How has the first year been for the new wave of Left Labour Councillors? Ben Clay, Councillor for Burnage in Manchester, spoke to Penny Hicks, Convenor of Manchester People’s Assembly
I asked Ben: what are the achievements you feel most proud of? What do difference do you think you have made?
It’s the little things I’m most proud of, helping people get rehoused, help with benefits, helping people who’ve fallen through the cracks. These little things are terrible injustices that wreck people’s lives. Where there is help available, they need help to access the system. Services are so reduced and the access to them is so difficult, people need help just to get through the door (or what the system calls triage!)
We have managed to get a review of all advice services in Manchester which might help.
How much case work do you have?
I could go out and get cases every day, I had seven people to see in one hour at my last surgery. I prioritise people who are at risk of eviction, can’t feed their kids and have threats to their safety. I’m an advocate chasing the support services that a few years ago would have responded, no problem, but are so cut back you have to keep on their case. I put people in the most need first, the downtrodden, destitute people.
What difference do the new Councillors make to the City Council?
One difference the new left wing Councillors can make is to give more confidence to some of the existing Councillors who may have felt a bit of a fringe group and now they realise their socialist ideas are mainstream Labour policy.
It comes down to the class divide. If your ward is well off the priorities are very different.
There is an eight year difference in life expectancy between people who live in the poorest areas of Manchester (e.g. Miles Platting) compared to the richest (Didsbury) just 7 miles apart.
People who work in Manchester earn £7000-£8000 more than people who live in Manchester.
What do the poorest get from shiny tower blocks in the city centre? Not a lot?
How would you solve the housing crisis in Manchester?
It would be impossible while we have the Tories in Government. Even if we could empty the Council coffers and spend it all on building social housing and avoid right to buy there would be nothing left for services. It could only be done with a Labour Govenrment with a socialist leadership because we would need to know they would support the investment.
If a house is built for say £80,000 it needs to be rented for 30 years, if you sell it to a tenant after 5 years you’ve just given it away. Some Councils have tried different ways to get around Right to Buy, but it has to go.
Immediately, the campaign ‘End DSS Discrimination' [a campaign led by Ben] is important. Stopping people on benefits from being able to rent indirectly discriminates mostly against disabled people – which is illegal. Some of the banks have given in under pressure and removed this clause from their mortgages. Even working people on Universal Credit are stopped from renting.
Also every property developer should be made to provide 20% affordable, including 5% social housing in our policy - no exceptions. Cambridge council does this.
How do you think the Labour Party is doing under Corbyn?
Labour has all the big ideas; on jobs, the economy, education and the environment to name just a few. They are exciting, inspiring and they can work. Some people want these big ideas and others are so ground down it’s the local and individual problems that are front of mind. We need to bring both together – it’s a question of political education, broadening out political ideas to connect everything up. The Labour Party was the ‘caring face’ of neo Liberalism and some people remember this and suffered from it. We still have to convince them. I was proud to put socialist and Jeremy Corbyn on my leaflets and I got the most votes in my ward.
What is the role of street activism and mass movements?
It ranges from the quiet work of volunteers trying to provide help to the most vulnerable to vibrant visible vocal campaigns and protests. Sometimes it’s the only power we have to make our voices heard. For example, the solidarity pickets for First bus and the RMT strikes were important in giving confidence to the strikers and pressurising the employers.
The far right is targeting Manchester at the moment and the response needs to be open and broad and inclusive we won’t win by separating people by political or sectarian interests. A lot of the anti-fascist activism is a form of firefighting but we also need fire prevention. The Trade Union Movement has shrunk in size, the Labour Party has been through a depoliticised period and the right wing media still whip up hatred. People are rightly untrusting of politicians
How critical are the mass movements in getting Corbyn elected?
It’s not a personality cult. Corbyn is just a guy, no one is going to wave a magic wand for us, so everyone of us needs to be out and getting involved. We need to be in the campaigns, in the streets, it takes a mass movement to change the world. The process of changing society is ambitious and difficult, the satisfaction of helping someone get a home is nothing compared to the prize of the transformation of society. I think an election is likely and I fancy our chances.
What do you think is the best way to defend the Labour leadership and the Labour Party from the attacks being made by the Labour wing of the Independent group?
The group of ex-Labour quitters are an insignificant rag bag of careerists, neoliberals and bland machine politicians, whose conservative instincts were terrified by the prospect of a radical project of economic and political transformation. They are held together by nothing more than thwarted ambition, a visceral loathing of a leadership team representing genuine socialist politics, and a craven desire to curry favour with the right wing media, corporate interests and the British establishment. Continually pointing out the facts, and being clear on our politics and values, communicating directly with the people via social and alternative media is the best way to get our message across.
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