What Is The Point? The Difference The Left Can Make

Stella Creasy's Speech at TASC's Annual Lecture 2023

Stella Creasy16/10/2023

In his essay Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages James Joyce quotes Oscar Wilde saying

‘We Irishmen have done nothing, but we are the greatest talkers since the time of the Greeks.’

Now I know its bold to start a speech criticising a national icon, so I’m going to focus on the second half and our Q&A!

I’ve titled todays ‘what's the point’ because it’s a question I know most ask each day. What is the point? Seriously. Why bother?

That’s not to ask for sympathy. Its to recognise as an elected politician even at a national level, we spend an awful lot of time talking bin collections. Its not exactly the walking at speed around the West Wing thinking important thoughts fantasy even when you’re trying to work out the seven bins our Prime Minister says he isn’t banning.

The hours of political engagement are long – Oscar Wilde was right when he said the problem with socialism is that it takes too many evenings.

Research on online abuse of women parliamentarians found that 82% of them in 39 countries had been subjected to various forms of psychological violence, including 66% targeted with “humiliating sexual or sexist remarks”, and 45% being threatened with “death, rape, beatings or abduction”.  Amnesty International found that although abuse cuts across the political spectrum, minority ethnic female MPs still received 35% more of it than their white counterparts. This isn’t just online- In less than seven years two of my colleagues have been murdered whilst doing this job.

When I said I was standing for office my mum asked if I had considered being an estate agent instead.

I also know that question is being asked about the forthcoming referendum. Why bother? Does it really make a difference? As your guest I know better than to come and lecture you about your constitution but when everyone has limited resources- time, money, patience- I can talk about how I approach this myself.

Because I recognise there’s a lot of timewasting in this job.  With right and left populism on the rise around the world, politics has become short on answers, long on angry. So many political activities are designed to stoke recriminations because its seen as the way to ‘sweep to power’, with the more extreme the more eyecatching the mantra.

You may think of Trump when I say that. I lived through Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. It is a source of pride to me that the lettuce which lasted longer than Truss and consumed British public life for the same length as her tenure was from my constituency.

But left wing leaders are guilty too of political activism as photo shoots and props – we have also lived through fields of people chanting Jeremy Corbyn, Podermos and Melanchon. Being what Nye Bevan, who delivered the NHS, called pure but ultimately impotent because the desire to be pure leads to a politics of positioning not praxis.

So if you want change to happen the first thing to ask if whether there’s an answer here, not just an analysis. A step forward to be made. That doesn’t have to be about winning an election. The prize of office is to be able to set the timetable for legislation, but waiting for others to make the political weather for your causes and concerns will leave you waiting a long time. A ‘better time’ rarely arrives.

During the many debates on Brexit being had by the UK parliament, colleagues thought I was at best mad, and at worst, a distraction, for talking about abortion rights in Northern Ireland. Picking away at every opportunity to challenge the status quo– we were showing that there was more than sympathy to be offered to those women facing giving birth to children with fatal foetal abnormalities. There was a solution- decriminalisation.

In the UK we’re not spoilt for choice for action. Our country is literally falling apart before our eyes.

  • Life expectancy is actually falling in poorest area of this country 
  • 30% of kids live in poverty - 71% of them in families where at least one person works 
  • We’ve had a 26% increase in rough sleeping in the last year alone.

The current UK government are the living embodiment of penny wise and pound foolish. Austerity led to so many cuts that the repair bill far outweighs the savings. Ireland is talking about setting up a sovereign wealth fund, our own office of budget responsibility is forecasting within 50 years the way things are going public sector debt could reach 350% of GDP.

24,000 school buildings are at risk of collapse – this isn’t because they have RAAC, a form of dodgy concrete. As our current Education Secretary said “There are lots of reasons why a school might collapse.”

  • Rape crisis tell us there are 8,000 rape cases are currently waiting for a court date, as part of a broader backlog of more than 62,000 cases
  • The NHS backlog hit an all-time high in August, a record 7.6 million people in England were waiting for NHS treatment. That’s one in 10 of us.

Frankly, it’s crap in the UK right now - literally. 389,000 discharges of raw sewage into UK waterways in 2022 alone- that's a discharge of sewage every 80 secs. Every single UK river fails to meet the required chemical standards. 

And those are just the here and now problems.  This is the first generation which will have a lower quality of life than its parents. We’re more unequal than ever before – with the bank of mum and dad being the difference on whether you achieve your potential or not.

  • You can pass on a million pounds to your child tax free, but if your mum and dad aren’t on the property ladder chances are you and your grandchildren won’t ever be either. Basically work doesn’t pay, assets do.
  • This years exam results showed not only the impact of the pandemic of education quality, but the rise in regional educational disparity. The grade gap between the North-East and London increased to 10.8%.  The gap between the independent sector and the state section also grew. Who your parents are, where you live – these are the things which define your future in the UK.

The conversation in the UK on gender is not about the talent that is lost or any constitutional rights- we still haven’t got one after all. Its whether we’ve ‘gone too far’ and why women are still complaining. I mean we have had at least three female prime ministers, and a female head of state, and at one point the police and the first service were run by women so I can understand why Piers Morgan has been worried…

  • Four out of five companies across the UK still their male employees more than their female counterparts.
  • Two-thirds of LGTBQ+ people in the UK have experiences anti-LGTB+ violence or abuse.
  • Black Caribbean boys do almost 10% worse at exams than the national average.

Our national pastime isn’t even sacred, hijacked by the Saudi Government as a form of reputation management to the detriment of the beautiful game. Yet the UK Government is silent- and also on the 700 football pitches lost since 2010 alone.

Still at least that means we haven’t completely isolated ourselves from Europe – oh we did.

Brexit was like setting fire to your hotel at the start of your holiday because there’s no pool.

  • According to the Bank of England, the UK has suffered a loss of business investment since the 2016 referendum worth £29bn, or £1,000 a household.
  • The LSE found it added an average of £210 to household food bills over two years.

So you may well say there you go- there’s your motivation. Just be the resistance to this mess and there might be something worth inheriting. Take every opportunity to oppose those responsible and protect the status quo.

That leads me to my second part of the title. The difference the left can make. Because all of these are examples of problems, not solutions. Analysis not answers. And at least some of them left and right agree ARE a problem- they just disagree on the solution.

Take RAAC – the dodgy concrete in so many of our public buildings. No one is advocating for unsafe classrooms,  but with all main UK political parties ruling out changes to capital gains tax or corporation tax, finding the funding to address this and the bills of austerity isn’t as simple as you might think.

On other issues the left is losing the battle outright:

  • One in three men globally think that feminism does more harm than good, with one in four men in the UK thinking men have lost out as a result of feminism.
  • Healthcare services were built for a time when the challenge was transmissible infectious diseases not preventing the killers of the 21st Heart disease, cancer, mental health. As a result the drum for social insurance models, using the private sector gets louder every day.
  • The climate crisis is not viewed as crucial to our existence or economic growth but part of left wing wokeism- indeed the PM has just abandoned net zero and gained in the polls.  
  • Refugees are being treated as second class citizens around the world, with the refugee convention itself now under attack. As is the European Convention on Human Rights.

Its not just recent arguments about what needs to change that the left isn’t winning. The previous consensus about tackling world poverty has also been unpicked even in the face of what it has achieved. The Jubilee Goals as national news a distant memory. Our own Government abandoned its department of international development – the rights of women in Afghanistan and Iran are seen as a necessary sacrifice for keeping the peace and reducing military spend. And no one is protesting.

With labour on the cusp of winning an election, and you facing another national referendum, asking whether the left makes a difference means asking what it means to be leftwing. The lens through which you not only view the world, but also see how change can happen. Whilst the right have the market to fall back on to determine life changes, ours is a politics which sees the greater potential in pooling our resources to get the best out of each of us for the benefit of all us.

If I think about the world we live in now I think of the lines in WB Yeats second coming poem about irish independence:  

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity."

The centre is fragmenting and we are losing the fight for where it goes, lacking conviction, full of passionate intensity but on the defensive.  Its not because the right is unassailable- remember the lettuce.

Its that we haven't MADE an argument in years. We just presumed that we would win the battle of ideas eventually. That we can see the con, see the conspiracy, critically read the Daily Mail or watch Fox news when others can't, and that eventually others would realise we were right. As a political movement founded on idea that collective action on collective ideals can change things we're terrible at being collective. We have been elitist - a group who think we are superior.

If I've learned anything in my lifetime's experience of being involved in the Labour movement, it's that winning elections, putting child poverty on the national agenda and cutting it, putting tax rises for public services into a national election campaign and winning it, counts for little if you've lost the argument in the country as well as office. Because within a decade those gains cannot just be destroyed but dismissed and even dumped.

Progress doesn't endure unless we are rooted in both our values and our communities, fighting not just at elections or in referendums but every single day for the ideas and actions that are the hard yards of progressive change to become the ‘common sense’. The left has to offer people not just competency and confidence in office- however uncertain things are- but also the promise that collective action offers a way forward which far outstrips the market in delivering radical and positive change in their lifetimes.

And that’s a big ask. Because its not hard to see why people feel so worried and insecure. Why the populists who offer an immediate answer as to what is wrong in the world and who to blame are so effective. Every generation has faced difficult challenges- war, enduring poverty, pandemics, financial crashes, climate disasters or even the odd act of God - but ours is the first to see these within generations and repeatedly.

My favourite film of all time is Ferris Bueller. Ferris taught us all that life moves fast. But Ferris’s fast was another time when you could play hooky from school and CCTV, the internet and geotagging wouldn’t stop you. That film is 37 years old.

To recognise just how quickly our lives, our sense of what the world can do is, you only have to think about social media itself. Its not even old enough to vote. Yet half the world are on Tiktok in six years – only a quarter on facebook although a third of all divorces mention it.

Now you may well point to the counterfactual – That we might campaign in caution but in office we deliver a difference. In America Bidens Inflation Reduction Act, is Keynesian economics is alive and well – investment in clean energy and reducing the cost of prescription drugs as means to tackle inflation. The new deal reborn and the climate a priority.

Its not just America. In Australia a left wing government has

  • Introduced sector-wide union bargaining and pay transparency
  • Almost doubled the commitment to emissions reduction
  • Upped the childcare cost subsidy so parents on low incomes only pay 10%
  • Proposed the Indigenous Voice referendum

They stand in contrast to others in office backtracking on refugee rights or slowing the pace of urgency on tackling child poverty- or offering to do so to get into office. Its ultimately self defeating because it raises the risk that the space for the case for change contracts. So much so that the status quo, that centre, tilts to the right so much it blocks out progressive outcomes. And ultimately the future does too.

For years the left used to lose arguments on the economy and win on society – nice people but don’t lend them your wallet for safekeeping. Now the folly of austerity has shown we’re the ones with the grasp of the purse strings. In the UK people are drowning in public debt to pay for this, with little end in sight because we’ve had half a trillion more borrowing than if labour had won in 2010. 

Yet the tragedy is in winning the argument public services need investment because our opponents have broken them - though not how to fix them - we are struggling to make the case for a more inclusive society. A necessary condition for economic and social progress. For getting the best out of each of us for the benefit of all of us by taking away the barriers to talent that discrimination and division create.

We can see this not least in Brexit- fundamentally it should be an argument about trade and internationalism, but has become seen as a vehicle for a cultural divide and isolation. The roots of the divides it exploited in British society sit far before the vote or even the campaign for the vote- in a nation and indeed a world that is becoming ships that pass in the night as some have opportunity and others insecurity.

As the trade impact becomes more and more apparent, so the rhetoric still resides more in isolation than inflation. Brexit has put people out of jobs, risks stability in Northern Ireland and means we’re not even at the venue let alone around the table when it comes to tackling Putin, energy security and the climate crisis. Or even how many phone chargers we have to buy if we want to keep our apple phones. Yet we’re still stuck in a loop shouting about rejoin, or the benefits of Brexit, when neither is achievable.

Progressives win not by hiding from arguments but working on them. We can see that not least in the arguments we failed to make as much as those we did. With Brexit we didn’t set out our own vision of why international cooperation mattered, meaning the case for staying in ultimately rested on an elitist model of how decisions were made, not the empowerment of an entire continent to work together for common good.

With childcare we are winning against this tide.

23% of parents have quit a job or dropped out of education because of costs. Our gender pay gap isn’t a gender pay gap- it’s a motherhood gap because women of childbearing age whether they have babies or not find themselves in a trap whereby their earnings potential starts falling off a cliff and never recover. For so long debate sounded like it was about giving mums more time to go to baby yoga. All the time things like Surestart and nursery investment were seen as lady activities, it was easy for the Government to lay off funding them. In identifying the loss of talent, of productivity, this represents and making childcare an item of economic infrastructure we’ve changed the very prospects at stake. That just as we fund potholes so we should fund parents to access childcare because sorting both helps people get into work. The debate is now on how much investment will be made, not whether grandparents should do more.

It’s a reflection of how when the left does stand up it can redefine the public interest as the common good. Which is why we must be ruthless in fighting for the future not the status quo. For all I worry that if the Conservatives win the next election, the NHS will no longer exist, it has proved resilient to their best attempts to date to kill it. But I know to save it for my kids means we have to win an argument about how it becomes not about beds in hospitals, but preventing conditions like diabetes and heart disease and helping us all live well. And that debate is a long way away.

When I first became involved in British politics the concept of a minimum wage was seen as wild- I was earning £1.50 an hour working in a bakery after school. Now the low pay commission, the idea of a living wage, cuts across all political parties and shows no sign of abating. We’ve won that argument for a floor of funding to stop poverty, now the opportunity is to win the case for what that wage should be.

Here in Ireland you have made collective bargaining something the Irish centre right support. And abortion – for all those who oppose try to import American tactics to undermine it - has become the settled will of the people. Within five years. Along with gay marriage.

But in the UK because the left is on the defensive, some are arguing that we should not make progress on decriminalisation of abortion – much as I love that Northern Ireland now has the most progressive framework, this means women in Belfast having clearer defined rights than those I represent in Walthamstow.

It is also the case that when we are silent things don’t settle down – they can often fall back. That’s because if we don’t pull at that centre ground, others will. Despite a recent UK social attitudes survey finding that overall as a society we have become more tolerant, attitudes towards transgender people have taken a sharp decline. Daily toxic stories mean the percentage of the British public who agree that transgender people should be able to have their sex on their birth certificate has fallen to 30% from 56%.

Finally, I want to be clear having an argument isn’t the same as being able to make it- for that you need to bring people with you.  And I mean not just vote for you but be your ally in making change happen because you can’t do anything meaningful with a small number of representatives in office.

Progressive activism needs grassroot movements to win, hold and advance change, not just deliver our leaflets or share our tweets. You can’t win the big arguments from the centre – its not holding – and our opponents have been organising in communities, on and offline, for years now.

Andrew Tate is not a one man band- he’s a social movement using networks to spread his poison like wildfire amongst young men to their detriment and the women around them. Just Stop Oil is bleeding goodwill, refusing to compromise or engage, and actively pushing the centreground away from its own orbit.

The left may be in trouble because it has stopped arguing, but collective action is also the best vehicle we have to make change happen in the future too. And that’s why we bother. Its also why we need to change. To be clearer about what our answers are and the impact they could have, less willing to see the status quo as enough and more able to collaborate.

As you look to your referendum, and the public debate on gender equality the opportunity to write into your future and your culture the rights of women appears but is in your hands to define by how you collaborate. In the Portrait of an Artist as a young Man, Stephen encounters Moynihan who describes the offer of socialism as ‘Brand new world. No stimulants and votes for the bitches’.

I hope my remarks have stimulated you at the least. The opportunity before you can be about more than the value of ‘votes for the bitches’. It can be to set out that brave new world but only if the left makes an argument for it and fights for it. Just as with the conservatives so intent on losing the next election in the UK there is one window of opportunity here to regain the advantage and not just be an opposition, but an alternative. It is true that the centre cannot hold- but it can be shifted. And in that the future can be too.

Posted in: BrexitDemocratic accountabilityEuropeInequalityPolitics

MP Stella Creasy

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Stella Creasy is the Labour and Co-Operative MP for Walthamstow, first elected in 2010.

She has held a variety of positions within the Labour party, first as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham, and then in 2011 as a shadow Home Office Minister for crime prevention, in Ed Miliband’s first reshuffle. She ran for the deputy leadership of the party in 2015, coming second. She is currently Chair of Labour Movement for Europe and has campaigned for a continued relationship with the EU and against Brexit induced parliamentary deregulation.

She is an avid campaigner and contributor to debates. Most notably, in July 2019 she put forward the amendment which proposed that if the Northern Ireland Assembly was not restored by October that Westminster would legalise abortion in the country. Other campaigns include sexual harassment, childcare provision, and MotheRED – a campaign to financially support mums to be selected and elected as Labour Party candidates in the next General Election. She has also avidly campaigned against ‘legal loan sharks’, introducing a Ten-Minute-Rule Bill to cap the cost of credit to avoid extortionate rates and force the Government to tighten restrictions.


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