CONGRESS MAIN RESOLUTION
The five years of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government were a disaster for the working people of the North East and Cumbria. However, the Tory victory in the general election means that the full force of the ruling class assault on working class living standards, public services, the welfare state and democracy is now being unleashed. The labour and progressive movement in the District must step up to the challenge.
Poverty and Deprivation
All urban communities in the District include areas among the 20% most deprived in England. In Middlesbrough and Hartlepool, around 50% of people live in such areas, while in Newcastle, Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and Barrow the proportion is close to 40%.
In each local authority, life expectancy varies enormously between the most and least deprived areas – in the worst case, Stockton-on-Tees, amounting to 17.3 years lower for men and 11.4 years lower for women. Men in Newcastle have an average healthy life expectancy of just 57 yrs and 8 months, while for women it is 59 yrs and 9 months. The respective national figures are 63:3 and 63:9. The greatest risk factor in ill-health is poverty – so adequate housing, decent jobs at living wages and restored benefits are all essential. Across the District some 125,000 children live in poverty, amounting to 30% or more of the total in Middlesbrough and Hartlepool.
Tory policies will do nothing to provide quality jobs at decent pay. In the North East, the labour market share of full-time employment fell from 66.3% in 2007 to 64.6% in 2014, equivalent to a shortfall of almost 20,000 full-time jobs. Between 2010 and 2015 public sector employment in the North East fell by 36,000 jobs – at 13.4%, the biggest drop of any region. There has been a huge increase in precarious employment and self-employment, much of it low-paid.
Manufacturing employment continues to be fragile. The Hitachi train-assembly plant at Newton Aycliffe is set to create 730 jobs, but nearly 880 have been recently lost or are going through the closures at KP Snacks (Consett), Refresco (Durham), Rohm & Haas (Jarrow), Essentra (Jarrow), Eastman (Workington), PartyLite (Barrow), Evonik Goldschmidt (Flimby) and Indorama (Workington). All of these plants are owned by transnational corporations which are relocating elsewhere; but the closures also reflect reduced purchasing power at home and abroad due to austerity policies. 130 jobs at the Lynemouth power plant, owned by German-based RWE and due to be converted to biomass, are now also under threat as a result of the ending of the Climate Change Levy. EDF has announced that its two nuclear reactors at Hartlepool, and two at Heysham 1, will close in 2019.
The closure of SSI steel at Redcar is a disaster for not only the 3,000 workers involved but the whole community. The £82 million promised by the government will do nothing to provide decent well-paid employment for the workers laid off. Chinese ‘dumping’ of cheap steel has been blamed for this, but ultimately the cause is the open-door trade policies of the British government and the European Union.
According to Labour Market Statistics figures for May 2015, North East unemployment remains at 7.7% the highest in Britain, with particularly high rates in Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland, Sunderland, South Tyneside and Newcastle. The claimant rate has fallen over the past year to only 3.9%, but 25.5% of adults – some 417,000 – remain economically inactive. Of the latter, 114,000 are “long-term sick”, at 27.3% again the highest proportion in Britain, and reflecting the history of heavy industry in our region. In Cumbria and Lancaster, unemployment levels are lower than in the North East, but respectively 20% and 31% of adults are still economically inactive, and “long-term unemployment” in Barrow is 10.2%. In fact, reports by Public Health England indicate “long-term unemployment” rates much higher than the Labour Market Statistics figures, reaching 21% in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough and 18.5% in South Tyneside.
Average gross weekly earnings in the District have barely changed since our last Congress in 2013. For full-time workers, mean wages almost everywhere in the North East and Cumbria fall well short of the UK average of £623 per week. Nearly one in 4 workers in the North East are paid below the living wage; and in some Parliamentary constituencies, such as Berwick-upon-Tweed and Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland, this rises to one in 3.
Throughout the District, women’s average full-time pay remains well below men’s, and is under £400 weekly in Eden, Allerdale, South Lakeland and County Durham. Nearly half of all women working in Hartlepool and Redcar earn below the living wage. Nationally, 37.6% of black and Asian workers are in low-paid industries, such as cleaning, care work and catering, compared to 29.6% of white employees; and black and Asian workers are twice as likely to be trapped in temporary jobs as white workers.
The 1% annual limit on public sector pay increases, and the continued haemorrhaging of public sector jobs, mean that the North East and Cumbria will continue to suffer from below-average pay levels.
More than half of North East families will be affected by the cuts to Child Tax Credits and Working Tax Credits announced in the July 2015 ‘emergency’ budget. Currently, 148,000 families benefit, with over 70% of the claimants being in work. In Cumbria the figure is 25,100 families. The trumpeted increase in the ‘living wage’, if workers actually get it, will not make up for the loss of tax credits and will certainly not help workers under the age of 25.
Benefit delays and sanctions are forcing unemployed people to rely on ‘payday’ lenders and food banks. In the North East, around 13% of those seeking work have had their benefits docked as a punishment for mistakes such as arriving late for an interview. There are at least 52 food banks in the North East, and 14 in Cumbria and Morecambe Bay. In 2014-15, the 8 Trussell Trust food banks in the North East gave 3 days’ emergency food help to over 52,000 adults and 35,000 children.
The housing shortage is acute, and will be further exacerbated by the government’s plans to force housing associations to sell to sitting tenants. In the North East, around 80,000 households are on social housing waiting lists, nearly 6,000 of them in Newcastle. In Cumbria and Lancaster the combined total is nearly 18,000. The places of greatest need are Middlesbrough and Gateshead, where respectively 11.2% and 9.3% of households are on the lists. However, over the year to March 2014, fewer than 1,700 social housing units were completed across the region, with none at all being built in Stockton, Barrow, Carlisle and Eden. Just 330 of these units were council homes, and 250 of those were in Newcastle. In comparison, 6,100 private dwellings were built across the region in the same period.
South Lakeland is the most unaffordable place to live in North West England. House and rent prices are at an all-time high, wages are barely increasing and at the current rate it would take over 66,000 years to house everyone currently on the social housing waiting list. Average house prices and rent costs have risen by 75% and 14% respectively since 2002, with the ratio of house prices to annual income reaching 12.2:1. Young people are moving away, and more people are becoming homeless.
More than 44,000 households within the District have been affected by the ‘bedroom tax’, with many finding themselves £12-£22 per week worse off. Some 63% of those penalised are disabled. During the first 3 months of operation of the ‘tax’, nearly one in 4 council tenants – 3 in 4 in Barrow – fell into rent arrears. Academic studies have reported reduced purchasing power for essentials, particularly food and utilities, and negative impacts on mental health, family relationships and community networks.
A quarter of homes with ultra-secure panic rooms against domestic violence have been hit with ‘bedroom tax’ charges. Also affected are kidney dialysis patients who treat themselves at home, even though they save the NHS an average £15,000 a year by not going to hospital. While 70% of those penalised have also seen their council tax support cut, an estimated 250,000 people across the District have been hit by the latter, because any working-age low-income family could be affected.
The ConDem coalition reversed the decades-old policies of providing higher funding to local authorities in areas with social problems like high unemployment and health issues. As a result North East councils have experienced average cuts of more than £215 per head – effectively 40% – over the past 5 years, compared with £40 per head in wealthier areas of Britain. Redcar and Cleveland Council, for example, has had to find £32m in cuts since 2010 and is anticipating further losses of over £33m by 2020. At £289 per head, Newcastle’s reduction is over twice the average for England. In Cumbria and Lancaster, smaller but still acute cuts of £75-£150 per head have been inflicted. As a result of the ‘emergency’ budget, Newcastle expects further reductions of £90m over the next two years, while Durham expects to lose £100m. The Comprehensive Spending Review in November 2015 is likely to impose even more drastic cuts.
Not only are council workers losing their livelihoods but services are being stretched to breaking point and the most vulnerable are paying the greatest price. Libraries and Sure Start Centres are being closed, leisure services sold off, fire and rescue cover reduced and waste collections and street cleaning cut back. Councils’ ability to fund vital public services, such as children’s and adult social care, is under threat. In the North East, government funding for core children’s services is estimated to have been cut by around 50% by 2015/16, but there has been a 30% increase in the number of ‘looked after’ children.
Despite government promises to protect the NHS, many hospital trusts are facing huge deficits in the current financial year. Gateshead, and County Durham & Darlington, NHS Foundation Trusts are each set to overspend by £10m, while North Tees & Hartlepool Trust and the North East Ambulance Service are on course to £4-5m deficits. In January 2015 Morecambe Bay Hospital Trust, already in ‘special measures’, recorded its worst performance for 3 years in treating accident & emergency patients. North Cumbria Hospitals Trust has been hit by more than one staffing and beds crisis, the most recent case involving patients being transferred as far away as Newcastle.
The falling recruitment of doctors to local practices, especially in deprived areas, and the government’s demand that more work should come out of hospitals into the community, will mean fewer GP appointments, despite the touted plans for a 7-day NHS. GPs in Newcastle and Gateshead have their own Clinical Commissioning Group, which is offering personal health budgets to those in need of Continuing Health Care. This is a recipe for reliance on private rather than NHS services. Private provider IntraHealth already runs 16 GP practices in the North East, including the Grainger practice in Newcastle, which it was awarded after privateer Circle Health pulled out. University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay Health Trust recently announced a deal with US-owned company Lloyds Pharmacies to privatise pharmacy services. Over the next 5 years there will be a massive shift towards the private sector if current policies continue.
Our state education system is becoming increasingly fragmented, with over 260 schools across the region now registered as ‘academies’, compared with 113 in 2013. 82 of the 260 academies are sponsored, trusts or part of a chain, including Gentoo (Sunderland), Northumbrian Water (Sunderland) and United Learning (Middlesbrough). There are 8 ‘free’ schools in the North East and 2 in Cumbria, with a new one backed by Sunderland AFC due to open in 2017, despite the ‘free’ schools in Durham and Stockton-on-Tees struggling to fill places. The removal of schools from local control is an attack on local democracy.
The drastic cutback in funding for adult education funding will deny opportunities to many young people over the age of 18. The ‘emergency’ budget announcement on the cancellation of the (albeit means-tested) student maintenance grants and the rise in student fees will be a further disincentive to young people from deprived backgrounds seeking higher education.
Transport and Environment
In public transport, it is a scandal that the Virgin/Stagecoach bid was awarded the East Coast franchise, despite the success of state-owned Directly Operated Railways. Staffing will be reduced as the planned new rolling stock will not have buffet cars. The government’s plans for the Northern Rail and Transpennine franchises also involve staffing reductions, by driver-only operation and closed or reduced-hours ticket offices, as well as increased fares and allowing operators the discretion to cut services. Any new trains under these two franchises are unlikely to arrive before the deadline of the next decade, and old rolling stock from the London Underground has recently been reallocated to fill the gaps.
Meanwhile the government’s prioritisation of profit over environmental and health protection is reflected in its support for fracking for shale gas, and the granting of licenses for underground coal gasification (UGC) at the North East coast. Both these techniques threaten subsidence, pollution and a devastating increase in the gaseous emissions leading to global warming, while diverting investment from renewable energy resources and carbon capture and storage. Lancashire County Council’s rejection of Cuadrilla’s fracking applications is welcome but the decision could be reversed at the appeal hearing due to take place in February 2016.
The government’s proposed trades union legislation represents a major attack on democratic civil rights which must be resisted. In addition to the restrictions on strikes and ballots, the Bill would make ‘unlawful’ or ‘intimidatory’ picketing a criminal (rather than a civil) offence. The government is also considering extending the Code of Practice on Picketing to cover use of social media and protests linked to industrial action.
On the back of increased devolution to Scotland, the government is also embarking on a negation of democracy in England. Not only will constituency boundaries be redrawn to give the Tories an advantage at the 2020 general election; but its “English votes for English laws” plans threaten to sneak in measures – such as on NHS spending – impacting on the whole of Britain, while denying genuine devolution of decision-making to English regional level. The draft North East and Tees Valley ‘devolution’ agreements, which will transfer powers for transport, strategic planning, employment ‘support’, skills and post-16 education to the two Combined Authorities, come with the requirements that a Mayor with executive functions is elected for each whole area, and that there will be ‘reform’ of public services, including health and social care in the long-term. The funds to be provided in no way make up for those slashed from local council budgets and the government’s intention is to make the Combined Authorities responsible for devolved further spending cuts. Following the creation of unitary authorities in Northumberland and Durham, this is one further step towards removal of genuine democratic control over local decision-making, with little gained in return in terms of spending on services and powers of intervention in the economy. The case for progressive federalism needs to be strengthened.
Anti-Austerity and Anti-Fascist Campaigning
Over the past two years, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity has emerged as a major national campaign. Its founding conference of over 4,000 in June 2013 has been followed up by the establishment of local active campaigning groups and the big national demonstrations in London in June 2014 and 2015. Within the District, People’s Assembly groups now exist in Teesside, Sunderland, South Tyneside, North Tyneside, Gateshead, Newcastle, Hexham and Carlisle, with the North East coordinating group playing a coordinating role, holding a regional Assembly in Newcastle each Autumn. Other organisations such as 38 Degrees have also played an important role in anti-austerity campaigning.
Links are being forged between the People’s Assembly and the trade union movement, although not yet at branch level. The TUC’s national demonstration in October 2014 was a significant anti-austerity event, and union involvement with the June 2015 London People’s Assembly demonstration was much greater than in June 2014. The annual Durham Miners’ Gala remains a massive national focus for an alternative to ruling class policies. The Manchester demonstration, organised by the TUC and the People’s Assembly, to coincide with the Tory Party conference, was an enormous success.
Right-wing extremist attempts within our region to divide the working class by racism and Islamophobia have been strongly rebuffed. Newcastle Unites mobilised thousands in 2014 and 2015 to protest against marches by the EDL and Pegida respectively while similar protests have been held in Stockton against the North East Infidels, and in North Shields against the EDL. The involvement of Muslim communities in these protests, and the building of links with the People’s Assembly, are very positive developments.
The Labour Movement
Trades unions in the region have engaged in significant industrial struggles since our last District Congress. University staff, led by UCU, broke through the government’s 1% pay rise cap in 2014. Unite members at Tyneside Safety Glass in Gateshead and Barbour in South Tyneside won their fights for higher pay and reasonable working hours respectively. FBU members held a series of one-day strikes in their long-running battle to defend pension entitlements. NHS workers forced the government to concede an all-round – although limited – pay increase. However, left shifts at national level in some unions are not yet reflected within regional structures; and the general economic situation, including the threat of job losses, has clearly meant that workers’ confidence of victory has not yet been high enough for sustained generalised action. Unions will now have to work much harder to build for that confidence, given the election result, and the Trade Union Bill.
Trades union councils continue to play a valuable role in local communities, building solidarity, organising Workers’ Memorial Day and May Day rallies, facilitating exchange of experiences and helping to provide a broad perspective on the way forward. The resurrection of Gateshead TUC and the refounding of Carlisle TUC are important positive steps, yet affiliation levels remain far too low.
However, a major weakness of the labour movement in the region is the attitude towards the European Union. The predominant view is that EU membership provides essential worker protections and a vital export market for our manufacturing industry. While there is some recognition of the dangers of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, there is a failure to understand that the proposed treaty’s ethos is all of a piece with the EU project, which promotes privatisation, austerity and free movement of capital.
In the general election the Labour Party held onto its solid raft of seats in the region, and strengthened its position in some local councils – largely at the expense of the LibDems – but it gained only Lancaster & Fleetwood, and failed to take the target seats of Carlisle, Stockton South and Morecambe & Lunesdale. Votes for UKIP candidates contributed to those defeats and in fact were significant throughout the region, while many Labour seats saw turnouts of less than 60% – both features reflecting working class dissatisfaction with the ‘austerity-lite’ direction of Labour’s policies.
Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership campaign has electrified potential mass support for Labour, and opened up the possibility of a Labour government committed to Left policies. A significant contribution to his election campaign was made in the North East, with sponsorship by a number of Labour MPs, the invitation to speak at the Durham Miners’ Gala and the support given to him by many trades unions, particularly Unite. The massive increase in Labour Party membership, both during the election campaign and after, indicates a latent desire for a real alternative to austerity policies. Many young people in particular have reacted enthusiastically.
Yet there is still a long way to go. The proportion of affiliated trades unionists participating in the leadership vote was very small, so the base of support for the new policies does not yet extend very deeply into the working class. Also, there are still right-wingers strongly entrenched in local council Labour groups, the region’s Labour MPs and the official structure of the Labour Party. While many of those joining or re-joining the Labour Party would call themselves socialist, there is no clear understanding of imperialism and the nature of the state, and of the need for mass struggle.
The Morning Star and the Communist Party
The Morning Star has continued to play a heroic role in supporting trades unions and the People’s Assembly, projecting the broad left alternative and seeking to inform, inspire and mobilise people for the battles ahead. Its role in supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign and in building opposition to the Trade Union Bill has been outstanding. Its standing in the regional trade union movement remains high, as indicated by the paid adverts, the support for the 2013 Morning Star regional conference and the sponsored copies for the Durham Miners’ Gala, the Northern TUC biennial conference and the annual North East People’s Assemblies. However, its circulation remains far too low for the demands of the situation.
The Party can be proud of the work it has done for the Morning Star, in the trade union movement, People’s Assemblies and other anti-austerity campaigning, and in the general election contest in Newcastle upon Tyne East. A new generation of Party cadres is being developed. But the Party also remains too small for the tasks of the day. The new situation of a Corbyn-led Labour Party actually demands a stronger Communist Party, to provide Marxist analysis and political education, and to lead mass struggle in workplaces and communities. Serious attention needs to be given to recruitment, particularly among women and minority communities, to strengthening existing branches and establishing new ones, to developing political education, to building the Young Communist League and to extending the paid circulation of the Morning Star and membership of the People’s Press Printing Society.
Strategic Perspectives and Tasks
The strategic perspectives and tasks facing the labour and progressive movements in Britain, and our Party, have been set out in the Political Reports to the May and September 2015 meetings of the Party’s Executive Committee, and the ‘Communist Renewal’ paper agreed by the September EC meeting. As they apply within our District, they are:
• Rebuilding working-class organisation in workplaces and local communities and among the unemployed and housing tenants.
• Winning workers and the trades unions to a united campaign against anti-trade union laws, including being prepared to take unofficial action when necessary, to expose and frustrate ruling class and Tory strategy.
• Developing the People’s Assembly throughout the District as a broad-based militant mass movement against austerity and privatisation, for the left and progressive alternative set out in the People’s Manifesto, with the trade union movement playing a central and leading role in its organisation and activities.
• Building the National Assembly of Women at local, regional and national levels to draw many more women into the fight against welfare cuts, privatisation and nuclear weapons, and in support of decent benefits, public services, the NHS and peace.
• Reinvigorating CND as a vital part of the campaign to halt renewal of Britain’s nuclear weapons system. Within our District, this must also include renewed efforts to popularise the case for arms conversion at the BAe systems shipyard at Barrow.
• Urgently constructing a coalition of socialists, communists, trades unionists and their organisations to project the democratic, working class and internationalist case against the EU, and for British withdrawal, in preparation for the referendum.
• Urging the labour movement to seize the opportunity of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory as Labour Party leader to reclaim the Labour Party so that its policies represent the interests of the working class and people generally.
• Winning more support for the Morning Star in the trades unions, on the left and in the People’s Assembly.
• In line with the Communist Renewal paper, strengthening the organisation and public campaigning presence of the Communist Party, winning new members, building the branches, assisting the Young Communist League and raising the level of political education in the Party and YCL.
RESOLUTION ON THE STEEL CRISIS
This District Congress condemns the callous approach of the Tory government to the crisis in Britain’s steel industry. Thousands of jobs in the industry itself and its supply chain are to go, while very little is being put in place for the workers made redundant. In our District, Redcar will not recover for decades, and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is revealed to be nothing more than a cheap slogan. The government’s attitude towards manufacturing is in stark contrast to the £billions provided for the big banks in the wake of the 2007-8 financial crisis.
Blaming Chinese so-called ‘dumping’ and European Union rules for the crisis is simply passing the buck for responsibility. Britain’s national interests depend upon having a vibrant steel industry, and with political will that could be done, whatever the EU regulations. Even now, the government could provide support to keep the blast furnaces and coke ovens working, and invest in infrastructure projects to be supplied with steel from British plants.