Gordon Brown’s speech today at the Labour Party conference generally passed muster. It was too long, sterted too slowly, but gathered pace and peppered the assembled delegates at the end with a stream of pledges, delivered at machine gun pace, which collectively raised the populist tempo to to uncharacteristic Brownite heights of enthusiasm. The key question however is whether it injected enough fire in the belly to set the election campaign alight and put Labour back in contention. The real problem here for the platform is that having de-politicised the Party for the last 12 years, it is difficult in the last few moments of a 3-Parliament term to re-invent political excitement. Blairism and Brownism (insofar as these concepts exist) have never been ideological programmes. They have been unambiguously power projects, devoid of ideological substance. That’s the problem: the Labour Party isn’t just about power – it’s about social justice, equality, the universality of public services, and democratic accountability of power and all public institutions. And that’s what’s been missing for 12 years, let alone the previous 18.
The Labour Party conference has been an eye-opener. For the first time in 12 years the platform is hedging leftwards. It’s like a festival of atonement where the Government is pleading forgiveness for all the sins of omission, and quite few of commission too, over the last decade. The charm offensive quite takes one’s breath away. There’s almost nothing that Ministers won’t promise or give an earnest pledge to reconsider actively. It’s amazing how the imminent prospect of execution concentrates the mind. But not only are Ministers seeking redemption, delegates are also seeking access to the after-life and co-operating warmly with the delicate manoeuvrings wafting their balm over them from the platform. Not least the Prince of Darkness who in a highly orchestrated self-promotion, no doubt assiduously practised beforehand to the last nuance, contrived to present himself as an unswerving loyalist to Brown and a party unifier – which gives some idea of the degree of cross-dressing that Ministers are attempting with just 8 months to D-day.
Most of us joined the Labour Party for two main reasons: we passionately believed in its principles, and we wanted to be part of a democratic political movement where the collective voice of its members counted. Yet we find today that the Labour Party has become a leadership party rather than a membership party, whose role is to keep the incumbent leader (currently unelected by the party membership) in office, whoever it might be, Tweedledum of Tweedledee. To reverse this centralisation of power within the party, I have tabled the following Emergency Motion to next week’s conference:
The acclamation accorded to China for making an offer to save the Copenhagen climate change summit in December from collapse is, sadly, greatly overdone. The promise made yesterday by President Hu Jintao at the UN in New York to make a ‘notable’ decrease in the carbon intensity of China’s economy, whilst welcome as a start, falls well short of what is really needed. It does remove the main Bush US objection that the US would not sign up to the Kyoto Protocol without a comparable commitment from China. But beyond that its value is greatly restricted for two main reasons.
Gordon Brown’s decision to reduce the number of submarines from 4 to 3 is welcome, but it certainly does not amount to even the beginning of a process of scrapping the renewal of Trident. The fourth submarine always had the role merely of providing an insurance policy against all the odds, and its removal will not reuduce the nuclear capability of 168 warheads or their deployment. It will cut the costs of the renewal package by some £3bn, but David Miliband has rightly made clear that a decision to downgrade or scrap Britain’s nuclear force should be made exclusively on grounds of overall defence strategy, not as a mere cost-cutting exercise. By that criterion this decision represents little change. The motive appears to be to offer a contribution to Obama’s drive to reduce the overall number of nuclear warheads in preparation for next year’s review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but on that count the dropping of the fourth submarine fails to meet the objective.
What shoulod be done when in the last year company profits are down 31%, the stockmarket is down 35%, everyone else has to take a pay cut or a job loss, yet executives can award themselves a huge rise in pay and bonuses? The hot answer is that we need a High Pay Commission to deal with top pay like the Low Pay Commission supervises the minimum wage (currently £200 a week, compared with the average salary, bonuses, stock options, and other ‘incentive’ schemes of chief executive of the top FTSE 100 companies amounting currently to £71,500 a week). But fixing the minimum wage at £5.83 per hour at the bottom of the wage structure is a wholly different matter from regulating top pay. Unless it is proposed to limit top pay (including all the non-salary far more lucrative forms of remuneration) to a fixed ratio with bottom pay in the organisation, say no more than 15-20 times the lowest wage, which a High Pay Commission could certainly do and then keep under permanent review, a lot more is required than setting up a new quango.
The central problem in Britain today is the relentless rise in unemployment and where it is heading – and what should be done about it. The pace of the downturn has been faster than in the worst recent recession in 1979-82 when unemployment eventually 4 years later peaked at well over 3 million. It is disproportionately hitting the younger generation, nearly a million of whom are now out of work, and who as we know from historical experience could be scarred for life. It is also disproportionately hitting the lowest paid: unemployment over the last two years has nearly tripled from 3% to 8% for classes D-E, while for the A-B classes it has risen from 1.2% to only 1.8%. And on the profile of the downturn so far, estimates are already being made that, long after a so-called recovery is under way, unemployment will continue to climb almost to 4 million, the highest level since the 1930s. This is not an act of God. What is deplorable is that almost every economic decision taken over the last two years is now worsening the unemployment trap.
There are several lessons to be drawn from the exposure, after 3 years of evasion and intimidation, of the systematic cover-up of one of the biggest toxic oil-dumping scandals for decades. Trafigura, the world’s third-biggest private oil trader, bought up hundreds of tonnes of lethal sulphur-contaminated Mexican gasoline and dumped it on wasteland around Abidjan, the capital of Cote d’Ivoire in west Africa, which caused according to official estimates 15 deaths, 69 persons hospitalised and 108,000 medical consultations by those affected. Leaked internal emails show that the traders were told in advance that the chemical process of ‘caustic washing’ which they used created such dangerous wastes that it was banned in the West. But they went ahead, dumping it without any warning in a third world country, because as the emails revealed they expected to make profits of $7m a time from buying up the contaminated gasoline ‘bloody cheap’. This awful saga shows the drastic hole in regulations that exists and makes clear the reforms now urgently needed.
There’s so much defeatism around, and it wasn’t helped by Gordon Brown’s capitulation to the cuts agenda at the TUC Conference rather than fighting on how a crisis caused by the bankers’ greed should be handled (i.e. by switching public funding from propping up the banks to major public investment programmes aimed at massive job creation, and making the banks liable in due course to repay taxpayers’ money spent on bailing them out). Maybe New Labour has thrown in the towel, but as we approach an election in which once again all three main political parties appear to be united in opposition to the British people, there is an overriding need to promote and fight for an alternative manifesto – one which Labour would always have supported in the past – and which could still save the Labour Party from virtual extinction and the country from gratuitous disaster. Such a manifesto or charter would have 6 main points.
Reading between the lines of Gordon Brown’s speech today to the TUC at Liverpool, which I have attended over the last 2 days, is distinctly disspiriting. It had been previewed in the newspapers as the speech in which for the first time he mentioned cuts in public spending (and he made the point by repeating the word half a dozen times in a single sentence), and the speech was accordingly crafted to mollify the force of what is coming. He said that waste would be cut by efficiency savings and that low-priority programmes would be cut altogether, but no details were given. It is an unmistakeable sign that there will be significant cuts in jobs and service across the public sector. To all intents and purposes the message now is: vote for us because then there will only be 150,000 job losses compared to the 250,000 job losses if the Tories get in. In effect this is hauling up the white flag in support of the Tory argument that the next election is all about cuts – how much, where, and how kind or unkind (to use Mandelson’s terminilogy. This is a fundamental error on at least two grounds.
The banks are protected, the airline industry is protected, and now the Phoenix Four are getting away with it. What does justice mean in Britain today? How can it be that the 4 local businessmen and the former MG Rover chief executive screwed £42m for themselves out of a company they bought for just £10 and then left it 5 years later with £1bn debts and 6,500 jobs lost, and yet not be prosecuted? How could they wipe clean incriminating computer discs, cook up a tax avoidance scheme to rake off £60m for themselves, use MG Rover’s losses to eliminate another company’s tax liabilities and thus make another £10m for themselves, pay £1.6m to a translator with whom one of the four was having an affair, support the failing car dealership of another of the four with loans not commercially justified, and yet still not be brought to court? To rub salt into the wound, the Phoenix four stand to collect a further £11.6m windfall, bringing their total gains to over £53m, from their involvement in MGR Capital, a car finance joint venture with an HBOS subsidiary now part of Lloyds TSB. How could they so comprehensively put their own interests – they expected to make £75m for themselves – before those of MG Rover and its workers, and get away with it?
It is pathetic how tamely New Labour has succumbed to competing with the Tories about fighting the next election on cuts. Of course a public accounts deficit of £175-200bn is very large and has to be greatly reduced over time, but not – repeat, not – by premature swingeing cuts when the recovery, if there is one, is still very precarious and when unemployment, bankruptcies and repossessions are still rising. Pro-cyclical cuts of this kind which reinforce the downturn in the economy rather than counter-cyclically seeking to reverse it can only exacerbate the recession and seriously risk turning it into slump. The high jinks in the City about a far quicker return to business as usual than even they had expected should not conceal the risk, probably greater than 50-50, that this allegedly V-shaped recovery could still very easily turn into a double-dip, given that unemployment is still headed towards 3-3.5 million and almost-zero interest rates and unprecedented quantitative easing have so far not triggered the recovery anticipated in the real economy.
The recent deeply flawed Afghanistan election raises other even more important issues than the future of that country. There has now been a whole series of elections where democracy has been widely subverted, sufficiently to undermine confidence in the result altogether – in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Iran, and now Afghansistan where barefaced rigging and ballot box stuffing was clearly rampant, with in some provinces ten times more votes being registered for Karzai than the number who actually voted. In some other countries, for example Egypt, intimidation and imprisonment of the opposition render the whole process highly dubious, if not meaningless. In yet other countries like Nigeria, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan curruption is so deep-rooted that democracy can largely be squeezed out, whatever the formalities.
First the banks, and now the airline industry, are being bailed out by being given special treatment denied to everyone else, but which everyone else has to pay for. Today the Government’s advisory body on climate change called for radical cuts in aviation industry emissions, but then – more pussy-cat than predator – let the industry off the hook by accepting its offer to reduce the carbon emissions of UK flights to 2005 levels by 2050 even though that means all other sectors – power, cars, industry and households – will have to cut their own emissions by as much as 90% by 2050. In 2005 UK aviation emissions were 37.5 million tonnes. What the industry’s offer artfully conceals is that if the Government succeeds in its commitment to get UK emissions as a whole down by 80% by 2050, the airline industry’s emissions will then be 30% of total UK emissions, and that is absolutely not acceptable.
At today’s delegation which I took together with David Davies and Chris Huhne to see Alan Johnson about the McKinnon extradition issue, the Home Secretary for the first time revealed his thinking about his refusal, in the statements he’s made so far, to stop the extradition going ahead. I made clear he had the power to intervene, and he confirmed – contrary to some reports – that it would not be illegal for him to block the extradition. But he made clear that in his view, after a string of court decisions at all levels over the last 7 years, it would be very difficult for him to do so since the measure of discretion for his intervention was, he said, extremely narrow. Under Article 3 of the Human Rights Convention he insisted he could only do so if there was evidence that the defendant could be subject to capital punishment, or that he might be transferred to a third country, or that he might be tried on a different charge from that being alleged. Obviously the latter two do not apply in this case, but I pointed out that on the first point he was under a duty to intervene if there was a real risk, not only of execution, but of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment, and the Home Office lawyers agreed. There is indeed a real risk that Gary McKinnon could be subject to inhuman or degrading treatment when initially the Americans threatened him with a lengthy sentence in harsh conditions if he fought extradition, as opposed to a much shorter sentence in more pleasant conditions is he co-operated with them.
It was also quite clear that Alan Johnson was concerned about the precedent that would be set in regard to other current cases, notably that of the alleged terrorist Abu Hamza, if he were to intervene in the McKinnon case. We pointed out that this showed how poorly drafted the Extradition Act 2003 had been when not only was it gave rights to the us that were denied to the UK, but it bizarrely applied the same rules to a misguided but innocuous young man as to a serious alleged terrorist. A more common-sense and proportional approach was needed. The Act also omitted, what the Dutch and other governments had insisted on in their case, that any citizen extradited to the US and found guilty should then be immediately repatriated to serve the sentence in his or her own country.