Banbury Constituency Labour Party

Sylvia’s Conference BLOG

Labour Party Conference 2014 in Manchester

My conference blog – SYLVIA HOWELLS (Member of Banbury & Bicester Labour Party)

Sylvia Howells

Sylvia Howells


My entry into social work came as a direct consequence of watching the film ‘Cathy Come Home’ and my entry into politics through my work as a social worker 35 years ago in South Yorkshire; working with the most disadvantaged in society I was astonished by the number of people in poverty in those days. Newly qualified, I listened to older people who still remembered the fear engendered by the idea of workhouses for the poor, ill and elderly – spectres my parents recounted from their own parents’ fears. Because of these experiences my parents’ generation worked to create and leave a better place for the next, including the landmark legacy of Nye Bevan’s NHS in1948.

Wednesday 24 September

Last day of Conference

sylvia_-_conference_07Keynote this morning has been Andy Burnham’s follow up to Ed’s speech yesterday – 7th May 2015 is Cameron and Clegg’s day of reckoning for what they’ve done to the NHS, trashing it without the people’s permission! The task he said, is to complete Nye Bevan’s vision and bring social care into the NHS – real cradle to grave – a health service not a sickness service. Good lines we can all get behind and use to support the 2015 campaign.

So besides repealing Lansley’s ruinous Health and Social Care Act and taking the market out of the NHS, we are going to develop an integrated care organisation”… working from home to hospital (and) co-ordinating all care – physical, mental and social.” He went on to say that it’s senseless to cut social care and then spend thousands hospitalising people who really don’t need to be there. He intends writing to every household in 2015, just as Nye did in 1948, saying exactly what the NHS will mean for everyone. Not only will this mean personal care plans for individuals and new teams of care workers, physios, OTs, nurses and midwives, with GPs at the centre, but real support for carers – funding for breaks, annual health checks as a right, help with hospital car parking and most importantly, the right to care in the home!

This is clearly the focus for the election next year and it’s for real, since the Tories and their friends will fragment and dismantle the service for private profit if they are re-elected. And the Lib Dems can’t be relied on.

The most poignant speaker from the floor in the debate was 91 year old Harry Smith who said,


Me with Harry Smith

“I came into the world in 1923 in Barnsley but life was not like Downton Abbey. It was a barbarous time. Public healthcare didn’t exist and medicine was for the few. We ate bread and dripping and there was real hunger but I experienced real love from my parents. We lived in slums called home where the cards were stacked against us. Diseases and illness were common such as TB. I remember as a child playing in the street, hearing the anguished screams and cries of a woman dying from cancer without pain relief. TB took my sister; my parents tried to care but she had to go to the workhouse infirmary at 10years old where she died. We couldn’t afford to bury her and she went to a pauper’s grave. I still remember the smell of poverty and death of that time.

Injustice galvanised my generation. In 1945 after the war aged 22, I voted for the first time and remember being proud to have a chance in life, one of the millions to support the creation of the NHS. I stand here today for those who didn’t make it he said a powerful testament to the suffering at that time. My heart goes out to people today who struggle simply to make ends meet. We mustn’t return to those dreadful days. We have to protect the NHS for your children and their children because it was created by the people for the people.”

His final point (one we should all take to heart in fighting the next election) was that we must never lose the NHS, saying “your future will be my past and my life will be your history”.

Video of Harry Smith’s speech

Yvette Cooper and Sadiq Khan both spoke well on key issues which we can all support. They will have many opportunities to speak to us over the next 9 months. Sadiq Khan himself comes from a working class immigrant Pakistani community and has an inspirational story to tell about his own journey but, comrades, the day belonged to Harry Smith! We should all listen and learn.

We have just 227 days to save the NHS

This afternoon Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York, gave us a stirring ‘Tale of Two Cities’ – where a few were doing really well while millions of working people were struggling. Drawing parallels with the UK, he said that ‘…growing inequality is a crisis of our time. We are told prosperity can’t be both great and shared, that you can’t lift the floor for those struggling in a tough economy and still balance a budget, and that those of us who serve can’t expect to achieve anything at all if we dare to advance policies that are morally right.’

His campaign, which he urged Labour to follow, was based on mobilising people across race, age and income to fight for a government that would reflect their values – fairness, justice and real opportunity for all. His advice, both in campaigning and in power is to ‘push for bold action, be willing to hear and speak hard truths and let the people set the agenda’.

Tuesday 23 September

Supporting fire officers - save the people not bankers

Supporting fire officers – save the people not bankers

The day started with a card vote on rule changes giving the NEC more power to take action against members convicted of a serious criminal offence, and giving CLPs more control over the CAC. More importantly, the previous decision that CLPs would get less funding year on year was raised from the floor and Diana Holland (National Treasurer) said the panel was sympathetic to the request and agreed to review the decision after the 2015 election. Long grass or real commitment? We’ll see.

The main points in Ed’s speech will have been seen and heard by everyone by now but the mood in the hall was far more positive than the media appear to have portrayed it. And you would think that the party had ignored Gordon’s role in securing a ‘no’ vote – but Ed thanked him personally and explicitly.

NHS is going to be the cornerstone of our election campaign and in his Policy seminar on Health and Social Care after Ed’s speech, Andy Burnham pointed out that things couldn’t go on as they are. The Tories have missed their A&E targets for the year. He referred to “The National Health and Social Care Service”, implying significant impacts on the responsibilities of district and county councils as health, social care and housing are integrated. sylvia_-_conference_06More tomorrow when he makes his conference speech! We have to reverse the dismantling of the welfare state and will start with recruiting up to 5,000more homecare staff, 8,000 more GPs and 20,000 nurses!

Michael Dugher made a barnstorming speech in the morning taking the fight to the Tories and giving a taste of their failures rarely reported by our media. There’s a long list which I’ll send round later this week but a key point – the Tories borrowed more in the first 3 years of this government than we did in 13 years in power!

In Manchester, their share of the vote was 45% in 1973 – its just 7% now! And they have no councillors at all in Manchester, Liverpool, Newham, Haringey, Oxford, Norwich, Chesterfield or Sheffield. The only Tory in Sheffield is apparently a certain N Clegg.

And their membership has halved under ‘call me Dave’s’ leadership so much so that they are becoming an endangered species. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, Tory party members are now officially rarer than hippos, chimpanzees, beluga whales (sorry Eric Pickles), Galapagos sea iguanas and particularly rare type of pigeon!

Let’s get angry about kids queuing with their mums at food banks for value beans and powdered milk – in the UK, in 2014! What kind of country and society are we and what impression will it leave on those children?

He made the point – this election really matters. We have to get the millionaires out of Downing Street and government.

Monday 22 September

Sylvia with Ken

Sylvia with Ken

Britain’s Global Role debate led by a happy (and somewhat relieved) Jim Murphy – clearly Scotland is not on DFID radar now! Key commitments were to continue to spend 0.7% of GDP on international development, put human rights at the heart of DFID spending and reinstate Tory cuts to UK funding for the ILO! A key commitment was to pressure the UN to make universal health coverage a clear ambition for the next 15 years.

Composite 1 reflected this approach especially in relation to the 000’s of workers in Colombia being denied human and trade union rights. The exploitation of workers building the world cup facilities in Qatar were also highlighted in debate. 1000 workers have died already and another 3000 expected to die by the time the work is complete – all while FIFA worry about footballers playing in extreme heat? British companies like Balfour Beatty shouldn’t benefit from any public contracts until they stop playing dirty and the floor held up red cards to send Qatar off the field!

On Gaza the view was that we should build an anti-apartheid style movement given the similarities!

Chuka Umunna MPOn work and business Chuka Umunna was extremely passionate/articulate on the problems relating to the so called recovery in employment – low pay, insecure terms and conditions etc.,etc. The policy response was straight from the NPF document – increasing the minimum wage, incentivising employers (why do they need incentivising? Not clear) to pay the living wage, tackling ‘exploitative’ zero hours contracts. Composite 4 (Work in the Contemporary Economy) pretty much reflected the same policies. Labour will ‘get’ secure jobs – long on ambition short on prescription? Len Mcluskey said that people have forgotten about class which is still at the heart of political/economic issues – we shouldn’t be afraid to tackle it!

Ed Balls’ mantra was all about balancing the books – current budget in surplus, national debt falling, cuts and tough decisions. Scrap Police and Crime Commissioners and make savings in LG to ‘free up’ resources. Go on increasing the retirement age, cap social security spending and keep the benefits cap! Oh and child benefit too. Essentially a re-run of what’s in the NPF document.

Rachel Reeves followed Ed and said she had put Nick Clegg on the spot by urging him and his colleagues to work with us to scrap the Bedroom Tax when Parliament returns – not water it down, scrap it. If they won’t support Labour, we’ll scrap it next year – a good test of LibDem commitment. We are committed to ‘come down hard’ on contractors who get the Work Capability Assessments wrong and to ‘encourage’ the Low Pay Commission to raise the minimum wage to £8/hour by 2020. Are these cast iron?

After all that high policy it’s a relief to realise that some of the commentators on labour and its’ policies have weaknesses too. Andrew Neil, scourge of Labour from BBC’s This Week – insisting that of course his lunch is not on expenses but paid for out of his own pocket! Aaah bless.

Sunday 21 September

Some sort of love-in with Ed Balls

Some sort of love-in with Ed Balls

Angela Eagle introduced the National Policy Forum as a whole, saying it is aimed at looking after the most vulnerable in society – giving people back their dignity, eliminating the need for food banks, taking care of the elderly and children. She said that we must adopt the Labour platform for next year’s election – after all the Forum spent 4 years hard work on it!

From the floor, key issues included:

  • The false economy of closing youth centres and the assumed disengagement of the young.
  • Voting at 16 should be the norm, as they will engage if given the opportunity e.g. youth parliament in Kidsgrove, and they are the future.
  • We should stop talking about ‘Troubled Families’ and talk more about families in trouble!
  • A health visitor speaking at her first conference said that we must maintain universal services.

Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt said that free schools are a disaster yet Nicky Morgan is allocating £400m to outsource non teaching services. This rush to run education for profit has to be stopped. The Tories scrapped plans for a School Support Staff Negotiating Body but Labour will re-establish if for the lowest paid.

Speaking on Better Politics – Equality, Gloria del Piero summed up the problems of the privileged elite’s colonisation of top jobs and opportunities in the professions – politics, civil service, law, journalism and business. Analysis was spot on, solutions not so clear – ensuring the public sector monitors race, gender, disability and social background of their staff!

Hilary Benn said that the Scottish vote had changed the political landscape – although it brings uncertainties it will also offer opportunities to devolve more power to local communities. The Tories view is that the economy has recovered but it hasn’t for working people – low pay, zero hours contracts etc etc. Bedroom tax will be scrapped and engage in more housebuilding (200,000 pa). He also committed to look at the private rented sector where tenants are simply paying off someone else’s mortgage yet aren’t able to buy their own – 3 year tenancies rather than shorthold. Commitment to look at landbanking – use it or lose it – and get the right type of housing built to reflect real requirements.

National debate required engaging with local authorities and communities – it’s the 70 year anniversary of the foundation of the welfare state when labour built the NHS and committed to building thousands of homes to renew the housing stock, despite a much worse financial situation than we face now. This got great support from the floor, one delegate saying that, although she was no economist, building council housing on a large scale would surely give back control over rents to local communities, generate skilled employment building low carbon homes and save a fortune in housing benefit. Why don’t we do that?

Overall impression is the desire to engage with people, return to our democratic socialist roots and devolve both responsibility and power to local level – ending top down control and working for the many not the few.

Saturday 20 September

Starting to enjoy myself!

Starting to enjoy myself!

Women’s conference opened – 1000 attendees – and all the female shadow cabinet spoke. The floor was enthused by the need to reflect women’s rights and issues. Harriet Harman in particular spoke about the gender divide and the impact of childcare costs for women. Noted that

  • 25% of working women earn less than the minimum wage!
  • Austerity has had the biggest impact on women
  • Cuts in legal aid have had a disproportionate impact on women.

It was suggested that this has been deliberate policy by the coalition in general and the Tories in particular. Is the coalition anti-women?

Key issue is (still) the scale of change needed to ensure increased female Labour representation in parliament. Based on the role of women in securing the No vote in the Scottish referendum, the female vote will be critical in May next year – female voters will be dealmakers/dealbreakers for Labour – and we want change which reflects our role – we are not 2nd class in the workplace! Women should be at the heart of our 2015 election campaign and once elected, 50 % of Cabinet should be female. The plan now is that every Branch/CLP should have a women’s officer.

A Brixton delegate made the point that the candidate selection system is not working for ethnic minority female candidates; in Brixton, despite an all women shortlist policy, only 1 (white) female candidate put herself forward – she was chosen but it would have been better to have a choice of females from different backgrounds. Clearly, we are not encouraging enough ethnic minority women to put themselves forward.

The floor also expressed a desire to work with sister socialist parties in Europe, which seem to be working well in promoting women in politics, (not least to help counteract the UKIP threat).

Delegates were vehemently anti-fracking. Labour should care about the risks and potential impact but the platform was not listening. Caroline Flint’s reaction was disappointing – her body language in response to concerns from the floor clearly indicating that she didn’t agree with delegates. She said we need to look for an alternative energy source, that we can’t just rely on renewable and that shale gas may offer a solution. She was dismissive of conference views and concerns.

On poverty, delegates stated that we have a crisis of inequality not just cost of living. We also learned that the EU has offered financial help for food banks but the Tories have refused to take it up!

At the SE Reception Justine Miliband spoke eloquently about the pressures of being the leader’s wife – she is not simply a woman in a dress – and believes the election will see increasingly personal attacks from the media on both her and Ed. However, the region was positive about winning marginal seats in the South East.

I gave a copy of Bicester Voice to Anneliese Dodds and (via Angela Eagle’s sister), to Caroline Flint drawing her attention to CLP policy on fracking! Who is out of step here? I was in the (long) queue to speak at the open mic – to ask a question about rip off landlords – but ran out of time.

Friday 19 September

My first day at conference

My first day at conference

Today, I heard Ed Miliband following the Scottish referendum result which gave me heart and hope going forward as I attend my first labour conference this weekend. He said that “we must change the way the UK is governed and who it is run for.”

I hope to give you all a daily blog on my experience as a first time delegate sharing my experiences and hopes that the party is returning to its ethical roots and promising a vision of hope for the future for us, our children and grandchildren.

Watch this space!