Policies for a Labour London

16 Oct

Lyn Borwn delivers the keynote address

Keynote speech by Lyn Brown MP at Newham Fabians’ conference, Policies for a Labour London, on Saturday 12 October 2019

I’d like to thank Anita and Newham Fabians for the invitation and everyone for coming to this event today. I’m so grateful to have an opportunity to take part in this discussion about how our Labour policies can help Londoners and our communities thrive.

As most of you will I hope know I work in the Shadow Treasury team with the fabulous John McDonnell. What I do is social justice and equality.

In London, we see the consequences of inequality and injustice every day. Newham has the worst homelessness in thecountry and shocking numbers of vulnerable people having to sleep rough.

The most vulnerable have been denied a home by the housing crisis. Denied the other support they deserve because of cuts to all of our services and ended up on our street where all their problems can only be exacerbated.

They shouldn’t have to rely on charity to get their lives back. We know only well-funded, totally focused Government action can do that. The kind of action that saw rough sleeping reduced by two-thirds under the last Labour Government[1].

Newham has the highest level of homelessness[2], and appallingly we have the second highest child poverty rate in the country as well. Half our Newham children lived in poverty last year[3]. Half. London as a whole has the highest child poverty rate of any region[4].

And we know what that means – debts and stress over bills that can’t be paid, and rocketing numbers of children homeless in dire temporary accommodation.

Because the rent simply isn’t affordable, social housing is almost non-existent after decades of unreplaced sell-offs, and after Tory cuts, housing benefit simply doesn’t fill the gap.

Dreams are stifled, enormous promise in our community goes unrecognised and unfulfilled, gaping inequalities of class, race, gender, and disability widen.

Worst of all, it means children destitute, going hungry. Last year, you might remember, the headteacher of a primary school in Maryland, just round the corner, she discovered a mum sleeping with her children, in the back alley, behind some bins.

Just a few months later at a visit to a local school, I stupidly remarked to a little girl whose plate was piled high with food ‘that’s a lot of food for such a small person’. She beamed at me and said ‘yes I know, it’s not my turn to eat tonight’.

It’s an utter disgrace that this ever happens in the fifth richest country in the world. But it was quite clear from that conversation that not being able to eat wasn’t a rare event for that little girl, and probably wasn’t a rare event for her friends either.

Because she said it to me, so easily to me, so casually. It had become her normal, and I suspect her friends’ normal as well.

As Labour members, we know poverty and inequality are linked. London doesn’t just have the highest poverty rates, we have the highest inequality as well. 50% of London’s wealth is owned by the richest 10%. The poorest half of us own just 5% of the wealth.[5]

We see this every day. The extraordinary luxury and privilege of a few in the City, sitting cheek by jowl with the deprivation and social exclusion of many in the East End.

In the last year I’ve visited the sparkling new offices of the Financial Conduct Authority. I’ve been awed by some of the developments still going ahead in the Olympic Park, despite Brexit.

And I walk through the Stratford Centre so close by, where rough sleeping, gang exploitation, sexual violence and destitution are a daily reality. Where another young life was ended by violence on Thursday [10th October 2019].

I’ve visited our schools and colleges and been inspired again and again by the resilience and brilliance of our children, and I’ve held parents in my arms after their children have been violently taken from them.

I’ve heard the stories of so many families in my surgery –homeless, mistreated, denied the resources they need to live and the respect they deserve.

These social injustices aren’t equally distributed. Obviously in terms of class, and in terms of race as well. The in-work poverty rate for black British people is 27.5%, more than double that of the rest of the population. And black university graduates face an enormous pay gap because of discrimination and disadvantage: 23.1% less in earnings than their white fellow graduates.[6]

Racial wealth gaps are even wider. For every pound a white British family has in wealth on average, a Pakistani family has around 50p, a Black Caribbean family has around 20p, and Black African and Bangladeshi families both have around 10p.[7]

These social injustices are our challenge. We need to end them, and that’s what we’ll be fighting for in the coming election.

We desperately need to be rid of this Tory Government and keep City Hall Labour – we need Labour in Westminster, in our Councils and in every Combined Authority.

That way we can join up our work against social injustice and make it all the more powerful.

Not just the investment that Sadiq has put into youth services and community policing, but a nationwide youth service commitment and proper police funding across the country.

Because I want those bastards who run county lines and exploit our children caught, charged, and the key thrown away.

We can’t forget that the biggest impact of austerity is a failure to invest in our children and our future. It’s had very unequal, unfair impacts, and I’m afraid we won’t see the full damage for many years to come.

Towards the end of the last Labour Government, we were spending almost 6% of our GDP on publicly funded education and training. By last year, that had fallen to just over 4%—a cut of more than a quarter.

Given the challenges we face, we clearly need far more investment in skills and knowledge, to transform our economy with a green industrial revolution and make it more prosperous but also fairer.

Instead, as we know, during Tory rule school funding per pupil has fallen by 8% in real terms.

The consequences are glaringly obvious.

More than 1,000 schools nationally have had to rely on crowdfunding for basics such as pencils and textbooks.

At least 26 schools are closing their classrooms because they don’t have the money to keep teaching.

The proportion of pupils in supersized classes with more than 31 pupils to a single teacher is at its highest level for 36 years.

The number of pupils doing a GCSE in music has fallen by almost a quarter since 2010, just as industry is asking us for more creativity and collaboration in education, because those skills are needed.

Our further education providers have been cut even more: sixth forms by 21% and FE colleges by 8%.

The Social Mobility Commission found that 41% of FE providers had reduced their careers guidance and 48% their mental health support. I don’t think people get why that’s so important – for class equality, careers guidance is fundamental.

In its report, it also cited evidence that 51% of colleges had stopped teaching modern language courses. So much for a global Britain post-Brexit!

Some 38% of schools and colleges have dropped courses in science, technology, engineering and maths —the courses our economy needs to sustain our green industrial revolution. It’s jaw-dropping that schools and colleges have been forced into that.

We have a recruitment crisis in nursing after the Government scrapped bursaries, and frankly, because of Brexit.

We have a productivity crisis because the Government hasn’t invested in skills. People lucky enough to have a career are struggling to progress at work.

Adult education – so important now that people have to change careers —nobody goes into a job at 18 and stays till in it until they’re 67. But no: funding has been cut in adult education almost in half since 2009-10.  Apprenticeship spending has fallen by 44%.

The Open University, which has given a second chance to millions of people, is on its knees because of the Government’s tuition fees regime. Older and part-time learners are simply scared off by the level of debt they’re expected to take on if they want to improve their education or change their course in life.

That’s the situation across the board — cuts, cuts, cuts, and not investment.

What about early years? SureStart has been cut by two thirds since 2010. And 1,000 centres have closed. We know about the amazing benefits of Sure Start.

Just on one measure: Children are almost 20% less likely to be hospitalised by the age of 11 if their family has access to a Sure Start centre – that’s massive – and the most disadvantaged children benefit most.

The impact on the NHS alone of fewer children being hospitalised, is enough by itself to pay for 6% of Sure Start’s costs, and that’s just one impact among many.

The story is the same with youth centres, cut by 40% on average across the country and by as much as 91% in some places.

When investment in youth services is taken away, young people are far more likely to have their lives blighted and their potential wasted by becoming victims of exploitation.

Here in Newham, we know that only too well. Youth centres and youth workers provide young people with spaces away from the county lines groomers on our streets.

Places where young people know they can find an adult to talk to – somebody who can listen to their problems, offer them real resilience against the troubles on our streets and point them towards opportunity.

What is so essential is not the bat and ball and the table tennis in the youth club, but the adult standing on the other side of that table an adult they can trust who can give them different ways of dealing with the so-called ‘elder’ on the street, who grooms that child by offering them chicken to be a lookout for while he sells his drugs.

Good youth work stops children being groomed, stops children’s potential being wasted. We know it’s often the brightest most articulate children they pick on.

And we know those older teenagers seem to offer an alternative economic model.

I can see why that might be appealing, because those teenagers are watching their parents go to work for all the hours God sends and still unable to afford basics let alone luxuries.

The lower quartile rent on a two bed flat in Newham is dearer than the lower quartile earnings for Newham residents. Your whole pay packet in the lower quartile doesn’t cover the lower quartile of rent.

Our children know this is the reality for their parents – low wages, high rents. They live with the stress of poverty and their parents struggling to pay bills day in and day out. They are looking for alternatives.

But a good youth worker can help our young people understand the very dark places that the offer of food and friendship and that alternative economic model can lead to.

If we’d invested earlier, how many of the lives that’ve been blighted by county lines exploitation could have been saved?

We know investment in social infrastructure benefits not only the economy but our society in so many ways for decades into the future.

We don’t just need billions of pounds more investment in social infrastructure, but also to change the way Government works, at every level, so the investment we put in is focused on tackling social injustices, and is there for the long term.

It’s about making sure there are good Labour people in Downing Street AND in City Hall. It’s about giving Boroughs, Cities and towns the space to step up their work against social injustice by restoring and targeting central government funding. But it’s also about joining up our work – national, regional and local. That’s something I’m working on in John’s team.

We’re going to replace the Social Mobility Commission with a Social Justice Commission to investigate the fairness of our society across every policy area, and every kind of injustice: class, race, gender, disability, sexuality.

It has to be about creating fair opportunities for all. We don’t want a grammar school society where some get on and are lauded and applauded. But they have often got on because of luck – being in the right place at the right time. Tokenistic social mobility policies just aren’t enough.

We’ll match our new Commission with co-ordination on social justice across a Labour Government. We’ll have a Minister for Social Justice in our Treasury to drive forward our agenda. And we’ll ensure it’s matched with the levels of investment our communities need.

Cutting poverty and increasing life chances will be core goals. We’ll assess every policy to make sure it plays a part in cutting child poverty and creating a fairer society. We’ll look at new ways of tackling class discrimination and all other forms of inequality.

I believe the first step should be bringing the Socioeconomic Duty from the Equality Act into force. That would mean that every different part of Government – not just Whitehall Departments but councils, health authorities, schools, and the police. All of them will have a duty to consider the impact of their strategic decisions on working class people, and try to reduce socioeconomic inequality.

I’m also looking at the idea of class audits for large companies as well as the gender and race audits we’re already committed to. And we’re considering building protection against class discrimination into the Equality Act as well.

And finally, when it comes to social justice, we won’t mark our own homework; our policies and our statistics will be trustworthy because they’ll be checked from the outside. Part of this is the Social Justice Commission, but another bit could be the Office for Budget Responsibility.

The Tories have used the OBR to turn their budgets into carnivals of cuts. Every time there’s a Budget, the size of the public debt is all the media and unfortunately a lot of the public have talked about. Not the consequences of austerity plans for public services, for our community, for poverty and inequality.

But wouldn’t it be amazing if budgets weren’t just about the numbers – how much spending, how much growth, how much debt. But about how much poverty is being reduced, and how much fairer our society is becoming. 

If we made those changes we might find we don’t just have a better policy. We might have a better conversation where it’s easier to win over the people who matter as well: our voters, those people who are going to be determining our marginal seats.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they wanted to talk to us about progress on poverty, rather than repeating the kinds of lines that have come out of Tory Governments to shamelessly justify their fiscally failed and socially unjust austerity.

So, comrades, let’s been clear. Our economy does not work for the many in London. I often have to remind colleagues and activists from other places about the huge poverty and social problems we see here every day.

Because London and the South-East are always seen to be receiving more than our fair share from the public purse. And it’s true, we do get a lot of infrastructure investment.

There is regional inequality, and there is also enormous inequality and poverty within our big cities. Labour has to tackle both these problems, and we absolutely can if we work together across the country, and across every level of Government, for the many not the few. Solidarity. 

Footnotes & references:
[1] https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/239453/everybody_in_how_to_end_homelessness_in_great_britain_short_edition_2018.pdf
[2] https://www.newhamrecorder.co.uk/news/newham-has-the-highest-number-of-homeless-people-in-england-1-5791719
[3] http://www.endchildpoverty.org.uk/poverty-in-your-area-2019/
[4] https://cpag.org.uk/child-poverty-london-facts
[5] https://www.trustforlondon.org.uk/data/wealth-distribution/
[6] https://www.jrf.org.uk/blog/we-must-turn-tide-inequality-all-our-children
[7] https://www.friendsprovidentfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Runnymede-report.pdf

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