Challenging times, both home and abroad

They say a week is a long time in politics. So it’s not surprising that the fortnight since my last column has been packed with significant events.

During that time Scotland has voted narrowly to stay part of the United Kingdom, but provoked a fierce debate about how power is distributed throughout our country.

Parliament has been recalled to discuss potential military action in the Middle East. And the Labour Party has met for its annual conference and given two standing ovations to a 91-year-old man from Barnsley who gave one of the best speeches of the week.

Starting with Scotland, we probably won’t know the full impact of this massively significant constitutional event for some time. But it’s clear that the idea of devolving power locally has struck a chord with many people. While I don’t believe the public has an appetite for yet another layer of politicians, I do believe that we should have devolved arrangements which give people more say over their local services.

Barnsley has a proud history of localism. Our tradition of strong local communities, supported by an engaged and active population, means there is huge potential here for people to be more involved in local decision-making.

I have provided what I hope is a timely and useful contribution to this debate in the form of a new book, which outlines Labour’s plans for Britain, including increased devolution and people-led politics.

I talked to many people at conference about this book but I was definitely upstaged by Harry Smith, a 91-year-old man originally from Barnsley who gave a rousing and emotional speech about the dangers of losing the NHS.

He shared his memories of life before the welfare state, describing losing his sister, Marion, to tuberculosis at the age of 10 because his family couldn’t afford a doctor. He also described standing at the ballot box in 1945 and voting for a Labour government as a young man, just returned from WW2 as “the proudest day of my life…voting for the creation of the NHS”.

It was fitting therefore that the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, announced at conference a £2.5 billion a year NHS Time to Care Fund to save and transform our health service. The fund would create tens of thousands more doctors and nurses, as well as help transform services in communities and at home.

This would be funded by a tax on houses worth over £2 million, a co-ordinated crackdown again tax avoidance, and by ensuring tobacco companies contribute towards the costs they impose on the NHS.

I know that by the time you read this, events will have moved on even further – not least in the Middle East. These are interesting, yet challenging, times in politics, with big debates not only about our role in the world, but also about how we ensure we run our country in the interests of our people.

This article was first published in the Barnsley Independent on 1st October 2014.