2013: the year Britain said "no more"

The Green Party's Natalie Bennet argues this year will be a turning point for the nation.

How will history look back on 2013? I think it might well be regarded as a turning point – “the year the British people said ‘no more’”.

Up and down the country, as I’ve travelled around as Green Party leader, I’ve founds groups and individuals saying “no more”.

They are saying “no more” to poverty wages – people working fulltime, yet unable to meet the cost of even the basic necessities.

They are saying “no more” to workfare - the unemployed being forced into such alleged "educational" roles as stacking for Poundland for not just low wages, but no wages at all.

They are saying “no more” to the 1 per cent collecting more and more of the wealth of our society, while the share for the rest, particularly the poorest, is squeezed more and more..

People are increasingly saying “no more” too to the demonisation of benefit recipients. They recognise that nearly all of us are only one medical incident, one traffic crash, away from disability, from depending on the support of the state. None of us can be sure that employment is certain, that we won’t find ourselves applying increasingly desperately for jobs where employers, faced with hundreds or thousands of applications, don't even reply to all applicants.

As I spoke to open Green Party conference in Nottingham on Friday, and as I attended its sessions yesterday, I’m was wearing on my jacket a small yellow rectangle of ribbon – a symbol of support for the Occupation of the University of Sussex, which I visited this week.

We’ve seen the comprehensive failure of the outsourcing model – the dreadful litany of A4E, G4S, and the awful Atos – yet somehow the university administration thought they could sneak through a privatisation of services on campus.

But the students have said “no more”. And looking around the university, at the rectangle of yellow in windows in offices and accommodation, it was great to see the resistance spreading.

Another group saying “no more” to great effect is UK Uncut. Like lots of Green Party members, I really enjoyed its action last year against Starbucks, the fast growing but mysteriously totally unprofitable coffee chain that infests our high streets like a particularly pernicious weed.

But sadly, mysteriously, one group that isn’t saying “no more” is the Labour Party.

Well, maybe it isn’t so mysterious… They’re only offering more of the same that we had for 13 years under Blair and Brown.

We know that it was Labour who championed the “light touch” regulation of the financial industries that the Tories have only continued, which abandoned all interest in supporting manufacturing and farming and was content to allow the jobs, the cash, the people of Britain to concentrate more and more in the south east corner of the country.

We know that it was Labour that started the privatisation of the NHS, it was Labour that championed the undemocratic academy schools that have morphed into Michael Gove’s free schools, it was Labour that dotted the country with immensely expensive, but immensely profitable, PFI schemes that today's babies will still be paying for when they are parents.

And we know that Labour is failing to challenge the government’s deeply divisive, deeply corrosive, deeply dishonest “strivers versus skivers” rhetoric.

We are living too in a Britain in which the mistakes, the great errors, of the past, have not been properly acknowledged, let alone dealt with, even though they are glaringly obvious.

We know the neoliberal model of a globalised economy in which we specialise in casino banking, arms sales to human-rights-abusing regimes and pharmaceuticals, while leaving it to the rest of the world to make our goods and grow our food, has hit the buffers: hit the buffers economically, and hit the buffers environmentally.

We know that we can’t keep living as though we’ve got three Planet Earths to exploit.

Yet the Labour Party is content to mutter empty platitudes about being “one nation”, keep its head down, not apologise for the mistakes of the past (including the Iraq War), and not offer any change in direction, just hope that the incompetence and economic failings of George Osborne’s clearly failing Plan A of austerity will deliver government back to them in 2015.

That’s not good enough, and it’s increasingly clear that the British people are saying “no more” to the shallow, sterile politics that sees Labour almost indistinguishable from Tory, each chasing a few tens of thousands of voters in a small percentage of marginal seats.

This article is adapted from the speech given by Natalie Bennett at the Green Party spring conference in Nottingham. The conference continues until Monday.

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.