It was a 6am start and a very long day. When we got there, security was over the top. My coat was searched repeatedly by a very puzzled woman who couldn't make out the picture on the scanner. Eventually I realised that it was the contents of an old envelope which was worrying her; it contained a couple of keys which I've just had cut for the church. They didn't fit too well - the place I normally use wasn't open - and so I'd stuck a needle file in the envelope as well, intending to have a go at them next time I pass the church. They took the file off me, and I forgot to go back for it. No matter; I meant to get anothe set from Poundland anyway. Inside, police were wandering about with sub-machine guns, which is hardly calculated to make anyone feel safe. Obviously, they do need security, but I think we're far too accepting about the security state. It's long gone time to roll some of it back!
Inside, it's a rather intimidating maze. A guide took us through to a dark-panelled committee room, with paintings glowering down at us from the walls. It reminded me of the library at school, whch gave me the creeps last time I was in the place. Inside were about seventy campaigners, some of whom i knew already. Most of the people organising the campaign were there, plus several MP's. There was Rachel Reeves, the shadow DWP Minister, Stephen Timms, the shadow Employment minister, Jack Dromey from Erdington, Ian Lavery, from Wansbeck, Kate Green, Shadow Minister for disabled people, and Wayne Davd, PPS to David Milliband.
They started out telling us all about what they'd promised to do, not just about the bedroom tax, which they say they'll repeal straight after the election, but other hot issues as well. I think they expected a bunch of polite people who were just going to listen repspectfully, and they didn't seem to know how to handle what happened next. People exploded. They were shouted at and howled down repeatedly, and lectured about how we'll vote for them - as most of us would love to do - if they keep their promises this time. By the end of it they were almost pleading with us; they really will keep their promises, they said. After 'New Labour', I'll believe it when I see it.
They've been promising to repeal the Bedroom Tax for some time, and I don't doubt they'll do it. It's unworkable, can't save money, and people are left with nowhere to move to. When specific questions are asked, people don't support it. The Tories have misrepresented a recent poll as indicating support, but if you go right through and look at every question, a different picture appears. Opinions are split, and if people have nowhere to move to, the common situation, support disappears. There's a good summary here, with a link to the survey at the bottom. Opinions seem to be shifting on benefits, with the percentage thinking they're 'too high' shrinking steadily. We'll win on the Bedroom Tax, and we need to keep going on the rest of it.
The PLP could do better, though, by putting some pressure on Labour councils to commit themselves to no eviction policies, It's a difficult mess, but there are far too many of them which, like Birmingham, seem to see themselves as managers rather than representatives. When governments bring in policies like this, they don't look for ways to fight back and support the people who elect them.
Apart from repealing the Bedroom Tax again, they promised to build social housing. That was one of the points that concerned me; they've promised 200 000 houses a year, but if it's for private sale, it'll leave a much of the problem untouched. We need council housing, in huge quantities, to replace what's been sold off, and we need to ensure that people have decent quality accommodation with security of tenure. They're going to bring the benefits bill down by raising wages to the living wage - I doubt whether the proposed voluntary scheme will really solve that one - and by bringing down rents, not by hammering claimants. They're going to bring in controls on private lets, and get rid of the Work Capability Assessment which is causing so much trouble for sick and disabled people. We didn't pin them down on some details; they were asked about sanctions, but didn't answer.
Rachel Reeves was very keen to have us believe that the Observer misrepresented her recently with its headline that she was going to be tougher than the Tories on benefits, but she stood by what she actually said there. I read it again when I got home, and some of what she says is equivocal, to say the least. The article's here, if you want to have a look. If they really do what they've said, it'll go some way to solving the problems, but there's work to be done still.
After the meeting, I spoke at a lobby going on outside. Shortly after I did so, a policeman rushed up and told us all to move, without offering any explanation. We didn't do so till we'd checked that there really was a bomb scare, and saw MP's evacuating the building. Apparently they thought they'd spotted a grenade in someone's bag in security. As if! I don't know why it sometimes fails to occur to policemen that they'd get a lot more willing cooperation by being a bit less arrogant, and offering a little explanation on these occasions.
Overall, it was well worth going, even at the cost of a two-day headache. I don't get those very often, and it's a clear warning sign that I pushed myself too far. They're talking to us now; we;ve come some distance from the day when they bolted Birmingham Council House door against us. I've long felt there was potential to push Labour to the left, and if we keep having meetings like this, I think it'll happen. To some extent anyway. They must be aware that on some issues, like nationalisation the electorate is already to the left of them.
Right now, we have a political vacuum on the left. Either Labour can fill it - or some of it, anyway - or whatever Left Unity develops into can do so, or we're leaving ourselves wide open to some sort of updated national socialism. The gap won't be there for long, so we have to keep pushing. In its attempt to turn some of Thatcher's craziest dreams into reality, the government has over-reached itself so badly that there's every chance of a backlash changing the entire political consensus. Their attitude is so crass it would be laughable if it wasn't affecting real people. This article gives a good insight into the effect they're having on so many of us.
How far Labour can be pushed is open to question, but we have to try. It's likely to take a decade at least before we can mount a real electoral challenge, if we get that far at all. Anything could happen in the meantime. Of course, we still have the old structural problem. The Labour Party was always, at least until Blair took over, able to attract a section of the Left. I used to be in it myself. This left us divided and powerless. Labour's move to the right might have created an opportunity for the Left, but the old Left parties were unable to take advantage of it, and if Labour's capable of moving, a moot point in itself, we may have left it too late. However, there's no way to know.Let's keep on talking to the MP's, assuming they're willing, and see where we end up.
EDIT: UNITE have now put up this short video of the day. I can't get it to appear on the page properly, so a link is the best I can manage.