Monthly Archives: August 2009

Operation Stillwater: Tackling Anti-Social Behaviour In Brixton

 

Brixton Tube

Brixton Tube

With my Lambeth community safety hat on, I’m pleased to see a new partnership operation (Met police and Labour council) getting underway to reduce anti-social behaviour in central Brixton. 

To explain, I’ll quote the joint press release which has been sent out: “Operation Stillwater will be used to reduce unacceptable behaviour including urinating in public, indecent exposure, taking or selling drugs, bad language, and loud music. The operation builds upon the work carried out by the Brixton town centre police following the arrest of a number of crack dealers in Coldharbour Lane and the subsequent introduction of a dispersal zone in May, 2009. 

“The operation will begin with an information campaign during which leaflets will be distributed, setting out what the community has identified as unacceptable behaviour during consultation meetings. This will be followed by a period of enforcement, when powers under Section 30 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 will be used to direct people away from the area who are engaged in anti-social behaviour.” 

This operation is one of a number aimed at tackling anti-social behaviour across Lambeth. In this case, we are ready and determined to use our powers to make Brixton a safer place. Our aim is to protect the law-abiding majority of residents and visitors who find antisocial behaviour – of any kind – unacceptable. My message to wrongdoers is simple – don’t degrade yourselves, and don’t degrade our borough.

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Beware Bromley and the Tory termites

termitesConsider, if you will, the Tories as termites. These much misunderstood insects live in loose, decentralised (though hierarchical) communities and use what is called ‘swarm intelligence’ to get their way. There are  the workers, soldiers and reproductive termites (they would be the activists, councillors, golf club bores, Tory backbenchers, that sort of thing), the semi-mature nymphs (misguided students, parliamentary researchers, Conservative Future, etc), and of course a handful of egg-laying queens (the Leadership). 

As with termites, the Tories are, as Wikipedia puts it, “very weak and fragile insects. They can be easily overpowered by ants and other predators when exposed. To avoid these perils termites cover their tracks with tubing made of faeces, plant matter, and soil.”

That happened last week with the hastily disowned commentary on the NHS by Daniel Hannan MEP, a politician David Cameron was happy to see re-elected to the European Parliament but who was last week described by Dave as “eccentric”.

Dave had better be careful with his treatment of Hannan, for it seems the MEP is very popular with the Tory worker and soldier termites, the ones who carry the torch of unrestrained Thatcherism. Some of them (Hannan, Tebbit, others) don’t see a need to temper their views for Cameroonian public consumption. But most of them are keeping their heads down and hoping that if they win the next election, they will again be able to step on the faces and chances of the people they don’t want to be part of British society. 

And that’s the interesting thing about what happened today in the London Borough of Bromley. The workers and soldiers, who are really the ones to watch and listen to in any community, had their say – in this case on using public money to subsidise private school fees for those parents who may have lost their jobs. It was not what the Leadership wanted to be heard outside the termite mound. So the workers and soldiers were thrust into a u-turn and then silenced.  

Early in the day, with gathering interest in the Bromley Tory proposals from the Evening Standard et al, Gillian Pearson, the director of Bromley’s children and young people’s services, thought she was saying the right thing on behalf of her borough’s political leadership by uttering the following:

“We are at the early exploration stage in considering this issue as part of our overall annual review of school places and school organisation. As with any proposal of this type, we will give full consideration to all the key factors which would include the educational case, the need in terms of place planning, the associated costs, the legal framework and other local authority practice.”

That failed to calm things down, so no doubt a message was sent from higher up the termite mound to urge Bromley’s chief termite, Cllr Stephen Carr, to say: “I would like to make it perfectly clear that Bromley Council has no plans to introduce such a scheme, but quite rightly, as a result of a question put at a full council meeting at the end of June, officers felt duty bound to consider this, as is good practice. As I have already stated, there is no suggestion that this will be pursued.”

But it seems the Tories in Bromley (and maybe elsewhere) have not given up on the idea. Cllr Neil Reddin, on his blog, states that: “As a Conservative Bromley Councillor, I can see merit in this idea. None of this is official Bromley Council policy at present – at this point, we are just looking at the legal niceties and practicalities.

Cllr Reddin goes on to say that his “friend and colleague Cllr. Ernest Noad, cabinet member for Children and Young people, has said, ‘The idea is that we might be able to earmark money to keep a child in a private school. At the end of the day what matters is that each child gets a good education,’ Quite right.”

Reddin lays into teaching unions for being “sanctimonious” in criticising the idea that public money could be used for private school fees. Sanctimonius to defend state education and not allow funding for it poured into private schools? I think not. Reddin ends his blog post by saying: “All that though, is not half as “immoral” – indeed, dare I say it, “socially unjust” – as parents having to pay twice for education, once through their taxes and again to an independent school, as well as leaving a place open in the state sector for another child.”

There you have it. The real vibe from the termite mound. The real Tory vibe Cameron doesn’t want you to hear, as he tries to cover his party’s tracks yet again.

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Trust me, I’m a politician?

Polling station

Polling station

Standards for England, the ethics watchdog for 80,000 local councillors, has done a survey of attitudes to local councillors, MPs and politicians in general.

The findings will not make comfortable reading for many MPs and parliamentary candidates in the wake of the Commons expenses scandal.

The survey of 1,735 adults was conducted in June, after the local and European elections,and finds trust towards local politicians rating higher than towards MPs. Standards for England Chief Executive, Glenys Stacey, has said: “It is pleasing … to see that trust in local politicians held up favourably compared to people’s views about national politicians.”

But looking at the figures, it appears 1% of those surveyed feel MPs ‘always’ tell the truth, compared to 2% for councillors. Hardly a dramatic leap in trust. 

More positive (for councillors, that is) is the result for politicians ‘never or rarely’ telling the truth. While nearly a third (29%) of those surveyed felt that MPs are verbally dishonest, a fifth (20%) felt the same way about councillors.

The same questions were asked in 2007, when the results were 20% for MPs and 18% for councillors. So both groups have seen an increase in mistrust in the past 2 years. 

What is interesting is the decline in the number of ‘don’t knows’ for each category, suggesting that not only has confidence in politicians been dented generally, but perceptions of politicians have been galvanised – there are fewer people without an opinion, positive or negative.

As I said in a recent Guardian article written with my friend and Labour colleague Chuka Umunna, PPC for Streatham, voters’ trust in what should be an open and honest vocation needs to rebuilt. No amount of legislation or codes of conduct will achieve that. It is for politicians to earn trust through personal demonstration of honesty and hard work, looking to our behaviour and that of our parties to correct what has caused the electorate to lose confidence.

Is regaining trust in politics and politicians an impossible task? Perhaps, for some. The voters should give their verdict on them.

To others I would say it will not be short work. Reflect on the words of Dr Samuel Johnson (a frequent visitor to Streatham, by the way).

Johnson said: “Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.”

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Obama must see through the challenge of healthcare

 

Obama at his desk

Obama at his desk

 America’s healthcare system is a paradox.  Everyone knows it needs to be reformed. If you ask most Americans they will tell you that their system, even if it works for them, does not work for everyone.

There are tens of millions of Americans without health insurance.
 
They have to rely on Medicaid if they are very poor or Medicare if they are old. The working poor are left to scramble to pay medical bills from ever-decreasing family budgets.
 
Even those who think they are safe often find that insurance companies decide that they are not covered after all. Families with good jobs have been forced to sell their homes to pay for their children’s care or even get divorced to make them eligible for Medicaid.
 
A survey by the management consulting firm McKinsey estimated the excess bureaucratic costs of managing private insurance policies – scouting for business, processing claims, and hiring “denial management specialists” to tell people why their ailment is not covered by their policy – at about $98bn a year. That, on its own, is significantly more than the $77bn McKinsey calculates it would cost to cover every uninsured American.
 
The system is a mess. In fact the cost of Medicaid and Medicare per capita is far more than the NHS. America spends more than twice as much per capita on health care as France, and almost two and a half times as much as Britain.
 
Almost 50 million people are not covered (including 10 million children) yet the American taxpayer is not saving money.
 
Even the corporate giants in the US, not often seen as being on the side of the poor, are balking at the cost to them of private healthcare and are calling for change. Famously Starbucks spends more on employee healthcare than coffee beans.
 
There is clearly a desperate need for change.
 
Democratic administrations dating back to Harry Truman have tried and failed. Bill Clinton, with considerable input from Hillary, tried and failed to overhaul the system in 1994. America’s most respected politician Ted Kennedy has called it the “cause of my life”, but he has been unable to force the Senate to act.
 
This is the scale of the challenge that now faces Barack Obama. It is easily the most complicated and most difficult domestic policy issue he will face as president.
 
Despite all that I have written above there are two major factors, among others, which are the roadblocks to reform. The vast healthcare and pharmaceutical lobby which, although supportive of reform in public, want it on their own terms and are prepared to do everything to stall it if necessary in order to get a solution that meets their commercial needs. They hold great sway over not only Republicans but also conservative, co-called “bluedog” Democrats. In a system where members of the House of Representatives are elected every two years and Senate campaigns run into tens of millions of dollars, money talks.
 
There is also a cultural war going on here. Deep rooted in the American pysche is a fear of socialism, particularly in the form of “socialised medicine” which any reform is labelled by opponents.
 
It was Ronald Reagan who in 1961, before even becoming governor of California ignited this debate into a Cold War battle. Reagan recorded an LP “Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine.” The American Medical Association sent it to the “ladies’ auxiliary” of the AMA in each county. The “ladies” were instructed to “put on the coffeepot”, play the record for their friends and fellow physicians’ wives, and then get out the stationery so that each of them could write personalised letters to their Senators and Congressmen. In the recording Reagan famously uttered the words: “one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”
 
This is latched upon by Republicans, conservative commentators and interest groups to make an emotional if illogical argument. The fact is that the Americans have a form of socialised medicine, it is just deeply flawed and lets down the very people that must be protected in a civilised, democratic society.
 
President Obama, even with a sweeping mandate for change from the American people – which very much includes support for healthcare reform – is taking on what all his predecessors have failed to do for over 60 years.
 
Obama is risking a great deal of political capital by taking on this seemingly intractable issue. It will require him to get out there and go to the people, in campaign mode again, to remind legislators that this is what the people want, plenty of good old-fashioned political pressure on wavering Democrats, and that rare commodity in modern discourse – some genuine political courage to see this through regardless of the short term impact it may have on his poll ratings as people see, and dislike, a political scrap.
 
It is in the interests of the American people and commerce that healthcare is reformed and that the illogical, partisan and desperate attempts of the conservatives to block progress are sliced through with Obama’s political scalpel. With the aid of public support and perhaps most importantly some courage from his Senate colleagues who should be inspired by Ted Kennedy and not their re-election war chests, Obama must use his mandate and prevail.

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Tory Wandsworth swipes its big blue handbag at Labour Lambeth

 

Blue handbag

Blue handbag

I’ve been engaged in a little spat-ette on Twitter with my counterpart in the London Borough of Wandsworth, Conservative Cllr James Cousins, who recently declared that councillor advice surgeries are “a waste of time”. (Poorly attended surgeries a waste of time, admits bored local councillor, South London Press, July 21 2009).

On his website Cllr Cousins said of his Lavender Hill library surgery: “I think council surgeries are a waste of time.  They are a hangover from a bygone age.  And we should look at how we provide them, and even whether we should provide them at all.”

In the South London Press article, Cllr Cousins was quoted as saying: “I could be spending an hour actually doing some useful council business. But instead, I counted the number of buses going by. I read a few children books … I don’t think anyone’s life was being enhanced by my being in the library.”

“Privately, most councillors think it’s a waste of time. But if you ask them, they’ll say it’s a wonderful thing to engage with the electorate and loads of people come along. But if you look at the evidence, not many people are.”

Privately and publicly I don’t think surgeries are a waste of time. My experience of surgeries is different – people do come. They ask for help. If that isn’t useful council business, what is?

I think Cllr Cousins has done councillors in general a disservice by suggesting that we would rather be somewhere else. What does that say about local democracy, and how will that encourage more people through Cllr Cousins’ surgery doors?

On Saturday morning I left for my surgery  (in Streatham South we do at least 4 a month plus a regular street stall). I tweeted as I went. I said: “Off soon to do advice surgery at Granton School, Streatham Vale. The Wandsworth Tories may think them a waste of time, but I don’t.”

Cllr Cousins tweeted back at me some hours later saying: “Why let facts get in the way of some political knocking?”

Yes, I hold my hands up, it was political knocking. But it had a serious point. I genuinely believe councillor surgeries offer a regular opportunity for residents to come along and air concerns or seek advice with problems. 

So, in that spirit of non-partisan helpfulness for which I am renowned, I tweeted back: “I get plenty of people at my surgeries.”

Which is true. I had nearly 30 people at one surgery and struggled to find chairs for them all. The surgery extended well beyond the advertised hour. The regular number would probably be 3 or 4 people, which is manageable in one hour, bearing in mind the cases are often quite complex. That complexity is why people come to see me face-to-face rather than writing or emailing.

Cllr Cousins tweeted back: “I’m very pleased for you. Probably a function of the relative quality of the councils.”

Ah, now who’s indulging in political knocking? Tory Wandsworth swipes its big blue handbag at Labour Lambeth.

But while Cllr Cousins has been reading children’s books in empty libraries, Lambeth has changed. Labour has been in charge of Lambeth since May 2006, when voters kicked out a disastrously incompetent Tory-Lib Dem administration that had wasted or lost £34 million, leaving the borough on the brink of financial collapse.

Since 2006, Labour has established stable finances and healthy reserves. We are in the top national performance bands for the first time ever and rank as one of the fastest improving councils in the country. We have kept council tax increases low and now frozen it. We have worked in partnership with other public agencies to improve quality of life in Lambeth. Crime, for example, is down by 30% and we are determined to bring it down further.

There is much to do to improve services to residents, but we are working hard on that and when services are inadequate we acknowledge that and work to turn them round. 

But as Cllr Cousins said, why let facts get in the way of some political knocking?

I would agree with his belief that people often go to MPs’ surgeries with council-related issues which would be better dealt with by councillors. Conversely, I often get people with immigration cases which I am unable to deal with, or issues of international diplomacy, and have to refer them to the MP’s surgery.

What is needed is not a write-off of councillor surgeries but better communication with residents about what MPs can do at their surgeries and what councillors can do at theirs.

Councils and councillors should be taking a lead in that.

For information, in Streatham South our regular council surgeries happen as follows:

1st Saturday: Granton School (Granton Road, Streatham Vale, SW16) 10.30am to 11.30am 
2nd Friday: Holy Redeemer Church (corner Streatham Vale & Churchmore Rd, SW16) 7.00-7.45 pm 
3rd Saturday: Shree Swaminaryan Centre, corner Colmer Rd & Ellison Rd 10.30-11.30am 
Last Saturday of the month: Immanuel and St. Andrew’s Church Hall (452 Streatham High Road) 10.30am-11.30am

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Futurism at Tate Modern

I went to take a look at the Futurism exhibition at Tate Modern yesterday, via a visit to Marks and Spencer in Oxford Street to buy a few new shirts.

This picture is of a shop display I found on my way to the tills in M & S. If it was in Tate Modern it would be a masterpiece of existential dislocation.

Existential dislocation in a chain store

Existential dislocation in a chain store

As you can probably tell, I’m not an unalloyed fan of modern art. Nor am I a total fan of more classical forms of art.

Art is like music – if it provokes a reaction in me I can appreciate it, whatever the form; I can also appreciate the craft – as someone who draws and paints a bit I admire works that are well composed and well executed. But the reaction must come first.

I’m not one of those people who wander round galleries thinking everything has significance just because it is hanging on a big wall, or it’s by somebody famous. It needs to work harder on me than that, and sometimes I come away from galleries feeling disappointed that I’ve walked through rooms filled with unpersuasive canvases without seeing anything I could connect with.

But it’s not always the case – I enjoyed a visit to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne recently where I saw inspiring works by the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Picasso. 

And yesterday I enjoyed the exhibition at Tate Modern, which includes work by Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini, as well as British artists like Wyndham Lewis and C R W Nevinson. The exhibition also shows how Futurist painters also influenced other movements briefly, such as Picasso or the Vorticists in Britain. 

I read excerpts from the Futurist manifesto of 1909, written by Marinetti, which underlines how artists then, as now, felt they had to be ludicrously provocative to get noticed. How many generations of artists have there been who have railed against the art establishment, only to drop the rebel routine when the niche is carved and they are recognised and rewarded as a talent? That isn’t a reflection on artists alone – how many generations of politicians have done something similar?

There were some stupid propositions in Marinetti’s manifesto and a splurge of other iterations of the Futurist ideals as written by others. War is like sex, they apparently believed.

Well, no. War is only like sex if you prefer your sex ghastly, inhuman and deadly. What a loathsome comparison. Marinetti eventually came to glorify the mechanised hell of war, and man’s aggression as embodied by machinery is reflected in much Futurist art.

It’s small wonder that the Vorticists turned away from ‘Marinettism’ and C R W Nevinson, who had seen the bloody reality of war for himself as an ambulance driver, rejected Futurism outright. 

That said, there is much in the exhibition to catch the eye and mind. For all their attention-seeking, the Futurists’ fascination with movement and capturing ‘simultaneity’ – snatches of image from a scene happening simultaneously all on one canvas or in one sculpture – remain fascinating.

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