Few MPs deserve to be kicked out of parliament more than Hugo Swire. The Conservative representative for East Devon was recently caught on camera by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme joking that benefit claimants could afford to donate thousands of pounds to the Tory party at a glamourous fundraising ball attended by some of the wealthiest people in Britain.
As if that wasn’t enough, he then went on to make light of the MP expenses scandal: “It’s quite naff to have Bentleys and Rolls Royces and Ferraris because anyone could have them. In the good old days of MP’s expenses we could have them too,” he said, to loud guffaws from the audience.
It sounds like a scene from hit film The Riot Club, but this was fact, not fiction. Fortunately the voters of East Devon have a chance to change the story by kicking him out on May 7. The man leading the charge? Steve Race.
“I’m in it to win it,” says Steve. “This is a moment of change for East Devon, based around the fact that a lot of people are tired of having a Conservative District council, a Conservative County council, and an MP who faces too little opposition. People feel a bit trapped and let down by their current representatives, so there is an opportunity to act on behalf of people who are fed up and to deal with the issues that the Tories aren’t solving.”
The Labour and Conservative candidates could hardly be more different in terms of background. Swire went to Eton College and worked as director of the exclusive auction house Sotheby’s before entering parliament. Steve grew up in a working class, single parent household where life was often far from comfortable.
“A lot of time I saw my mum struggle. I know without the welfare state there were times we wouldn’t have been able to feed ourselves. My sister was also severely disabled, and had ten years of treatment on the NHS- including several heart operations. We wouldn’t have been able to afford a fraction of her care if we’d had to pay for it ourselves.”
These early experiences had an enduring effect on Steve’s politics. “I’m Labour because I identify with Labour’s outlook on society. I believe in a socialism where everyone puts in in order to improve the whole of society, and a socialism that promotes equality of opportunity so that success is never based on how much you are worth, how much your parents are worth, or even your great grandparents are worth.”
This last might be a subtle dig at Swire, whose great-grandfather founded the multi-billion pound company the Swire Group back in the early 19th century.
Yet it would be wrong to cast Steve as some anti-capitalist crusader. His socialism is rooted in an understanding that business and government need to work together to improve society.
“I work for a private sector company, and so I know how the private sector generates jobs and wealth, and that’s brilliant. But what we can’t have is a private sector that is essentially subsidised by the state, because of low pay and unsustainable practices. Low pay in particular is a major problem. I recently saw an advert in an East Devon corner shop, part of a national chain, for a supervisor job. Now this would be a job where you’re in charge of staff, of the money, of opening and closing the shop, and it was advertised at the minimum wage! That’s just not sustainable.”
In-work poverty is a big priority of Steve’s. East Devon has three food banks serving hundreds of residents every week, many of whom have jobs, but not enough pay to meet the costs of living. Closing down those food banks by getting rid of the demand for them is top of his agenda.
“The other week we saw the Trussell Trust report that over 900,000 people in 2013-14 were using food banks, including many children. That can’t be acceptable in an economy that is the sixth biggest in the world. We have a government that refuses to talk about food banks when it should be the job of government to ask what is going wrong, even if it is their own policies making it happen.”
The ideal Labour government in Steve’s mind, then, is one that works with business to promote higher pay and a strong economy. “The challenge of the next fifteen years will be to react to new business models that are undermining wages, and instead create a high skilled, high pay economy, because that’s the only way we’ll be able to continue to afford the NHS and welfare state.”
And this will take a Labour party that is tolerant towards a wide range of ideas and opinions. “We’re at our best when we’re the broadest church possible. So long as we all share a commitment to democratic socialism, to the society in which we all play a part, then I think we’re all duty-bound to not shut out ideas that we may disagree with.
“We need to work together rather than wasting time sidelining specific people and groups – that’s how we win”.
The digital pamphlet ‘Fifteen for 2015’, profiling fifteen of Labour’s new candidates, is available to read online here.