Report by Geoff Gay on Friday Room meeting 14th December 2012
with Matthew O’Callaghan, Labour parliamentary candidate for Loughborough Constituency on “What should be in the 2015 Labour Manifesto?”
As many regulars missed this meeting, I thought this report would be helpful as an insight into Matthew’s thinking; also an insight into the concerns of the Labour Party members who were the great majority of those present.
Matthew opened with an attack on the way that the present government has brought in a series of measures – on the NHS, education, the welfare state, local government and the unions – which are driven by an anti-public service ideology and were not in the manifesto of either coalition party. Matthew could see no signs of a counter-balancing alternative ideology in the Labour Party. Labour were far too cautious in 1997 and their 2010 manifesto with its 11 chapters was ” a big yawn”. Later, he reinforced this by saying that he hoped that Labour would emerge with a ” big idea” and should base its manifesto not on opinion polls, but on planning and investing for the longer-term. “Our society and politics,” he said, “almost reward short-termism.” “We have to be cautious in what we promise, but if something is clearly wrong, we have to do something about it.”
Geoff comments: However, I felt that this “big idea” view was slightly undermined by a later declaration that he was personally more comfortable with community action than with grand schemes ( That is not to say that there is anything wrong with community action).
Matthew then developed some specific points which he wished to see in the Labour manifesto :
Whereas the government had embarked on a programme of reducing and restricting the role of local authorities, he believed in a form of “localism” in which local councils, which are inherently more immediately accountable than central government, were able to exercise power with proper resources and a degree of autonomy: “There needs to be a shift from national to local“.
On education, he was firmly opposed to the government’s removal of schools from local accountability, and wished to see a situation where at least the funding of schools was returned to the local authorities.
Geoff comments: I felt that, in a situation where many local authorities are assiduously washing their hands of education, this was rather naive and lacking in the sort of depth that is necessary in a serious look at future policy : For example, the idea of local elected “education boards” is gaining currency on the left.
Matthew would also like services such as Health and the Police to have local democratic accountability via elected councils, and for councils to use “direct works” rather than privatised tendering: on the other hand there is a tendency towards inefficiency in public services which could be tackled through something like the French Public Service Academies. We also need to go onto the offensive on taxation, arguing that public services have to be paid for.
On the economy, Matthew called for investment and research, through companies and universities, in key technologies like bio-engineering. With government help, there could be a renewed emphasis on “making things ourselves”. While not necessarily taking control, the state needs to regulate essential services, particularly Energy which is “really a monopoly”, and Rail, in which splitting trains from track was stupid. Again long-termism comes into play, working on the understanding that “we can’t grow forever.” In answering a question about flat-rate indirect taxes such as VAT and beer duty , Matthew said that he was certainly opposed to the beer duty escalator.
Numbers of other important issues were covered in the context of contributions and questions :
Democratic Reform and Pluralism: Matthew admitted that he was equivocal and undecided on voting systems ; he was debating with himself issues such as the efficacy or otherwise of coalitions, the constituency link and whether we were primarily electing a government or a local MP. He agreed that big problems with First Past the Post were “inherent majorities” and having to tailor policies to the “middle 200 000” , and suggested that he might be persuaded by some form of “top-up” system. Matthew declared that “Labour does not have a monopoly of wisdom and can learn a lot from others, particularly the Greens and extra-parliamentary groups like 38 Degrees, although he said, in reply to a question, that he was not personally keen on “joining groups”.
Europe : Matthew was pro-European though he was not keen on all EU structures. He felt that, at the next general election, all major parties are likely to promise some form of referendum, and he personally would like it to be “in or out, to stop all the farting around”.
Voter Engagement ( or lack of ): “If its all mush in the middle, what incentive is there for people to vote?” On the other hand, “passion generates engagement”: Matthew recalled a passionately-fought council election in which the turnout was over 80%!
Inequality: While regretting that inequality had increased under Labour, Matthew said that the issue was not simple: “Legislation for equality is a bit like legislating for goodness”. “Those who can afford it should pay higher taxes and so lowering the 50% rate was wrong, but if those at the bottom improve by 10% and those at the top improve by 15%, is that necessarily wrong ?”
The Environment and Energy Policy: Matthew was clearly opposed to “fracking” because he felt that the technology was imperfect: it was not just a matter of earth tremors – what about the long-term effects of pumping chemicals into the earth ? On wind farms and the like, we need to think about how to combat and stand up to nimbyism. Energy policy should be balanced but with far more emphasis on renewables.
Geoff comments: Statistically, it cannot have been just the weather and Christmas shopping that put off our regulars : without the influx of Labour members, the attendance would have been too small to make the meeting worthwhile : as it was, I thought that the meeting was informative and engaging and would comment that , for pluralism and anti-tribalism to mean anything, they need to work all ways.