Aston Students’ Union today played host to Progress’ West Midlands Conference meeting to discuss four major subjects for the Labour Party: What should Labour learn from the General Election? How can Labour be trusted with voters’ money? Can devolution work for England? Should Britain remain in Europe?
A little bit of a mea culpa here. I arrived a little bit late, due to issues with the satnav, so unfortunately I missed Ruth Smeeth’s introductions to the first panel discussion and some of Tristram Hunt’s introduction to the conference, but that speech has been published here.
Midland Matters — What should Labour learn from the General Election?
Tristram made a good point about how Labour and its leadership elections in 2010 and 2015 have been about positioning against Tony Blair, and noted the confusion the public would feel given he was elected as Leader in 1994 and left office nearly a decade ago. He’s certainly right about this. I don’t think it’s enough to define yourself, as a politician or political party, as against something. We have to be for something too. Labour’s struggle in 2015 was that we didn’t articulate what we were for.
Jess Phillips, who seems to be winning more and more plaudits every day, was funny and thoroughly genuine and said that the party needs to learn that ‘We’re all better off when we’re all better off’ and that it means all. We all know what the Tories want to do and they just get on and do it. She cited that Labour too often, in the run up to the election, felt like a teenager who’s just become a vegetarian and thinks its wonderful and wants to tell everyone about it (as if they’re the only one to have become one). Though she conceded that the reason we didn’t win in May was because people didn’t trust us with their money and they didn’t like Ed Miliband.
She explained that the reason her campaign was different was because she was standing against a LibDem (which had some advantages) and that she made her campaign about her voters and not about the party. She spoke about uniting a broad labour movement in her campaign, because everyone wanted to get rid of the Liberal, and understood that a Labour MP was the best way of doing it.
John Woodcock underlined the point that the Labour Leadership election wasn’t over and admitted he was yet to vote, but has endorsed Liz Kendall, and emphasised the use of preferences to support the three mainstream candidates for Leader who all want to a credible party of government. The key point for Progress and the Party was that ‘If we cannot present a more inspiring vision than mass renationalisation and leaving NATO then we have questions to ask’.
Kate Godfrey acknowledged that it would be tough to follow the rallying cry from Jess. She explained that the last election was ultimately decided on security, and people pick what they know, which was shown through trust on the economy and in our candidate for Prime Minister. She also said that we shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of beating a government after the first term. We always knew what a challenge it was going to be.
Her focus then switched to the Conservatives in government, as she answered a question from Barry Sheerman on the Tories plan for a 30% cut in disability benefits. These are the kinds of changes that the Conservatives are slipping in. Unless we get our act together as an opposition people will suffer.
There were questions from the floor on why Labour’s strategy now seemed to be winning back Greens rather than those who voted UKIP to protest, reopening coal mines, how do we get politicians talking about science rather than things like mines, and how does a moderate vision capture emotion?
I asked the panel that as a councillor who beat the General Election trend, how do we make sure that both the Labour Party and the Parliamentary Labour Party understand, respect, and support local government? It took a year for the Parliamentary Party to adopt an opposition policy to the Bedroom Tax and there in lies the problem. The panel agreed that Labour needs to value local government more.
Afterwards, I unfortunately had to make a choice between two interesting sessios, so I didn’t get the opportunity to listen to the panel on the economy, ably chaired by Trudie McGuinness so you’ll have to read the hashtag #ProgWM on Twitter for contributions from Liam Byrne, Lewis Baston and Mary Wimbury.
Power to the Cities — Can devolution work for England?
Lynette Kelly chaired the panel with Emma Reynolds, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sir Albert Bore, Leader of Birmingham City Council; Penny Barber, Vice Chair of Birmingham Labour Party; and Nicola Heaton, Portfolio Holder for Community Services at Nottingham City Council.
Emma explained that putting our party’s values into practice was going to come from local government where we are in control of councils and can make decisions. She made a really good contribution about ‘double devolution’: the powers being devolved to council shouldn’t just end there but should be about communities making decisions for themselves, which Albert commented on and said Birmingham’s manifesto pledged ‘triple devolution’.
Sir Albert said that our national politicians have to accept the dismantling of Whitehall. The party pledged big devolution agenda before the election and now the Conservatives have an unbalanced plan that forces the issue of directly elected mayors against the democratic will of many communities.
Penny Barber gave a really good contribution acknowledging the party doesn’t often start with identifying problems to then set identifying the solution. She evidenced SureStart, as a service that a Council would provide but that the public wouldn’t identify as the Council, and as the example of a scheme that showed what can happen when you give power away to local communities.
Nicola explained that devolution needs to be more of a shift, that it will help on getting people back to work, planning local transport properly and that local politicians will need to be brave in these times. They won’t be able to blame Westminster. She also said that some two-tier authorities will need to consider whether they become single-tier.
Questions from the floor included how the private sector could operate outside of London, and what would happen for areas that didn’t engage in a combined authority. I asked the panel how we can realise the opportunities that devolution presents us if we are not recruiting representatives with the right skills to do so given how local party’s selection standards can be hit and miss?
The point was made in response that devolution may make local government more attractive to prospective candidates and that with the ability for local communities to influence their areas more effectively that this may bring more effective and qualified candidates. Lynette acknowledged that it was less attractive, given the changes to the Local Government Pension Scheme, and that would make people think twice before taking on the responsibility of being a councillor.
EU-turn if you want to — Should Britain remain in Europe?
Vicky Fowler chaired the final panel with Pat McFadden, Shadow Europe Minister, Gisela Stuart, MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, and Lee Barron, Regional Secretary of the TUC.
Pat explained that the reality of Cameron's approach to Europe had been exposed by the recent refugee crisis. Gisela said that the only redeeming feature of the referendum is that we will have a debate long overdue. ‘For too long we’ve fudged, we should’ve had referendum on Maastricht and Lisbon treaties’, she said. Lee said that Europe may be the only way that we can defend the rights of working people.
To read more of the contributions from the panelists the hashtag to search for on Twitter is #ProgWM.