“Hitherto, the well-to-do have governed this country for their own interest; and I will do them this credit—they have achieved their object. Now I trust the time is approaching for those who work and have not. My aim in life is to make life pleasanter for this great majority”
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Joseph Chamberlain, a towering figure in the history of Birmingham politics.
Chamberlain, who was Mayor between 1873 and 1876 before serving Birmingham as an MP for 38 years, is synonymous with radical programmes of localism which transformed both the city and its public services and amenities.
140 years on from the era which shaped the face and heart of Birmingham, as a Labour Party member it is hard not to feel a synergy of philosophy with Chamberlain, despite him being a Liberal (fortunately of a different breed to those currently in government).
We have not the slightest intention of making profit...We shall get our profit indirectly in the comfort of the town and in the health of the inhabitants
Chamberlain gave the above statement to a House of Commons Committee when justifying the Council’s decision to bring Birmingham’s waterworks under municipal control, an act which began the transformation of a city in which 50% of the population still relied upon sewage-polluted well water.
This followed the council’s similar action to purchase Birmingham’s two leading gas suppliers, after their destructive actions led to constant disruption and inadequate service (energy companies obviously haven’t changed that much). The new scheme went on to achieve a considerable profit in its first year of operation (as opposed to the 100% increase in public funding which has occurred since the railways were privatised in 1993).
In our current economic and political climate, in which the Tories have successfully stretched truths around the necessity of austerity and Labour’s role in the global financial crisis of 2008, I’m not suggesting that repeating this rhetoric word-for word would boost Miliband’s perceived credibility. But in the week in which he promised that the next Labour government would devolve £30 billion to local authorities, it serves as an important reminder of the ability of councils and other local bodies to offer a credible alternative to wholescale privatisation.
It also represents an ethic which the next Labour government must restore in the way our NHS is governed. Private firms now run 70% of NHS contracts, budget cuts mean that children are now missing out on life-changing services such as speech and language therapy, and whistleblowers at University College Hospital in London are claiming that private patients are being given priority over the elderly and emergency cases. Without intervention, you feel we begin to descend a slippery slope to a destination which is the inverse of Chamberlain’s ethos.
In short, Labour must follow in Chamberlain’s footsteps in ensuring that we use the power of communities and municipalities to defend a way of life that is greater than the bottom line. When Chamberlain spoke about the great inequality in society, he foresaw it as:
“a problem which some men would put aside by reference to the eternal laws of supply and demand, to the necessity of freedom of contract, and to the sanctity of every private right of property”.
Our mission must be to defend another part of his vision of society, an enduring shared objective which remains timeless in the fabric of our party:
“Our object is the elevation of the poor, of the masses of the people—a levelling up of them by which we shall do something to remove the excessive inequality in social life”