Can Britain be fairer in the next five years?
There are two answers to the question we posed at the Progress meeting at Labour North West conference. How you answer it defines how you are going to act politically.
The first is a short answer. No. We have got a Tory government, Britain cannot be fairer. If we get a Labour government in 2020 then that problem is solved. But there is plenty for us to get angry about and plenty of marches to go on in the meantime.
The second is what we gathered to talk about at Labour North West conference on Blackpool’s misty seafront on Saturday afternoon. Paul Brant from Liverpool opened with what we must not do – there must be no talk of setting illegal budgets. Reform is hard, but the public will never forgive us for irresponsible governance. Labour must work with the levers of power we have to make a difference, be it devolutionary or through community organisations which have the potential to share in decision making. That also involves reaching out to other civic organisations, credit unions and working out where we can improve lives and help. ‘We have the opportunity not just to do things to our local communities but to share decision making. Give them the opportunity to decide how the council deploys its budgets’, Paul said.
It was a point picked up by Sam Rushworth, who was the parliamentary candidate in Blackpool North, a constituency that has poor life chances and deep social problems – yet has a Conservative member of parliament. As Labour members we must ‘think creatively’, he said, in how we partner with groups who organise credit unions and food banks – be they church groups or organisations that sprung up in a community. ‘This is where Labour needs to be’, he said.
‘The worst thing Labour ever mocked was the Big Society. We should own that agenda. Who is working hardest to mitigate the worst effects of the economic crisis and the poverty? It is the churches, community groups, people running food banks and we need to be joining those groups in what they do… As Bill Clinton said about compassionate conservatism – politics is always about rhetoric and reality. And with that you have compassion as the rhetoric and conservative as the reality.’
There are two Tory soundbites that we easily mock – the Big Society and the Northern Powerhouse. But rather than be opposed we should embrace the opportunities they both present and act true to them.
Using the ‘two good, two bad’ analytical tool popularised on Match of the Day 2, Progress’ new chair Alison McGovern said it was important to tackle the two worst things – income inequality and child poverty. Yet it is sometimes within our gift to campaign and legislate to tackle both with two examples of how we pursue that common good.
In local government Labour has opportunities to shift the ground here, she said. An ethical Living Wage in the care sector is within the gift of Labour authorities and should be a priority. ‘Get behind our friends in local government, campaign for them and tell the story of how Labour in local government is working hard to make Britain fairer’, she said.
‘We are still held back economically in our city regions by the skill level of our people. We need our local authorities to work together across city regions and their counties to invest in skill levels. It’s what businesses tell me is holding them back. We have great talented people they just need the right skills to do the right jobs.’
But the main thing we need, she said, is Labour in government, every town, district, county and mayoral election. That is how we make our country fairer.
Michael Taylor is the former parliamentary candidate for Hazel Grove
Alison McGovern, Big Society, community activism, devolution, food banks, North West, Paul Brant, Sam Rushworth