In the dragons’ den

I’ve heard some unexpected things at political events over the years but a call for class warfare at a Progress event had all the probability of a demand for immediate introduction of the euro at a UKIP rally. It came as the young and articulate crowd at the Progress political weekend engaged in some red-sky thinking as part of a dragons’ den style session on switching spending entitled How do we pay for our progressive agenda? The dragons sitting in judgement were Angela Smith MP, Peter Kellner of YouGov and Joe Steer of the BVCA, with Progress strategy board member Mandy Telford chairing.

The radical call was made during a debate on Catherine Vallis’ proposal to abolish charitable status for private schools to fund an industry of ideas. It’s unfair to subsidise the private sector to the tune of £100m when we could use the money so much more effectively to boost industry, argued Catherine, for example through greater investment in innovation and the renewable energy sector. Labour, of course, legislated in government to ensure public benefit from charitable status for private schools but the new proposal was nevertheless approved by a clear margin. The view of Progress members was that elitist schools are still not delivering enough to the wider community to justify the generous tax breaks still bestowed on them by the state.

Before that, a slim and svelte Stephen Longden had railed against the UK’s growing obesity problem and proposed ending the zero-VAT rating on unhealthy processed foods to fund incentives for losing weight. The current VAT system on food is a bit of an illogical mess, as George Osborne pointed out before slapping a new tax on pasties last year. Chocolate body paint is currently zero rated, highlighted Stephen. Clearly the potential health benefits of using that particular product are not due to its nutritional content.

Perhaps nervous of accusations of a nanny-statism and a repeat of the pasty-gate saga, those present voted down the proposal. A particular concern was the rising price of food under the Tories and the impact of even higher prices on the worst-off. I found this verdict a bit short-sighted as eating healthily can be pretty cheap if the right cooking skills are taught and used. Using the tax system to price in some of the costly burden to the state of poor diets is a legitimate way of encouraging healthier choices. Suggestions that processed foods are poor people’s foods and we shouldn’t seek to interfere was rather reminiscent to me of John Reid’s patronising claim that we should let the poor smoke as it’s one of their few pleasures in life. With the Tories contracting out policy in this area to the purveyors of processed food through their failing voluntary ‘responsibility deals’, there is scope for Labour to act here to promote public health.

The final proposal from Alvin Carpio was to provide interest-free loans to apprentices and interns as a way of giving a helping hand to young people at a time of catastrophic levels of youth unemployment. Alvin’s announcement of his preferred funding mechanism – an increase in interest rates on student loans – brought a sharp intake of breath from the assembled attendees.  There was great support in the room for action on the issue, and for creating more apprenticeships given that only five per cent of UK firms currently provide them. However, most were reluctant to back ever-higher costs on students given the recent imposition of fees of up to £9k per year by the government. A lively debate followed on whether the wealthy part of the baby boomer generation have collectively been taking the rest of us for a ride for decades, but in the end the proposal was comprehensively defeated.

And what can we conclude from the session? Regardless of the merits of the individual ideas, the modernising strand of Labour thinking is looking to the future and confronting the difficult choices on spending that will face the next Labour government. Not exactly class warfare but always conscious of Labour’s primary purpose of increasing equality and extending opportunity.

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Phil Jones is a Labour councillor. He tweets @PhilJones79

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Comments: 4...

  1. On March 12, 2013 at 5:11 pm Andy Harvey responded with... #

    We’re in a class war. It’s being waged non-stop by the Tories. The problem is that he Tory infiltrators in the Labour Party (aka Progress or ‘New’ Labour) have stopped fighting it.

    • On March 12, 2013 at 5:38 pm Andy responded with... #

      Was just about to post but firstly in response to Andy Harvey as a member of Progress who has been fighting Tory idiots for longer than I can remember and, by the look of your profile photo, a lot longer than you’ve been born I can only suggest that you shut up, learn what you’re talking about and then you just may realise that it’s misguided people, like yourself, who are the Labour Party’s problem.

      Now with regards to the weekend and to save two posts:

      As someone whose main interest is the 2nd World War because of the so
      many important lessons that can be learned from it being at Stoke
      Rochford to debate politics at #ppw13 was probably more significant to me than most.

      For those who don’t know, in 1940 the house was requisitioned by the War Office, it was used for a variety of purposes, became the headquarters of the Second Battalion the Parachute Regiment and it was in the Library were the ill fated 1944 Arnhem ‘drop’ was planned.

      We were actually sat having our evening meal, mostly taking about decisions that could be made, in a room that had been used to make one of the most, albeit tragic, decisions that had ever been made in our recent history.

      Although a significant number of people who attended the event were associated to the Party ‘old guard’, that I am sadly having a significant problem with and I do question @StephenTwigg when he says there is a clear unity within it, appropriate in light of Andy Harveys above comment and when the closed shop here is ensuring division and ‘the click’ at the parties ‘Horse Guards’ maintain that division, it was refreshing to hear people like @CarolineFlintMP @hopisen @Andrew_Adonis and @MichaelDugherMP talk in ways which, to be honest, the Labour Party most see don’t.

      It was also refreshing to hear from up and coming candidates like @victoriagroulef and @jessica_asato who I sincerely hope get all the support they need, to become elected
      but the most fantastic thing about the whole weekend by far was the brilliant amount of young people who attended and showed just how much they care.

      Sadly the WW2 planning at Stoke Rochford did largely fail but with the right support and hopefully the continued motivations that the brilliant young people have the future plans of the Party and, in turn, the UK should it be re-elected which I agree will not be as easy as a lot think, does look very promising.

  2. On March 12, 2013 at 5:33 pm Alvin Carpio responded with... #

    Thanks to Progress for putting on a fantastic weekend.

    I’d like to make a few clarifications:

    1. Youth unemployment is a complex issue that has risen due to a set of complex reasons and demand complex and nuanced responses. In the speech, I mentioned three reasons including the recession, the increased flexibility of the labour market and the increased prevalence of insecure temporary contracts, as well as the need to upgrade our education system for the new economy.

    We need to use procurement policy to increase the number of apprenticeships contractors should hire and train, following the successful model applied during the Olympics. We should ensure temporary contracts are stepping stones and not traps. We should also consider, for example, updating our curriculum to teach coding in schools. The tech industry in the US is growing three times faster than the rest of the private sector and in the UK, Silicon Roundabout and the new tech hub in the soon-to-be opened Queen Elizabeth Park, shows where future jobs will come from. With the number of ICT students dropping by two-thirds according to Stephen Twigg’s speech on Sunday, we should update the subject to make it more relevant and forward looking.

    2. The Dragon’s Den Budget Switching Exercise forced us to think about the tough decisions we need to make. The above are ideas I’ve thought of before, but the task becomes more difficult when you ask yourself where you’d switch expenditure especially during a recession.

    3. The idea put forward was to provide interest-free loans to apprentices and young people from poor families who get internships.

    4. Why? Decisions about post-compulsory school life have always been tough. In the past we have said that university was the best route, but that’s not so clear now. We should give young people attractive options outside of university too. But apprenticeship wages are much lower than the minimum wage, so we have to make it financially viable, especially for the poorest and the long-term unemployed. Interest-free loans should be made available to them.
    A number of young people are unable to take on internships too. I think we should pay interns a living wage, but the interest-free loan will give young people the extra financial support they might need. They do not need to take out then loan, but they should have the option.
    They should not be forced to take out pay-day loans from companies like Wonga.com out of desperation.

    5. I believe that the majority of it should be funded by the private sector, in particular the sectors such as banking who were largely responsible for the recession.

    6. To conclude, this was a good learning experience during my first Progress event. It was good speaking to people about the general principles of the idea afterwards. I look forward to having more conversations about how we deal with youth unemployment.

    The exercise did well to demonstrate how we are going to have to make some extremely tough decisions if we get back into power during the recession. Some choices will be unpopular, but it was a good exercise to confront these sorts of tough decisions during the Progress Political Weekend.

  3. On March 13, 2013 at 9:58 pm Sheila Taylor responded with... #

    Enjoyed reading this, Phil. It gave a really lively sense of what went on. And the dash of humour made one realise how rare that is in Progressonline documents!

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