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4 August 2015

I backed Tony Benn – but now I’m backing Yvette Cooper, not Jeremy Corbyn

I remember the excitement of backing Tony Benn, my admiration for Michael Foot - and my devastation when Margaret Thatcher won a majority of 140. Don't let it happen again, warns Jack Dromey.

By Jack Dromey

Yvette speaks of her first demonstration as a child, the great People’s March for Jobs in 1981. I remember it well. As a young officer of the T&G and Secretary of the South East TUC, I was one of the three organisers of the greatest march on unemployment since Jarrow. As it descended from Liverpool to London, the People’s March captured the imagination of millions and mobilised hundreds of thousands. As the march reached London, 70,000 young people attended Rock for Jobs in Brockwell Park on the Saturday and then, on the Sunday, a quarter of a million cheered the marchers as they entered Trafalgar Square.

I remember also in the same year the heady atmosphere of the Benn Campaign for deputy leader of the Labour Party. I was part of that campaign because I passionately believed in a left future for Britain, and I admired our leader Michael Foot. I do to this day. It seemed at the time as if the whole world was at our feet. Then, two years later, we went down to a crushing defeat. Thatcher, who had so devastated our manufacturing base that at one stage the T&G was losing 100,000 members a year, won a majority of 140, the biggest Conservative majority since the War.

In the trade union movement, we were devastated. But one leading figure in the Labour Party summed up just how, as a bitterly divided party, we had become out of touch. She said “at least we had the right policies.” At least we had the right policies? So we were right and the people were wrong. Even after the defeat this showed just how fundamentally we misunderstood our relationship with the electorate. 

For this, we then paid a heavy, heavy price. The miners, the printers, the dockers, all went down to crushing defeats. One particularly nasty employer told me ‘she will soon sort you militants out.’ We lost millions of members. The magnificent miners may have marched back to work, heads held high behind their lodge banners. But the Tories had won. 18 bitter years in the wilderness followed of what seemed then like eternal opposition. We must not repeat the mistakes of history.    

Following our unexpected defeat, a disappointed rage grips our Party. I share that sense of dismay and I too am angry about what this Government will now do and I am determined we fight back. But Yvette is absolutely right when she says it is no use just being angry with the world. We want to change the world. That is why tens of thousands are joining our party. For them and above all for the country we have to fight back and win. Both. Fight the Tories every inch of the way. But ultimately we have to win. 

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It cannot be right that ever again we preside over decline, comfortable and preserving our credentials. Once again asserting ‘at least we had the right policies.’ It cannot be right not least because the Tories are out to break the labour movement once and for all with their boundary changes and attack upon the Trade Unions.   

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It cannot be right because those we represent will pay a heavy price if we go on losing. They, not us, will be the big losers. I want to win for Angela whose disabled son was stoned in Kingstanding in my constituency, Erdington days after George Osborne’s infamous shirkers and strivers speech. Her 12 year old son was the victim of a whispering campaign because she was accused of ‘having a car on benefits’, yes through Motability. I want to win in memory of Stephanie, the Meriden grandmother hit hard by the infamous Bedroom Tax who threw herself in despair under a lorry and committed suicide. 

I want to win for the ever-lengthening queues of people in my advice surgeries desperate for a decent home at a price they can afford. I want to win because I cannot bear the thought of Erdington’s wonderful Children’s Centres, much loved by kids and parents alike, closing. Do you know what? I want to win to wipe the smile off David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s faces. They are ‘loving’, in Cameron’s words, every minute of our discomfort and division. 

Yvette Cooper is a progressive woman who can win. I have worked with her for nearly two decades. She was the last housing minister to preside over the building of 200,000 homes in Britain and is now determined to build 300,000 a year, creating millions of good jobs and apprenticeships. That means homes to buy and a new generation of Council homes, good homes in mixed communities where people want to live. Instrumental in developing Sure Start in a Labour Government that built 3,000 Children’s Centres, Yvette is best placed to lead the battle for every child having the best start in life, a cause she is passionate about. 

Winning is not about junking your values. I was born on the left and I will die on the left. But, as I learnt in the world of work, you don’t win unless you win a majority. Can I give an example: I was a founder member of the drive for the real Living Wage. Heading the 100 strong T&G Organising Department, with London Citizens, we fought and won the Living Wage for over 3,000 cleaners in the City of London and Canary Wharf. I then organised the first ever strike in the history of the House of Commons to win the Living Wage for the Commons cleaners. In the general election campaign, I was passionate about the causes of the Living Wage, a higher Minimum Wage and ending exploitative zero-hours contracts. But in essence we were pitching to the bottom 20 per cent of the labour market. Were we appealing to the 4,000 skilled, better paid and well-organised workers, the aspirational working class, in the Jaguar plant in Erdington? No. 

Let me give another example. I organised the first ever Erdington’s Young People’s Parliament in Parliament, twice bringing to London 100 local young people from the sixth forms, colleges, training agencies, apprentices and the young homeless organisations. They were inspirational, hammering out their demands in their Manifesto because they wanted to change the world in which they live. I also organised the first-ever Homeless Young People’s Parliament in Parliament, 100-strong and nailing myths about the young homeless. Not “druggies, drunks and drop-outs on benefits.” On the contrary they were ordinary young people whose lives had fallen apart, often because of family breakdown or sexual harassment. They too were inspirational. They too wanted to change the world in which they live. They too hammered out their Manifesto.

I was a strong supporter, therefore, of our standing up for the next generation in the last Parliament. It was right and we were right. But were we also appealing to the over 65s, those who built Birmingham and Britain? No. But the Tories did. The result? They won two million more votes than we did amongst the over 65’s and, by the time of the next Election, 51 per cent of voters will be over 55. 

There will be those who say “we must not sell out”. The electorate are wrong and we are right. And we must not move to the right. Is it to swing to the right to listen to Labour’s lost voters, those Jaguar workers and the pensioners of Erdington? Absolutely not. Is it to abandon our principles to hear the sometimes uncomfortable truths of how too many people, including the millions who don’t vote, see us, removed from the realities of their day-to-day life? No. When I ran the best Union Organising Department in Britain, we used to always say you start by asking workers what they think, not telling them what our policies are. To be frank, right now we need to listen and learn as we rebuild as I know we can. 

This is a defining moment. The Tories are ruthless, out to finish Labour off. We have a choice. We can play into their hands, or, alternatively, we can say this is not a Conservative country. It was said of Labour in 1983 we were finished. We proved them wrong, ultimately, winning three consecutive terms of office. We could and should have done more in those terms. But the country was a stronger, fairer, better country thanks to 13 years of a Labour Government. 

We did it before. We can do it again. But the stakes could not be higher. That’s why I am backing Yvette for Labour.  

Jack Dromey, Member of Parliament for Birmingham Erdington and formerly the Deputy General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union and Unite.