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Labour must start to claw back the national narrative on austerity

Corbyn at PMQsThis week has marked the beginning of the slow process of exposing the Conservatives as they are, and it’s certainly not as the party of the working people they so ardently claim to be.

During Question Time, a small business owner named Michelle almost burst into tears as she made a heartfelt plea to Conservative Minister Amber Rudd not to remove the tax credits to which she’s currently entitled (£400 a week for rent, bills and keeping her household of five running; she makes no profit from her small business). 

She was met with a stony, embarrassed silence. During the election, David Cameron promised not to cut tax credits, and the new party of the working people clearly aren’t quite used to hearing the voices of working people just yet, nor do they want to. One Tory MP even branding the new approach to PMQs as a ‘waste of MPs’ time‘.

During PMQs, the Tories sniggered when Jeremy asked about tax credits on behalf of Kelly —a woman who works for £7.20 per hour and has a disabled child. Cruel, but to be expected; we already know the Tories like to give the poor a good kicking, while simultaneously stigmatizing them. Kelly will be left £1,800 worse off after her tax credits are cut, despite protestations from George Osborne that the ‘typical family’ will be better off by £2000 per year after the cuts. (Even the Treasury has admitted that this will not be the case)

But more surprisingly, the Tories erupted into laughter when Jeremy asked — on behalf of Matthew, a lower middle-class professional — what the Prime Minister was going to do about his near-impossible aspiration to own his own home. So it is that middle-class or business-owning voters in swing seats that the left was never supposed to be able to win are now turning to Jeremy Corbyn. 

The salary to house price ratio has doubled, rents are sky-rocketing, and the right-wing Confederation of British Industry has accused the Tories of failing to provide enough affordable homes. There are homes a-plenty being built; London is littered with cranes as far as the eye can see. But all of them are luxury flats. Nationwide, 218,000 homes stand empty despite the fact that 81,000 households in England alone are now homeless. Even MP Wes Streeting (currently on a salary of £67,060 pending a pay rise to £74,000) has said he would struggle to get the funds together to put down a deposit for a house.

If a man in one of the top salary bands is struggling to lay down a deposit for a house, what hope is there for the rest of us? Cameron claimed during PMQs —in answer to Matthew’s question —that more homes would be built under his ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, despite the savage cuts to local authorities, and (as Jeremy quite rightly pointed out) the difficulties faced by councils to access the funds to do so. Moreover, Cameron claimed that in the past 5 years, his government had built more homes than the previous Labour government had in 13 years, and claimed that the Housing Associations were now backing his Right to Buy plans —this was met with exasperated shouts of ‘no they’re not!’ from the opposition benches. In the new measures being imposed on local authorities, they are being forced to sell off their most valuable land to build these ‘affordable homes’, to those private developers who have a track record of building unquestionably unaffordable homes. 

Industry in this country is poor, our railway infrastructure is creaking and our social security is on the verge of collapse. Interest rates are also low, so the time is now to borrow to invest. The Economist has slammed this new fiscal charter as dangerous and irresponsible, as it makes no economic sense to not take advantage of such low borrowing rates, while instead cutting, allowing our infrastructure to fall into disrepair so it can be flogged off at drastically reduced prices to the private sector. We’ve seen the poorest of the poor reduced to food banks (nearly 1 million are reliant) while Tory MPs call making homes fit for habitation barely an unnecessary burden to the landlord, and disturbingly low wages. That’s why after an unedifying blip, John McDonnell was able to bounce back to a strong, sober and steady performance during the Fiscal Charter vote and the Labour rebellion was far smaller than anticipated. 

Now austerity can’t keep kicking the bottom ten per cent, it is sneaking up on the ‘striving’ professional who will now never own their own homes, who can now barely afford the rent or bill. Even worse, a sizeable chunk of their income is being taken away through tax credits. These are the kinds of people who swallowed the falsehood that the Labour Party cannot be trusted with the economy. They’re starting to realise they’ve been duped, and now these unattainable swing voters are now looking ever more towards Jeremy’s vision for a fairer society. Jeremy, meanwhile is getting into his stride. It’s not perfect and the road ahead is bumpy. But at last, we’re moving in the right direction. The British public must continue to hold the Tories to account for their unashamed falsehoods.

This post first appeared at Leaders of the Opposition.

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