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What Labour's 2017 Conference means for Hemel Hempstead

If you were one of those in Hemel Hempstead watching last week's Labour Party Conference on TV or reading about it on mainstream news, social media or websites and thinking what relevance does it have for me then think again.

Politicians these days are increasingly seen as distant, out of touch with what the electorate really needs. And what was happening in Brighton, despite only being 86 miles from Hemel Hempstead may be viewed as a world away from those struggling to pay the bills, get a roof over their heads, find a job never mind job security or worrying about their kids getting a decent education. Never mind older generations fretting about the advent of new technology and and getting left behind in the workplace or life.

While delivering leaflets before this summer's General Election, campaigning for local Labour candidate Mandi Tattershall, one man I spoke to simply expressed his concern at the lack of real jobs in the town and how it had increasingly become a commuter town for London. As he put it people didn't want to get home too tired and too late to spend time with their family.

Another - who ran a local business - told Tory MP Mike Penning at a hustings held in one of the town's schools that he would rather pay higher taxes if it meant the kids at that school got a better education. He spoke also of often struggling to employ people because they lacked the right skills. 

Which is why Labour's plans for a National Education Service - announced last Tuesday - are ground-breaking and relevant to all of us because when we invest in people to develop their skills and capabilities, we all benefit from a stronger economy and society.

When the 1945 Labour government established the NHS, it created one of the central institutions of fairness of the 20th century. The NES aims to do the same for the 21st, giving people confidence and hope by making education a right, not a privilege.

At a time when working lives and the skills our economy needs are changing rapidly with escalating global competitiveness and shifts in the use of technology and its effects on employment, Labour aims to create a unified NES to move towards cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use.

The NES will be built on the principle that ‘Every Child – and Adult Matters’ and will incorporate all forms of education, from early years through to ADULT education.

This includes:

  • Overhauling the existing childcare system in which subsidies are given directly to parents who often struggle to use them and extend the 30 free hours to all two- year-olds and move towards making some childcare available for one- year-olds and extending maternity pay to 12 months.
  • Investing in schools from building to teachers and avoiding crippling underfunding which has driven up class sizes as well as a narrow curriculum and a culture of assessment driving away teachers, creating a recruitment and retention crisis.
  • Free school meals for all primary school children, paid for by removing the VAT exemption on private school fees.
  • Abolishing tuition fees in higher education and introducing free LIFELONG education in further education colleges. 

As Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, who has admitted her own mother was illiterate and who herself was a teenage mum, said: "Our children will be ready for school and when they get their they won't be let down either."

A major policy is also the introduction of free, lifelong education in Further Education (FE) colleges, enabling everyone to upskill or retrain at ANY point in life and a new focus on apprenticeships but ones that again have worth and are not run by dodgy opportunists.  

Not everyone is academic and all too often I see university graduates struggling with massive student debts and unable to find decent paid work because for whatever reason they have been lured onto poor courses - who can still charge the same as leading universities whose students they then have to compete against for jobs - and would have been better suited developing, using or being trained in practical skills and leaving school or further education at 18.

Older people - fearing automation of their jobs or the advent of changing techology - can also go back to college and re-train.   

Rayner said: "At a time when technology is changing demand for different kinds of skills, and evolving patterns of work mean that people are more likely to pursue several careers during their working lives, it is crucial that our education system enables people to upskill and retrain over their lifetimes.

"We would ensure vocational routes incorporate the service sector as well as traditional manufacturing, working in tandem with our broad industrial strategy to deliver for the whole economy."

"Labour believes education should be free, and we will restore this principle. No one should be put off educating themselves for lack of money or through fear of debt."

And for decades the Tories have pitched themselves as the homeowners’ party. 

But in Brighton, Party leader Jeremy Corbyn made it clear that Labour wants to be the champion of a smaller but increasingly politicised electorate: tenants.

Waiting lists for housing in Hemel are growing and growing with young people increasingly unable to get their foot on the property ladder as prices in the South East escalate and with council places scarce.

As a result many are reduced to renting from private landlords, often paying far more than they would fork out for a mortgage if they were able to put down a deposit in the first place with tax-payers paying over the odds as councils house tenants in private rentals.

Corbyn caught the ear of Britain’s 4.5 million renter households by promising rent controls in some cities, guaranteed homes for existing tenants on redeveloped estates, and a tax on developers who fail to build on empty sites. As his predecessor Ed Milliband said: "Use it or lose it" because families need homes.

A counter-argument is that controls - scrapped under the Thatcher Govenment in 1988 - will result in landlords to sell up or underinvesting in homes, leading to poor conditions. But the word is that rather than setting rents at levels lower than present they propose caps in increases.

Labour have also pledged to force landlords to clean up their act on poor housing conditions. Corbyn said: "We will insist that every home is fit for human habitation, a proposal this Tory Government voted down."

Yes in January 2016 a Labour amendment to the government’s housing and planning bill, designed to ensure that all rented accommodation was safe for people to live in, was defeated by 312 votes to 219, a majority of 93. And 72 of those Tory MPs who voted against were themselves landlords who derive an income from a property. 

Hemel Hempstead MP Mike Penning - who has a donor who made a fortune from property development - was among those who voted against it. One good reason you would think for changing policy in the first place.

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