As a Labour Leader I know just how difficult the next few months will be. What has made a difficult situation almost impossible is the government’s ‘welfare reform’ proposals. We seem to have an economic policy that gives money to banks that don’t spend it and at the same time take money away from people who do. In Oldham alone we have estimated that the welfare reforms will take £20 million out of the local economy – that’s less money for local traders at a time when they badly need it.
But difficult as it is Labour local government has to create a vision of how good government can benefit and improve the lives of its residents. I have a particular interest in this. Oldham like many others is a predominately working class town, loyal to Labour but increasingly unsure what we stand for. At the next General Election we have to have a set of policies that appeals to the lost millions of working class voters and give them a reason to vote Labour. And given recent contributions it is worth stressing that the commuter on the 6.45am from Basingstoke shares many of the hopes and fears of families in Oldham and they would certainly appreciate a 28% reduction in their fares (of which more below!).
So what would such a manifesto look like and what is our role in achieving it?
Making work pay For most people wages have been stagant or declining. That’s why I welcome the commitment of the Liberal Democrats that those willing to work for the minimum wage don’t pay income tax and trust that my party will commit to this. But Labour has to do more both locally and nationally. I am proud that Oldham was one of the first councils outside London to commit to a living wage. In 2013 with our Trades Unions and Citizens UK we will be campaigning to eliminate the scourge of ‘zero hours’ contracts from Oldham.
However for many of our residents the biggest challenge is to get a job at all. Anyone who has been unemployed knows how corrosive it can be to family life and health. Next year I will be launching ‘Oldham Works’ a major initiative to get 2000 Oldham residents into work/quality training or self employment. It is not going to be easy but it’s what the town really needs.
Bootstrap Politics. No-one realistically expects public spending to increase in the near future (although it could be certainly distributed more fairly). Labour has to focus more on how it can improve living standards though the social wage. I congratulate Labour Islington on introducing free school meals and a commitment to build 2000 social rented homes. Here in Oldham we have campaigned on bus fares, fair credit and energy costs with impressive results. In Oldham we had some of the highest bus fares in Europe. We launched a ‘Fares Fair’ campaign which has seen a 28% reduction in bus fares and a link up with the local Credit Union to provide even lower fares. We established the most successful energy switching campaign ever with over 20,000 households registered and an average saving of over £170. In 2013 we will work with Stella Creasy MP to take on the legal loan sharks in Oldham. All of these campaigns prove that Labour can appeal to the direct interests of households nationally but to be successful in government there is one more lesson still to learn.
Learning to let go. The Work Programme is failing because it is a nationally prescribed programme with little recognition of local labour markets. Yet the policy of top down targets and an unwillingness to allow local innovation is the default position of all governments including Labour. As with all addictions, the habit of over-centralised decision making will be hard to let to go and it has powerful advocates in the lobbying media and advocacy world (even well intentioned ones). It might help if some of these were based outside Westminster. Why if the BBC can re-locate to Salford can’t Shelter or the Institute of Economic Affairs? It would certainly give a different perspective on housing and economic policy.
If we really believed in local politics we would ensure local leaders have more direction over the delivery of public services with a renewed emphasis on Community Budgets and City Deals. The advocates of Big Government (including Labour ones) frequently display a lack of faith in public interest and awareness. Trust me the local hospital in Lewisham would not be closing if the local authority was responsible for its finances! If we have the power and finances, public interest and voting in local councils will increase dramatically – as will the willingness of talented and ambitious politicians wanting to serve as local leaders.
Jim McMahon is Leader of Oldham and will be speaking at the Fabian New year Conference on ‘How Labour can learn to stop worrying and trust its councils’ at the Institute of Education on Saturday January 11th