Category Archives: Politics

Streatham On The TUC March For The Alternative

Over a hundred members of Streatham Labour Party took part in the TUC’s March for the Alternative on Saturday 26 March. Here is a video I made on the day.

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The Grid Guru And The Smoking Room

Me with Paul

Last night I was at Walkers, just off Whitehall, at retirement drinks for Paul Brown, who has been the guardian and guru of the government grid for the past 12 years.

I first met Paul in the smoking room at No 10, which was a dingy little room in the basement where the smokers in the building would come and go through the day. It doubled as the cleaners’ changing room. They also made their toast in there, which added to the unique aroma of ash and smoke, scorched bread and furniture polish.

There was a large table in the middle which smokers would sit around, shooting the acrid breeze before returning to their desks. At various times of day you’d see Jon Cruddas, then working in Tony Blair’s political office, drawing on a fag, thumb on cheek, brow furrowed, like he was playing a tricky poker hand. Or Anji Hunter, bustling in for a brisk, businesslike nicotine fix, aiming shrewd questions at members of the smokers’ focus group – ‘Mark, how would you describe the Third Way in one sentence?’. Er. Cigarette three quarters smoked, she’d rearrange whichever floaty scarf she was wearing, delve into her bag for her breath freshener, a quick spray, and off she went.

It was a democratic, gossipy gathering of people doing jobs at all levels. Detectives, Garden Room girls, messengers, IT, press officers, duty clerks, policy advisers.  It was in the smoking room that a chat with the head of IT, when I mentioned that I was looking for a flat, led to me buying his place in Streatham. It’s the flat I still live in, twelve years on.

A not infrequent visitor to the smoking room was the cardiganed figure of Paul Brown. He rolled his own cigarettes in the very precise, meticulous way that characterises everything he does. He was always interesting to chat to, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of, amongst other things, civil war battlefields, a sphinx-like smile and an ability to calmly take everything in his stride. When you’re dealing with the competing and sometimes antithetical policy and media demands of ministers and their departments, that’s a required quality.

Paul is rightly highly regarded as the civil servant par excellence, totally professional, hard-working and completely without the vanity that sometimes infects people who are doing important jobs. Whatever you think about the management of communications, through his management of the grid of events and announcements, Paul has done an enormous amount to make government communications more strategic and effective, serving three prime ministers – Blair, Brown and Cameron.

So I think it was a measure of the respect and affection Paul has earned over the years that the bar at Walkers was a friendly crush of people from Downing Street and Whitehall, past and present. It was nice to catch up with some old colleagues, Labour and civil service, and chat to some of the current bunch of No 10 staffers.

Paul has been one of the back-room heroes, and I wish him well in his retirement from Downing Street, and all the things he does in the future. And it’s good to hear he has successfully given up smoking.

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Citizen Öpik

Would-be Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London Lembit Opik has been busy making a series of short videos for his campaign. The Lib Dems haven’t selected their London candidate yet, so maybe the former Newcastle city councillor and former MP for Montgomeryshire is in with a chance. Lib Dems do like their local candidates.

To be fair, Opik lives in Kennington, presumably still in the flat he claimed £68,031 towards as an MP whilst getting a summons for non-payment of council tax.

He has demonstrated the city-wide reach of his campaign by going nine stops down the Northern Line to Tooting Broadway. This video lavishly recreates the opening titles of the late-seventies sitcom Citizen Smith, complete with Red Flag soundtrack.

Clearly a serious politician of formidable substance. Next is Opik back in his local boozer in Kennington, not appearing to pay for his pint.

You’ll notice him, in this one, honing what I imagine for Liberal Democrats is an appealing political slogan – ‘if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get’. Reminiscent of ‘change that works for you’.

And finally, this one has the former MP standing outside the Houses of Parliament. ‘I spent thirteen years in that building there’, he says, pointing at the House of Lords.

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Lambeth Budget Meeting: Liberal And Tory Speeches

I’ve been asked to post the lead speeches from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats at the recent Full Council meeting to set Lambeth’s budget for 2011-12. The meeting was held in closed session after the council chamber was taken over by protesters.

Here is the speech from Cllr Julia Memery (Conservative, Clapham Common), who is deputy leader of the Tory group and finance spokesperson.

And here is the speech from the Liberal Democrat leader, Cllr Ashley Lumsden. Cllr Lumsden was lead councillor for finance during the Tory-Liberal administration of 2002-2006, when council tax was hiked by 40%, £3m was lost in fraud in the Housing service and the borough was left with next to nothing in reserves.

The speech from Labour leader Cllr Steve Reed has already been posted here.

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Steve Reed’s Budget Speech To Lambeth Council

It has been reported, and I have commented here, on the way Lambeth Council’s meeting to set a legal budget, faced with massive Tory Lib Dem government cuts, was disrupted by protesters. Council then met in closed session, in the Assembly Hall of Lambeth Town Hall. Five speeches of the planned 41 were made before the budget was voted on.

Contrary to claims made by Lib Dem leader Cllr Ashley Lumsden, and his heir abhorrent, Cllr Steve Bradley, Labour councillors did not laugh and clap as the budget was voted on. This recording made in the meeting of Labour leader Cllr Steve Reed’s speech gives an impression of the tone of the meeting.

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“We Betrayed The People Who Voted For Us”: Another Lib Dem Resignation

Cllr Gavin Chambers

In the words of W S Gilbert, now give three cheers and one cheer more – for Cllr Gavin Chambers. He’s a parish councillor on Buckhurst Hill Parish Council in Essex, the latest in a lengthening line of people who have decided  the Lib Dems are no longer for them.

Cllr Chambers has given the forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote as his principal reason for doing so, saying: “I have decided to stand as an independent. I disagree with the party leadership over their support for the Alternative Voting (AV) system. I think that it would be very expensive, difficult to work out and is unnecessary as the system which we have works.”

He added, on the general direction of the Lib Dems in government: “We made promises that we did not keep. We betrayed the people who voted for us. When they voted for us we were a very different party.”

“Nick Clegg said there would be no raise in tuition fees and he has gone back on that. I think that as an independent I will be better able to stand up for the people on my ward and to provide a critical voice on the council.”

A courageous stand and well done.

Here’s the short compilation I made of the statements of councillors leaving the Lib Dems since the general election.

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A Bad Night For Democracy

Cuts protesters begin their 'people's assembly'

It was always going to be a depressing night, with Labour councillors in Lambeth voting for cuts we don’t want to make. We always knew there would be protesters at the town hall, calling on us to make no cuts, set an illegal budget, thereby playing into hands of the Tory Lib Dem government.

The thicket of Socialist Worker and other placards, the string of police and the cameras outside the town hall entrance were the prelude to the council meeting to set the 2011-12 budget, which makes £37 million of cuts to services. I was asked by one protester if I was a councillor. Yes, I replied. ‘I hope you die of cancer, you c**t,’ she said. She was wearing a Lewisham Against The Cuts badge. I said I hoped she got all the way home safely.

In the council chamber, I sat in my seat and noticed spit on my sleeve. Phlegmatic people, those trots.

A few minutes later, the gallery was opened and the noise began. Shouts of ‘shame on you’, ‘take back our council’, etc.

The Mayor, Cllr Neeraj Patil, entered and a man shouted from the gallery ‘Here comes the flummery’. Chants of ‘no ifs, no buts, no coalition cuts’ and ‘let them in’. The latter referring to the fact that about half of one gallery was empty and protesters felt more people should be let in. The Mayor attempted to keep order, but order wasn’t to be the order of the day.

In fact, the gallery was half empty because seats were reserved for members of the nine deputations who were due to address Council, and they were waiting in the ante chamber to come in and speak. Someone shouted ‘They’re all cronies and apparatchiks in that gallery’. Actually, no. I scanned the faces and the only one I could put a name to was Ted Knight, who was laughing and clapping.

For the record, those deputations, which we never got to hear, were tenants’ representatives, pensioners, disability campaigners, Lambeth Save Our Services, adventure playground representatives, Unison and the NUT. There was also a petition to be delivered protesting about the cuts to the park rangers service.

The Mayor attempted to ask, politely, that the people in the galleries allow the proceedings of the council to function. He asked three times and was barracked. He explained that he would have to adjourn the meeting for ten minutes with the intention of clearing the gallery. The meeting was adjourned and councillors rose, some drifting from the chamber and some, like me, staying in their seats.

Jon Rogers, the head honcho of Lambeth Unison used the microphone in the well of the chamber to tell the protesters that if they persisted, none of the delegations would get to speak and the council meeting would be held in closed session. To no avail.

I looked up from my speech notes to see a man, with a baby in a papoose, dancing and clapping in the well of the council chamber. Other people with banners and placards began to walk in. I filmed this.

I was then told by an officer that Council would be reconvening in the Assembly Hall, at the back of the town hall. And so it did. No delegations, and only five speeches in total, not the 41 which had been indicated. Two from Labour (Cllr Paul McGlone, Cllr Steve Reed), two from the Lib Dems (Cllr Gavin Dodsworth, Cllr Ashley Lumsden) and one from the Tories (Cllr Julia Memery).

Then the votes. Eight amendments, six from the Lib Dems and two from the Conservatives. Those were rejected one by one by show of hands. Then the substantive vote. A recorded vote, with the name of each councillor present being read out by the Mayor and each in turn saying ‘for’ or ‘against’. Half an hour and a legal budget was set, containing the effects of savage and unnecessary cuts imposed by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, on a scale not seen since before the Second World War.

So what did the protest and council chamber occupation actually achieve? Councillors having a truncated debate in closed session with police at the doors, heard only by a handful of council officers and a few journalists. Protesters talking to themselves in the council chamber, glorying in having – momentarily – prevented openly accountable, democratically elected local democracy from functioning.

Whose opinions were changed? What would the deputations have had to say if they could have been heard? I would like to have known. What would Labour councillors have said about the effects of cuts in their wards? How did Lib Dem and Tory councillors feel about being let off the hook over the cuts forced on Lambeth by their government? Relief, I would imagine.

I’ve no doubt there were genuine local residents in the town hall last night. But the manner of the protest didn’t allow their voices to be heard by councillors, or councillors to be heard in return.

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