200 activists attend Labour Assembly

The Labour Assembly Against Austerity saw over 200 party activists come together to discuss the cost of living crisis being caused by coalition austerity and the need for Labour to present an inspiring alternative vision that will win the 2015 election and then go on to change people’s lives for the better.

OP2With activists attending from around the country, including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle and Glasgow, it is clear that opposition to austerity is widespread.

Owen Jones kicked off the Labour Assembly saying polls show a majority want radical policies to defend living standards. He set the tone when he stated those who oppose the Tories ideological attack on the public sector are are the moderate and the mainstream against the “extremists of austerity’. Steve Turner from Unite said that to win back labour’s 5 million lost votes the key issue is policies that deliver for the majority. John McDonnell MP talked about the real human impact of privatisation, bringing down living standards, through increased prices increasing beyond individuals ability to pay. Katy Clark MP emphasised the link between austerity and the cost of living crisis and said defence of living standards needs Labour to offer an economic alternative.

KOSP2In the ‘Keep Our Services Public’ session, Frank Dobson MP said the privatised utilities have failed to invest sufficiently but dividend payments booming – he called for a London referendum on taking Thames Water back into public ownership, while Tosh McDonald, from ASLEF, echoed him and said it is time to speak positively about public ownership. Lucy Anderson from the National Policy Forum said Labour must seek to re-establish a form of local authority control over schools and Heather Wakefield from UNISON said that local government has been the biggest victim of the coalition’s austerity binge and that, with privatisation, huge amounts of public funds were wasted when local government contracted out public services.

NTS2In the ‘No to Scapegoating’ session, Murad Qureshi AM said the Home Office ‘Go Home’vans demonstrated Lynton Crosby’s dog-whistle politics, while NUS Black Students Officer Aaron Kiely said Labour would only lose votes in ceding to the right on immigration.

In the ‘Economic Alternatives to Austerity’ session, Michael Burke said there is no less money – austerity is transferring income from the poor to the rich. Ann Pettifor said that Labour needs to set the agenda and challenge the idea that public sector is to blame for the crisis and Michael Meacher MP urged Labour to advocate greater public control of banking. Ken Livingstone said Labour should increase public investment and we should build the best part of 250,000 homes every year for a decade and ensure they are energy efficient. With runaway prices he said one response could be to raise the minimum wage to living wage levels

EAA2In the ‘Policies to win in 2015′ plenary, Jeremy Corbyn MP urged an emergency budget if Labour is elected in 2015 to lift the minimum wage to a living wage level, and to reverse benefit cuts, the introduction of private sector rent controls and public ownership of energy. Mike Hedges from Unite said we must defend migrants and claimants from those who would scapegoat them. Shelly Asquith said that privatisation is destroying education from fees, to rents and the threatened sell-0ff of the student loan book.Throughout the day, working closely with the trade unions was a recurrent theme, with a session outlining the Tory agenda to weaken the unions and discussing how Labour’s response must be to strengthen our links.

FP2Diane Abbott closed the conference saying Tories ideological goal was to shrink the public sector and smash the welfare state – Labour’s job is to oppose them and build a positive alternative.

And if you missed the event, why not have a look at the thoughts of those who attended?







Investing in social security works

Pound coins

This Saturday Labour members will come together at Birkbeck College to discuss how Labour can offer an investment based alternative to the Government’s failed austerity agenda.

One of the key debates will be over how to embolden the front-bench to stand up to the coalition’s smears and ensure that future Labour Government invests in a social security system which supports the most vulnerable and eradicates poverty. As on immigration, social security is an issue where the Labour leadership has been reluctant to talk about its record in government but a proper assessment of the facts point to how it can turn its perceived weakness into a genuine strength.

In recent weeks Ian Duncan Smith has taken to calling Labour ‘the welfare party’. As a label it hasn’t stuck but for many the argument behind it has, namely that Labour spent too much on social security during it’s time in Government. Unfortunately Labour frontbenchers have been all too willing to accept this narrative. Comments by Liam Byrne, while still shadow Minister for Work and Pensions, that a future Labour Government would not ‘restore the status quo’ and by his successor Rachel Reeves about being tougher than the Tories on benefits legitimise Tory arguments that the social security bill is too high.

No-one would argue that a Labour Government shouldn’t look to deliver value for money for the taxpayer on social security but the truth is this is exactly what the last Labour Government did. Yes, spending increased but measures such as the expansion of tax credits and allowing the Disability Living Allowance and Independent Living Fund budgets to meet the needs of disabled people, helped significantly reduce poverty during Labour’s thirteen years in Government. Investment in social security worked. In 1997/98 28% of the population lived in absolute poverty in the United Kingdom by the end of Labour’s time in office this had almost been cut in half to around 15%. 2.3 million children and 2 million pensioners were lifted out of poverty in this time. Most impressively after progress in reducing poverty stalled between 2004 and 2008 Labour investment ensured that even during the recession the numbers living in absolute poverty fell again by 1.1 million. This is one of the Brown Government’s finest achievements and one which is not talked about nearly enough.

Simply championing Labour’s achievements would do little to convince voters if it did not contrast very sharply with their experience under the coalition. Since 2009/10 poverty has been on the rise again. Absolute poverty has increased by 1.4 million including 300,000 children and 200,000 pensioners. 340,000 people now rely on foodbanks as a source of food. Real-term cuts to benefits such as the work-related activity element of Employment and Support Allowance and the introduction of punitive measures such as the bedroom tax and benefits cap have mean the situation is likely to get worse by 2015. If Ian Duncan Smith wants to stoop to childish name-calling then the Poverty Party would seem a pretty accurate label for the Tories at the moment.

Labour therefore shouldn’t be ashamed of its record on social security while in Government and shouldn’t engage in the Tories’ ‘who can be toughest’ competition. Instead it can campaign on one very clear message on social security. Absolute poverty has increased under the Tories. Labour will reduce it.