks – repaid Labour’s new found faith and support by stabbing it in the guts. The blade was twisted to maximum effect and placed in the hands of Labour – who were caught red-handed by the electorate still holding on to the evidence.

Subsequently, everything Labour achieved and implemented in 13 years is being unravelled before our eyes by the policies of the corrosive Tory-Lib Dem government that replaced it.  From the scrapping of the child trust fund; the freezing of child benefit, cuts to the disability living allowance and the scrapping of the free primary school meals project, the list reads dramatic and seemingly endless. Even the winter fuel allowance is in the assassin’s sights.  Worryingly, the accuracy of the chancellor’s aim to date has been true and his trigger-finger pulled with the cold, ruthless efficiency of a professional hit-man.

But it was the stories I read in last week’s Belfast Telegraph that I found the most harrowing by far. A new strand to Northern Ireland’s seemingly never-ending seam of bad-news exclusives. This includes a 2,500% rise in hospital waiting lists since June 2009; a dramatic rise in alcohol abuse, an alarming incidence of suicides and a report from a right wing think-tank that concludes that Northern Ireland society is disintegrating.

Northern Ireland remains the most economically inactive part of the UK.  Our first minister, Peter Robinson, has instructed his departments to make contingencies for overall public sector cuts of £2bn – a lot of money for a province with a relatively small population.

If bad news was a weather front, last week had force 10 gales written all over it and Northern Ireland was feeling the brunt of the storm.  How – here and on the mainland – did it ever come to this?

‘New’ Labour was the method that the party chose to get back into government after an excruciatingly painful and prolonged absence that took its toll on the party and those of us who supported it. More than that, it was an admission by Labour that traditional socialism and particularly the left-wing element of the party simply no longer had credibility as an electable alternative to the Tories – if it ever had. Times had changed, the UK had changed in kind and it was time to move on.

That is a painful truth. It is one I have had reluctantly to concede to myself over a lifetime of personal, political disappointment that has stretched from the catastrophic sectarian warfare I grew up amongst in North Belfast, to a charm-free Thatcher government and 18 years of Tory rule. This, while all the time supporting a Labour party that to this day I have never been afforded the right to vote for and only relatively recently been permitted to join.

In spite of my own frustrations, I recognise that it is Labour that is uniquely positioned as the party that offers meaningful and deliverable solutions that benefit those in our society who find themselves alone and helpless in situations not of their own making. They are the people who instinctively turn to us for hope and sustenance when all seems lost.

Under its new leader, Labour shall regroup, will reform, and shall undoubtedly improve beyond all measure and recognition. As it does so, it will construct an effective battle-plan to defeat our political adversaries who, by their short-sighted policies, are subduing our great country and disenfranchising many in our society from a stake in its future. No-one should have to endure the poverty of spirit and hope that successive Tory governments have inflicted upon entire communities the length and breadth of this land.

When we emerge through this present period of change and renewal, we shall do so not as New Labour or Next Labour but as electable and united Labour, confident and determined as never before. We will achieve these things because we must, because the country will suffer immeasurably if we do not.

My confidence is not based on wishful-thinking. I feel this way because not only do we possess the breadth of experience within the ranks of the PLP to succeed, we also have a new array of exceptional talent, noticeably newly-elected female MPs, who possess real quality, passion and a call-to-arms spirit that would thaw the heart of the most ardent cynic. If you don’t believe me just watch and learn during this coming parliament, I promise that you will rediscover your pride in our party. This is a time of real hope and possibility for Labour, not despair.

Through all the recriminations about the banking crisis and New Labour’s misplaced faith in the system that spawned it, through our misgivings and, in some cases rage, against the decision to become embroiled in the Iraq war and the undoubted wounds that run deep amongst our grass roots as a result of it, it is all too easy to lose sight of what makes us Labour.

It is not the wars or the bankers or even our dislike of the Tories. Eleanor Roosevelt was right when she said, “do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticised for it anyway.  You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t”. It’s a small point, but an important one; we believe in Labour and do what we do in its name because we refuse to accept second best for a single human-being within the borders of our great nation. It is as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Peter Johnson is @epictrader on twitter.

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