We all met in the cafeteria for the welcome and introduction, teas and coffee and then divided ourselves into our chosen groups depended on what issues we were interested in, which were as follows:

  • Brexit or Local Accountability in the National Education Service
  • Local Economic Development or Rebuilding a Just Social Security System
  • Democratic Public Ownership or Building an Effective Criminal Justice System
  • Rebuilding a Public NHS or Sustainable Food Policy

I selected Brexit, Local Economic Development, Building an Effective Criminal Justice System, and Sustainable Food Policy.

Where there were large groups, we divided ourselves into subgroups of an average of six participants. At the end of each session, a spokesperson was selected from each group to relay each groups findings to the other groups. Thanks to Rachael Ross, we should all be familiar with this approach by now.

Although I will endeavour to give you a summation of each session that I attending, I will also be inserting my own comments and observations, assuming that you wouldn’t have wanted me to have attended as a stenographer.

 

BREXIT: Another Europe is Possible[1]

This was divided into subgroups.

Kath Davis asked—I suspect a bit tongue-in-cheek—if we had reached a consensus over this highly contentious issue. The answer is, yes, of sorts. That is, I didn’t hear anyone who actually supported Brexit.

If there’s one positive aspect re Brexit, it’s that I have become more educated about the EU than I had ever thought possible. One woman in our group, who seemed to be even more educated, explained that the last referendum was advisory not statutory. As such, there was no protection against fraud, corruption, and lies, which would not have been tolerated under a statutory referendum. She also pointed out that, under a statutory regime, we would have had a protected vote. I’m still not sure what’s the significance of that in spite of doing a search on that term so perhaps one of you could elaborate.

Although someone pointed out the corruption and the neo-liberal nature of the EU, I would like to point out that a good part of that was down to the UK from Thatcher all the way to Cameron. If the UK is capable of deforming the EU then, given the political will, it should have the capacity to reform it.

I think that we all agreed that, per the motion at last year’s conference, a general election is off the table except under the direst of circumstances. That leaves the People’s Vote or second referendum[2], especially if there’s a no-deal Brexit. One of the groups proposed that the voters be given five options but, really, anything with more than two choices (to accept the deal or to remain) would result in chaos if not bloodshed.

One of the reasons why our group had no confidence in the last referendum was that the Election Commission was not fit for purpose. For instance, non-British EU citizens were faced with bureaucratic obstacles between them and their ballet boxes during the latest EU elections.

One could understand Jeremy Corbyn’s dilemma during the EU elections. The prospect of losing possibly 50 Labour constituencies by supporting the Remain position must have kept him awake at nights. However, as we all know, by trying to please everyone, we end up pleasing no one, which appears to have been the message during the recent EU elections. We were informed that 20 of the most Brexit areas were in Labour constituencies; whereas, the 20 most remain area were in also in Labour constituencies, which benefited the Brexit, Lib-Dems and Green parties.

Therefore, to encourage our erstwhile Labour voter to return “home”, Labour should:

  • Declare that it favours remaining in the EU because
  • We must remain or face economic suicide
  • Explain the positive EU benefits to Brexiteers who would otherwise vote Labour
    • For instance, we can’t do much about climate change on our own.
    • Better to work together within the EU, which enables the UK to punch above its weight re climate change as well as with other issues, e.g. trade agreements.
  • Many who voted for Brexit did so out of feeling of deep alienation from a neo-liberal economy that had left them behind. I’ll leave the solutions to the experts but it is something that the Labour Party needs address.

Under WTO rules, we wouldn’t have as much leverage as with the EU. The same goes for U.S. trade agreements (for those connoisseurs of chlorinated chicken).  

As for the six tests, we found the number two was, to put it mildly, risible. How could even the best-deal Brexit ‘deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market or Customs Union’? This is commonly referred to as “having your cake and eating it”.

Referring to the original issue: was the last referendum legally binding? We thought that it was tenuous to say the least.

One final thought from John Simpson, who Jenny and I went to see on 31 May:

Thanks to Brexit, the damage to our national reputation will take decades to repair.

LOCAL ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Again, we broke up into smaller groups for this one.

I spent some time researching this topic last week so will try to go into a little more depth than we did in Yeovil. For this I’m obliged to acknowledge the help of Strong Economies, Better Places: Local and regional development policies for a Labour government, which was commissioned by the Labour Party from a group of academics.

When I was out canvassing earlier this year, I was at the doorstep of a gentleman who said that he couldn’t support Labour because it would be bad for small businesses. I wasn’t there to propagandise him but this NPF event gave me the opportunity to find some answers to his objection.

As we all know, Margaret Thatcher disapproved of unions. Most unions back then were industry-based, ergo: destroy the base and turn over the economy to the city slickers in the financial, insurance, and real estate businesses: FIRE. What could possibly go wrong?

Now we know.

Local Economic Partnerships

LEPs were the first entities to be discussed.

Presently, most LEPs consist of approximately one-half of business people and one-half councillors so it was a question of how the rest of us could get on board. They tend to be not very strategic nor engaged in long-term planning and certainly not accountable. They are also faced with allocation issues, although I wasn’t sure if that was due to poor organisation, lack of understanding regional needs, or lobbying. The LEPs of the South West region have been good with renewable energy but, generally, they don’t take a very regional approach.

On the positive side, they tend to hold otherwise indifferent Tory councillors’ noses to the grindstone. 

One of our conclusions was to retain and reform the LEPs; make them accountable to the local authorities within their areas, including combined authorities where applicable; get a more diverse range of stakeholders on the LEP boards to increase accountability and to exploit their expertise.

The Preston Model, named after the most improved city in the UK, met with general approval. It tends to unite stakeholders into cooperating with each other and to match local resources with local authorities. The Preston Model also insures a more equitable distribution of the benefits of economic growth. Best of all, it doesn’t rely on the so-called trickle-down model, which was supposed to be the great panacea at one time. 

Partly funded by George Soro’s Open Society Foundation, Preston council has launched a program that would incubate worker-owned cooperative businesses which, for me, is the very definition of socialism. Mondragón, the world’s biggest cooperative, of Spain’s Basque Region provided the inspiration for Preston’s project. It would be an even greater inspiration if a future Labour government could establish an agency dedicated to aiding and abetting (accounting, marketing, administration, etc) workers who would likewise wish to come to such an arrangement.

Preston is also planning to launch people’s high-street banks for the north-west. Of the £500m it plans to lend out, one-third would go to the area’s small businesses. We’re also assured that the bank will be very boring unlike the frenzied, cocaine-driven transactions that gave us the crash of 2008, when traders were swapping securities that they didn’t even understand.

National Investment Bank

This topic was touched upon at the conference but it constitutes a significant piece of the jigsaw.

It should consider discounted loans, concentrating on businesses selling outside of their locality or even those that export from the UK. This would tend to minimise the displacement of activity from other local businesses.

As for who should authorise payments, that depends on whether we will still be under EU rules or the rules of another entity.

As for the Regional Development Banks, we decided that the decision makers should be made up of both business, union representatives and other stakeholders.

BUILDING AN EFFECTIVE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

During the early Nineties, I read a book entitled Rough Justice[3]. It was written by a New York Assistant District Attorney. Places like New York, Chicago, and LA have use small army of assistant DAs, who are supervised by the actual District Attorney the most famous of whom was Manhattan DA, Robert Morgenthau. At the conclusion of the book, the author considered that drugs and prostitution ought to be decriminalised in order to free up the system.

It seemed like a no-brainer and we came to the same conclusion with regards to drugs over here. I would also like to add the word “regulated”. I’m not sure what the legal status of prostitution is in the UK having moved from Belgium where it was legalised.

We also concluded that the War on Drugs was well and truly lost but I’m not so sure. It all depends which way you look at it. After all, the War on Drugs has worked out quite well for the bankers who have been laundering drug money on an industrial scale, the most notorious of which was the HSBC’s relationship with the murderous Sinaloa Cartel. Of course, it’s the illegal nature of drugs that enables the banks to take advantage of the First World’s addictions.

Another book that I haven’t yet read but was mentioned by a member of the group was The Secret Barrister, written by an anonymous practitioner of that profession. He thinks that the justice system is utterly broken thanks, at least in part, to austerity which has made legal aid virtually a thing of the past[4]. It reflects on the whole of society during the current decade.

The ultimate goal is to create a world where drugs will no longer be necessary but I suppose that’s why we’re here in the first place.

Another issue affected by the cuts is that those with mental issues do not get the attention that they deserve. Prisons should never, except as a last resort, be substituted for professional mental health workers or for drug treatment centres.

We also noted that women and minorities have increased the population of the prisons. It used to be that the courts were so reluctant to send women to prison that, if they actually sent one to prison, it was because she really needed to be there. As for minorities, whatever offence counts as a misdemeanour for a white man usually passes as a felony for a non-white minority, which is hardly surprising in an unequal society.

As students of Criminal Law working for a paralegal degree, we were presented with the Three R’s:

  • Restraint
  • Retribution
  • Rehabilitation

The last of the R’s appears to have withered away. Indeed, the Labour Party’s manifesto mentions “personal rehabilitation for all offenders”.

Another R is restorative justice, which has also suffered from Tory cuts and should be reintroduced under a Labour government. It’s a system that has been practised for thousands of years by the Native Americans.

Labour has also promised that no more private prisons will be built, which is all very well but doesn’t go far enough. All private prisons as well as the semi-privatised probation services should be taken over by a Labour government. For one thing, private prisons have a problem with their staff to prisoner ratios, which compromises the safety of the staff and of non-violent prisoners. For another thing, profiting from crime runs against one’s moral sensibilities.

As the Tories reduce policing, crime increases to the detriment to the rest of us. Of course, those whom the Tories represent will always be safe in their secure enclaves and gated communities. However, it is not just a matter of increasing the number of bobbies on the beat but that they should be community-based to act as the eyes and ears of their neighbourhoods.

I was surprised to learn that debt could also land one in prison and assume that this refers to non-payment of council tax. Apparently, the laws have been wrongly applied in these cases. Changes in benefits—universal credit comes to mind—health issues, and divorce often plays a role here.

As Charles Dickens once observed, it’s rather difficult to pay off one’s debts whilst languishing in a prison cell.

Other suggestions were that we educate children to have good relationships and to increase the salaries for barristers.


 

A SUSTAINABLE[5] FOOD POLICY

Brexit will/is resulting in a decrease in the number of agricultural workers and an increase in U.S.—very dodgy—trade deals where deregulation rules to such an extent that I had become a vegetarian in all but name while residing there. As we will have little to no leverage, the UK could be flooded with cheap food, which would put farmers out of business. Want to know why Mexicans began flooding into the U.S. during the nineties? Thanks to President Clinton and NAFTA, the Americans dumped cheap, subsidised produce that put Mexican compensinos out of business.

Multinationals, often aided by local corrupted leaders, are buying up large tracts of land in Third World countries with the goal of creating monocultures rather than biodiversity. The overuse of bee-killing pesticides often follows these transactions.

Biodiversity would enable us to produce enough food for all of us.

We believe that

  • Agricultural land should be farmed by the occupiers, not by investors or hedge fund managers.
  • Healthy affordable food should always be available as opposed to “food deserts” that only offer fast food.
  • We should reduce the use of pesticides in favour of organic farming as in Cuba.
  • Reduce if not eliminate food waste.
    • In the U.S., supermarkets not only waste perfectly good food but put locks on their dumpsters to prevent the homeless from accessing them.
  • Nationalise farmland.
    • I don’t know if that project would include land that’s worked by farmers who make a good-faith effort to implement a biodiversity project but I hope not.
    • One of our group said that the total worth of the land would amount to £6 trillion!
    • Nationalised or not, we still need more regulations to protect land and water.

One of our group observed that Sure Start kids are healthier than those who don’t have the Sure Start advantage, which probably helps explains the Tories’ hostility towards it.

Another member stated that we don’t pay enough for our food, which sounds counterintuitive to say the least. She said that we don’t pay producers enough and that eliminating austerity would enable us to pay for the higher prices.

Someone raised the issue of permaculture, which goes something like this:

"You can fix all the world's problems, in a garden. You can solve them all in a garden. You can solve all your pollution problems, and all your supply line needs in a garden. And most people today actually don't know that, and that makes most people very insecure." (Geoff Lawton)

It’s a totally integrated system that’s designed according to local natural conditions. Everything is recycled and nothing is wasted.

Here is some more information on permaculture for anyone who is interested.

A land value tax of two percent was also put forward as a more predictable way to tax. It is based only on the value of a piece of land rather than the accompanying structures.

To adapt to climate change, we thought that the best approached would be to put the economy and the environment[6] together, not in their respective silos.

Other than that, I will refer you to the Labour Party’s Green Transformation.

Steve O’Neal

Secretary Devizes CLP

 

[1] Subtitle mine

[2] Actually, it would be the third referendum, the first one having taken place in 1975.

[3] Although there are numerous books of this title, I was unable to locate this particular book on the internet.

[4] One of the participants mentioned a 40% cut.

[5] While Rick Scott was governor of Florida, he banned the word “sustainability” along with words “climate change” and “global warming” from official state documents.

[6] Although I was obliged to take three levels of neo-classical economics, the environment was never mentioned.

I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Lorraine Goodwin who was generally happy with the content but managed to find a few grammatical glitches.