Reasons to be cheerful: a year after the General Election

By Virginia Moffatt
May 8, 2016

This time last year, I stayed up all night with Ekklesia staff and associates as we live blogged the General Election results. It was a hard night watching the election of a pro-austerity government, and by the morning I was filled with despair. So much so, that when I told my family, I cried.

Later that day, I posted a blog outlining my fears at what this election would mean for the poorest and sickest in our society. The future looked grim, and I noted we needed to allow ourselves the time to be upset and to be angry about it. However, I concluded that we should not give up, but commit ourselves to working for our 10 election values

In many ways, this year has been as tough as I’d feared. The new government immediately declared it would abolish the Human Rights Act. It is pushing through a deeply unpleasant housing bill that will make the housing crisis worse, and an equally unpleasant union bill which will further restrict the rights of workers to negotiate. It has enthusiastically supported fracking, attacked junior doctors, and suggested forced academisation of schools. It has refused to welcome refugees and voted to bomb Syria, whilst inflicting more cuts on local government and welfare services. This has been a brutal year.

However, as our associate Vaughan Jones pointed out during the election period, elections are only one event in democracy. Whilst it is true that, this government is promoting a very unpleasant agenda, it is also true that as a result many more people are opposing that agenda. And this is making it harder for unpopular policies to pass.

If we take a look at our ten core values, I think there are in fact reasons to be cheerful today:

A commitment to favouring the poorest and most vulnerable

Within hours of the election, I was heartened to see anti-austerity protesters outside Downing Street, and a march organised the following weekend. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in September means that the two largest opposition parties in Westminster, Labour and the SNP are now opposed to austerity. In the last year, both parties have actively challenged the current ideology, forcing a previously unquestioning media to open up this discussion.

Actively redressing social and economic injustices and inequalities

When George Osborne proposed tax credit cuts in last year’s budgets, we were one of the first groups to point out that this would have an impact on the working poor. When it later emerged quite how many families would be affected, there was a huge public outcry. A cross-party alliance in the Lords, combined with strong opposition in the Commons and some nervousness from Conservative back benchers, led to a government U-turn. This year, George Osborne’s recent budget pushing further cuts fell apart within hours of its publication, calling his competence into question.

Welcoming the stranger and valuing displaced and marginalised people.

The government has been niggardly in its responses to the refugee crisis. However, the strength of public feeling forced it to raise the quota of the number of Syrian refugees it would accept last September. And the recent Dubs Amendment has resulted in another partial climbdown on the need to accept unaccompanied minors into the UK.

Seeing people, their dignity and rights as the solution not the problem. 

The long term campaigning by disability groups and two high profile protests led by Disabled People Against Cuts  (DPAC) have come to fruition duringthe last year. When DPAC occupied the lobby at the House of Commons in JUne 2015, Caroline Lucas and John McDonnell  were quick to support them. When the Commons voted to cut Employment Support Allowance by £30 per week, three Conservative MPs rebelled. Though that passed, it was seen as an unpopular measure and several charities withdrew their links with MPs who had voted in favour. Shortly afterwards, the government was forced to withdraw its attempts for further cuts to Personal Independent Payments, leading to the surprise resignation of Iain Duncan Smith as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Moving from punitive ‘welfare’ to a society where all can genuinely fare well.

Mhairi Black( SNP) used her maiden speech to highlight the failures of the welfare system and to raise welfare as an important issue. After abstaining from the first reading of the Welfare Bill last summer under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has opposed later readings of the Bill. The Liberal Democrats have recently conducted a consultation on welfare (to which we contributed alongside our partner organisation The Centre for Welfare Reform). Some backbench Conservative MPs have begun to express unease over the current approach to welfare. All of which suggests that we are at a turning point in this debate. We are very hopeful that our work on the Work Capability Assessment will help move things forward in a positive way and that we will gain cross-party support for this.

Promoting community and neighbourhood empowerment

Communities up and down the country are taking control of the agenda. Focus E15 Mothers in Newham have made a real difference to their local housing debates, preventing the sale of a hostel for single mothers on the Carpenter’s Estate in Stratford. In Birmingham, campaigners forced the withdrawal of the academy sponsors trying to take over Small Heath School. After strong opposition across Lancashire, the County Council voted against fracking.

Meanwhile, Conservative councils such as Oxfordshire, Sussex and Hampshire have criticised government funding cuts and the idea of forced academisation.

Food, education, health, housing, work and sustainable income for all. 

The negative effects of austerity are becoming harder to ignore, as poverty levels and the number of food banks rise. In recent weeks we have seen teachers and parents unite against academisation and the testing of primary school children. Meanwhile, the junior doctors’ strike has gained overwhelming support. Last week (6 May 2016), Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, backed down on plans for forced academisation and Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, has agreed to meet junior doctors to resolve the dispute. Basic income is being trialled in Finland, and has begun to be discussed in the UK as a positive solution to poverty. Whilst in Europe, the leaking of TTIP papers may possibly have stalled a programme that would create further damage to society. This has led to both France’s President Hollande, and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressing reservation about the trade deal.

Care for planet and people as the basis for human development .

The Pope’s encyclical Laudate Si, published in May 2015, provided a hopeful manifesto for tackling climate change, whilst the Paris talks in December of the same year brought the voices of those most affected to the centre stage. Though our government continues to back policies that will harm the planet, UK protests are having an impact, as witnessed by BP's decision to  withdraw sponsorship of the Tate Gallery in 2017.

Investing in nonviolent alternatives to war and force as a basis of security

The recent vote to bomb Syria went with the government, due to Labour giving MPs a free vote on the issue. However, it was heartening to see 153 Labour MPs vote against war. With Trident renewal coming up soon, Labour has undertaken a review of the issue. Although that vote is also likely to go with the government, it does mean that the administration is being forced to debate matters of war and peace

Transparency, honesty and accountability in public and economic life

Zac Goldsmith’s shamefully racist campaign for London Mayor has been widely condemned, and Sadiq Khan was elected with a large majority. This is a huge vote of confidence in transparent and truthful politics. Meanwhile, the Electoral Commission has uncovered potential breaches of election spending rules in 2015. This has resulted in the Director of Public Prosecutions recommending police investigations of 24 Conservative MPs. Labour has set up an independent enquiry into concerns about anti-semitism in the party and the SNP has suspended one MP due to concerns about financial irregularities. All of which is encouraging for those of us who believe everyone in public life should be open to scrutiny.

In conclusion, I’d say, tough as it is, we have many reasons to be cheerful today. For five years of the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats, propped up harmful policy after harmful policy, whilst Labour barely opposed any of it. After a year of the Conservatives going it alone, they are finding it harder and harder to force unpopular legislation through due to a powerful combination of local and national campaigns and proper opposition at Westminster. We have a long way to go, and we must be watchful for apparent policy abandonments actually being fake retreats. However, I believe times are changing, and it is the electorate who are changing them.

As Frodo says in The Lord of the Rings: "They cannot conquer for ever". They can’t because we won’t let them.

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© Virginia Moffatt is Chief Operating Officer for Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.