Representation, not manipulation

Lou Howson attacks attempts by New Labour to control pensioners’organisations

Growing up in industrial Lanarkshire in the thirties I was acutely aware of the disadvantage of being working class. Most families suffered from the stigma of the means test. The Labour Party came to prominence in most local authorities so that Councils offered some protection from the ravages of Conservative politics. On leaving school in’39, I was fortunate in getting a “steady job”. I became a trade unionist and joined the Labour League of Youth which brought me into membership of the National Council of Labour Colleges which ran summer schools, local classes at weekends and correspondence courses on topics such as economics and trade union history. The demise of the N.C.L.C., allegedly brought about by some trade union bureaucrats, was a backward step.

When I joined the Labour League of Youth, my Irish grandfather, who had been an associate of Keir Hardie whilst working in the Quarter pit near Hamilton in the 1880s, claimed that Hardie died of a broken heart in 1916, brought about by the betrayal of the working class. Grandfather told me that their main objective was “decent jobs with decent wages, decent houses to live in and decent schools for all children”. Laudable objectives but still beyond the reach of too many working class people. If our present Government had concentrated on similar objectives perhaps the Labour Party might still be respected. In 1945 those of us in the services voted for the first time and as a consequence ensured the election of the first real Labour Government. The Attlee Government kept all their promises as stated in “Let us Face the Future”. In the face of vindictive harassment by the Tory Press, the 1950 election was won by a small majority. Attlee went to the country in 1951 and lost but paradoxically won the majority of the popular vote.

Over the next 28 years we had a sequence of Labour and Tory Governments culminating in the arrival in 1979 of the disastrous Thatcher Government which proceeded to destroy what they could of the good work initiated by the Attlee Government. Strikes and protests were put down with venomous vindictiveness. Following the Labour defeat in the 1992 election, a fresh leader John Smith took office and hopes were raised. Unfortunately his premature demise left a gap. Following some dubious shenanigans behind the scenes a Leader appeared proclaiming some sort of organisation to be known as “New Labour”. Tony Blair proclaimed his ideal of a “stakeholder economy”. This involved dropping old principles and rewriting Clause 4 of the Labour Party Constitution. We were assured that he would win us the election and then the Party would take control. Unfortunately this did not happen and we were saddled with a Government more concerned to placate the wealthy than care for the needs of the less wealthy. It was noticed that the representative of a notorious press lord had easier access to Downing Street than any trade union leader. It now seems rather prophetic that a leading Scottish Catholic prelate who grew up in industrial Lanarkshire suggested that “The embers of totalitarianism are not far from the surface of New Labour”. Sadly the prescient prelate is no longer with us but his foresight was ‘spot on’. Under the yoke of Thatcherism, pensioners suffered more than most. Thatcher’s economic philosophy was borrowed straight from Reagan’s economic advisor. He had produced the idea of the “Demographic Time Bomb” which in simple terms suggesta that public pensions are some sort of dole paid to those too improvident to have saved for their old age.

In October 1996 over 350 pensioner delegates representing 87 organisations from throughout Scotland met in Glasgow City Halls. Organisations had been asked to submit resolutions under the following headings:- Health and Community Care : Pensioners Incomes : Housing : Transport: Participation in Decision Making. The sponsors composited all resolutions under the above headings. Many delegates expressed anger at what was regarded as betrayal by the Conservatives over the preceding 12 years. Pensions generated the most vehement discussion. Housing and Transport saw motions passed calling for appropriate housing and privatisation of transport was deplored. Delegates were united in the goal of a more active part in the decision making process, in particular those decisions directly affecting their welfare and well-being. Typical of the sentiments expressed was that we were treated as second class citizens. The Scottish TUC delegates were vehement in their complaint that for the past seventeen years we have been punched and kicked all over the place and so we must get a Scottish Parliament with representation within that Parliament to ensure that our needs are heard and met. The final resolution on decision making was carried unanimously without discussion – “That this Scottish Pensioners Congress calls on the Congress sponsors to convene a seminar to establish the way in which we seek to participate in decision making”. Unfortunately such a seminar was never convened.

Perhaps too many thought that a New Labour Government would treat us in a proper manner, especially when in 1997 a pamphlet was published under the names of Tony Blair, John Prescott, Harriet Harman and Gordon Brown entitled “The Tories have betrayed pensioners”. This document stated that too many of today’s older people do not enjoy security in their retirement. It made the following claims and commitments. The combination of low incomes and the extra Tory costs they face for essentials leaves many struggling. Having paid tax all of their working lives, a whole generation finds that it cannot be sure of the National Health Service. Millions of people face poverty in retirement, pensioners have lost £20 per week due to the breaking of the earnings link. It claimed that Labour had always done its duty by pensioners and that the next Labour Government would do the same. We will act to tackle the lottery of community care, they said. Labour will put pensioners voices at the heart of government and will encourage the development of pensioners’ councils and forums so that pensioners’ voices can be at the heart of decision making in local authorities as well as central government. We will include pensioners’ organisations in this process, in particular the National Pensioners Convention, the largest co-coordinating body for representative pensioners organisations. Needless to say the reality was different and New Labour has followed slavishly in the Tories’ footsteps.

Consultation amounted to the setting up of an organisation with the grandiose title of Better Government for Older People. Pilot projects were set up in three Scottish council areas and similar pilots were set up in the rest of the UK. Discussions were held throughout Great Britain where many recommendations were made including one specifically referring to Scotland stating “That there be established bodies of older people to deal directly with the Scottish Executive and Parliament – that the programme of modernising and improving government for older people becomes as essential to the political life of the country as the provision of education and the health service “

The whole business concluded with the group making recommendations to the government as follows: “The development of a recognised, funded , permanent structure for the participation and representation of older people in policy making at UK, National, Regional and Local levels and the continuation and expansion of the network. In addition members called upon the Government to address the following matters which are inextricably linked to the aims of the BGOP programme. 1) Pensions should be related to earnings to enable a decent standard of living. 2) The recommendations of the Royal Commission on long term care should be implemented. 3) Transport should be available which is affordable accessible, reliable and safe.4) Age discrimination legislation should be passed in line with human rights and advice and advocacy services should be readily available to older people. Needless to say, the whole sorry business was allowed to wither away, its only legacy is a collection of officials with the title of Older People Advisory Group. The real solution in Scotland has to be similar to that of our more civilised Irish and Scandinavian neighbours.”

When the Scottish Parliament was first set up, a representative group of pensioners asked to meet with the First Minister, Donald Dewar, but we were fobbed off with feeble excuses. When Henry McLeish became First Minister, he met with a group of pensioners’ representatives from throughout Scotland and discussed with us how the Parliament could engage with older people. Consequently he implemented the findings of the Royal Commission on the Care of the Elderly. He was promptly politically assassinated by Tony Blair. Scottish pensioners were reliably informed that Mr.Blair had “pigeon-holed the report”. Prior to being unfairly dismissed, Henry McLeish had requested pensioners to submit proposals for a Consultative Body. Shortly thereafter the Scottish Executive established an Older People’s Unit comprising three or four Civil Servants and this group still exists. At the same time a small group was set up comprising officials from various organisations plus a few invited pensioners with the title of Older People’s Consultation Group. Its main function appears to be listening to official proposals. I was an initial member of this body and I proposed that we should set up a Pensioners Parliament similar to that in the Irish Republic. The then Minister appeared to be enthusiastic but he was promptly replaced by another individual who informed us that our purpose was merely to comment on Executive proposals.

On the pensions front, pensioners throughout Great Britain are fortunate to have the support of the National Pensioners Convention who annually present the case for proper pensions for all to the British Government, backing the case up with thoroughly researched facts. This has no effect on the present Government who are only concerned with their own pensions. There is a Scottish section of N.P.C. Unfortunately the pseudo Labour administration in Scotland ignored N.P.C. and were supported by the Scottish T.U.C. who accused those of us who support N.P.C. of bringing in the English. We hope to see the setting up of a Scottish Pensioners Convention later this year. The Blairites prefer to listen to the C.B.I. on the matter of pensions.

Fortunately the present Scottish Government has met with a group of pensioners from the Scottish Seniors Alliance to discuss the possibility of setting up a Scottish Pensioners’ Parliament. This has produced a reaction from a body set up by New Labour under the direction of a former Blair advisor. The intention is that this body, to be known as AGE, will have the sole right to consult with government at national and local level. Many pensioners see this in keeping with the New Labour policy of controlling what we do and what we say. The present schemozzle being conducted at Westminster should be a warning to us all of the dangers of totalitarianism.