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

hands off the north-east!

Cameron appears to have scored an own goal - and this will have an impact in other regions which, as a result of Conservative policy to manage the decline in manufacturing employment during the 80s and 90s, are heavily dependent upon public spending.

Perhaps the most significant policy disagreement between Labour and the Conservatives when it comes to deficit reduction is on the role of industrial policy.

In recent months, the Business Secretary Peter Mandelson has argued for an active industrial policy that involves "market-shaping" - the use of public spending by regional development agencies, etc., to attract and maintain inward investment by providing the necessary infrastructure and skills training.

This is not something Ken Clarke is keen on, and although George Osbourne has spoken of the need to focus on expanding manufacturing, the report by James Dyson for the Conservatives appears to contradict their policy of scrapping R&D incentives to pay for a cut in corporation tax.

News reports have it that certain Labour cabinet members expressed regret during the financial crisis that the party did not develop a critique of capitalism. However, Mandelson's industrial activism and Brown's talk of "fair markets" imply a critical approach that Cameron and the Conservative Party are thought to lack.

Increasingly, the criticism being made by Labour is that the Conservatives are wedded to a free market approach to the economy which has been discredited during the global recession.

Labour's mutual manifesto

It might be instructive to compare Labour's defence of collective action with the Tories' invitation to do-it-yourself austerity.

Labour's use of office to give support to those facing hardship contrasts sharply with the Tories determination to deprive people of properly-funded frontline services and their failure to grasp the seriousness of the financial crisis.

Had the Tories been in power during this recession we would have seen return to the "sink or "swim" situation faced by millions in the 80s and early 90s - but on a scale last seen in the 30s.

As I've argued through this blog, Labour has always been on the right side of the argument when it comes to sharing power and prosperity - not by accident do the Tories side with the powerful and priviledged against those seeking a fairer society. No matter how hard Cameron has tried to rebrand the Tories, the interests remain the same...

It's often said that few people read party manifestos. However, they give an insight into what kinds of debates are going on within parties, what demands are being raised by rank and file members and supporters.

The Labour manifesto for the 2010 general election starts with a foreword from the party leader:
"This is a moment to show greater boldness in response to what Britain has gone through and the toll it has taken. We reject a ‘business as usual’ mentality because we have to re-build and re-balance the economy, as well as renew our society and politics."
And in the introduction:
"The global financial crisis shows we need to be bolder about reforming our financial markets and building our economic future on fairer, more solid foundations."
In contrast to the Tory plans to abolish regional development agencies and other public bodies which shape investment, Labour declares that
"an activist industrial strategy is needed: learning the lessons from those nations that have succeeded in developing advanced manufacturing and leading-edge service industries. In these countries the role of government is not to stand aside, but to nurture private-sector dynamism, properly supporting infrastructure and the sectors of the future."
As to the ownership of enterprise, there's a recognition of the need for transparency:
"we will require institutional shareholders to declare how they vote and for banks to put their remuneration policies to shareholders for explicit approval [and] more disclosure of who owns shares, a requirement for bidders to set out how they will finance their bids and greater transparency on advisers’ fees".
Consideration will be given to limiting votes on takeovers to those shareholders registered before a bid - to prevent speculators and potential asset-strippers having a say on the future ownership of companies.

Labour's support for the co-operative movement is acknowledged, as is the potential for growth in the wake of the crisis:
"There is growing interest in co-operative and mutual organisations that people trust, and that have the capacity to unleash creativity and innovation, creating new jobs and services – particularly in disadvantaged neighbourhoods where traditional approaches have failed in the past. We want to see more local organisations run on cooperative principles with an expansion of Community Interest Companies and third-sector mutual organisations that reinvest profits for the public good."
As announced in the budget
"The Social Investment Bank will make additional capital available to social enterprises with an initial endowment of £75 million funded by dormant accounts alongside existing funding streams. We will promote the creation of more social enterprise hubs in every community – helping more to get off the ground [through] Business Link, enterprise education and the Regional Development Agencies."
The Tories made great play of their plans for worker co-ops in the public sector - but a far more sensible version of this policy is already in place in the NHS. Employees in the NHS have the right to request that they deliver frontline services through a social enterprise. In extending this right to other public sector workers, Labour recognises that there must be "greater community involvement in their governance" - and crucially, enterprises will be not-for-profit.

So for Sure Start, there's a mutual future:
"we will now pioneer mutual federations running groups of local Children’s Centres in the community interest."
There's support for mutuality in financial services:
"We value the role of building societies owned by their customers and the strength and diversity that a healthy mutual sector brings to our financial services, and we will consult on measures to help strengthen the sector. As one option for the disposal of Northern Rock, we will encourage a mutual solution, while ensuring that the sale generates maximum value for money for the taxpayer."
For transport, along with public investment in infrastructure, a potential policy for reforming the privatised railways:
"We will welcome rail franchise bids from not-for-profit, mutual or co-operative franchise enterprises and will look to remove unfair barriers that prevent such bids benefiting passengers and taxpayers."
In the privatised energy market, support for co-operative and municipal enterprise:
"We will devolve power to local councils to hold energy companies to account for community energy efficiency programmes, and give them powers to develop local energy systems such as renewables and district heating. We want local people to have a stake in local renewable energy projects such as wind farms. So we will support community organisations, co-ops and social enterprises to provide energy services, meaning lower prices through bulk purchasing, and the development of small-scale renewables."
The manifesto recognises trade unions as
"an important part of our society and economy, providing protection and advice for employees, and working for equality and greater fairness in the workplace."
And there's strong support for employee-ownership in the private sector:
"We want Britain’s workers to have a stake in their company by widening share ownership and creating more employe-eowned and trust-owned businesses. We want to see a step change in the role of employee-owned companies in the economy, recognising that many entrepreneurs would like to see their companies in the hands of their employees when they retire."
It won't surprise you that in the Tory manifesto there's no mention of increasing employee-ownership in the private sector - and naturally, no recognition of the important work of the trade union movement. That's because the workplace is the one area the Tories don't want people to even think about demanding power...

As for democratic reform of parliament - the Tories oppose Labour's plans for referenda on a the alternate voting system to replace first-past-the-post and a fully-elected Second Chamber to replace the House of Lords...

co-op councils or council cop-out?

The news that 115 Labour council leaders have signed a mission statement on using co-operative and mutual enterprise to protect frontline services coincided with a government report on expanding mutualism from the Cabinet Office.

Tessa Jowell is correct when she says that following "the global financial crisis and the parliamentary expenses scandal, it is clear that people are no longer prepared to trust large organisations over which they have no control."

But then again, people have little control over the large corporations that dominate our economy - so why only focus on the public sector? Transnational firms can shift production overseas to lower-wage economies, throwing skilled workers on the scrapheap; supermarkets can squeeze suppliers and can out-compete smaller shops; and in the bailed-out banking sector, bosses are rewarded for failure with huge bonuses.

Luke Akehurst - a Labour moderate and therefore someone you'd expect to be enthusiastic about such public service reform - has expressed his mutual suspicion:
"I'd always seen mutuals and co-ops as an alternative to capitalist forms of ownership, not as a way of councils off-loading their responsibility to deliver public services onto the service users. Surely the whole point about council services is that they are already mutual in that the policies that govern them and the political direction of them is set by the people in an area - the service users - electing some of their fellow residents - also service users - as councillors? Our focus for promoting mutuals should be on taking businesses out of the capitalist sector and into mutual ownership, not on taking services out of the public democratically-controlled sector."
I completely agree with this - the solution for undoing the damage of privatisation of public utilities and transport is surely mutualisation. Employee benefit trusts should be the prefered model in rebuilding manufacturing in the UK - we have Supporters Direct to help fans gain ownership of their clubs, why not Workers Direct to help employees gain a stake in their business?

However, the mission statement from Labour council groups does not ignore the importance of CMEs:
"Mutually owned businesses and social enterprises have an important part to play in the national and local economies. They not only generate wealth and employment - but their profits are retained in the community to the benefit of other local businesses or, often, used directly for the benefit of the community. We will assist their development to ensure that they are strong and sustainable."
And there are reports that Labour's manifesto at the general election will include a pledge to enable local authorities to become generate and retail renewable energy.

a worrying attack on democratic rights

Yet again an employer has gone to the High Court to stop members of a trade union from taking industrial action. After a democratic vote, using a secret ballot, conducted by an independent organisation (the Electoral Reform Society) a majority of RMT members voted in favour of a national rail strike in a dispute over workplace safety.

Instead of allowing the democratic decision of RMT members to withdraw their labour in protest at cuts to safety inspections, Network Rail went to the High Court to get an injunction on a technicality. Following this, there has been an anti-union campaign in the media, suggesting that ballots were sent to burnt-out signal-boxes - claims designed to give people the impression that the ballot was rigged.

Now, the general secretary of the RMT is a Marmite figure, you either love him or hate him. But Bob Crow is employed by workers in rail, maritime, and transportation sectors to defend their interests at work - and trade unions are the most regulated organisations in the UK.

Which is why there has been an angry response to the suggestion by John Humphreys, presenter of the Today programme on Radio 4, that there could be suspicions about the validity of the balloting process. If he had researched the story beyond tabloid headlines, he would have known in advance of interviewing Bob Crow that the courts had invalidated the vote on a technicality - the ballot was fair.

As Labour MP John McDonnell explains:
"To hold a ballot the union must construct and supply the employer with a detailed and complex matrix of information setting out which members it is balloting, their job titles, grades, departments and work locations. The employer is under no obligation to co-operate with the union to ensure this is accurate. If there is the slightest inaccuracy, even where it did not affect the result, the ballot is open to being challenged by the employer and quashed by the courts. [...]
"The result is not fewer strikes but a deteriorating industrial relations climate as people become increasingly angry that their democratic wishes are frustrated by one-sided anti-trade-union laws."
A representative of Network Rail appeared on Channel Four News saying to say that the union should not be so quick to issue strike ballots, but before the it was announced, Network Rail bosses were not negotiating with the RMT on the safety issues. Only when the results of the strike ballot had been announced did bosses agree to talks at ACAS with the union.

What is worrying about these human rights violations is that employers are effectively given the power by law to erode terms and conditions in the workplace - with consequences for the general public.

In the context of the Network Rail dispute, fewer saftey inspections could mean that maintenance workers and the travelling public are put at greater risk of injury or death. In the case of Unite's dispute with BA, Willie Walsh has been able to use other airlines to break the strike - yet workers at those airlines would be breaking the law if they took action in solidarity with BA cabin crew and refused to cross their picket line. So a race to the bottom in terms and conditions is made possible by the anti-union laws.

How can ordinary people have faith in the legal system if it empowers bullying employers and overturns democratic decisions?

who cares?

Out of the chaos of WW2, the National Health Service was established in 1948 to ensure that everyone in the UK had access to healthcare. It was recognised that by improving the health of the people, prosperity would also be increased.

Out of the deep global recession of recent years, a National Care Service could be established to ensure that everyone in the UK has access to social and home care. This would be in recognition of the unfairness of the current care lottery, a growing source of pain for families as the UK's aging population means that more people require care.

Like the NHS, a National Care Service will be free at the point of use. No one can know how much their future care costs might be - you could be fortunate enough not to require assistance in later years, or maybe you would require costly residential care. An NCS would give people the security of knowing they will recieve the care they need, not merely the care they can afford.

And like the NHS, a National Care Service will require everyone to contribute and will take a few years to become a reality. If Labour is re-elected, a National Care Service Commission will be established to determine the fairest means of funding the NCS.

The Tories have decided to oppose cross-party talks and to effectively campaign against an NCS - they propose voluntary funding for care services, which has proved insufficient where it's been tried in other countries. This shows that for all his talk of wanting a "Big Society", Cameron and his party lack the compassion to help establish an institution that will guarantee the right to care for the many, not just the few.