CURING the UK’s ills will come not from separate countries struggling, but by communities working together for a better Britain, write Stella Creasy MP and Kezia Dugdale MSP
We may have been born in Birmingham and Aberdeen, but we both know the best chances for our futures lie in Britain. This is not about historical loyalty or political calculations either side of the Border. It is a recognition that more opportunities for our families will come not from countries separately struggling, but by communities confidently working together.
We learned this not least from our joint efforts to take on the problems caused by payday lending through the Debtbusters and Sharkstoppers campaign. We saw first-hand the difference it made to winning the argument for a cap on the cost of credit for our voices to combine.
Money lent at toxically high levels of interest has caused debt problems for millions, but the way in which this industry worked varied from city to city. London, where the cost of living has always been high and credit union membership low, required a distinctive response compared to towns where these firms are yet to pockmark high streets.
In Glasgow, these companies were tackled by a council plan to curb advertising, and to cut rates to help credit unions compete on the High Street.
What defined each response was not just its community of place, but its shared interest – anger at a broken consumer credit market that encouraged profit to be made from poverty. Our calls for legislation were amplified, not diminished, by this activism. From one length of the country to the other, people joined a cause, not a party.
This partnership was forged through shared values and a determination that change was possible. Yet this is not a story commonly associated with working in politics – or with politicians. Indeed, far from being seen as part of the answer, too often we are pitched as the problem. We know how hard it is to make the case for involvement – and that our job title is probably the biggest hurdle of all to trust.
Across Britain, those of us who take on roles of representation are considered not as community leaders and advocates, but bureaucrats whose role is reduced to saying no more often than yes. Our political system classifies the public as voters or “strangers”, and actively works against harnessing their voices. We see our colleagues – good people with a passion for those they serve – weighted down by structures which reinforce this status quo. In a world where the issues we face become ever more complex, the most outdated idea of all is that 650 people in Westminster or 129 MSPs in Edinburgh alone can identify the solutions.
To take on the challenges of our generation will require activity from the grassroots to an international level – and forums for co-operation at every step. That’s why as progressives we know the notion politics is beyond repair is the most damaging of all myths. This can only strengthen those who argue the market should be the default decision-maker. We also see another danger – the view that whatever the issues we face, the answer is to face them separately. The siren calls of nationalists for isolation make the same mistake as Conservatism. They portray teamwork as a problem to be managed rather than a resource to be cherished.
But the binary and tribal debate surrounding independence rings hollow not least because each side believes power is best placed in the hands of its preferred Parliament, and not with its people. Whilst the residents on the ninth floor of the Dumbiedykes housing estate have the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Palace for a back green, the lives of its occupants could not be more polarised. So, too, in Walthamstow, where families have roots throughout the world the traditions of Parliament are found wanting. Their common concerns have nothing to do with nationality but everything to do with being at the mercy of forces we seek to tackle. What divides two women at different ends of the country when they pause before putting the heating on? What’s the difference between two men in different dole queues?
We need a new politics that can help us co-operate not just through formal mechanisms of parliamentary process, but at every level in rebuilding a country fit for the future. As such, the referendum is a missed opportunity. With thousands voting for the first time or even the first time in decades, it could have been a real chance to evolve our politics and how politics is conducted in this country.
We know that all the problems the communities we serve face do not go away when we face them individually. They simply become harder. Watching the Sharkstoppers and Debtbuster movement grow is one of our proudest political achievements. Acting alone as an MP and an MSP we saw limited progress in the fight against payday lenders. We won by tapping into power of communities across the United Kingdom standing side by side together to unite against payday lenders.
This principle of strength through common cause drives us on. As an Englishwoman and a Scotswoman, we both feel there is nowhere better than our home nations, but we also feel the benefit of being part of something bigger. We have no doubt there are difficult choices ahead, and that change in our politics as well as our policies is required.
Yet we also know England and Scotland need to renew the way we work together because we need each other. It makes us stronger, not weaker, to be partners. It is indeed the best of both worlds.
• Kezia Dugdale, MSP, is shadow cabinet secretary for education & lifelong learning. Stella Creasy, MP, is shadow minister for business, innovation and skills