Party conference is the parliament of the Labour Party. It is where direction is set, policy is formulated, and political leadership is given, based on the everyday lived experiences of people in workplaces, and communities right across the country.
It is the forum where ideas are exchanged and tested – and nowhere is that more the case than at conference fringe events, such as The World Transformed series, held in a brewery converted into a theatre space just a few miles from the main conference venue.
It is always a pleasure and a privilege to participate in this cauldron of ideas – and this week was no different. The fringe meeting was chaired by Ed Miliband and included economic thinkers Martin O’Neill and Grace Blakeley, and Wigan MP Lisa Nandy.
Some of the ideas were radical, like the call to revolutionise the UK banking system. Others were reconnecting with Labour’s socialistic traditions, like economic democracy and co-operative ownership, whilst yet others looked to a future built on automation, new science and reduced and shared working time. That these ideas were aired at the conference fringe was perhaps not exceptional, that they found a ready echo in platform speeches in the main conference hall was.
It was Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell who embraced much of this radical thinking, converting it into concrete policy proposals for an incoming Labour government.
In his main address, he outlined plans to increase public ownership, including building a new frontier of worker ownership. He pledged to establish a Public and Community Ownership Unit in the Treasury. The unit will bring in external experts to advise on and implement the transfer of PFI schemes out of the private sector. That means public services will once again be owned by the public, because people have had enough of being ripped off by privatisation.
His plans for the private sector also include action to clamp down on the industrial scale tax avoiders who are denying our hospitals, our schools and carers of the resources they need. Mobilising shareholder power to demand that companies uphold basic tax justice standards and ensuring that they meet the Fair Tax Mark standards is a central part of this approach.
In a bid to rebalance power in the economy, he has outlined proposals to promote employee ownership in larger companies through share issues.This has some resemblance to the ideas designed by Hans Meidner in Sweden some years ago – an approach which I have championed for some time. In most European economies these ideas are mainstream – and it is a measure of how desperately our country needs real change that they are considered by some to be “left-field”.
In my main address to conference, I built on this radical thinking and applied it to Scotland, because it is clear we need Scottish solutions to Scottish problems and Scottish challenges. So, for instance, there is no Scottish Government industrial strategy. We need one with an enhanced role for workers and their unions in a more planned approach to the Scottish economy.
Taking water back into public ownership is a pressing demand in England, but – thanks to a dramatic intervention by Labour in the then Strathclyde Regional Council, who famously ran a referendum to oppose water privatisation with a 71 per cent turn out and a 97 per cent rejection rate in the 1990s – we don’t need to take water into public ownership here. But that is not to say though that we may not need to reform the lines of its accountability and democratic oversight.
One area where we definitely need change is on the long-standing question on the ownership of land. Fewer than 500 landowners own half of all private land in Scotland. To find more just land solutions means we will have to give some consideration to tax measures, ownership limits and residential qualifications.
We should certainly take the railways into public ownership, and look at the ownership and provision of bus and ferry services. With so much of our economy over dependent on overseas ownership and foreign direct investment – meaning it operates largely a branch plant – we need to look urgently at what we can do to rebalance economic ownership. One way is by taking the lead on measures like a statutory right for workers to own the company that they are employed in when it is put up for sale or facing closure. Such a boost to co-operative and employee ownership would relocalise control and lock in more local accountability.
Scotland is, after all, the birthplace of the first workers’ co-operative, in Fenwick, Ayrshire, and became the home of father of the co-operative movement, Robert Owen. Rebalancing the distribution of financial instruments like regional selective assistance to target investments by indigenous rather than overseas businesses is also the right thing to do. So the idea of a world transformed is therefore central to the mainstream thinking of the party.
These policy proposals are not made in the abstract, but in the real-world context of Brexit, the May Government’s failing negotiations and the growing likelihood of a UK general election in the next few months.
This week, John McDonnell said: “The greater the mess we inherit, the more radical we have to be; the greater the need for change, the greater the opportunity we have to create that change, and we will.”
As this week underlined, a Jeremy Corbyn-led government is up to that challenge and in Scotland the radical economic and social programme that the people need is finding new vitality and relevance.