Last Thursday’s Question Time prompted much debate amongst the chattering classes, and not just because the insufferable Rod Liddle was on. Or because of the tête-à-tête between him and Simon Schama, in which the historian following a heated exchange about the refugee crisis told Liddle to “go back to your journalistic hackery and talk about outcomes, and turn your surburban face away from the plight of the miserable”. No, much of the talk was about a point raised by an audience member.
Michelle Dorrell was chosen to speak, and she had some harsh words for the Conservative MP on the panel, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd: “I voted for Conservatives originally, ‘cos I thought you were going to be the better chance for me and my children. You’re about to cut tax credits after promising you wouldn’t.
“I work bloody hard for my money, to provide for my children to give them everything they’ve got – and you’re going to take it away from me and them.
“I can hardly afford the rent I’ve got to pay, I can hardly afford the bills I’ve got to do, and you’re going to take more from me. Shame on you!”
Powerful words, which left Rudd mute and visibly uncomfortable, and host David Dimbleby quickly redirecting the panellists back to the original Corbyn-critical question.
Whilst the woman’s emotional point was certainly uncomfortable viewing, what struck me was that it was not born out of solidarity for the millions of people who are suffering under austerity but instead boasted a form of selfishness, which has subsequently been swept under the carpet.
Here we had a woman who voted Conservative in 2015. Despite the coalition government of which the Tories were the majority partner overseeing five years of brutal cuts and policies which include: introducing the bedroom tax, closing the Independent Living Fund, the NHS and social care reforms, hostile changes to the immigration act, tuition fee rises, legal aid cuts and indeed cuts to Child Tax credits and other benefits. All of these were passed or enacted under the previous government largely at the behest of the Conservative party and yet Michelle Dorrell still walked into a booth and put a cross next to CONSERVATIVE at the May elections.
Of course, any progressive left movement would welcome Dorrell’s volte face and she’s certainly gutsy to admit she was duped into believing the rhetoric of shirkers and strivers, of austerity and the pernicious myth that Labour could not be trusted with the economy; a myth entrenched with the help of an inept media, who routinely fail to do the basics of reporting the facts and scrutinising government policy. However, it was bemusing to see people laud Dorrell as “exactly the kind of person Labour need to appeal to”.
Already the language being used to describe her was setting up a division – Dorrell was a “hardworking mum”. This may well be true, but there are plenty of hardworking mums who are out of work, and they’re also facing cuts. Labour needs all those affected by austerity, and even those who aren’t – they don’t just need those whose self-interest suggest they should vote Labour.
Labour should not necessarily still be fixating on getting working class Tories to see how a vote for this government cannot help them. Trying to be a benevolent version of the Tories was effectively the tenet of New Labour. Whilst New Labour may have won three elections, for the last six years they have been rejected by the electorate. The last five years particularly, in which a formerly leftwing Ed Miliband appeased the Blairites that formed the majority of the Labour Parliamentary Party by often merely watering down Tory bigotry. Ceding the economic debate to the Conservatives was a badly calculated move to make the party seem more “responsible”. Faced with a choice of a Tory party and a party that increasingly looked and sounded Tory but was embarrassed to be so, the electorate plumped for the real thing. One rarely chooses to buy the fake Chanel bag for the same price as a real one.
This “vote for us we’ll not take your benefits away” gambit is too easily corruptible. Rather than appeal to selfishness, Dorrell and those in a similar situation should be encouraged to see how all suffering is connected, how she’s no different to the people she was led to believe were less deserving. A truly progressive movement seeks to educate and explain, rather than mollycoddle and exploit. This is a chance to undo the avarice encouraged by Tory policy and foster a movement of solidarity and collective responsibility. Neither shirker, nor striver. Just people.
If a progressive movement is to prosper, it must move away from appealing to selfishness and start fully explaining how only by working together and actually caring for the plights of others can our own lives see long lasting positive improvement. It means voting with the most vulnerable in mind. Or, if voting is getting us nowhere, finding a new way. Momentum is a great start, as we have seen how an effective grassroots movement can deliver progressive politics. The next five years should see that movement spread out across all communities, not just those in marginals, and put in the grunt work of dismantling the myth of austerity and taking the time to explain to people that there are other ways. This isn’t about Corbyn; this is about a real opportunity for progressive politics to shape society.
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Judith Wanga is an editor, activist and writer. She was the subject of the BBC3 documentary titled The World’s Most Dangerous Place for Women, examining the use of rape as a weapon of war and the attitudes towards women in The Democratic Republic of Congo. Jude also campaigns and speaks at events highlighting the plight of women in the DRC and around the world. @judeinlondon
This article was commissioned and edited by Kiri Kankhwende
More by Jude Wanga
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