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Labour MPs must vote against ‘benefit cap’ tomorrow

I have just emailed my MP to urge her to vote against the Tories’ ‘benefit cap’ tomorrow in the House of Commons, despite the shameful support being given by the Labour frontbench. This policy is morally repugnant and economically stupid. By its definition it will transform social security from a needs-based to a cost-based system.

Dear Chi, 

I am writing as a constituent and a member of Newcastle Central CLP regarding the vote in the House of Commons tomorrow on the Government’s proposed ‘benefit cap’. 

I urge you to vote against this proposal, and I am deeply disappointed that our leadership have unilaterally declared that our party will be supporting this policy. I understand that there are already a number of your colleagues (including Diane Abbot, John McDonnell and Ian Lavery) who will be voting against.

I have two reasons for objecting to this policy – the first being a moral issue. The ‘benefit cap’ is another attempt by the Tories, and the Right within our party, to demonise social security recipients and is part of an ideological plan to revert social security back to pre-Second World War ideas of ‘deserving poor’ and ‘undeserving poor’. Our party should be challenging this narrative and highlighting that the majority of social security expenditure goes to pensioners and the working poor. This policy is not compatible with Labour principals of fairness and social justice. For our front bench it forms part of a misguided belief that to stand up for the poor and to defend social security based on the principle of ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’ is not an election winning strategy without any regard for the devastating effect this government’s reforms are having on the poorest. For the Tories this is a further part of their ideological drive to dismantle social security.

My second objection is an economic one. If you feel unable to vote against this policy on the basis of the moral argument, please can I urge you to consider the economic idiocy of having an arbitrary cap on social security spending. An arbitrary cap on how much the government can spend on social security take no account of changing circumstances. If unemployment were to rise, or wages fall even further, it is surely reasonable to assume that social security payments will increase. If unemployment falls, wages were to rise, or prices were to fall, then clearly social security spending will fall. It is a ridiculous notion that government can cap social security spending.

This policy, by definition, will mean a fundamental transformation of social security from needs-based to cost-based – and for that reason I politely ask that you vote against it tomorrow.

I am copying this email to several other Labour MPs to urge them to also vote against.

Yours sincerely

Daniel

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Labour North Rally, er Sorry, ‘Conference’!

Part of my report on Labour North regional conference (to which I was Newcastle Central CLP’s delegate), which will be considered by Labour members at the next GC.

After lunch the Regional Policy Forum was held. Despite there being only an hour allocated for what was the only part of the day at which delegates could discuss policy, the first 30 minutes was taken up with contributions/speeches from the various shadow ministers who were leading the round-table discussions. There was no prior indication of which tables would be discussing which policy documents. I ended up on the ‘Stability and Prosperity’ table. There were far too many delegates at the table (perhaps 20 around a table designed for 12) so some contributors went unnoticed or unheard. Nevertheless there were some interesting contributions about the need to challenge the fundamentals of the banking system; and specifically to create a ‘national’ bank either owned by the state or communities. Other contributions included a suggestion about the need to ban ‘payday’ lenders, or at least legislate to limit interest charges. Louise Baldock (PPC, Stockton South) did make the point that, for some, ‘payday’ lenders fulfil a necessary function – to which I suggested we ought to create policies that would ensure the apparent need for such loans was eradicated. Finally, I raised my concerns that we aren’t going far enough on ‘zero hours’ contracts and that they ought to be banned. Catherine McKinnell (MP, Newcastle North) engaged really well on this but was concerned that a ban could have unintended consequences. We continued the discussion after, and agreed that both of us could bring some useful ideas to the table.

I am afraid I did not stay for the final session (speeches from the European candidates). Conference was already over-running, and trains from the venue were only hourly. I shall end on a personal perspective. Over the day I heard from 11 platform speakers, but only had two 15-minute Q&A sessions, and only 30 minutes in the whole day discussing policy. I have been a member long enough to not have huge expectations of a regional conference being able to facilitating debate and discussion on policy and politics, but this was a real disappointment. Of course, speeches from our front bench are interesting, useful and motivating; but 11 in four and a half hours is too much (and, for those who stayed for the last 45 minutes they would have sat through 13 or 14!). That said, I would like to thank the CLP for sending me as delegate, despite the lack of policy discussion and engagement with members, gatherings of the Labour faithful are always interesting. I particularly enjoyed meeting comrades from across the region with their own unique perspectives and experiences (did I commit a major faux pas by having lunch at a table of Sunderland councillors?).

Letter to Tristram Hunt MP on Crossing Picket Lines

Last Thursday, thousands of university workers took part in a further 24-hour strike as part of an on-going dispute about a further year of a real-terms pay cut. The shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt MP, decided to cross a picket line at Queen Mary University of London in order to deliver a lecture (ironically on Marx). Reports from the picket line suggest that he was asked not to cross the picket, and responded that he is not even a member of UCU. I hope that fellow Labour party members will also take a few moments to email or write to Mr Hunt. I have forwarded a copy of my letter (below) to my local Labour MP and also Ed Miliband. There can be no excuse for Labour elected representatives to cross picket lines – especially when many thousands of workers who earn significantly less than a shadow minister are prepared to make the sacrifice.

 

Dear Mr Hunt,

I am writing as a member of the Labour Party and Unite, and am writing to you in your capacity as a fellow party member and as an elected representative of our party. I am not a constituent.

I would like to express my anger at your decision to cross a picket line at Queen Mary University of London last Thursday. One reason for the existence of our party, and I accept it is not the only one, is to provide an electoral voice for organised labour. It is a sad and sorry indictment of our party when one of our MPs decides not to support colleagues who are participating in lawful industrial action. Whatever your personal view of the dispute, this is a lawful industrial dispute and Labour Party representatives should support the right of workers to take collective action. The elected representatives of the labour movement should support the working members of the labour movement.

Last Thursday thousands of university workers felt that their treatment is so unfair that they were prepared to sacrifice a further days pay, many of those workers will earn significantly less than a shadow minister. Your decision to continue ‘business as usual’ is a slap in the face for those thousands of low-paid university staff who are suffering another year of a real-terms pay cut.

That said, perhaps the most concerning revelation from last Thursday is that you are not a member of UCU despite continuing your role as a lecturer. I trust that you are a member of a trade union?

Finally, when lecturers such as yourself choose to go ahead with lectures and seminars during periods of industrial action they ignore the harmful effect on students who do have principles and are not prepared to cross picket lines and consequently miss out on valuable teaching.

I am forwarding a copy of this email to my own MP, Chi Onwurah, and also our party leader as I feel it is important that they know the extent of my anger with your decision.

I look forward to reading your assessment of this issue.

Yours faithfully
Daniel Maguire

Sunday Trading – 20 years on

Almost twenty years on from the bitter arguments in the UK about relaxing Sunday Trading laws, a similar debate appears to be surfacing in France, where much tighter restrictions on Sunday trading remain (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24458571). Now, I was only 13 when the Sunday Trading Act 1994 (STA) received Royal Assent in August 1994 which removed all Sunday restrictions on small shops, and allowed large stores to open for a maximum of six hours between 10.00 and 18.00, but I am old enough to recall life before the STA and to have followed the debate at the time.

The STA came about after intense pressure from large stores, and in particular DIY stores, some of which began a campaign of deliberately breaking the previous 1950 restrictions. Despite openly breaking the law, the government of the day appeared reluctant to punish offenders. Hardly surprising given that the same governing party had tried, but failed, to remove all restrictions on Sunday trading in 1986.

I hope that France will not follow the UK. Not for any religious sentiment, nor because I believe that Sunday should be any more special than any other day of the week, nor because I believe the State should tell people when they can and cannot shop. I would have opposed the 1994 Act on the grounds that workers deserve at least one day of the week when they know they can be free from work. It just so happens that Sunday has evolved over generations as the most appropriate day for that to happen.

Now, I can already hear the cries of ‘but we WANT to work on Sundays’, or ‘what about those of us who don’t have friends or family to spend time with?’. Well, as with everything, there will be some people who do not fit the generalisation. More importantly, the impact of the STA 1994 has been far wider than shop workers. As more and more shops have opened on Sundays, and as Sunday has become less distinguishable from other days of the week, more industries and workers have been forced to work on Sundays.

My background has been ‘on the buses’, where I spent several years as a senior shop steward and full-time bus driver. I noted earlier that I was only 13 in 1994, but I have been able to research the effect of Sunday trading at the bus company where I once worked.

Back in 1994 few, if any shops in the town centre were open. Even pubs and clubs were only allowed to open over lunchtime and again in the evening. Bus services operated to significantly reduced timetables on Sundays, and the Sunday routes were often an amalgamation of weekday routes. For example, one area of the town was served during the week in 1994 by no fewer than four separate services with upto 12 buses an hour. On Sundays there was just one route covering the same area with just one bus an hour. Most services tended not start running until 11.00, but continued to run through until 22.30, reflecting travel patterns and demand on Sundays. Lunchtime would see pub and club patrons and hospital visitors, the early afternoon would see leisure travellers visiting the town centre and parks, and the evening would see restaurant diners and pub patrons. Staff levels on a Sunday were very low, which meant bus drivers worked on average 1 out of 6 Sundays. Although premium wage rates for Sunday working were one of the first casualties of privatisation in 1987, drivers were ‘compensated’ with a guaranteed four-day weekend rest after each working Sunday.

All this changed towards the end of 1994. In October 1994, in response to the almost overnight transformation of shopping patterns on Sunday, most bus routes saw earlier buses running from 09.00 and increased frequencies. In the first few years after the STA was passed, this only had a moderate effect of increasing the average number of Sundays worked from 1 out of 6 to 1 out of 4. The compensatory four-day weekend rest was maintained.

By the early 2000s the number of journeys being made on Sundays, but also the huge increase in traffic volumes around the town, demanded that Sunday routes that were an amalgamation of weekday routes had to be split and frequencies increased once again. The result being that drivers were then required to work at least 1 in 3 Sundays, and were no longer compensated with a ‘long’ weekend off following a working Sunday.

This then becomes an eternal cycle, where more and more people are needed to provide the services and infrastructure necessary to accommodate Sunday trading. This ‘normalising’ of Sundays cannot be good for health, for relationships, for families or for socialisation. And, of course, who is hit hardest? The poorest. Those employed in service industries. When I look back to the bus company, the trebling of staff needed to work on Sundays between 1994 and 2004 was in the lowest paid grades. Clerical staff, head office staff and management did not have Sundays added to their working week – after all the supermarkets and shopping centres need some people not to be at work on Sundays!

Finally, while I make no argument on religious grounds nor on the grounds of ‘traditional values’ (my argument is solely that workers deserve one day a week free from the toils of work) there is a strange irony that the Conservative Party have been at the forefront of relaxing and deregulating trading laws while at the same time espousing the virtues of the Christian Church and family life.

I doubt we can go back to the pre-1994 situation, but I hope we will not deregulate further the Sunday trading laws.