“It’s incredibly important to us that we are a party of the South as well as the North” said Ed Miliband in his recent interview with the House magazine. Our Labour South West regional conference held in Exeter at the end of January was a real demonstration of members’ determination to be a visible, relevant party that addresses the issues that matter to citizens up and down the country.
It’s clear that many people in the South West, including those on middle incomes, are struggling, and the government’s policies are exacerbating their problems and not providing solutions. It is Labour on the ground that is listening to people, understanding the challenges they face and, where we are in power locally, addressing people’s real concerns.
We know that housing is a huge problem for many – prices are too high for those who want to buy and there is a huge need for more social housing. With the iniquitous bedroom tax, introduced from April, the situation is going to get far worse, with those affected having to pay an average of £14 a week extra rent. Those being hit include: disabled people with specially adapted rooms or who need carers to stay over occasionally, the recently bereaved, parents whose children are fighting for our country, and divorced or separate parents who occasionally have children to stay.
If people can’t pay they are supposed to move to smaller accommodation – but in most areas there is a huge lack of such property. That’s why Labour-controlled Exeter Council’s housing initiatives are so important, building more homes for rent that people can afford. They still face an enormous problem as a consequence of the bedroom tax, but they are doing a great job in trying to build communities where everyone has a home.
In Plymouth, the Labour Council is leading the way on low pay, and it is now in talks with unions and local business leaders about getting more people onto the living wage. David Parlby, chief executive of Plymouth Chamber of Commerce, said a living wage was “absolutely the right thing”.
Low wages have been a fact of life for too many people in the South West for too long, but thanks to the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), the incomes of over twenty three thousand agricultural workers in the region have been properly protected since the Second World War. The government is now, through an amendment to the Employment and Regulatory Reform Bill, trying to abolish the AWB, denying these workers the living wage in future. This important body survived the Thatcher cull of the quangos in the 1980s but Ministers now say that it is a “burdensome anomaly”. David Heath, LibDem MP and farm Minister who previously supported the AWB has clearly lost touch with his constituents who work on the land.
Other discussions at Labour’s South West conference focused on economic growth, jobs and public transport - major issues that will be at the centre of our campaign for the County Council elections this May.
Naturally we want to listen to and work with both business and trade unions as we develop our policies and we had a great session with members of the Labour Finance and Industry Group, which will formally launch its South West arm in the near future. Both the employers and the trade unionists on the platform agreed on the issues discussed, including our opposition to the actions of regional NHS bodies to introduce a ‘pay cartel’, the impact of public service cuts which is depressing our economy, the importance of our membership of the European Union and the need for a long term industrial policy. They were also still rightly furious about the abolition of the South West Regional Development Agency whose invaluable work has certainly not been replaced by the Local Enterprise Partnerships.
Following the disastrous election result in 2010 which left Labour with just 4 seats in the South West, we are now attracting new members and getting out into communities, listening and building new relationships. This is in stark contrast with the Conservative Party, which is narrowing its base. In the South West, as in the rest of the country, people are angry about economic failure, feel insecure about jobs and social care, are dismayed by the unfairness of tax cuts for the rich whilst cuts to tax credits and benefits increase pain for working families; and youngsters have no hope for the future.
People also understand that divisions between North and South, rich and poor and within communities will not help individuals or society. To rebuild our economy and our society we need to work together, everyone playing their part. One Nation in which there is a real sense of hope and a vision for the future.
Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Labour’s Leader in the House of Lords
Published 8th February 2013