Conservative party conference. Photo: Getty
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Angela Eagle: The Tories have broken their promises on political reform

David Cameron has reinforced the political power of a few big money donors and well established vested interests, argues the shadow leader of the Commons.  Now that his grassroots have taken flight he is even more reliant on the privileged few he uses his power to support.

At their coming conference the Tories apparently plan to announce that their membership has risen. The problem is that it hasn’t. Since David Cameron was elected it is estimated a staggering 118,600 members have fled the Party, a number equivalent to the population of Tunbridge Wells.

Today I’ve written to Grant Shapps to urge him to come clean on Tory membership. Instead of falsely inflating the numbers by adding in ‘friends’ and ‘supporters’ as it is reported he will do, he should own up and reveal the true scale of Dave Cameron's lost army of Conservative members.

This latest attempt to pull the wool over the public’s eyes says it all about the Tories and their broken promises on political reform. They have failed to reform their own party, failed to reform our politics, and are now fiddling the figures to cover it up.

Before the election David Cameron promised he was going to “fix” our broken politics. He opined about the problem of a few donors buying influence. He said he was going to shine the “light of transparency on lobbying in our country”.

But the second he stepped over the threshold of Number Ten, he reverted to Tory type and started doing the complete opposite.

Latest figures show that hedge funds have given the Tories a staggering £45.7 million. Hedge funds have been given a tax cut worth £145 million. This year alone £5 million has been donated to the Tories by people who had private dinners with the PM and senior ministers. And the Lobbying Act was just a Trojan horse for an attack on charities and campaigners while lobbying was made less transparent, not more.

On every test he set himself, David Cameron has failed. He hasn’t built a better politics, he’s done all he can to reinforce the political power of a few big money donors and well established vested interests.  Now that his grassroots have taken flight he is even more reliant on the privileged few he uses his power to support.

In Labour, we don’t just talk about political reform, we have put our money where our mouth is. We’ve implemented a root and branch reform of our membership structure to ensure that we reach out to millions of working people around the UK. We have written our policy programme with the input of hundreds of thousands of people. We’ve travelled the country talking to people who don’t vote about why, and we have come up with a comprehensive programme of political reform that we will implement in government. This includes reform of our legislative system and giving the public a say at PMQs, a universal register of all professional lobbyists backed by a code of conduct and sanctions, and a comprehensive devolution of power from Whitehall to local communities.

During my People’s Politics Inquiry I met Karina, a young mum who has never voted. She told me that politics turns her off because all she sees is a Government that helps their mates at the top. She’s not the only one who feels like that. Voter turnout has been in decline for decades, and active involvement in politics is in decline too.

If the Tories want to rebuild trust in politics they must start by being open about the state of their membership. But, much more importantly, they need to stop talking about political reform and start acting.

The choice between Labour and the Tories is clear. A hollowing-out Tory Party who want to keep political power in the hands of a few. Or a vibrant Labour movement, who want to put power back in the hands of the country.

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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.