Long read: Conference diary
Labour Members met in Liverpool now a decade on from the financial crash which opened the door for brutal cuts to public services, and people in Oldham will feel the real impact of that more than most.
We also met at a time when big issues on jobs, the economy, Brexit and housing need real research, thought and policies. I won’t go into detail here but the conference speeches are widely covered by the media.
You would have heard a firm commitment to bring into local authority control academies and free schools and to stop the opening of new free schools. Critical to the National Education Service is a commitment to early years with a pledge of 30 hours free child care and investing in its workforce with decent pay and qualifications.
A commitment has been given to address the national scandal of our adult social care system. Its chronic underfunding has hit councils hard with many neighbourhood services cut, yet still 1.2 million older people who need care are denied it. A genuine National Health and Social Care Service will address this and give older people the support they need.
Brexit was top of the list for debate and as the official opposition we are forced, like the country to witness a weak and failing Tory government wreak any kind of deal which would support jobs, protections and trade. We set out our six key tests which haven’t been met so far and as the deadline to leave the EU is getting ever closer we could be faced with a ‘no deal’ situation. That would be hugely harmful to our economy – that’s all of us – and so it’s critical we find a way through what feels like an impass with the Tories.
We are calling for a General Election to bring an end to the decade of pain and the lack of vision or confidence being shown in Britain’s future. There is another way.
After a community clean up event in Coldhurst I headed down to conference to be on stand by to deal with any local government motions to be debated. As a Shadow Minister I play my part in the team covering Finance and Devolution.
Then I attended the Co-operative Party stand to meet with members. I am proud to serve as a dual Labour and Co-operative MP with a long standing (1927) relationship which seeks to promote co-operatives and mutuals as a key part of the UK economy. As the chair of the Parliamentary Group we are keen to see as much co-operative related pledges in the Labour manifesto and so far the signs are really encouraging with a pledge to ‘double the size of the sector’ already worth £60bn to the UK economy and paying more tax than Amazon, Facebook, Ebay and Starbucks combined!
Then I attended a panel debate with IPPR (Institute of Public Policy Research) which has just completed its long running review of the UK economy. It makes painful reading but none of its findings will be a surprise. Employees are exploited, profits put above long term interests and a there is an unacceptable failure to properly tax big corporations. The report had a lot of coverage with the Arch Bishop of Canterbury as the review chair, calling for a new approach.
It was then a to a dinner with MPs and Channel 4 to discuss its plans to relocate out of London. With Manchester and Leeds both shortlisted I was keen to understand what it meant for young people interested in production and media.
Monday was an early start as frontbench MPs meet with around 100 business leaders. They heard from all the major portfolio holders and with my colleague Jo Platt MP I held discussions on how to use local government procurement better to support the local economy, create jobs and raise standards of employment and payment terms.
Then I chaired a fascinating debate on Apprenticeships where we heard from three apprentices on their experience. As the vice chair of the All Party Group I have a strong view that the current apprenticeship system isn’t fit for purpose and needs big reform. It was great to see employers like KPMG, E-On and Battersea doing their bit and to celebrate the difference apprenticeships can make.
Then I gave a ‘keynote’ speech to DevoConnect and Centre for Cities on devolution and how to see a genuine ‘industrious revolution’ in every town and city in England.
Then onto the Fabian Society panel debate where again I spoke on the importance of pushing power and resources down to local communities to begin the long rebuilding many towns need.
The final formal event was one which I have researched heavily in Greater Manchester and Oldham as Progress debated funding the social housing crisis. My main aim was to shine a light on the billions handed to rogue private landlords. Locally we estimate around £150m is handed to landlords for homes which fail to meet the ‘decent homes standard’ with many containing serious safety hazards. It’s immoral and a false economy when decent social housing is cheaper to the taxpayer and better for the tenant!
Another early start with a Co-operative Party and Social Enterprise UK roundtable on what more needs to be done to support the work of social enterprise. We had great contributions from Lord Victor Adebowale, Chair of Social Enterprise UK, the Chief Executive of the social care enterprise Turning Point and was one of the first to become a People’s Peer. We also heard from Ann Tyler the Employee Ownership Associations Chair of insight, Employee Ownership adviser and lawyer.
It was great to hear from John Lewis Partnership and Nationwide Building Society about how they feel we could expand the sector as well as small business making a real difference to their communities. Too often people believe that private business makes money and anything else doesn’t. That’s rubbish, and Nationwide is a good example – it’s the largest building society in the world with 15 million members and unlike many of the high street banks maintains local branches.
Next to speak at the Woodlands Trust to celebrate its work on the Northern Forest. The project spans from the West coast to the East coast in northern England and aims to see 50 million trees over 25 years. It has many local projects here in Greater Manchester through the City of Trees project which includes Oldham.
Then it was to a Fabians event on town centres where we heard from the hospitality and pub industry, retail and others about the pressures town centres are facing as the nature of shopping changes rapidly. We now use the internet for 20% of retail and as rents and business rates fail to balance multi-national companies like Amazon it is a crisis the current government seem unwilling to solve. We are working up plans both cross party through the All Party Parliament Group which I chair and in the Labour Party too.
The final formal event of the day was a CLES (Centre for Local Economic Strategies) panel debate with social housing providers and Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham. The debate focused on what can be done to create vibrant communities where local economies have taken a real hit since the decline of local industry. For my part I called for a new way to assess investment away from the model of value to one which considers social value and the need to ‘level up’ to give every community a strong and growing economy.
The final speaking event was on the running theme of power and devolution with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP and my colleague Lisa Nandy and others. There was strong agreement on the need to redistribute funds to target areas of high need such as Oldham. We all know that areas of underinvestment has meant jobs lost in manufacturing and engineering hasn’t been replaced by comparable jobs in terms of security and pay. Too many of us worry about what this means not just today but for the next generation growing up in our town.
As with all conferences you meet with old friends, meet new people and attend many drop-in events, such as in support of McMillan Cancer Support. In addition to the speaking engagements listed I attended events organised by the Newstatesman, the Mirror, Unite the Union, GMB trade union, the Co-operative Party, Labour Friends of Bangladesh and the Kashmir self-determination group and others.