I remember the welfare state being built. A divided Labour cannot save it
The Guardian, by Harry Leslie Smith
As the date for the Labour conference grows closer, like dark clouds gathering on the horizon, my thoughts are focused on the social and economic injustices from our nation’s history that helped form this party’s progressive political ideology.
Come this October it will be 90 years since my eldest sister Marion was buried in a pauper’s pit on the outskirts of Barnsley. Not a day has gone by in the intervening decades when I have not thought of her miserable death from TB in a workhouse infirmary, or her ignoble burial in a mass grave for indigents because my parents, being from the working class, were too poor to afford my sister a doctor’s care.
My sister’s tragic end came at a time when Britain was ruled by a Tory government that had unleashed austerity on the citizens of Britain. Her death, and the misery I endured from poverty in the 1930s, were caused by government indifference to the plight of working-class Britain – and that politicised me to become a pragmatic socialist. I learned during the Great Depression that there can be no middle road to social or economic justice when my family, along with millions of other British citizens, were forced to live in substandard housing or slums because the government didn’t adequately tax its most affluent citizens and corporations.
Labour must end its eternal battle between its heart and its head. Both are necessary for electoral victory
It’s why since 1945 my political ideology has been fixed in orbit around the Labour party’s commitment to social democracy. So, when I was invited to speak at the Labour conference in 2014 about what life was like in Britain before the NHS, I was honoured. I was also gratified that I was finally able to give the speech I had waited a lifetime to give about the iniquities ordinary people endure if there is no social safety network to protect them.
Since then, I have spoken all across Britain to small and large crowds about how my generation struggled to build a welfare state, and how that became a tide which raised all boats from the miseries of unharnessed capitalism. But my talks were not so much about my past as about everyone else’s future, and how the younger generations must now shoulder the responsibility to maintain and preserve my generation’s legacy, the welfare state.
But for the young to make a difference and reverse years of neoliberalism that have fragmented this society and ossified their ability to prosper, the left must unite for one purpose: to defeat conservative politics that benefits the few at the expense of the many. Those of social conscience who want a nation based upon egalitarian ideals can only accomplish this if the Labour party ends its eternal battle between its heart and its head. Both are necessary for electoral victory. The warring factions in Labour must unite in a grand alliance that includes the PLP and its 500,000 enthusiastic members, as well as the millions of voters all across these islands who want a new deal.
Make no mistake: I am a fervent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn but I will not forget or ignore how I came to speak at that Labour conference in 2014. I will always be grateful to Andy Burnham, along with Ed Miliband and his office of dedicated staffers, who asked me to speak about healthcare because they believed in an NHS that is for the people and not for the benefit of hedge funds.
It’s why, having met many of the members of the PLP over the past two years in every nook and cranny of this country, I can attest to their professionalism and their dedication to social justice. But in their anguish after Brexit, I believe the PLP members erred when they tried to oust a leader who had been elected less than a year earlier. I understand their frustrations just as well as those party members who are now angry at the PLP. I can see the merits to both sides in this acrimonious battle.
That’s why this year’s conference in Liverpool will be more important than even one held right before a general election. The speeches will be a window for the British electorate to see whether Labour can tell the human stories that win elections, rather than just settling old scores.