Friday 21 July 2006

LRC Conference Sets Course

It has been a week since I announced publicly that I would be seeking to stand for the leadership of the Labour Party when a vacancy arises. As you can guess the week has been a whirlwind of activity to get our message across, from tv and radio studios, meetings with various people, debates in Parliament, constituency engagements, a pensioners meeting in Parliament and joining the anti privatisation picket line by the PCS outside the MOD.

I just want to say thank you to all those many, many people who have contacted me to express their support. It has just been overwhelming. I have been touched at the number of people just coming up in the street to wish us all good luck. I have been particularly moved by the number of people who have contacted me to say that they are rejoining the Labour Party to join our campaign. Thank you for all this. It is really appreciated and has given our campaign such a boost from the outset.

The LRC Conference takes place at the TUC on Saturday under the title "Challenging for Labour's Future." This year's conference looks like being the largest so far and could be a pivotal moment in the history of the Left in Britain.

The conference will focus on how the left organises to challenge for Labour's future on the policiies needed by a Labour Government and the methods needed to restore democracy to the party once again. Within just over two years the LRC has become one of, if not the largest, rank and file group within the Labour Party. It was founded to bring socialists together from across the Labour party, trade union movement and progressive campaigning bodies in this country. It enables people not just to become involved in political discussion but also to participate in campaigning on the key issues facing our movement.

The LRC has been instrumental in developing, supporting and campaigning on issues like the campaign against privatisation,"Public Services not Private Profit" and the Trade Union Freedom Bill.

Before the last election the LRC published a "Policy Programme for a Real Labour Government." This included amongst others two important demands for both old and young. They were for pensioners an increase in the basic state pension and an immediate restoration of the link with earnings, and for young people the abolition of tuition fees.

Our argument on pensions was that forcing up to 50% of pensioners onto means tested benefits would result in large scale unclaimed benefits and a massive waste of resources on the administration of complex claim and assessment processing.

Yesterday at a meeting in the House of Commons, which was hosted by Kate Hoey and myself, the National Pensioners Convention undertook a detailed briefing on its alternative Pension White Paper. The Convention should be applauded for the effective work it does. This excellent exposition of the real plight of penssioners in this country sets out a clear and affordable approach to tackling pensioner poverty based upon increasing the basic state pension and restoring the link.

Each year in the Parliamentary debate on the budget I have presented a detailed and costed alternative budget including the Pensioner's Convention proposals. The alternative budget is prepared using the expert advice of the Left Economic Advisory Panel, which I chair and which comprises a range of socialist economists. Each year these pension proposals have been opposed by Gordon Brown and the Government.

The Turner report was a bit of a breakthrough as it came out in favour of a restoration of the link between pensions and earnings but regrettably recommended that this would be at some time in the future and would not assist many existing pensioners. At first Tony Blair backed the Turner proposals and Gordon Brown opposed the restoration of the link. Eventually Brown capitulated but still left the restoration to some time in the future and hedged with various caveats, which would enable any future Government to wriggle out of this commitment.

We are making the National Pensioners' Convention demands set out in its alternative white paper a central plank of our campaign. A number of supporters are aiming to form a pensioners' group within the campaign that will work to promote this issue. If you are a pensioner or have an interest in this issue come and help us in this campaign.

Coincidentally this week research proved what the National Union of Students and many of us who opposed tuition fees said three years ago. WE warned then that the imposition of fees leading to massive debt amongst young people would serve as a deterrent to working class young people going to university. This week's figures for new entrants and the drop out rates from college demonstrate tragically that we were right. Young people from less affluent backgrounds are being put off staying on in education by the costs and risk of debt.

The solution is obvious. Scrap the tuition fees and restore maintenance grants. This is what we will be campaigning for and next week young people are coming together to discuss how over the coming months support can be mobilised in the leadership campaign around this policy.

This is exactly the type of campaign we need. Groups of people coming together to mobiliise support for a change in policy but based upon really concrete analysis and workable proposals.

I am convinced that we can win the political argument but it still needs us to win the organisational battle as well. That is why I am so encouraged by the overwhelming response we have received over the last week. It has been really heartwarming to gain such support and so many good wishes from so many people. If you have time tomorrow come along to the LRC conference. It should be intellectually stimulating and politically motivating.

I hope to see you there.