progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

Q&A with Harriet Harman in Middlesbrough

This morning I attended a Labour Party event at which the deputy leader, Harriet Harman, spoke and answered questions from an audience of seventy party members. Contrary to media reports, this event was entirely paid for by the Party, including the minister's transportation to the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, where the Q&A took place.

The minister was introduced by Bridget Philipson, Labour's parliamentary candidate for Houghton and Sunderland South, who chaired the event.

Harman explained that the decision to have cabinet meetings outside of London has allowed ministers to consider policies on the basis of regional needs. Before the cabinet meeting in Durham, ministers have been visiting places of relevance to their department to see how policies are implemented at the frontline of public services.

The concept of Labour as a team, often used by the deputy leader, was invoked - both at the cabinet level and at the grassroots of the party. The trade unions and party activists are an important part of the Labour family.

The deputy leader said that her view of the North-East region was of transformation and struggle.

Because of incumbency, it is easy for people to forget that things like SureStart, the minimum wage, and increased investment in health and education, are the result of a Labour government. These changes did not drop out of the sky, and is a point that has to be made to people when campaigning.

The economic crisis has left people feeling vulnerable and as a result there's not a great awareness of how much worse the recession could have been if the Tories had been in power. There have been fewer job losses, repossessions and business failures during this recession than the one under the Tories in the early nineties.

The fight-back has to be on both fronts, said Harman. The case for Labour is that the gains will be wiped away by the Tories who have no understanding of the region's needs and no interest in helping ordinary people. The hopes of recovery will be crushed by Tory plans to cut spending - plunging the economy back into recession.

There then followed questions from the audience, taken in groups of three. There were questions onn equal pay for men and women, on the importance of continued funding of universities because of their role in new creative and digital industries, and on the future of the steel industry.

The deputy leader said that there was a legacy of unfairness in pay which needed to be addressed; the growth in income inequality had been halted by government action, but more needed to be done to close the gap and she stressed that legislation to promote equalities should not be seen as a replacement for effective trade union representation. The Tories offer an Age of Austerity - for us, not for themselves and their wealthy friends - and Labour has to be careful not to have a jobless recovery and make sure that the need to make savings doesn't harm the growth of new industries.

On Corus, the deputy leader praised the efforts of the local MPs to stop the closure of TCP. A young comrade suggested that nationalisation should be the way to deal with the crisis, which got a strong round of applause.

Harman said that renationalisation of the steel industry would not be possible because of the state of the public finances. Following this, I got the opportunity to ask a question on ownership - if we now have an active state (particularly with the state rescuing the banking sector) then there should also be an active role for the workforce in having a stake in TCP as owners. I suggested that the Supporters Direct model, which has helped set up football supporters' trusts which buy stakes in their club to have influence, could be the form which common ownership takes. Even the Tories are making out that they support co-ops these days.

I don't think my question was expressed clearly, as a result the deputy leader didn't address the proposal. She did observe that the Tory plans for public sector "workers' co-ops" actually amount to the fragmentation of public services.

The deputy leader promised to convey to the cabinet the feeling of the audience that there needed to be fresh ideas about the future of TCP - which I took as meaning she would convey the message that people felt nationalisation could not be ruled out.

The strength of feeling on Corus was clear. If the Redcar plant closes there will be 1600 jobs lost and many more in businesses that rely on the spending power of those workers. For Labour, the message recieved by traditional supporters on Teesside will be that banks can be nationalised, but not an industry which is of strategic importance to the regional and national economy. Lord Mandelson has said that this should not be seen as a party political issue - but if a Labour heartland cannot depend on a Labour government to stop big corporations like Corus from destroying an industry and the livelihoods of thousands of people, who can blame them if they swear off ever voting for the party?

I am not suggesting that Labour's electoral woes would be ended if the party came out in favour of greater democratic control in the economy - there would be a lot more hostile media reportage from the capitalist press, for sure. What is certain is that co-ownership offers an alternative to both the private corporation and the Morrisonian public corporation.

There's been much talk of how Labour is to offer a model of "John Lewis" councils to rival the Tories scaled-back budget model, nicknamed "easyCouncil". If we are to have democratic ownership, let's have it where it matters - in the private sector, both in new industries and those condemned to "managed decline". At the moment, it matters at the Redcar plant - Corus workers deserve to have a crack of the whip.

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