Time for Change – Moving on Leicester’s Political Old Guard

The fact that Leicester has gone back into a second lockdown is highly symbolic, and highlights the need to renew the way politics is done in the city. I’ve been a Labour Party supporter and member, on and off for most of my adult life. I lost faith in the 2010’s and flirted with both the Greens and the Lib-Dems. I re-joined Labour in January 2020, so I could support Keir Stamer in his bid to become leader of the party. I agreed with Simon Jenkins’ view that the Liberal Democrats should disband, because the tactics that they followed in giving Johnson the election he craved, was a monumental mistake and display of hubris. Looking forward, the centre-left only needs one progressive party to represent the United Kingdom, and that has to be a reformed, future-focussed, inclusive and accountable Labour Party.

What’s going on in Leicester with the second lockdown matters. Not just locally, but as an indication of how Labour must rebuild a social coalition that is capable of effectively challenging, not just the Conservative Party in national and local government, but by becoming the focus point for progressive, competent and sustainable politics. Labour needs to show how it deals with social challenges, not just sloganizes about them. The Labour Party can’t be driven by slogans or by protest, but must be grounded in the practical reality of people’s lives, and the process of applying governmental power in a way that is socially democratic, realistic and sustainable. Labour has to develop a tested plan of action that leads to a long-term and embedded Labour government. A government that can be sustained and make deep-rooted changes for the next two or three decades.

I voted for David Miliband to lead the Labour Party in 2010, but I quickly lost faith with Ed Miliband when he introduced himself to the Labour Party Conference in Manchester. He said something like, ‘welcome to Manchester, a Tory and Lib-Dem free zone.’ Clearly, the leadership of the Labour Party at that time was only interested in talking to itself, and was not in the business of persuading other people, outside the loyal tribe, to place their trust in their policies and vote for it. This continued, and indeed became more concentrated, in the Corbyn years. With the disastrous consequence that the Labour Party was reduced to its worst result of any election since the 1930s.

While that is history, the present Covid-19 crisis impels us to put these past differences aside, and to look at issues of the present and the future. I’ve returned to the Labour Party, and I’ve started to take part in local meetings again. My local party in the Westcoats ward of Leicester is supported by thoughtful and concerned people. There isn’t any rabid tribalism that wastes energy by displaying virtue, or forming cliques which try to build ‘slates’ of linked candidates in an attempt to oust sitting MPs. It seems quite sensible.

Labour is in a dominant position locally, with fifty-two of the fifty-four seats held by Labour councillors, despite a popular vote across the city somewhere in the region on thirty-five to forty percent. I’ve argued before that First Past the Post elections distort local popular representation by overloading one party, which is then almost impossible to shift. The opposite happens in Leicestershire with the Conservatives. It might seem an odd thing to say, but we need a viable Conservative Party in Leicester. Principally, so that they can learn what goes on in our cities, and not just resort to prejudice and bias when it comes to public policy. The Conservative strongholds are in the wealthy counties, and they are not, as they claim, a one nation party. The Conservatives are a one-third of the nation party. They serve the interests of those who happen to sit on most of the wealth, and who are happy for the government to run things in their interests.

But in Leicester, the lockdown and its effects have laid bare some inadequacies and failures on the Labour home front, as it were. If it is true that there have been thousands of people working in unsafe factories and warehouses during the lockdown, who have had no inspections, who have no access to trade union representation, many who are denied the minimum wage, then the Leicester Labour Party must hang its head in shame. From the press reports that I have seen, it is suggested that the contributing factors include: low levels of literacy, low levels of speaking English as a first language, cramped intergenerational multi-occupancy housing, low levels of car ownership, a high reliance on dysfunctional public transport, and a communication strategy that works for sixty-percent of the population, but which doesn’t take account of the forty-percent who have different communication needs.

Leicester often celebrates its model of diversity and multiculturalism, as if this is a profound good in itself. I wonder if we are seeing the end of this model as a working and practical approach? Leicester is a city that has multiple generations of people who call the city home. Whose parents and grandparents might have been born elsewhere. Leicester has one of the highest number of people under the age of twenty-five in the UK. This latest generation is more integrated, more socially connected, and more socially aware than ever before. The question is, are their needs being met by the old guard who run Leicester? Do we need, instead, to look to a new generation of leaders who can take Leicester forward and tackle both the legacy problems and the emerging problems, such as climate change, precarious work, housing segregation, equality and diversity, digital literacies, and so on, with renewed vigour? Do we need a new generation of political leaders, community advocates and civic champions who can pick up the challenge of renewal and go onto build back better?

[Update – Saturday 11th July]: Reports now regularly appear in the press about the working conditions of factories in Leicester. Absent from many of these reports is activity from Trade Unions. According to a report in The Guardian:

“The HSE, GLAA and other bodies have visited more than 20 factories and related businesses, while national politicians declared their determination to tackle the problem. Despite years of media coverage and major parliamentary reports, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the issues had been “under the radar” and vowed that the government would act. In the face of all that activity, workers, industry insiders and community groups say many factories are simply hoping to ride out the storm. “You’ve got people exploiting people, thinking: give this a couple of weeks and it’ll blow over,” said a GLAA official. “The message will be: ‘Keep your heads down.’””

If Trade Unions are continually blocked in legislation from doing their jobs, and membership continues to be actively discouraged, these forms of exploitation will continue. If the government is slow to act and raise attention to these practices, we need to support fully independent, sustainable and activist-focussed voices to draw attention to them and seek remedies that suit local needs and situations.

[Update – Sunday 12th July]: In May 2019 the BBC reported that:

“The chair of the Leicestershire textile manufacturers association, Saeed Khilji, says demand for cheap clothes plays a significant role. He argues manufacturers are caught “in a sandwich” between retailers’ expectations and production costs. As a result, Mr Khilji has decided to club together with other manufacturers to sell directly to customers under the label MeSheMe. He has been one of the few to speak candidly about issues in the industry. Reports of poor working practices in the sector led to a pilot scheme bringing together retailers, the police and HMRC, with Leicester its focus. Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby has been involved in implementing the scheme and is keen to stamp out the problem. He makes clear that there are retailers at the forefront of these efforts. “Some of the bigger retailers were the first to come to me to say, ‘We’re keen to source in the UK, to build on Leicester’s strengths, but we’re concerned about our reputation and we’re concerned about your reputation,'” he says.”

[Update – Monday 13th July]: The Home Secretary has been criticised for her comments about working conditions in Leicester. Reported in The Guardian:

“Patel was reported to have compared the issues in Leicester, where south Asian factory owners run an industry that largely relies on immigrant and BAME labour, to the Rotherham grooming scandal. But critics said her reported views failed to account for the fact that in contrast to the Rotherham scandal, parliamentary reports, regulators and media coverage had raised concerns publicly about Leicester for years.

“It’s outrageous,” said Claudia Webbe, the Labour MP for Leicester East where many of the factories are based, who raised the issue in her maiden speech to the Commons in February. “It’s not about the fear of being labelled racist, it’s not about cultural sensitivity, it’s about the failure of government to protect mainly women from migrant communities who have been seriously exploited by unscrupulous employers.” “The government has been in power for 10 years,” she added. “It needs to properly fund the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities if it’s serious about making a change.””

[Update – Monday 13th July]: The Financial Times is reporting that:

“A government official confirmed that Ms Patel thought concerns about appearing racist might have held back the authorities from action against Leicester factories. The official also confirmed the Home Office was considering whether the 2015 modern slavery act, which deals with the worst forms of labour abuse, needed to be updated to make prosecutions easier. Leicester is the largest UK city where white people are in a minority, with many of its citizens being of Bangladeshi, Indian or Pakistani origin. Mr Clarke said Leicester was a “proud, outward-looking, multicultural city”. “It’s offensive and absurd to blame ‘cultural sensitivities’ for holding us back,” he added. “In reality, what continues to hold us back is our lack of powers in this area, chronic underfunding of the various enforcement agencies that do have powers, and the government’s abject failure to grasp the issues.” Mr Clarke’s comments was echoed by a senior figure involved in UK labour enforcement. This person said he had been in “innumerable inter-agency conversations” about the situation in Leicester, adding: “I . . . have literally never heard anyone say we should lessen our efforts to protect intercommunity relations.””

[Update – Tuesday 14th July]: The Independent is reporting that:

“While the decision to place the city back into lockdown was justified – at one point, Leicester accounted for 10 per cent of all new infections in England – concern has been raised over the government’s approach to and handling of this outbreak. Numerous local leaders and health experts have told The Independent that the initial decision to lock down Leicester was preceded by miscommunication and a catalogue of errors and delays that only served to exacerbate the city’s situation.”

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