Last Thursday, as we paid tribute to our wonderful national health service and applauded our carers, we stood as a nation of individuals, physically apart, each of us on our doorstep, on our balcony, or at our window. I allowed my five-year-old and two-year-old to stay up later to take part – my daughter looked out of the window – clapping – and asked me if ‘that was one of the nurses’ in reference to our neighbours clapping on the street.
Despite the physical distance between us, that moment confirmed something that I had felt bubbling up over the preceding ten days a greater sense of unity and common purpose, both of which are necessary if we are to come through the coronavirus outbreak and make it to the other side.
In Vauxhall, and across Lambeth and Southwark (the boroughs that I still represent on the London assembly), community action and support have blossomed. New local networks have sprouted up, aiming to give residents the direction and advice they need. Community Whatsapp groups have been established and expanded, with volunteers keen to help, delivering medicine and food to those isolating or vulnerable; calling housebound neighbours for a chat; donating thousands of pounds to local food banks.
My south London community is just one example of people pulling together without hesitation in the face of this most testing of health and economic crises. This has been replicated up and down the country, most clearly embodied in the incredibly swift response to the government’s call for an NHS volunteer force. As we stand up to the extraordinary challenges of these unexpected times, I’m proud of the support we have shown each other, our schools, our key workers, and particularly our brilliant NHS.
I am also proud of the way in which local government has led the way to ease the burden of the virus on local residents. Locally in Lambeth and Southwark, evictions have been suspended, all agency council staff are being treated as permanent staff for the duration and local packages of economic support have been rolled out to enable local business to survive.
Labour councils and councilors have been leading the way supporting their communities, for many residents they are the first line of defence. Labour local government was at the forefront of lobbying for financial relief for local businesses and the self-employed that chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled last week.
As one of the 26 new members of parliament in the 2019 intake, I believe that as a party we have to turn our focus to solutions of this nature. The chancellor announced a package of spending increases instead of tax cuts in the first Tory budget earlier in March. This presents Labour with an opportunity to focus on the solutions of investment in public infrastructure to help boost economic growth.
The full extent of the human and social toll of this virus is not yet clear, we only know that it will continue to be significant and painful. When we are able to take stock of our new reality, we will have a new Labour leader and many challenges awaiting us. We should bring forward our new-found unity as we tackle the problems of the future.
One task, that was at the forefront of our minds and occupied the political discourse for the best part of four years, will be there in all its complexity on the other side of this crisis. Brexit.
Before parliament closed early for recess, as a member of the ‘Future Relationship with the European Union’ select committee, our first public session was with the minister responsible for overseeing Brexit negotiations, Michael Gove. The committee pressed Mr. Gove to provide us with an economic assessment of the negotiations and proposed trade deals. Although this was my first select committee as a new MP, I could tell the minister was not ready to share anything with parliamentarians.
Our new relationship with the EU, and the rest of the world, cannot be founded on division and resentment, as looked likely just weeks ago. The government can no longer approach trade talks (when they come) by channelling the hubris of the Vote Leave campaign, or summarily dismiss the concerns of those of us who feel that life outside of the EU will make livelihoods worse. Brexit should not be used as a tool to separate ourselves from the rest of the world, demonising immigrants and pushing away foreign investment in the process.
The new relationships that we forge with the EU and beyond will only succeed if they are predicated on partnership, allegiance, and a shared goal of inclusive prosperity. It’s my hope that our new leader will forcefully argue this case to the government, ensuring that negotiations are imbued with good faith and pursued with the opportunities of all UK residents in mind.
Something similar can be said for how our new leader can renew a sense of togetherness in our party, recalling our roots and common purpose: that only by coming together can we transform lives.
Despite the tragedy of the current situation on the ground, our new leader will have an opportunity to move us forward together out of this difficult time. They should do so with the knowledge that those in our party have, along with the rest of the country, been exposed to a reality that only a matter of weeks ago was unthinkable, and in the face of which we appear to be achieving the inexplicable: that we can come together, and we are better when we do so.
Whilst we wade through the depths of these tough times, it can help to see the promise of a better world and a better politics at the end of the tunnel. As a party, it is vital that we lead with Labour values at the forefront of the new political order that will emerge from this adversity.
Florence Eshalomi was elected as the MP for Vauxhall in 2019. She has been the London assembly member for Lambeth and Southwark since 2016. She tweets @FloEshalomi