Labour needs a backbone

by Daphne Liddle

THE LABOUR Party conference in Manchester this week has been uninspiring and marked by a series of disappointments and silly mistakes.

The only motivation for working class voters to bother to go to the polls remains the horrifying prospect of another five years with the Tories in Downing Street.

Labour leader Ed Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls kicked off just before the conference with a pledge that, if elected, they would deal with Britain’s dire low wage problem by raising the minimum wage to £8-an-hour — and then added “by 2020”.

As left Labour MP John McDonnell pointed out this amounts to just 25p-a-year increase and allowing for inflation it will leave workers even worse off than they are now.

It is laughable but it also highlights how the minimum wage, since its introduction has become the norm for so many workers. It has acted not so much as a safety net but as a benchmark as higher paid jobs have disappeared.

Even more shocking has been the silence from the major unions pointing this out. Unison and GMB have welcomed Ed Miliband’s main speech with lukewarm praise while Unite and PCS have yet to comment.

Miliband also said he would use finance from capping child benefit to accomplish this even though families with children are among those hardest hit by low wages.

In his main speech to conference Miliband promised to save the NHS using some of the money raised from Labour’s proposed mansion tax — on homes valued at over £2 million.

He pledged £2.5 billion — to fill a predicted gap of £30 billion. He did not promise to repeal the Con-Dem Coalition’s Health and Social Care Bill, nor to scrap PFI or the dangers from the TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) that will force privatisation of the NHS.

He also spoke of building more affordable homes — 200,000 a year and reiterated Margaret Thatcher’s policy of turning Britain into a land of “home ownership” — because that is what makes people feel secure.

Mortgage payers are vulnerable to sudden loss or decrease of wages and are more likely to lose their homes than council tenants. And even when they have finished paying they can still lose their homes to finance social care in their old age.

What people want is security in their homes and secure council tenancies offer that. But Miliband did not mention building new council homes. Nevertheless his proposed building programme would create a lot of jobs.

Miliband also pledged to ensure that the number of school-leavers going into apprenticeships would equal the numbers going to university. That makes sense; Britain has long lagged behind in providing vocational education — since first class polytechnics were all turned into second-rate universities. But what will Miliband do about student fees?

Another of his better pledges was to increase the number of jobs in “green industries” to two million.

The conference was also blighted by some staggering mistakes. Just before Miliband’s speech a number of disabled delegates who had been given seats in the front row were ordered to move to make way for party bigwigs, sparking justified indignation.

Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott disgraced himself with a racist quip worthy of the late Bernard Manning by referring to Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, as “Chumbawamba” at a conference event.

And Miliband admitted after his speech that he had forgotten to mention the budget deficit at all — a result of his clever party-piece of speaking without written notes.

Comedy writer Ian Martin, who created to sit-com The Thick of it after the conference described Labour as “the most spineless opposition” ever.

With the Con-Dem Coalition austerity programme hitting so many people so hard it should be almost impossible for Labour to lose the next election. But Miliband and his pals seem to be trying, especially when they keep going on about the continuing need for the very austerity measures that are strangling the country.

But the final words belong to left Labour veteran Dennis Skinner, on why we must defeat the Tories: “We’ve got to shift them,” he raged. “If they get overall control, and don’t have to rely on those tin-pot Lib Dems, you can talk about the end of the NHS; you can talk about severing the umbilical cord between the taxpayer and local authorities and schooling and all the rest of it...

“People should understand that when you’re voting next May, you’re voting for the least imperfect party, for the least imperfect candidate” he said. “Nobody’s perfect. But you should always use your vote.”