In 2014, when talk of foodbanks had reached fever pitch for all the wrong reasons, I decided my Saturday mornings would be best spent helping out at my local one. But I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming reality.
I recall a young woman who came in with a new-born baby. Her strict Catholic parents had thrown her out when she got pregnant. The father of her child was abusing drugs, and understandably she didn’t want him in her life. I popped on the kettle and made her tea, she handed me her newborn, and we got talking at length. She was articulate, passionate, and had a place to study psychology at a top university after getting enviable A-level results. This wasn’t the story I expected. And yet, due to problems with benefits, she was left with no money, living on the kindness of friends and an emergency three-day food bag.
I met many people from all walks of life at the food bank – alcoholics struggling to stay clean, ex-offenders just being released, the disabled, the sick, many women with young children from all backgrounds whose partners had left them, people who were working, many on zero hour contracts that had provided no money for food or heating. The people were different but the issue time again was the same – an issue with the state welfare system.
This is the reality of austerity. And yet, when the Coalition Government began its austerity cuts back in 2010, I thought: cut hard, cut fast. In my naivety, I didn’t understand the real human cost of what that meant, that people in this country would be left struggling and often starving. The reality is deeply uncomfortable, but confirmed by a UN report. It states that austerity policies in the UK are a breach of international human rights and the UN have expressed “serious concern” over inequality in Britain.
I was always interested in the political process. I grew up in a Conservative-voting household and I believe in a free market. David Cameron’s “Big Society” sparked my interest in the idea of social solidarity and community. I felt that Cameron was a committed moderniser and it was an exciting time to be part of the party. I stood as a parliamentary candidate in England, and became the first Asian woman to address a Conservative party conference in Wales. Although I am not part of the party at present, in many ways, I will always be a Conservative, one with compassion.
It was just before the London mayoral election that I heard the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn approvingly quoting part of an article I had written during Prime Minister’s Questions. I discovered I agreed with many parts of Corbyn’s vision, especially anti-austerity, given my own experience of seeing what it does. Like most of my centrist friends, I still couldn’t fully understand his appeal. After I went to one of his rallies in Merthyr Tydfil, that changed.
I like Corbyn. I have had enough of the slick, power-crazed career politicians being churned out cross-party by the Westminster bubble, with the overly rehearsed charisma, the soundbites, and the dangerous charm. Corbyn in contrast paints himself as an old-fashioned socialist, a tad scruffy, unpolished, and unapologetic. His suits have seen better days (although let’s not forget he has been an MP for 33 years so perhaps he is the ultimate career politician).
I believe in getting back to a politics about things which matter, and it seems he agrees with me. But, like many others, I would never dream of voting for a Labour party with Corbyn at the helm in a general election.
Corbyn’s support is undeniable. In just 48 hours, 183,000 people joined the Labour party. After my attendance at the rally in Merthyr Tydfil, though, I cast my mind back to the leadership of Michael Foot. History teaches us that support at rallies does not mean winning elections. It is realistic policy and united leadership which does that.
These are two things Labour is lacking. Corbyn positions himself as someone who does the right thing and takes the moral high ground. But his personal moral stance comes at a high price – the demise of the entire Labour party and the British left as we know it. This is uncomfortable to watch, whatever your political leanings. Corbyn doesn’t have a steady hand on his party and therefore isn’t someone that could have a steady hand on the country. He doesn’t have the confidence of the wider population, because we can all see how his own party is crumbling under his leadership.
Labour also won’t escape allegations of anti-Semitism, while they have a leader who has come under fire for calling Hezbollah and Hamas his “friends”. Corbyn continues to have the financial backing of the unions, but donors are leaving in droves.
The centre ground is where elections are won. Compromise is always required. The way Corbyn is conducting himself shows he doesn’t understand that. It sometimes doesn’t seem that the current Labour party under his leadership has any appetite for winning a general election at all.
In truth, I believe this leadership contest should never have happened – Corbyn already had the mandate, and I expect he will be re-elected as party leader. By opposing his leadership so fiercely, Labour grandees have made Corbyn stronger and allow his appeal to flourish. I can’t help but wonder whether, if the Labour party not challenged him at this time, he would have simply come unstuck by himself. Owen Smith, with his very questionable rhetoric around women, certainly wasn’t the appropriate challenger.
Nick Clegg has said that in his time as deputy Prime Minister, he could not cater for the Conservatives “brazen ruthlessness”. I can understand him, but the harsh reality is, it wins elections. A 71 point gap in approval ratings between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May tells us everything we need to know. If Corbyn chooses to stay leader, I expect we will see two parties emerge before the end of this year. A hard-left, Corbyn-led socialist party supported by a new wave of Labour activists, and a more inclusive and structured social democratic party which would be electable potentially beyond 2025. Whatever happens, we will see the left-of-centre vote horrifically split, while Theresa May presides over a Conservative party with one of the largest majority governments in recent times.
Shazia Awan is an Equality Activist.She is launching Women Create, a social enterprise to help women and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into enterprise and employment. She is Vice President of the Council for Voluntary Youth Services in Wales. You can follow her on twitter @shaziaawan