Report in brief from TUC “Beyond Crisis” conference

16th November 2009

The TUC conference “Beyond Crisis: A Progressive Future for the UK Economy” was a slightly split-personality event, as if its organisers and speakers could be divided into two sets of people who had very different ideas of how much ‘rethinking’ the economy really needed. Some speakers and audience members took the line that “when things get back to normal, we should focus on the knowledge economy and green technology to remain competitive, and concentrate on exports as there is no point in thinking about the domestic market’ – particularly in the session Colin Hines and I both attended on “where will the growth come from” in which the audience were keen to have a more radical discussion but the speakers were not. The audience did at least get issues such as investment for pension funds (via local bonds – Colin) in public infrastructure and energy efficiency into the discussion.

In the morning Rowan Williams kicked things off with an excellent keynote making all the points on wellbeing and justice that you’d expect but also fundamentally challenging the concept of growth as a basis for a fair and sustainable economy. In the ensuing Q&A he was promptly pulled up on the Church’s employment and investment policies, but otherwise what he said was well received and was among the most challenging or radical of the speakers.

Then Ann Pettifor in the panel discussion gave a strong historical perspective on public debt, and how public spending was economically beneficial in most if not all past crises and effectively paid for itself. This was probably the most discussed point of the conference, with the audience apparently very much of one mind and challenging the Labour politicians to respond to this, and the Labour politicians unable to make any intelligent comment on the subject. Pat McFadden (Minister of State for Business, Innovation and Skills) and Glenis Willmott MEP had obviously been briefed that the only point worth making in the debate was that “things will be a lot worse under the Tories”. Every time they were challenged on the evidence for their decisions to make drastic public sector cuts, they responded that a) the Tories would do it worse and b) doorstep canvassing has shown that Joe Public is concerned about public debt levels, so Labour have to make cuts. They seemed incapable of understanding the audience’s increasingly exasperated request that they provide any intellectual argument or evidence for their policies on this.

But in terms of the main question of the conference, only Ann Pettifor, Andrew Simms and Rowan Williams really had anything radical to say from the stage end of the proceedings – and to a lesser extent Brendan Barber, who was a little focused on the green terchnologies panacea and enthusiastic about ‘growth’ but otherwise put forward a much clearer understanding of the major questions and the potential answers regarding the need for a dramatically different economy than the politicians did. The audience seemed to be ahead of most of the speakers.

Pat McFadden additionally took the opportunity to announce a “Forum for a Just Transition to a low carbon economy” -“a body set up to ensure that the opportunities and challenges of moving to a low carbon economy are shared equally around the UK” which may be worth further investigation.

Finally – one interesting discovery was that there is an organisation called The Other Taxpayers’ Alliance. What a perfect idea. They even have a Taxpayers’ Alliance Quote Generator. Sign up!

Karen Leach