On the 1st of February, 500,000 workers went on strike in the UK’s biggest day of industrial action in more than a decade. Teachers, university staff, train drivers, bus drivers and civil servants stood side-by-side to protect each other from low pay and defend the public services upon which we all rely.
The wave of solidarity did not stop there. The following Monday saw the largest NHS strike in history. I joined healthcare workers at University College Hospital on Euston Road—the most euphoric picket line I can remember. ‘Claps don’t pay the bills’ rang around Holborn & St. Pancras, sending a message to MPs who were happy to applaud their dedication during the pandemic but now refuse to back their demands for the pay rise that dedication deserves.
Nurses are not just striking for decent pay and conditions. They are fighting for their right to do so. In January, the government passed its anti-strike Bill in the House of Commons, requiring certain industries to meet minimum levels of safety. If the Tories cared about minimum safety levels in our hospitals, they would support striking workers in their demands for a fully funded NHS. Instead, by overriding the fundamental right to strike, they are preventing people from fighting for the safety of us all.
This is not the only democratic freedom under attack. In passing the Public Order Bill, the government has curtailed the right to protest by giving the police greater powers to crack down on anybody ‘likely’ to cause serious disruption. In a deeply authoritarian move, the Tories should ask themselves whether protestors of the past who secured the rights of today (the Suffragettes are but one example) would face persecution under their current reign.
Even the right to vote is under threat. From May, voters will have to show photographic ID at the polling station. Voter ID, the government says, is a necessary means of tackling fraud. Refusing to solve the real problems people are facing, the government has decided instead to solve a problem that doesn’t exist: the rate of voter fraud in the 2019 General Election was 0.000057 percent. In a blatant act of voter suppression, voter ID will disenfranchise those who are less likely to have access to the required identification: low-income voters, younger people, disabled people, and those for whom English is a second language.
By coming after our right to strike, protest and vote, the Tories are shown a dangerous level of contempt for the foundations of our democracy. It’s been four months since Liz Truss’ successor promised a new dawn of grown-up politics. Rishi Sunak’s theft of our civil and democratic rights tells you all you need to know about our Pragmatist-in-Chief’s definition of the term. At the same time, the recent behaviour of the Labour leadership tells you all you need to know about their willingness to win these rights back.
At a time when the Tories are accelerating their assault on democracy, the Labour leadership should be fortifying its defence. However, it will not be able to defend democracy if it isn’t prepared to respect it within its own movement. Across the country, left-wing members are being barred from applying to be a candidate, denying local parties the chance to vote for popular, working-class, talented people in a fair and democratic selection process. As Keir Starmer himself promised in 2020, ‘local Party members should select their candidates for every election.’ Reneging on this pledge sends an alarming signal to those whose trust you now seek to garner.
It also displays a lack of respect for those to whom we owe our very place in Parliament. Labour members are the ones who give up their time to knock on doors in the pouring rain. Labour members are the ones who campaign for local change in their communities. Labour members are the ones who keep the Party afloat. The Labour membership is the soul of the Labour Party—you cannot crush one without the other.
Only a democratic party can provide the space that is needed to empower those with the creative ideas and transformative solutions this country desperately needs. Today, the division between rich and poor and the threat of ecological collapse is greater than ever before. Our aim should be to unite disenfranchised communities around a more hopeful alternative.
That means giving people the space to defend the idea of democracy not just in their party, but in their economies and communities too. We will not tackle the cost-of-living crisis as long as unaccountable private companies control how we consume the resources we all need to survive. That’s why it’s time to bring energy, water, rail, and mail into democratic ownership, so that local communities can enjoy these public goods in common. Real democracy is about transferring wealth, ownership and economic power from those that wield it to those who need it.
At the very least, democracy is about giving people the space to fight for redistribution without fear of reproach. That’s why I’ll continue to fight for the rights of local members in Islington North and for the rights of workers on the picket line alike. Those who stand in the way of transformative change want to remove our democratic rights, because they know that when we come together, we can win. Their greatest fear is democracy, because democracy is our greatest strength.