Labour NI’s AGM and afternoon discussion around education and the economy
As previewed at the end of last week, the Labour Party AGM and afternoon ‘conference’ took place in Belfast on Saturday. Red balloons, red pens and the odd red tie brought a dash of colour to the hot room in the Malone Lodge hotel.
Labour NI’s main aim at the moment is to gain permission from their London NEC to stand candidates at future elections. A final decision is at least a few months away and while I detected optimism in the members gathered in the south Belfast hotel, there was a definite feeling that the result was not a foregone conclusion. Over the next few weeks, there will be meetings with the Irish Labour Party and the SDLP, before a final decision is made.
A ‘yes’ vote from the NEC will move Labour NI onto the next stage of their policy formation and organisation. A ‘no’ vote will jeopardise their recent progress and inevitably frustrate members, both old and new.
The Labour Students Society at QUB signed up around 70 members. While all clubs and societies experience a sizeable drop in interest between the Freshers Bazaar and the group’s first meeting, a couple of young student members had been elected onto the local executive committee during the morning AGM and others were seated around the room.
I talked to Labour NI’s Secretary Boyd Black during the lunch break, giving him a chance to respond to some of the perceptions outsiders have of Labour NI. Some people doubt that Labour is organised in NI. Some question whether they’re British Labour or Irish Labour. With their links to London, are they a pro-union party? And isn’t their membership full of university lecturers and middle class union activists?
Free to determine policy on devolved matters, Labour NI are still in the policy formation stage. However, one policy they have already adopted is their opposition to a local reduction in Corporation Tax.
The afternoon session was open to the public. Some members didn’t return after lunch. However, about 40 people and four exhibitors attended the discussions on education and the economy.
Pamela Nash – Labour MP for Airdrie and Shotts and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker for was first up to the podium.
She began her speech by referencing the Titanic commemoration posters she passed on the way from the airport to the hotel:
Outside of Belfast, a lot of us are struggling to see what there is to celebrate … although I’m repeatedly assured by my friends that the ship was perfectly fine when it left Belfast.
Given the Tory Minister of State Hugo Swire’s comments in the House of Commons on 25 January that “if you are not in Northern Ireland this year, frankly, you are no one” together with this Wednesday’s motion on Changing perceptions of Northern Ireland (video) that discussed tourism, it was perhaps unfortunate that Pamela Nash opened her address in this way!
After a quick reference to Westminster bars, Pamela Nash went on to address issues of poverty and escalating unemployment across the UK, blaming Tory policies.
All of us know the potential disastrous consequences and lack of hope and aspiration when joblessness like this is left to linger particularly amongst our young people.
Policing and security were “at the forefront of our minds” this couldn’t be “at the expense of the other important and pressing issues here in Northern Ireland”.
We need to ensure fairness in tough times … Vernon [the Shadow SoS] has pressed and will continue to urge the Secretary of State to join him in standing up for Northern Ireland and challenging those cuts that go too far.
She finished her speech:
I know how much your party membership means to you. We’ve all taken this leap for different reasons. For me, I simply wanted to make the world a better place than that which I inherited.
The rest of the afternoon was devoted to discussions led by (mostly) external speakers that could inform Labour NI’s policy work on education and the economy.
Professor Tony Gallagher spoke in a personal capacity – and gave a great summary of recent (and not so recent) events in the education system:
- One set of official [transfer] tests replaces with two sets of unofficial and unaccountable tests.
- ESA legislation is likely later this year but the final version of ESA is likely to be significantly watered down and less strategic from the original version.
- A rolling programme of initiatives to improve standards have each been replaced before success is evaluated.
- Since the 1960s there has been a steady growth in performance levels in schools – nearly a straight line – regardless of the particular policy framework in place., including the most recent Every School A Good School policy.
- We are caught in a low skills economy and a low productivity economy.
- Dawn Purvis’ working group on the performance of the controlled sector and Protestant working class boys and “legitimised discussion” on this issue.
- Post conflict societies want to avoid 16-25 year old young men with time on their hands. Too many young qualified teachers being trained. Why not use them as a “task force” to work with young people who left school with no qualifications and little chance of employment?
- Some schools are caught up in a set of systemic relationships. Closing schools will only disperse the kids, rather than solving the problem.
- Who speaks for those schools and those communities? Could that be the Labour party?
- NI Executive has not collected any data to create a benchmark about ethnic minority educational results.
- Ethnic minorities are found at the very top and the very bottom of NI educational results. At GCSE, ethnic minorities 5-10% above local average (5 GCSEs A*-C). At A-level, 3-5% higher than local average (3 A-C). But ethnic minorities are also 10-15% more likely to leave school without any qualification.
- What is the future for an ethnic minority student with no qualifications? Children from settled ethnic minority communities (eg, Chinese, Indian) have a “cushion” of working in their parents’ industries (often the catering business).
- Black African and Black Caribbean children are the most underachieving groups in Northern Ireland, despite not having the same language problems as other groups.
- Education powerfully creates social mobility for ethnic minority groups, providing an escape from seven day a week jobs.
- Called for the rest of the Good Friday to be implemented, including a Bill of Rights and a Legacy Commission.
The economy discussion began with a fascinating insight into the work of the Co-operative Movement by Erskine Holmes.
- Northern Ireland is more than holding its own in the co-operative economy (when compared to England, Scotland and Wales).
- The economy discussion started with a great overview of the Co-operative movement by Erskine Holmes.
- 2000 farmer share holders own Fane Valley, the 5th largest agi-food co-operative in the UK
- Northern Ireland people invest £900m in credit unions; the rest of the UK (ie, Great Britain) invests just £600m.
- What could be future co-operative opportunities in Northern Ireland? Energy generation, retrofitting houses (to save energy), care for young and elderly, community shops, housing co-operative, workers co-operatives, water service, water ways.
- 90,000 house from the NI Housing Executive are about to be transferred into one single housing association (rather than manageable, local co-operative societies).
Lisa McElherron from the NICVA (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action) addressed economic issue from the perspective of voluntary and community sector.
- Passionate nature of the voluntary and community sector.
- Family-friendly policies more likely to be found in voluntary sector jobs, though salaries below NI average. Sector leads way in terms of working with young people, women and people with disabilities.
- Annual January round of redundancy notices followed by 11th hour funding to keep going is no way to run a sustainable voluntary sector.
- There is a glass ceiling in the voluntary sector – so many women work in the sector, but so few make it to the top table.
- NICVA members are interested in proper social justice. The NI Executive should always first consider how their policies and decisions impact families and communities. Policies grounded in equality and sustainability may help NI economy never get into this situation again.
When spiders unite they can tie down a lion.
- Finished by quoting Ethiopian proverb and asking Labour NI could join NICVA’s web.
Labour NI’s secretary Boyd Black made the final formal contribution.
With lots of ideas but little policy and no representatives, Labour NI face a tough journey to make an impact on Northern Ireland society. They may be most appealing to the youth vote – which recognises the brand and appreciates that it is divorced from a history of sectarian politics.
While centre left politicians continue to find secure homes in the traditional parties, Labour NI will need to be creative to grab any media attention and build any brand awareness. The left is already split across the Workers Party, Socialist Workers Party and People Before Profit … and that’s before taking into account eirigi and IRSP!
RPA and the reduction in the number of councils (and councillors) as well as the reduction in Westminister/Assembly constituencies and MLAs may offer some hope to Labour NI. Disaffected activists from other parties who are not selected to stand as candidates may jump ship. However, in a crowded market, the chance of election will be slim.
Labour NI’s best hope in the short term would be to pick up a variety of councillors from other parties over the next few years. That way they could start to build significance at a local level in a small number of councils. But it seems far fetched and unlikely.
Update – For an insider’s view, read Jenny Muir’s summary of the AGM over on her blog East Belfast Diary.