Nearly everyone in politics has had a voter tell us “you’re all the same.” It baffles us. We spend so long attacking each other, explaining how huge our differences are.
Yet from the perspective of some of my constituents, I see how they feel. People come to me with real issues, yet politicians can sometimes seem keener on sharing and avoiding blame, rather than finding solutions to problems.
Perhaps if we really want people to see us differently, we should develop a politics of solutions. I believe the time has come for just such an approach.
One of the issues I am dealing with at the moment is the lack of rural bus services. Constituents tell me the bus they rely on for work no longer operates or is soon to be axed. Cuts in public subsidy to unprofitable routes means the bus company pulls the service. People have difficulty getting to work, to the hospital or just to the next village to see friends. It’s a big problem for rural communities.
I blame the government for the depth of cuts, the government blames the local council for making the wrong spending decisions and the spiral of blame begins.
Meanwhile, the constituent who can’t get to work, tugs at the politician’s shirt sleeve and says: “Hang on a minute, I’m not bothered who is to blame, I still can’t get to work, what are you going to do about it. What is the solution?”
And there lies the rub. The politician’s use of rhetoric, pursuit of ideology and the levelling of blame falls on deaf ears when the constituent’s priority is to get to work – not next year or after the next election, but in the morning. In these circumstances ideology takes a back seat – it’s what works that matters.
The next general election may come before 2015, but the coalition will do its best to stay the course. Our job in the meantime is to find solutions, as best we can, to the issues facing our constituents which can be implemented now. This will mean working with volunteers, local authorities, trade unions, the third sector and business.
Some of this work is happening, but more needs to be done. The Tories won’t do it. Their version of the ‘big society’ is to encourage people to swim and if they can’t then they must sink. There is no in between in the Tory world view.
And so now, today, we need to get our hands dirty. To do so is part of our heritage. The miners in the coalfields of County Durham created their version of the big society which lasted generations and it showed trade unionism at its best because the union was an integral part of the local community, not just the workplace. They practiced the politics of solutions. The homes for retired miners, the cooperatives and benefit schemes they established prove the point. They created a big society because there was no one else to help. This government is ensuring that era is fast approaching again and it will also be the era where the politics of solutions will be needed more than ever.
In Durham, like elsewhere, local church groups are establishing food banks and their need is growing. Food banks are sadly part of a solution and they work. The Tories welcome food banks as proof of their big society and to do so is to miss the point: any society that needs food banks isn’t big, it is failing. However, in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, they are needed.
If we are all in this together, pressure needs to be placed on supermarkets to donate food to food banks so they can be seen to give something back to the communities out of which they take so much.
If a bus service is terminated, bus companies, not just local authorities, need to look at how they can prevent communities from becoming isolated. I have one village in my constituency without a bus service where the nearest shop within walking distance is the motorway service station. Bus companies, for example, also need to think about offering free advice to community transport projects on how to run a bus service.
These are some of the practical applications I am working on with others and to which the politics of solutions can be put. We may not always be successful, but we must be seen to be trying.
That is why the politics of solutions should become the practical manifestation of our ideology when in opposition, so Labour is seen to be doing in the absence of a government that is not intending to do at all.
All of this has implications for the Labour party in as well as out of government. The Labour movement is at its best when it engages with the community; it is, after all, where we started. Mutual aid and support help to make our politics tick. While we flesh out our plans for government we need also to think how we can help those we want to represent in the here and now. This isn’t just a role for Labour councils and trade unions it is also a role for the Labour party as an organisation. The politics of solutions can make the Labour party an organic, living part of the community. Yes we’ll continue to blame the other party a bit, and they’ll blame us, we can’t help it, but only by doing and leading by example will Labour outflank the government and show up the vacuous nature at the centre of the Tory party’s belief in the big society.
The politics of solutions informs the electorate we are on their side and will also help restore faith in politics and politicians, because we see the community’s needs in the here-and-now.
Even in government, money will still be scarce, but the politics of solutions determine that money follows the approach of an enabling government that does believe ‘we are all in this together’ – the Tories can make the statement, but they do not understand the words. That is why the best solution of all is the election of a Labour government. And the politics of solutions means that we must be resolved to creating a society where the local bus service delivers a service and food banks are no more.