Rowenna Davis is one of the Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) profiled in the new Young Fabians pamphlet 'Fifteen for 2015'. You can read the pamphlet here.
If you can say one thing about Rowenna Davis it’s that she’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers. More than a decade before her rise to political prominence as the author of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, Labour’s candidate for Southampton Itchen caused a stir by organising a new school ‘tuck shop’ to rival the much-maligned school dinners. Told by staff at her inner-London comprehensive she had “no hope” of influencing Serco due to its 15 year contract to provide the service, a 14-year-old Rowenna stood firm. Two weeks later Serco gave in, introducing a new menu with vegetarian options. Multi-national corporation 0. Community organising 1.
With this experience, it’s easy to see how the controversial Blue Labour agenda, the brainchild of Labour Peer Lord Glassman, would later appeal to the by-then Southwark councillor. Davis’s ‘canteen experience’ chimes with her assertion that Labour “is at its best when it values contribution and is rooted in its communities.” Labour, she says, must re-discover that we “can’t do politics to people, we must work with people” and that the party should “challenge the state when it’s over-centralised and bullying [as well as the market].”
These two principles are rooted in the heart of Blue Labour, which Davis describes as “one of the most energetic” Labour movements and one that “chimes with residents in Southampton.”
There’s also a third principle – possibly the most controversial element of Blue Labour – that “progress is not always positive for people.” Davis argues that the last Labour government talked “a lot about what we would change, but forgot to talk about what we wanted to protect, like community, faith, neighbourliness, and responsibility.” Tony Blair, she says, talked a bit about ‘responsibility’ in the early years “but we lost that.”
Synonymous with Blue Labour’s scepticism towards the term ‘progress’ is its critique of globalisation. “For a lot of people globalisation is not a positive thing,” says Davis. “In Southampton we lost our ship-building industry and the Ford factory. Immigration meant that many blue collar workers had a cut in their wages, because if you bring in a lot of cheaper labour to an area the wage price goes down. That’s basic economics, not racism,” she makes clear.
But the focus must be on “how we work with globalisation, not about how we shut it down”, says Davis who points to Germany’s regional banks, vocational education and worker representation on boards as ways to empower both institutions and workers.
“Britain’s approach seems to be ‘let’s drive down the wages to the lowest point possible and then we’ll get the jobs,’ but what do you get when you’re at the bottom?”
Despite implicit criticism in the way New Labour managed globalised markets, Davis stresses its wide range of important successes, particularly in Tony Blair’s first term. She ranks the national minimum wage, central bank independence and gay rights either ‘brilliant’ or ‘fantastic’, praises devolution and notes that “we really did need investment in our schools and hospitals – they were about to break.”
“The Regional Development Authorities were good,” she adds. “Not perfect, but at least an attempt at rebalancing the economy.”
So how much impact has Blue Labour had in the post-New Labour era?
“If we’d followed Blue Labour in 2011, UKIP would be nowhere - we would have dealt with all that without the nastiness,” she says.
“But Ed Miliband in his heart is ultimately 100% red.”
He has, though, “had a conversation with Blue Labour that has influenced his policies. He’s talked a lot about vocational education and the forgotten 50%. He has talked a lot about challenging the market in a way that Tony Blair never would have done, including the banks and the energy companies; and he did hire Arnie Graff (the community organiser) for a while, but I do think his departure is probably symptomatic of a wider move away from Blue Labour ahead of the election,” reflects Davis.
So what will Rowenna’s priorities be if elected in 2010?
“It’s really important that Southampton needs more jobs and higher wages,” she says. “We’ve lost a lot of industry… and there’s a fear that Southampton could just become a commuter town for London. There’s a worry the jobs replacing the old manufacturing jobs are service industry, zero-hour ‘poverty-pay’ jobs rather than the ones that we need to build stable communities.”
The answer? Davis aims “to write to the 100 biggest employers in the south-east and ask ‘why aren’t you moving here?’”
“The other priority,” she says, is continuing to engage with the community post-election, “running campaigns with people, rather than sitting in an office doing things for people.”
And nationally? “I want to see hard work rewarded. I want Labour to become a movement again – and to capture the imagination of the people.” Labour is, after all, “the party of the school canteen.”
Joe Jervis is a member of the Young Fabians Executive Committee