Camberwell and Peckham: housing, jobs and pay on people's minds in election

Submitted by Matthew on 16 April, 2010 - 2:48 Author: Jill Mountford (AWL candidate in Peckham and Camberwell)

I met Paul while I was canvassing, and this is what he told me: “Even if you can’t beat the Labour machine in this constituency, well done for standing."

“It is a good job someone is raising these ideas. Socialist ideas are the only real alternative to capitalist ideas, the only real ideas that can create a better, more secure world for the majority of people. Labour have forgotten the working class even at election time. I hope people vote for you to make it known that they support the big ideas even if you can’t beat Labour this time round. Good luck.”

And then at our public meeting on the Lettsom estate last Saturday, Chris said:

“I find it hard to tell the difference between Labour and the Tories. Blair continued where Thatcher and the Tories finished off in 1997. Brown is no better than Blair, still the unions are crippled by the anti-union laws the Tories introduced.

“There needs to be a big drive to unionise workers in the private and public sectors in preparation for the attacks on jobs and services that will take place — whichever of the two parties win the election. Workers are going to be forced to defend their jobs, and the services they provide.”

Throughout the campaign housing, jobs and pay have been the big issues on the minds of many of the people in the constituency.

There simply aren’t enough council homes in the area, and a large proportion of the stock is in poor repair. People complain that the local council (Lib-Dem/Tory-controlled) fails to invest in certain estates in preparation for selling them off, and rebuilding them with fewer and smaller homes under the private finance initiative. On one of these estates — which has more than 8,000 residents on it — residents point out in anger that the local council takes their rent money every month and invests nothing back.

The job situation is as bad for many workers and families. People complain about the kind of jobs that are on offer in the area: part time, low-paid, non-unionised work, where the statutory minimum wage is often ignored.

I’ve talked to people who work for the local council and their fear is redundancy in the coming months. One woman, a single mum, a frontline worker in housing, says:

“Unison needs to get themselves sorted so we can fight the council bosses and defend workers’ jobs and residents’ services.”

She went on to say:

“I can’t afford to be unemployed. It’s not just losing a wage, though that’s bad. It’s what it does to people.

“I’m a young mum, and I know I need to set a good example to my little boy about working hard for a living. He needs to know what’s important when he grows up. But he also needs to know that if I lose my job and become unemployed and have to live on benefits, it’s not my fault — it’s Gordon Brown’s fault, it’s the government and the banks’ fault if I lose my job.”

Canvassers report

Daniel: I had a long conversation on a doorstep with a man who was a long-standing Labour voter who said he would never vote Labour again. He argued that the Labour Party had failed to support the working class and the poor.

He intended to vote Lib Dem. I am not sure if I persuaded him, but he was pro-union and he did not know the Lib Dems’ anti-union record in — for example — local government.

He bought a paper and maybe I will go back and have another discussion next week.

Edward: I had a discussion with a disabled woman who argued that increasing the minimum wage to £8.80 per hour (a demand displayed prominently on our election leaflets) would not benefit her directly, but the quality of care she received would improve if her carers were better paid.

We took a street cleaner leafletting with us — I am not sure he had ever done anything like this before. It was a good experience. We gave out several hundred leaflets outside Peckham mosque last Friday. We had lots of good discussions and sold seven copies of Solidarity.

Mark: It is now very easy to sell socialist newspapers, and noticeably easier on estates than in more middle class areas.

We have had small numbers of people at our public meetings, but the discussions that have taken place have been useful. There’s not much of a culture of attending meetings any more. But people do want to talk and we’ve had lots of debates and discussions on doorsteps.

A lot of working class people just simply don’t know how to engage. They feel disenfranchised because no mainstream political party articulates a view they share, and disgusted by politicians who they feel are rotten and corrupt.

It is sometimes hard to disagree. I had a long discussion with a woman worker who knew very well she was being exploited, but who couldn’t see the point of voting for a small socialist group (of course we won’t win the seat, or come anywhere near either) and thought her union was rubbish (it sounded as if it was).

I think part of the answer is to explain that the vote is not the main issue for us. What we’re doing is making socialist propaganda for the long-term. After the election, we’ll still be here. The more people we can convince now, organise now, the better we will be able to resist the cuts that are coming — no matter who wins.

Anita: I did a bit of canvassing this evening. I didn’t have a lot of time, so I only managed half a street — about 25 doorbells — and yet I found a man that reckons he’ll vote for any genuine socialist candidate.

It was interesting to hear what people thought. Most were undecided, though I think most of the indecision was about whether to bother voting at all. A few people said that whatever they did, they wouldn’t vote Tory.

I was struck again by what an excellent opportunity the election is to get into political conversations on the doorstep. Not everyone would spend time talking to me, but they were apologetic about that, they were generally very prepared to talk.

Overall, I think canvassing is really worthwhile doing, I think it’s actually part of the reason why standing in elections is a good thing for socialists to do.

Cath said she’d enjoyed canvassing during the campaign.

“I found it quite scary at first. People have such very different ways of expressing themselves, and so many different angles on the same important questions. To be able to reply coherently, and to break down some big ideas in to understandable chunks is a difficult skill.

“People can be quite eclectic too. People can acknowledge the need for workers to stick together, and still complain about work-shy single mums ‘getting flats easily’ or Eastern Europeans ‘robbing benefits’.

“A lot of the myths in circulation are simply that: myths. Eastern European migrants mostly can’t claim benefits, and no-one gets council flats easily — single mums, or anyone else. There are very few council flats! There’s a waiting list of many thousands!”

To contact the campaign, email or telephone 07796 690874.

Harriet Harman

Harriet Harman has been the MP for Camberwell and Peckham since the 1997 general election, and before that was the MP for Peckham since 1982 until the constituency’s abolition.

As well as being the Labour Party’s Deputy Leader (since 2007) and Chair of the Party, the Leader of the House of Commons, the Lord Privy Seal, and Minister for Women and Equality.

After Barbara Castle (in the 1960s and 70s) Harriet Harman is the most powerful woman MP the Labour Party has ever had. She is also the longest continuously-serving female MP in the current House of Commons.

Does her political reputation match her formal credentials?

Privately educated Harman started her political career at the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty) but most of that career has been spent in the House of Commons.

As Secretary of State for Social Security after Labour’s 1997 general election victory, she oversaw cuts in lone parent benefit and incapacity benefit. Her championing of feminism in other contexts did not extend to working-class women, nor her principles of equality to the disabled. The move was unpopular, she lost her job.

Four years later she returned to the front bench as Solicitor General. Yet unlike many of her fellow MPs she is not a barrister.

In the election for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Harman was seen as, and continues to be seen as, a politician from the centre of the party. The tag does not involve voting against the government on any single occasion.

What it does mean is making speeches to meetings of the “left of centre” pressure group Compass, and playing up the radical overtones of her feminism and the “equality agenda”.

Back in January this year Harriet Harman posed as a class warrior against the rich, saying that class and inequality were still huge issues in British society, and being mildly critical of her own government.

As AWL candidate in the general election, Jill Mountford put it in a letter to the Guardian, if Harman had any credibility she would admit to all the other things that have been on their political agenda.

“This is a government which… has privatised more than Thatcher did, including a dramatic acceleration of the dismantling of the NHS. Which has bailed out the bankers at the expense of workers’ jobs. Which has kept the Tory anti-union laws and stifled Labour party democracy, blocking up the channels by which workers can fight back against this anti-working-class agenda. The result, in the absence of a strong socialist alternative, has been a drift to the right and the growth of the BNP.”

While Harman supports positive discrimination in a number of areas, crucially within the Labour Party, she has done next to nothing to improve the working and everyday lives of working class women.

Her Tory counterpart Theresa May has been quicker to pontificate on the mess that is equal pay discrimination.

The government has postponed introducing extended maternity rights proposed under recent European directives.

The proposals Harman has backed to increase the criminalisation of sex work will make the lives of many thousands of working-class women more dangerous and difficult.

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