In recent decades, a destructive process of underinvestment in local communities has left millions of people to fight amongst themselves for dwindling resources. Successive political parties – whether Tory, Lib-Dem, or New Labour – are complicit in creating this state of affairs.
But this dire situation is beginning to change, and now that a genuine socialist is leading the Labour Party there is a real chance that a Corbyn-led government can ensure that working-class people will once again be prioritised over the demands of big business. In real terms, the political consequences of a Corbyn-led government for millions of ordinary people would be massive. Such a socialist government could commit to a mass Council house building program and the construction of new nurseries, schools and a multitude of community centres for the young and elderly alike.
Unfortunately, at present, the majority of MPs, even within the Labour Party, are not yet on board with such a progressive program for social change. In the case of Labour MPs, rather than striving to popularise ideas for how communities can be brought together and strengthened through investment, individual parliamentary representatives often act more like Tories, and fail to put forward socialist means of dealing with the devastating consequences of austerity.
In Leicester, Keith Vaz is one such Labour politician who remains more concerned with his own parliamentary career than with backing the types of massively popular socialist ideas that have been unleashed by Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
Political representatives like Vaz only seem to intervene in local politics when they think it may strengthen their voting base. Contrast such naked opportunism with the actions of genuine socialists like Corbyn who have always done everything in their power to encourage public debate and engagement with socialist ideas that place people before profit. For instance, it is a tragic matter of the record that in Vaz’s own constituency (Leicester East), the occurrence of regular local Labour Party meetings where such matters might be debated (and Vaz held accountable) have been almost non-existent for the past decade. A rare exception is provided by Labour Party meetings held in the Evington ward.
But thankfully now that Corbyn is leading the Labour Party with the massive support of a growing membership things are gradually starting to change for the better, even in Leicester East.
So Vaz’s latest intervention into local politics is disappointing to say the least, all the more so considering his silence (locally and nationally) in regard to building grassroots support for Corbyn’s fighting socialist ideas – ideas that can only serve to improve public service provision for all Vaz’s constituents.
Vaz’s latest intervention thus began when members of his constituency in Belgrave ward contacted him about a planning proposal to convert a small disused warehouse on Belper Street into a Muslim nursery/education centre. Quick to take action on limited issues, Vaz then convened a mass meeting (of nearly 400 people), whereupon he threw his full support behind the local opposition to the proposal. Here it is noteworthy to recall that Vaz had done something similar in 2012 when he publicly backed another campaign elsewhere in his constituency which was opposed to the conversion of a disused Scout hut into a Muslim community centre. In both instances Vaz threw his support behind the protestors without raising the need for progressive socialist alternatives that could unite rather than divide communities.
We might also observe that in Vaz’s latest political intervention, he took the decision to chair a massive public meeting opposing the proposal before the Council’s planning officers had even had a chance to make any formal recommendations vis-a-vis the application. (The Council’s officers have since said they oppose the development.) Furthermore, we might also note that the normal democratic channel for taking up concerns with planning proposals is through local councillors not MPs. In Belgrave ward there are three councillors, all of whom represent the Labour Party (Cllr Mansukhlal Chohan, Cllr John Thomas, and Cllr Manjula Sood who is also the Assistant City Mayor for Communities & Equalities).
Thus after Vaz chaired the meeting he sent out a one page letter (on December 4) to many of his concerned constituents wherein he explained that he had “written again to Leicester City Council to tell them that I oppose the application and to ask the planning committee to refuse the application.” Vaz added that two other Belgrave ward councillors supported him, Cllr Thomas and Cllr Sood, as did his “two Parliamentary Agents for Belgrave, Padmini Chumund and Dharmesh Lakhani.” He even promised that when the Council’s planning committee came together to discuss the proposal in December (a meeting taking place this Wednesday — December 13), “I will return early from Westminster for this meeting to be clear to the Council that I oppose what is being proposed.” (Note: Cllr Chohan was not included on Vaz’s letter because he is a member of the Council’s Planning Committee.)
With the planning committee meeting scheduled for this week, the weekend edition of the Leicester Mercury (December 9) reported on this brewing controversy, drawing attention to the high levels of both public opposition and support that had been received for the proposed Belper Street development. The newspaper explained: “More than 1,435 letters of objection have been sent to officials, as well as petitions with a total of 3,569 names.” The Mercury article then added that “Some 350 representations have been made in support of the plan to establish the Belper Education Centre, as it would be called.”
Although Vaz’s letter of opposition only focused on concerns related to “traffic and congestion” it does appear that there may be a religious dimension to some people’s opposition, as the Mercury article pointed out that:
“Many of the concerns sent to the council point out that the area is largely made up of Hindu families and the proposed centre would be a Muslim organisation. Other concerns relate to potential disturbance from early morning activity in the street, and parking problems and traffic congestion that would be generated by worshippers and other users of the centre.”
One would have to see further evidence before making any assumptions about local opposition being related to religious concerns, but it should be recognised that the Leicester-based pressure group, British Hindu Voice — which is led by local leading Conservative Party activist Vinod Popat – is definitely trying to make political capital out of this controversy. This is evidenced by their online campaign to oppose the development of the Muslim nursery/education centre. And although British Hindu Voice certainly does not maintain friendly relations with the Muslim community they understand that religious concerns are never taken into consideration during a planning application; hence British Hindu Voice made it clear on their web page that “Faith should not be invoked” in any objection lodged with the Council.
Given the involvement of a conservative pressure group in this case it is noteworthy that British Hindu Voice recognises that local residents do have very real concerns over the lack of affordable housing in their ward (something that the Tories care not a jot about). Thus, we have a conservative group advising residents to object to a planning proposal on the basis that “the only need identified in the local plans would be is to support [sic] construction of more sustainable and affordable terrace houses built, for the local people with low incomes etc.” Other online suggestions provided by British Hindu Voice also correctly, if opportunistically, suggest: “This area requires more affordable housing as there is sheer lack of this type of accommodation in comparison to the other areas of Leicester.”
What Leicester therefore needs more than ever is a strong socialist voice demanding the construction of good quality Council houses across our city. “Affordable” homes are not the same as Council housing as in reality they are usually totally unaffordable to most people. This is why many socialist trade unionists in the housing sector argue:
“There’s a housing policy battle going on inside the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has made a clear commitment to council housing, but others are continuing the doublespeak of the Blair/Brown years. Vague noises about ‘affordable’ housing lack credibility. They also conceal an ideology that’s essentially pro-business.”
What should be obvious is that “The Labour Party should be bold on housing. Tinkering around the edges of the problem won’t work, nor will continuing to expect the private sector to solve the crisis it caused.”
The only question that remains is whether Labour MPs and councillors will be bold enough to intervene in local politics in order to unite all communities against Tory-driven poverty. What is needed now more than ever are accountable political representatives who can help us bring about a socialist transformation of society that benefits the millions not just the millionaires!