John Lowry welcomed around 100 delegates and union representatives to the Grosvenor Hall in Belfast. The northern conference of the Workers Party isn’t a policy-setting body.
Lowry said that the party is making preparations for the next local government and Assembly elections to ensure “there is a vibrant socialist alternative”.
About two thirds of attendees are older men. But there are pockets of young/middle aged and a handful of women.
The past twelve months …
Comrades, friends and guests …
Gerry Grainger began his review of the year by saying that the last twelve months has offered some hope for the Workers Party. They are organisationally stronger, and the party profile has been enhanced.
Grainger paused to reflect on the extradition warrant from the US issued six years ago for Sean Garland (Workers Party treasurer). Only acted on when Garland travelled up to Northern Ireland. A Dublin judge’s determination is finally due on November 16. Garland’s wife attended the Workers Party conference in Belfast. The party looked forward to their comrade soon being free to join them in Belfast.
In May, the party ran four candidates in Belfast. They weren’t in a position to offer a bigger campaign. Grainger acknowledged that their share of vote was less than hoped. The main theme of campaign was highlighting ‘sectarianism’, continuing on the 1970s message that ‘sectarianism kills workers’.
The deliberate attempt to boost party’s profile was successful, with representatives and banners appearing at more events, protests and rallies than ever before: May Day rally, City Hospital A&E closure, Cuban Bay of Pigs, Belfast Pride etc.
One delegate commented that while the party was supporting Spanish and Cuban events, they needed to do more in their own communities.
We’ve too many meetings and we don’t do enough ground work.
Another delegate pre-empted the next session and explained:
We need a Workers Party as it recognises good from bad. It recognises the poor and vulnerable. And recognises why the poor and vulnerable will continue to be poor and vulnerable … It’s against the super-rich, but it’s not reckless. The working class need leadership.
Why we need a Workers Party?
Ciaran McGeough answered the question of Why we need a Workers Party? (He also spoke too fast to really follow what he was saying!)
I spoke to Ciaran during the lunch break and asked him about the party.
Replying to the speech, a delegate went up to the podium and explained:
We have unequal relationships within society. The unequal distribution of power in our society affects the working class the most … The economic power of the middle class damages the working class.
One delegate commented that it looked that the party was nearly an all male organisation and that this needed to be addressed urgently. (There was one woman seated at the top table, and another five in the room.)
With the atmosphere warmed up, there was a steady stream of people making their way up to articulate their belief in the power of the Workers Party. One said:
Issues can be approached from different positions. The Workers Party is a vehicle to approach issues from the point of view of the working class. The protection of the poor, the vulnerable, trade union rights. What other political party will tackle issues on behalf of the working class?
Much talk about the question of “class against class” and “class exploitation”. Delegates felt that only a Workers Party which has a proper ideology and takes consistently principled decisions has the power to challenge society, able to attack and counter attack the dominant ideology.
By the end of the session, I was pretty convinced that the Workers Party itself was confident of their need to survive! However, voters will make their minds known at the next set of elections.
The rejuvenated Workers Party plans to ‘shadow’ all Northern Ireland Executive departments. Three discussion papers were put forward at today’s conference.
Health and Social Care …
Gemma Dowds introduced the party’s discussion paper on Health and Social Care. The party’s approach to health is the same as that when the NHS was founded.
Health and well being is about much more than the absence of sickness. And a health and social care service must be about more than intervening when problems arise.
Take a bus journey from Belfast city centre to the suburbs of BT9 and life expectancy increases with every bus stop.
Talked about foster caring, calling for the foster allowance to be doubled. Called on the recommendations of the 2007 Bamford Review to be implemented, as well as the re-introduction of free eye tests.
I spoke to Gemma during the lunch break.
Breda Hughes from the Royal College of Midwives (not a party member) pointed out the discrepancies between the high caesarean section rates in NI compared to the lower levels in RoI:
Travelling a hundred miles doesn’t change the shape of your pelvis!
She also pointed out that NI consultant doctors take home £11m of bonuses.
Presenting the discussion paper on education, Kevin McNally – an essential skills tutor and former party candidate in East Belfast – called for “the end of this educational apartheid and the creation of a single education authority charged with delivering an education system free from religious division and fit for the 21st century.”
Tinkering with sectarian structures is not acceptable.
University places are capped, yet NI has lowest proportion of people with graduate qualifications in UK. Refers to “severe underachievement by working class Protestant boys”. Back in 2006, Public Accounts Committee confirmed only 4.4% attained second level qualifications in maths.
Workers party want Early Years strategy to be implemented immediately to focus resources on helping children acquire literacy and numeracy skills.
Remarks that £5,000 spent on early intervention is better than the £130,000 it costs for one child to spend a year in a children’s home. (Figures from Children’s service planners.)
A delegate from RoI called on Workers Party not to “just critique the present system but to put forward better alternatives”. Says education should be taken away religious bodies, but shouldn’t be replaced with corporate education.
Instead of having the priest coming in to talk to my kids, it’ll be the CEO of Intel. Great progress?!
Chris Bailie – another fast speaker – was next up to present the discussion paper on the economy.
The Workers Party wants an economic plan for full employment. People in jobs in the public, private and voluntary/community sectors earning a good living and paying taxes expecting good quality health, education and local services in return.
The lowest wages in the UK and Ireland are found in Northern Ireland. Highest levels of fuel poverty. 40,000 people lost their jobs between June 2008 and March 2011. Twenty per cent of workers earn less than a ‘living wage’ (ie, amount needed to pay for all basic necessities of food, heat, clothes and accommodation).
Northern Ireland is over-represented in low pay sectors such as agriculture and food processing.
Economic crises come around regularly due to the boom and bust cycle of capitalist economics. The current crisis was “not a natural phenomenon” but was instead “the work of local and global financiers confident that if their greed bubble burst, the public would bail the private bands out”.
The Workers Party calls for a socialist alternative, “nationalise the banks and gear them for public good not as private profit machines” and to “tax those people who can afford it and reduce taxes for the people on lowest incomes”.
A delegate criticises Sammy Wilson’s brainstorming session when he summoned the “great and the good” to solve the world’s economic problems. Not a peep heard since. Suggested he was looking for his Warhol “fifteen minutes of fame”. And then he picked a fight with Tesco! Referring to Banksy’s iconic image, reckoned Sammy Wilson should watch out for Tesco Value petrol bombs.
I spoke to Chris over lunch.
Party Representatives …
Gerry Grainger announced the party’s group of ‘party representatives’. The Workers Party has had a recent influx of membership applications. These people will be the face of the party in their local areas, presenting the party’s policies and working with local branches to increase presence and profile in their areas.
- John Lavery – Old Park
- Kevin McNally – Pottinger
- John Lowry – Lower Falls
- Paddy Lynn – Laganbank
- Gemma Dowds – Castle
- Desi Dines – Dunmurry Cross
- Chris Bailie – Macedon
- Peter Maguire – Ballymoney
- David Quinn – Victoria
- Jim Quinn – Court
- Carmel McDonnell – Balmoral
- Richard Rodgers – Ballymoney North
- Richard Moore – Ballymena South
- John McManus – Ballymena North
The conference broke for lunch and had an afternoon of activity to further discuss the economy.
Like all party conferences, the Workers Party northern gathering was distinctive.
Unusually it was a party conference where people swore from the podium. While some contributors were at ease talking about socialist history and the party’s background, others were more concerned about working class issues. I’ve never been to a party conference where so many speeches called for the “poor and the vulnerable” to be protected.
Strangely, I heard no mention from the platform or podium about the Occupy Belfast protest camp that shares many values with the Workers Party. Perhaps the People Before Profit involvement makes it difficult for the left to share ownership.
Older comrades, many with trade union backgrounds, shared the room with younger, passionate comrades. Three or four delegates got up after each address to critique the discussion paper that had been presented based on their scribbled notes. No one seemed afraid to challenge or criticise. The top table were gracious and reflected back what they heard.
The Workers Party is in transition. Older members are intentionally handing over the baton of
responsibility to younger comrades. They’re planning to work in local communities. Time will tell whether the disparate left-leaning parties can co-operate, or whether the Workers Party can rise above it’s leftist competitors. power
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.