Conference Diary – Day 2

The early morning session on electoral reform with Stephen Kinnock and others did not impress me much, I’m afraid. What became very clear was the need for a constitutional convention – as Lewis Herbert, Leader of Cambridge City Council, said of his voters, there are more opinions and theories than there are people.

Local Government Funding was also discussed – I pointed out that giving councils more freedom over their own budgets needs to be balanced with the fact that the poorest people are most in need of the services that the Council provides, but least likely to be able to pay. Less wealthy areas (eg Aberavon rather than Cambridge) need some redistributive funding from the national government.

In the Conference Hall the first part of the morning was dedicated to Europe + the rest of the world. Ellie Reeves got a cheer when she talked about the Qatar workers and said that at least now Sep Blatter was finally under investigation. The point was that without Trade Unions and without the workplace protections enforced in the EU workers lives would be at risk.

Glennis Willmott drove that message home – not only are the Tories threatening to tear up the Social Chapter they are also already trying to destroy the Trade Unions.

Alan Johnson spoke about the massive spur to peace and democracy across Europe provided by the EU, including enshrining the right to Trade Unions. He suggested that if we can’t defeat the government’s pernicious TU bill, we need to take it to the European Court of Justice.

Maria Eagle spoke briefly about Trident – “Jeremy knew I disagreed with him about this when he appointed me”. There will be a genuine internal Party debate on this issue.

Paul Kenny (GMB) spoke up for the social chapter and repeated the demand that 16 + 17 year olds should get to vote on this.

Hilary Benn defended the use of air power in support of the Iraq government against ISIL/Daish but insisted Labour would not support sending british troops either back to Iraq or to Syria. He spoke about the poverty and conflict that is driving so many to become migrants and said that the level of inequality around the world was not sustainable – not only did we have a moral duty to help those countries achieve peaceful development, but our own safety and peaceful development depended on it. He spoke very eloquently and got a standing ovation.

While Len was listening to John McDonnell, I carried on with Europe.

Glennis Willmott told the EPLP fringe we needed to move forward with workers rights, not backwards. We should be closing the loopholes in the Posted Workers Directive and overturning the Swedish Derogation – which in plain English means stopping the exploitation of workers by agencies who recruit abroad in order to undercut wages. And we need to stop bogus self-employment – on all these issues the EPLP is working with our sister Socialist parties in the European Parliament in a comprehensive new package on strengthening protections for “precarious workers”.

Mary Riddell – left-wing Telegraph journalist (yes, truly, but she is the only one) – warned that the constant drumbeat of tabloid opposition to Europe had gone up a notch and there was a real danger that the public mood would swing decisively in favour of leaving before we had made the case to stay – we need to start campaigning NOW and not wait for Cameron to make any sort of move.

Alan Johnson reminded us that it was 13% of our laws which emanated from Europe – a figure confirmed by the House of Commons Library – and not 50% or 60% or whatever spurious figure Farage may care to mention. Siemens had looked at 104 locations around Europe and picked Hull – but they wouldn’t have done so if we hadn’t been in the EU and they might well leave if we left. Yet Hull was one of the strongest areas of UKIP support – #turkeysvotingforchristmas.

Ann Clwyd had started as a Euro-sceptic but was persuaded by actually working with our comrades in Europe – we can learn so much from the way they do some things in other EU countries. She mentioned the run-down of employment in the steel industry in the Ruhr – planned, with all the workforce found alternative industrial jobs (not selling pies at Greggs) – and contrasted that with Thatchers destruction of South Wales. And she reminded us that the EU was the global trailblazer for environmental protection at a time when most politicians in the UK didn’t even recognise the problem.

Vicky Pryce spoke of the huge reduction in real cost of all sorts of things – not just mediterranean foods such as olives, but also mobile phones, airline tickets and others, which had been the result of the EU breaking restrictive trade practices. And joint work across the EU had boosted productivity in key sectors in the UK as well, especially in the car industry and in airplane manufacture. There are benefits still to come if we stick with the programme – the single market integration of services will boost UK exports to the rest of the EU, and the roll-out of minimum standards will not only protect workers and consumers here, but help the most vulnerable workers in the 3rd World too. But there are genuine concerns about the EU – migration, too much integration, austerity, the volatility of the Eurozone. She believes Europe is beginning to get to grips with these. In any case they will not be helped by Brexit – we need to make the case for working with Europe to deal with these issues. She hoped the referendum would be in autumn 2017 rather than earlier, to give us time to make the positive case.
Other speakers pointed out that Cameron will not get any serious renegotiation of anything – our campaign needs to be totally separate from anything the Tories say or do and it needs to start before they try to define the issues.

Anecdotally, workers for Airbus in Derbyshire – a company that will most certainly leave if we do – are overwhelmingly supporting leaving the EU. #turkeysvotingforchristmas

We need to get away from a transactionalist view of Europe.
People’s main concerns – immigration, national identity – are not going to be overcome by talk of percentages. We need a vision of what the UK could be in Europe in 10 years time.

Sandy Martin, Leader of the Labour Group, 28/09/15

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