Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Progressive London conference

“The worth of a city is how it treats its people”.

By Theo Russell

LABOUR movement and trade union activists came together at the TUC’s Congress House in London on 19th February for the third Progressive London conference, at which two of the main topics were Ken Livingstone’s campaign to become mayor in 2012 and mobilising for the TUC demonstration on 26th March.
Linda Perks, secretary of Unison’s London Region, told the session on spending cuts that in the coming financial year 80,000 public sector job losses were expected in the capital along with “increased charges across the board”.
She said the “Pathfinder” bodies replacing NHS primary care trusts and supported by private companies, would see “large trusts gobble up failed ones”, and said “in 10 years there will be no NHS hospitals left, and hospitals could be listed on the Stock Exchange”.
“Academy schools will also effectively become private businesses, while whole college and university departments and London’s three Royal Mail sorting offices are expected to close,” she said. “This will have a major impact on employment in London and lead to a huge rise in welfare benefit costs.”
Hackney Mayor Jules Pipe, who is leader of London Councils, said: “Tory health advisor David Halpern is proposing European-style ‘patient hotels’, in which patients and partners are shown how to clean wounds, to put in drip lines, and manage their own treatment.” He said this was part of a wider Tory agenda of renouncing government responsibilities, such as providing lollipop ladies to ensure children get to school safely.
On the vital question of the role of Labour councils in implementing cuts, Pipes said: “It’s pointless protesting against councils where cuts are being made. Protests should be against those people who question the foundations of almost every service.”
This position was supported by Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, who said: “Not all Labour councils are the same – some engage more than others”. He gave the example of Greenwich, which was sacking Unite stewards and “acting like the worst Tory councils”.
James Mills, from the campaign to save the Education Maintenance Allowance, said that getting rid of EMA would actually cost millions more and was therefore driven by Tory ideology. According to the Audit Commission, “NEETs” (people not in employment, education or training) cost far more in benefits than if they were doing courses.
He said the think tank “experts” who proposed scrapping EMA now all have jobs at the ministry of education. Looking at the grim prospects for young people, Mills said some middle class families were “auctioning” their children for city internships costing up to £4,000.
He also quoted Katharine Birbalsingh, the teacher who became the star of the Tory conference with a rabid attack on comprehensive schools, as describing young people on EMA as “i-pod-listening goons”.
McCluskey said the cost of servicing Britain’s national debt was less than any time between 1945 and 1977. “This is class warfare that we are seeing against us, and they try to make us believe there’s nothing you can do about it.” He recalled how Margaret Thatcher, who at the time seemed unassailable, was brought down over the Poll Tax and predicted: “Justice will prevail – we will achieve what we want”.

Ireland – “A depression, not a recession”

Mitchel McGlaughlin, senior Sinn Féin negotiator, told the session on Ireland: “When Sinn Féin proposed transferring fiscal powers from London to Belfast it was opposed by every other party. Now every party in the Assembly supports that idea”. The Treasury’s response was to warn if this went through grants would fall by £300 million.
“The banks are now targeting small businesses under EU laws which allow them to change the terms of loans, making peoples’ savings and homes liable,” he said.
McGlaughlin called for a “coalition of the left” after the election in the Republic, saying that “replacing Fianna Fail with Fine Gael will not get a stable government. It won’t be long before people’s anger boils over again”.
He also warned: “The Franco-German pact at the last EU summit giving Brussels control over government deficits, will not be subject to a referendum and so rules out the indexing of wages and prices.”
Michael Burke, an expert on the Irish economy, said the country was experiencing “a depression, not a recession, with a 20 per cent fall in economic activity”.
“The government deficit is now twice the level of GDP as Greece and three times that of the UK. And the Fianna Fail-led coalition is cutting unemployment benefits by a quarter to encourage emigration as a safety valve”. More than 100,000 people have already left Ireland since 2007, many young and skilled.

London: “A tale of two cities”

Labour front bench member John Trickett told the final conference session that one in five households in London with work are also in poverty and described London as “a tale of two cities, with the shameful sight of US-style food parcels being handed out”. Of the 200,000 new jobs created in London in 2010, almost 95 percent were only part-time. Meanwhile average pay at Barclays Capital went up almost 50 per cent in 2010-2011 to £236,000.
He said: “After 1945, when the national debt was 250 per cent of GDP (compared to around 70 per cent now), we built an NHS, we built an education system, and we built affordable housing.”
Diane Abbott described the erosion of hard-won rights for women and minorities in the NHS, one of the main employers in London, and said “in the new NHS, it will be last in, first out. We are fighting for nothing less than the NHS itself.
“On top of this women will now have to work to the age of 65, housing benefits are being cut, and tuition fees are being tripled”. She added that she had voted against the introduction of tuition fees and the Iraq War.
Shadia Edwards-Dashti from Students Stop the War said that in higher education “social sciences are being bled dry, the very source of ideas”. She called for “a broad education, accessible to all and to all communities” and pledged that students would continue to fight despite being “kettled like cattle and deprived of liberty”.

Livingstone: bring back rent controls

In his keynote speech Ken Livingstone said spending cuts began early in London: “Under Boris Johnson every capital spending programme has been cut except the bike hire scheme sponsored by Barclays.”
He predicted fares in London “will eventually increase by 50 percent”, and 13,000 fewer new houses would be built during Johnson’s term. He also quoted research showing that most of Johnson’s campaign donations had come from hedge funds – among the most reckless and profitable financial speculators in existence.
“All this is happening,” he added, “in the richest city in Europe, with a GDP 20 per cent ahead of the next richest city, Brussels, and twice the European average. Despite this London has by far the worst poverty and social inequality of any major city in Europe.”
Livingstone said: “During his three years in office “Boris has held seven press conferences, 43 meetings on policing, 60 meetings with government ministers, and 70 meetings with bankers.”
He called for the restoration of the rent controls which were abolished by Margaret Thatcher, pointing out that New York still has controls on private rents even now.
“The proportion of GDP going into wages has dropped from two thirds to 54 per cent in 30 years. There is no crisis requiring international intervention in the immediate future,” he said, adding that Britain’s national debt was substantially higher than the European average “because we need weapons to fight America’s wars – against the Soviet Union and now against Middle East”.
Referring to the election of Ed Milliband, he said that “for the first time since John Smith I’m confident that we have a Labour leader I can talk to,” adding that John McDonnell was “the first left-wing Labour candidate to get onto the leadership ballot for 20 years”..
“I’m delighted that my campaign is proudly supported by trade unions.”
On the vital question of how Labour councils should respond to spending cuts, Livingstone recalled the stand taken by George Lansbury and 29 Labour councillors in 1921, who went to prison for refusing to implement a large increase in the rates in Poplar, East London. ”The worth of a city,” he said, “is not its buildings and towers, but how it treats its people”.

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