Gordon’s Conference speech and yesterday’s Q&A session revealed next to nothing of his real intentions. As is often the case with him, what he left out is far more significant than what he included. He declared he will “take action” on private equity – but not what that action would be. Let’s hope it won’t be the same kind of action as on affordable housing, where instead of increasing the rental sector, most of the homes will be aimed at first time buyers.
In a wide-ranging but rather disjointed speech without any obvious logical thread, he devoted much of it to a defence of his own economic and social record without indicating any noticeable departures from well-rehearsed New Labour programmes. The specifics which got the most applause – dealing with teenage binge drinking by banning the sale of alcohol in trouble spots, banging up those guilty of gun crimes for at least 5 year sentences, and throwing out immigrants found to be using guns or selling drugs – could all have been taken (and perhaps were taken) from a Michael Howard speech before the 2005 election.
He made clear his commitment to the NHS focused on providing a personalised service to patients and harnessing science and technology to pioneer new cures – but nothing about a slowdown in privatisation or a major switch to healthier life-styles. He reiterated the pledge to cut child poverty, but said nothing about redressing sharply rising inequality or unfairly low taxation on the rich. He banged the drum again about globalisation, but said nothing about protecting employment rights. He referred, rather skimpily, to keeping on good terms with Europe, but ignored the far more important issue of relations with the US and Iran. He touched on democracy and holding Government to account, but seemed not to notice that the results of Government consultations on Trident, nuclear energy, GM foods, and planning law had been studiously ignored, while calls for a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty were being strenuously suppressed.
More intriguingly, he breathed not a word about his long-term intentions in so assiduously courting the Party’s enemies – Tory MPs, LibDem peers, assorted hate figures like Digby Jones, and now Thatcher. Apart from assuring us he is a Thatcherite at heart and that the New Labour neo-liberal agenda is safe with him (indeed he is the main architect of it and, with his move to abandon motions at conference has gone further than Blair ever did), what is his purpose? Is it that, having won the next election (which looks increasingly likely) and the Tories having lost their fourth election in a row, he is driving at a re-alignment of British politics in which the Tory Party, which only ever existed purely for the purposes of keeping the ruling class in power and is increasingly seen as having lost its raison d’etre, disintegrates and a majority of Centre and Left Tory MPs cross the floor to where the real power now is – a big-tent, centre-ground party of national government, low on ideology, but strongly supported by the real power-brokers in industry, finance and the media?
See also The Guardian
Party democracy is the single most important issue at this Conference because it underpins everything else by giving reality to Party opinion on every other issue.
I was encouraged when Gordon made his first statement to the Commons on democratising Parliament, and then when he issued his consultation on Extending and Renewing Party Democracy. It was like a breath of fresh air.
But removing Contemporary Motions and votes on important policy issues is a huge step backwards, not an advance towards Party democracy. The bottom line is this: what is the point of Conference at all if it’s just a talk shop, and there’s no way you can influence the Party Leadership and Government to change course? The Labour Party isn’t a discussion organisation, it’s about power. That’s why people joined it, and that’s why people are committed to it.
Ever since the Labour Party was formed a hundred years ago and the Labour Party Rule Book was drawn up in 1918, we have been a democratic party where the ultimate authority lay with our annual delegate Conference. Now of course we want to support a Leadership we ourselves have elected, but that Leadership is accountable to Conference, and if that accountability is removed, then we become just another organisation where the real power is exercised behind the scenes in backroom deals with the business interests who run industry, finance and the media.
I know that the deal is that we try out this new arrangement for 2 years and then review it. But let’s get real – once this change is made, it’s not going to be changed back again in 2 years.
I say Enough is enough. If we let this go through in today’s vote, then the Labour Party as a power organisation is reduced virtually to impotence.
But before we do vote on this, let’s be clear this was a consultation document, and the consultation ended a week ago. So what were the full results? Are we going to see all the results before we vote? Surely this should be remitted until we’ve all had a chance to digest the whole range of opinions in every section of the Party on an issue like this, which is not just another issue, but fundamental to the entire policy-making process.
This proposal would remove a key pillar of Party democracy. We should reject it because the Labour Party was born a democratic party, it has flourished as a democratic party, and for all our sakes it should remain a democratic party.
The most important issue at this year’s Annual Conference is the future of Party democracy. The hopes raised by some of the welcome proposals in Gordon Brown’s consultation document ‘Extending and Renewing Party Democracy’ will be dashed and the whole process thrown into reverse if the leadership gets its way on one other proposal which outweighs all the rest, namely that in future delegates will no longer be allowed to vote on and pass resolutions on any policy questions.
The consultation, which ended on 14 September, recognised that the Partnership in Power arrangements put into operation in 1997 have long faced a crisis of credibility. The original aim of the Blair leadership at the time had been to remove CLP and union motions from Conference altogether, but after intense pressure a last-minute limited concession was made that Contemporary Issue Motions could be submitted and four could be chosen for debate by ballot. However, once Conference began to pass some motions that the platform didn’t want – like restoring the earnings link to pensions, opposing NHS privatisation, and supporting the Gate Gourmet workers – strenuous efforts were made to rule out such motions and many were at last year’s Conference. Now it is proposed that even this very limited concession, which is already being clawed back by one procedural device or another, should be swept away altogether.
This would render Conference utterly toothless, which of course is what some in the leadership may well want. Conference would become, even more than it is already, a piece of theatre, a glorified photo-opportunity for platform speeches. Any serious discussion of real issues, which is what democratic politics is all about, would disappear. The accountability of the leadership to Conference, which the Party’s Rule Book has always envisaged, would simply vanish.
For all these reasons, if Conference is not to become merely a showpiece television spectacle, it is essential that this latest proposal be roundly rejected. But stopping it is not enough; there are several positive reforms that urgently need to be made to Party procedures.
We need a Labour Party Charter of Members’ Rights drawn up and agreed by Conference, which would then be monitored and enforced by a Party Ombudsman.
The Party Chair should be elected by the Party, not appointed by the Leader, and should have the role to speak for the Party in Cabinet.
The control of Party finances should be seen to lie clearly with the elected Party Treasurer and the NEC, and all fund-raising activities and major expenditures should have to be approved by the NEC.
All Parliamentary and local selections of Party candidates should be transparently managed in accordance with a Code of Conduct which treated all candidates equally and precluded pressure on Party officials to support favoured candidates.
The issue of holding the leadership to account is clearly a sensitive and difficult one, but in view of recent experience a Commission should be drawn up by the NEC, with membership and terms of reference agreed by Conference, to prepare proposals to be considered and voted on by Conference.
The lack of accountability has now become one of the most serious issues in British politics today, not only in respect of political parties, but also of Parliament and the wider society. Conference 2007 is where we should make a start in turning round the drift to autocracy which is now marring so much of British public life.
The news that foot and mouth has been detected again on a Surrey farm is ominous when we had just been assured by Defra that it had been eliminated. But it also raises another crucial issue: who is to blame for these outbreaks which have already cost the farming industry £50 millions, and shouldn’t those responsible, if they have failed in their duty, be held to account in whatever appropriate way, not just walk away?
This matters because it isn’t just an isolated incident, but typical of many other cases where official authority has made mistakes with disastrous consequences.
In this case, the outbreak of foot and mouth in August near Pirbright in Surrey occurred because, according to the official report, the virus had probably leaked from the poorly maintained drains at the Institute for Animal Health (IAH) facility there, owned and licensed by the Government, into surrounding soil. It was then probably carried to the surface by floodwater and spread to animals on a nearby farm through contaminated soil stuck to the vehicles of building contractors working on the site.
The crucial point is that Government officials knew for 4 years previously that drains underneath the laboratory were insecure and that the virus could escape, but failed to carry out the repairs. They failed to do so because there was a long-standing dispute between the IAH and Merial, a private vaccine company which leases a building on the site, over responsibility for the drains.
It is clear, given the manifest biosafety risks involved especially after the catastrophic foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, that the IAH, and the Defra officials behind them, should have resolved this issue 4 years ago, if necessary in court, in order to ensure that the drains were properly maintained so as to prevent any escape of the virus. Those responsible should now be called to account, not least (on the evidence available) with the loss of their jobs, since the cost to the public interest has been enormous.
The lackadaisical official attitude to the definitive and meticulous research published today showing how artificial food colours and other additives generate an overactive and impulsive response in children says it all. Instead of banning food additives that clearly undermine educational performance and stimulate anti-social behaviour, the so-called Food Standards Agency weaseled their way out by passing the buck to parents – by merely advising them to check for additives by scrutinising labels – and to the European Food Safety Authority (another misnomer) to review the safety of all food colours.
Unfortunately, this is typical. The real lesson of today’s news is that the regulatory bodies, ostensibly appointed to protect children’s health, all too often collude with the food industry to put children’s health second to safeguarding the industry’s profits. There have been many examples of this in recent years.
Three years ago the Government asked Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, to curb advertisements of unhealthy foods to children. After two years of delays, Ofcom, having been lobbied on 29 occasions by the food and advertising industry, decided it would be too costly to ban junk food and drink advertising before the 9pm watershed, because the broadcasters would lose £240m a year in revenue. So much for the regulators’ concern for child health.
Earlier this year the Government sought to guide families towards healthier eating by bringing in a traffic light labelling scheme. The food industry however tried to derail it by introducing an alternative nutrition labelling scheme which was widely condemned for making its products look healthier than they really were and which independent experts said was fundamentally flawed. Did the Food Standards Agency try to stop them? You must be joking.
Recently also the sugar industry undermined the independence of a UN review of the nutritional value of carbohydrates by paying large sums of sponsorship money to get access to key meetings at the World Health Organisation’s Geneva headquarters. Sugar is of course not only the cause of tooth decay, but also a major cause of obesity and heart disease.
In the UK recently leaked documents reveal the scale of the food industry’s efforts to convince Ministers that only voluntary, industry-controlled measures should be taken on public health. To protect their commercial interests and fight action on health at every turn, the Food and Drink Federation recently had over 2,000 contacts with Ministers, MPs and others in government in a single year.
Earlier this year when the outbreak of the H5N1 virus hit the Bernard Matthew turkey plant in Suffolk, Defra officials concealed at first the information that a consignment of 38 tonnes of contaminated chicken breasts from the Bernard Matthew plant in Hungary might well be source of the outbreak. To have disclosed this would have drawn attention away from the hypothesis going the rounds about a wild bird flying in and spreading disease and instead pointed the finger at the poultry food trade. The protection of Britain’s poultry industry took precedence over the risk to human health.
And there are many other such examples.
The lesson of all this is that the regulatory bodies have far too cosy a relationship with the industries they are supposed to control. Nor is this at all surprising. Appointments to these regulatory and advisory committees come overwhelmingly from civil servants who at senior levels in Whitehall have a close working relationship with top industrialists. The inter-play between them is another example of the revolving door syndrome which is currently so widespread.
So how do we stop the regulators siding with those they are supposed to be protecting the public from? By requiring all Whitehall appointments to key regulatory bodies to be subject to ratification (or rejection) by the appropriate parliamentary select committee, and by laying down an unwavering rule enforced by Parliament that nobody should be appointed to an official regulatory position who has current or recent commercial interests in that field. Only then will the essential requirements of regulation – independence, integrity and objectivity – be given the full weight they deserve.
Animation: Food Commission Research Charity / Chew On This / Susie Wilkinson / Kath Dalmeny
Why is pay restraint being imposed on the public sector? Inflation and interest rates are not at risk and the economy is in fine fettle.
It’s bad enough, if you’re a low-paid nurse, rail worker, prison officer, post office worker, or policeman, having to take a real terms pay cut this year when City bosses are paying themselves an average of 37% in pay increases, taking them to more than £55,000 a week, walking off in two days with what it takes you a year to earn. But why is pay restraint being imposed on the public sector in the first place?
Gordon Brown says he wants to do nothing that puts the control of inflation, low interest rates and a stable economy at risk. Hard to disagree with that. But none of these is at risk.
Consumer price inflation (CPI) dropped last month to just 1.9%, its lowest level for 18 months and below the government’s target rate for inflation. Average earnings growth also actually fell in the year to June (the latest available information) to 3.3%, the lowest figure for more than four years.
The Bank of England’s monetary policy committee had feared at the start of the year that an inflationary pay-price spiral might develop from rising world oil and gas prices, tightness in the labour market, and the impact of CPI outturns on inflation expectations. None of these, however, has materialised. We have seen instead lower domestic gas and electricity prices, slack in the labour markets because of high levels of immigration and more older people and women returning to work, and CPI inflation almost halving (down from 3.1% in March) over the last four months. So where is the big deal over public sector pay cuts?
Of course it’s true that the government is planning to rein in public spending, after seven years of unprecedented increases, particularly on health and education, and this will form the centrepiece of the comprehensive spending review expected next month. But that is best achieved by requiring government departments and public service managers to contain expenditure increases within lower targets, no more than the overall growth rate of the economy, and allowing them through zero sum budgeting and other similar techniques to decide the optimal means to slow their budget spending – not by pre-empting their choices through central imposition of a pay cut on the lowest paid.
Even if that were not so, it is important not to run away with any idea that public spending is somehow careering out of control and that public service workers should be curbed because of their excesses. In fact, even after the run of spectacular increases of the last seven years, public spending’s share of GDP last year was still (at 41.7%) well below its level in the Tory mid-1990s, when it varied throughout 1991-5 between 42.4% and 44.3%. Moreover, spending overruns in recent years in, for example, the NHS were not accounted for by nurses, porters, cleaners or junior medical staff, but by very large consultant and GP pay awards and PFI excesses. Why punish the lowest paid when they are not responsible and never had any of the spoils in the first place?
It is true that interest rates remain high, with the official Bank rate at 5.75% and likely to rise to 6% towards the end of this year, but this was largely aimed at damping down excessive asset inflation, particularly due to the lack of affordable housing supply (neglected by government policy for two decades) to meet rising demand throughout the south-east. What is needed now to deal with this problem is a radical change in government housing policy, of which there are some welcome signs, not pay restraint in the public sector, which is neither the cause nor even a symptom of the real underlying problem.
And as for not putting a stable economy at risk, – Gordon Brown’s third point – it isn’t at risk. It’s in fine fettle. Growth is strong, inflation falling, employment rising, and the National Institute Economic Review notes in its latest report: “Currently there seems to be little inflationary pressure from the labour market.”
So, is the case made out for pay cuts for the lowest paid public sector workers? Time to think again, Gordon.