THEIR politics could not be more different, but Jeremy Corbyn and Heidi Allen have become unlikely allies. The former is an old-school socialist who never expected to become Labour leader while the latter is a Yorkshire-born Conservative backbencher who had never previously spoken in the House of Commons until this week.
The former is an old-school socialist who never expected to become Labour leader while the latter is a Yorkshire-born Conservative backbencher who had never previously spoken in the House of Commons until this week.
Yet their respective interventions in Parliament – Mr Corbyn on the plight of steelworkers and Mrs Allen on how the Government’s changes to tax credits will hit the aspirational on low-pay – have the potential to be political game-changers because they had compassion at their core and will challenge Tory complacency on these issues.
Why? These eloquent interventions may, in fact, force David Cameron and George Osborne to raise their game and start to put compassionate Conservatism into practice. The Prime Minister was at his smug worst when he dismissed concerns about tax credits at PMQs this week by saying that his party had won the Commons vote “with a big majority”.
Don’t get me wrong – I believe that Labour’s left-wing agenda is economically bankrupt and the party has no chance of returning to power under the current leadership – but I do respect Mr Corbyn’s mandate and his attempt to make Prime Minister’s Questions more constructive by raising issues highlighted by activists.
This tactic will not always work – there will be occasions when the Leader of the Opposition’s duty is to ask six sharp questions of his own – but these personal stories are disarming those heckling Tories who showed no mercy to his predecessor Ed Miliband.
Take PMQs which came 24 hours after Anna Soubry, the Small Business Minister, chuntered away at the Labour front bench in a totally disrespectful manner while her boss, Sajid Javid, updated the House of Commons on the ramifications of the 970 job losses at Tata’s steel plant in Scunthorpe – the third emergency statement to Parliament in eight days following the collapse of Redcar’s SSI plant last week.
This rudeness simply was not possible when Mr Corbyn spoke on behalf of a maintenance fitter from the stricken Scunthorpe plant who is helping to produce steel for Network Rail and who wanted to know what the Prime Minister is going to do “to support the steel industry and its workers facing redundancy”.
Yes, I know that it is easy for Mr Corbyn to say this because he doesn’t have a costed plan of his own, but his style – he glares at those Tory tormentors like Mrs Soubry who tries to unnerve him on such serious subjects – should not be under-estimated. It certainly has the power to expose lingering Conservative complacency when it comes to the low-waged, manufacturing and the North-South divide.
The same applies to Mrs Allen. This is a politician who grew up in Notton in Wakefield and worked for six years as managing director of her family’s manufacturing business – they make paint for motorcycles – before becoming MP for South Cambridgeshire.
The go-getting 40-year-old admits that her maiden speech was “better late than never” but it was all the more impactful because it came in such a high-profile debate and ignored many of the unwritten Commons conventions in which new MPs speak about their predecessor, constituency and little else.
Mrs Allen only decided to become a MP while watching TV coverage of the Tottenham riots in 2011 and being shaken out of her “comfort zone”. “Night after night, my television showed me a country that was falling apart – my country– with social breakdown and an economy on the verge of collapse. I felt so strongly that I had to step forward and lend a hand,” she told a silently respectful Commons.
She revealed that she “became an MP to stand up for the vulnerable, to lead the way for those too tired to find it for themselves” before pointing out “that is the role of Government, too”.
Her criticism was not the scaling back of tax credits as the economy grows, it was the pace with which this transition is taking place, their impact on three million “hardworking families” – remember that much-repeated phrase from the election campaign – and that choosing heat or to eat is not a luxury.
“To expect people to immediately find more hours or better-paid work suggests, I am afraid, a level of naivety about the skills of some of our people,” added Mrs Allen. “As the proposals stand, too many people will be adversely affected. Something must give. For those of us proud enough to call ourselves compassionate Conservatives, it must not be the backs of the working families we purport to serve.”
I have no idea whether these wise words will force a change of heart before next week’s second vote on tax credits – these changes are designed to accrue savings of £4.4bn and any concessions will have to be funded from other sources like those global giants who are very adept at depriving HM Treasury of its pecuniary entitlement. But I do hope the style of these contributions does force the Government to think again. For, if it does, the whole of Britain will benefit from compassionate Conservatism rather than the “I’m alright Jack” approach to life.
After all, it was Tory backbencher Heidi Allen – rather than Jeremy Corbyn – who said these profound words: “A country and its economy does not function if the people who run the engine cannot afford to operate it.”
Thanks to these unlikely sources, perhaps there is hope for those who desire a more mature political debate than the ritual trading of soundbites, statistics and sarcasm.