The speech made by Jon Trickett, the Labour MP for Hemsworth, in the House of Commons on 10 May 2022.
I have been listening carefully to this debate. Speaking from the point of view of one of the villages at the heart of England, in Yorkshire, it is occasionally very difficult to recognise the descriptions of England and Britain that have emerged this afternoon.
Before I develop my argument, I want to refer to the fact that, for medical reasons, it has been more than five months since I have been able to speak in the House. I had a bad accident in the new year, and two of my closest relations fell seriously and critically ill; one was on life support for nine days. I was able to see at first hand the miracles that are performed hourly, or even minute by minute, by nurses and doctors in the intensive care unit at Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield. My sense of gratitude will never diminish—what I saw was quite incredible. The same goes for the paediatric unit at Leeds General Infirmary, which has been looking after a young member of our family. I hope that the House will not mind if I mention my own surgeon, Mr Venkatesh at Chapel Allerton Hospital in Leeds, who managed to get me up and walking faster than I imagined possible.
There were times in hospital when it felt as if I were running a casework surgery, because when people discovered that I was a Member of Parliament and I was laid up, they took advantage and formed a queue to lobby me about all kinds of things. What was most frequently raised with me was the state of the NHS; the staff, the clinicians, the orderlies, the cleaners and the patients all came up to me and spoke to me about the NHS.
The Prime Minister was saying earlier that he is putting record amounts of money into the national health service, so I just want to give him this message—not from me, but from the clinicians and all the people who spoke to me in the intense moments when I was trying to recover from the anaesthetic. They said, “The money isn’t getting to us. Our incomes are low and are being held back.” They said that the scourge of restructuring was going on all the time, preventing them from getting on with the level of care that they wanted to provide. They also said that they were fed up with outsourcing. They asked me to tell the House of Commons that those are their views; I capture them in all honesty. I happen to agree with them, but that is beside the point.
I move on to the question of levelling up. One might ask why, after 12 years of Tory Government, it is suddenly necessary for the Government to say that we need to level up. In referring to my constituency, I will illustrate a series of national problems. There are two aspects that I want to raise, the first of which is inequality of income. The average income in my constituency is £250 a week less than is earned in wages in the Prime Minister’s constituency. That is a staggering difference: £12,500 a year per person working in a full-time occupation. How can that level of inequality be justified? I am sure that many Labour Members and others have similar problems in their constituency. How has that come about after 12 years of a Tory Government? I will suggest later what might be done about that, but first I will mention a second point about my constituency that raises a wider question.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who is no longer in his place, mentioned social mobility. Well, look: the British are told, “If you work hard, play by the rules and have even a minimum of talent, you should be able to get on in life.” That is the promise of social mobility, but the truth is that the Government established a Social Mobility Commission—and what happened? The board members all resigned because they said that social mobility had come to an end in Britain.
There are 533 seats in England, and mine is the 529th least socially mobile constituency in the whole of England. I speak not only for my constituency, but for all the seats across the north of England, the south-west and elsewhere where social mobility has come to an end. It breaks my heart to think of a child born today in one of those hospitals in my constituency that I experienced—born into a family in deprivation or poverty and facing not only a shorter life than people in more prosperous areas, but a life in which they will die in poverty. It breaks my heart to think that that is where we are.
“Levelling up” is a spurious rhetorical device that the Government have developed to try to cover up the failures of the past 12 years in office. We have a society that is now profoundly unequal, in which the billionaires are floating on a sea of riches while millions of people are living in poverty, including children and families in work. When inequality and the lack of social mobility are put together, what do we have? We have a class structure, the old British disease: ossified, unchanging and built on a system that enriches a few and leaves so many millions behind.
What does the Government’s programme offer? I say that it offers more of the poison that created the situation that we are now in, but pretends that it is a solution. What created the situation was Tory economic policies, austerity, neoliberal economics and market triumphalism. All those things are at the root of the problems that face communities such as mine and those across the north of England and elsewhere. What the Queen’s Speech pretends is that the state can take an active role in levelling up, offering social mobility and a route out of poverty for people in constituencies such as mine—but that is not what is being offered, is it? What we are being offered is more marketisation, more cuts and more austerity, with planning laws swept away to deliver more marketisation and then deregulation—all the defects that have created the problems that have left so many communities behind. That is what is on offer in this Queen’s Speech.
I am sure that in the quiet of their own homes, Ministers’ consciences may tell them that we have a problem. The key workers in the NHS and elsewhere who kept this country going through the pandemic have been abandoned on low pay, with pay rises that are wholly unacceptable, while price rises are accelerating.
If we calculate how much money we need to level up my constituency with the Prime Minister’s, the amount is astonishing. Paying people in my area the same as people in the Prime Minister’s would require a fifth of £1 billion a year; getting halfway there would cost us a staggering £100 million a year. What do the Government offer? They offer a Chancellor who never hesitates to boast about how he is a “small state” kind of guy, when what is required is active intervention in the market to begin to change the levels of deprivation and poverty and the difficulties that are the source of so many problems such as the breakdown of cohesion and the anger that we see in politics today. It would cost £200 million a year to pay people in my constituency what people earn down in the Prime Minister’s.
There is only one answer to this, and that is a Marshall aid plan on the scale of what was provided after the end of the second world war. That is what is needed if we are to begin to tackle the underlying problem; anything else is merely rhetoric designed to persuade people to give the Tories one more chance. Before anyone jumps up to say that we cannot pay for it—although I see that no one is doing so—let me point out that this is one of the richest countries in the world. But where is that wealth? It is not in areas across the north, or indeed elsewhere. It is in the hands of a very small group of people and a tiny group of corporations. It is time to introduce a wealth tax.
Why is it, by the way, that money earned from wealth or property is taxed less than money earned from work? Why do we privilege wealth and capital over labour? Why is our fiscal system designed like that? We could raise more money to begin to create that Marshall aid plan. All these things are possible, but first the House must face the truth: this is a profoundly divided society, a restless and angry society which wants change.
In a society where divisions are running so deep, it is not surprising that the levels of consent and consensus which a democratic country requires in order to be governed are breaking down. Dissent is emerging because of the lack of social justice, which I have tried to explain from the viewpoint of my constituents. What is the Government’s response? Is it to try to create a more socially just society? No, it is not; it is to try to crack down on that dissent. In the last parliamentary Session we passed some horrendously authoritarian legislation, and now, in today’s Queen’s Speech, more is being proposed.
Let me end by saying this. Authoritarianism will never resolve the problems of a breakdown in consent in a society about which people feel profoundly uneasy because of the way in which it treats them.