Last weekend Yorkshire-based trade union-backed Labour campaign, WinningLabour, held its first national day conference. Set up last year, it aims to promote radical and practical debate about how to win back the 5 million votes Labour lost between 1997 and 2010, embracing three core themes.
There was a significant trade union presence at this very well-attended event: sponsored by train drivers union ASLEF and GMB Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, and with speakers from building workers (UCATT), Bakers union (BFAWU), ASLEF and the Northern TUC, it was also attended by mmbers of several other unions, of Labour students, by CLP Secretaries from various constituencies, Councillors and – importantly – members who currently hold no position in the Party or who’d never been to a political day conference before.
This was a different kind of national day conference: it was held not in London but in a packed Doncaster Trades Club, and it focussed on one specific topic: developing an alternative economic strategy.
The introductory session, chaired by newly elected Leeds Councillor (and former MP) Paul Truswell, was kicked off with a great speech from Steve Murphy, building workers union general secretary, calling for policies of house building, apprenticeships and manufacturing which are necessary in of themselves but which would also help to create economic growth. Steve was followed by Cat Smith of the young member’s left group, Next Generation Labour, who argued passionately to oppose the cuts and reconnect with the five million lost Labour votes. Michael Meacher MP then made an inspiring call for an alternative economic strategy to discredited neoliberalism, and gave Party members plenty of ideas for policies to transform the economy from one that currently works for the interests of the 1% and against the interests of the 99%.
Economist Ann Pettifor’s presentation – “Economics: What You Need to Know and What They Don’t Want You to Understand” – was a real winner with Party members. Ann’s evidenced explanations of why it’s completely disingenuous and economically infantile of the Conservative-led Coalition to compare the government budget with a household budget, why the UK’s debt is a crisis of private sector debt not public debt and why the more that spending is cut the more the deficit will rise need to be heard by as many Party members (including MPs) as possible. Party members seemed to be genuinely enthused by being provided with an opportunity for this kind of essential economic and political education that is rarely delivered by the Party itself given rolling electoral commitments.
After lunch, there was a panel session chaired by Bakers union president Ian Hodson. In his opening remarks Ian got an enthusiastic reception when talked about the need for more working class Labour MPs and more Labour MPs with socialist politics. The panellists were Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Jon Trickett MP, the Northern TUC’s Campaigns and Policy Officer Neil Foster and Dr. Denise Thursfield, a grassroots Labour activist (and national policy forum candidate) who first became politically active as the wife of a striking miner in the 1984/5 miners’ strike before later gaining her qualifications as a mature student. Jon put a truly powerful and inspiring case that in order to win back the 5 million votes Labour lost between 1997 and 2010 Labour has to break with the neoliberal economic consensus. Neil evidenced the fact that the ‘North/South’ divide is not only bad for the economy in the North – it’s a wasted opportunity for the economy of Britain as a whole. He also showed that it’s an economic myth that the South subsidises the North economically. Denise demonstrated the crucial relevance of class to a truly progressive economic and political analysis in modern Britain.
Professor George Irvin’s presentation on “Winning the Argument that there are Alternatives to Cuts and Austerity”, chaired by Tosh McDonald, Vice President of ASLEF, was a fascinating analysis of the economic situation: where we are; how we got there; and where we might go next. George’s most sobering reflection was that we must realise that the so-called “business as usual” of the economic situation prior to 2008 may simply never return.
As a Grassroots Alliance national policy forum candidate, I was pleased to be able to take part – alongside ASLEF national organiser Simon Weller and Left Future’s editor Jon Lansman – in a very productive session chaired by national policy forum member George McManus on “Winning the Argument within the Party for an Alternative Economic Strategy”. The contributions in this session both from the platform and the floor were characterized by being about looking forward positively – not gazing nostalgically into the past or simply defending the status quo. There was no refighting of battles in the past.
Alarm was expressed that there are well-financed groups within the Party who are energetically co-ordinating and expressing prescriptions for the Party’s future based upon all too familiar and failed ideas of privatisation, marketisation, flexible labour markets and reducing the trade union role in the Party. Not only are these ideas alien to the Labour Party’s mainstream tradition but they are a sure fire way of failing to win back the five million votes lost between 1997 and 2010. Working people and their families need Labour back in power but that won’t happen if the Party fails to learn from past mistakes.
Seumas Milne, Associate Editor of The Guardian wound up the conference with a compelling analysis of the current economic and political situation. He argued that “New Labour died the day Lehman Brothers collapsed” and that “the Cameron-Clegg-Blair consensus is over, doesn’t work and can’t be reactivated“. Seumas told the conference that only the public sector can create the growth and jobs needed for economic recovery.
Tosh McDonald, closing the conference, emphasised that understanding and developing an alternative economic strategy is the most crucial task we face.
From this day conference, it appears that the core themes of WinningLabour, its inclusive nature and its positive focus on winning back the 5 million lost votes can help to unify democratic socialists and social democrats within the Party in a forward-looking way. One enthusiastic attendee gained a round of applause when he used the roving microphone to declare:
If the Labour Party were to be founded today, it would look a lot like WinningLabour.