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.
Tag Archives: labour
Observing the various relaunches of David Cameron’s cherished ‘policy’, the Big Society, it’s unsurprising that it never quite seems to get off the ground. Like the Dodo, that ungainly, ill-fated cousin of the pigeon, it does not possess the power of flight. Everyone knows what happened to Didus Ineptus.
Societus Crassus, Mr Cameron’s very own squawking, flightless bird, seems to be as clumsy as the Dodo. Cameron said today ‘People are enthusiastic if they are given the opportunity. People like the idea.’
Do they? Cameron might claim as much in defending the idea, existing as it does as a cover for ideological cuts. But is the ‘passion’ he spoke of today shared by a waiting nation? Not according to a Sky News poll, which showed that 78% of viewers would not volunteer themselves, compared to 22% who would.
A Sunday Mirror poll yesterday showed 41 per cent of people think the Big Society is a cover for cuts – against 21 per cent who back the idea.
Cameron today claimed his Big Society ‘will not make us popular. In fact it will make us unpopular. It will make me unpopular. I recognise that is my duty. We have to do this for the good of the country.’
An interesting, if Dodo-ish, attitude. But can a policy that relies on mass volunteering work without the required mass of volunteers? Can public services and voluntary sector organisations, currently being dismembered by Cameron’s government, reassemble the hacked up pieces of themselves and carry on?
The opportunity to volunteer, to make a difference and contribute to the good causes has existed ever since human beings first had spare time. Look, for example, at the honours list each time it comes out and there are hundreds of people who have done good work in their community. But they have never before been expected to take on the burden of running significant services, day in and day out.
They do what they do because they have spare time to do it. But expect them to take on the running of, for example, a local library, and that could be a back-breaking pressure for many. Is it a fair or realistic expectation? Does the Big Society give anyone any choice in the matter? If local services will disappear unless people volunteer, is it volunteering? Is it obligation? Is it what Cameron calls ‘responsibility’ or ‘duty’? Or is it an open-ended community sentence for people who haven’t done anything wrong?
David Cameron is placing a romantic 18th and 19th Century notion of philanthropy, where big benefactors endowed hospitals, orphanages, almshouses or free public libraries (which were then run by paid staff), up against the reality of public services in the 21st Century (with all the expectations of high quality that are placed on them, rightly, by modern users).
It unsettles me, given Britain’s unhappy recent history with bankers, that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have now turned to large financial institutions (Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland) to help the Big Society fly. Investment will now take the form of loans to ‘social enterprises’ from the Big Society Bank. Loans, not grants. And the banks, as banks do, will inevitably want to see some return on their £200 million investment.
In addition, £100 million has been earmarked from dormant bank accounts. Ah, those dormant bank accounts. I’ve lost count of the number of times dormant bank accounts have been earmarked for various purposes in recent years. I’m surprised there’s anything left in them.
That initial pot of £300 million is around 3.5 times what Lambeth, one borough among many, is being forced to cut by government over the next three years. I presume it’s intended as seed money to encourage others to invest, which leads me to wonder whether the Big Society Bank, and the Big Society, are intended as stealth mechanisms for wholesale privatisation of public services. Where publicly run services, weakened by cuts, are being set up to fail by Cameron, Clegg and Co, private enterprise will be lined up to pick over what is left in the debris.
In Lambeth we are taking a different approach, advancing plans to become a co-operative council. We are driven, not by commercial imperative, but by co-operative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy and equality, equity and solidarity. We recognise that to protect public services we must take a democratic, mutual approach with the public we serve. So, as examples, the ambition is that youth services will be run by community-led commissioning that allows very local decision making on the best way to provide services, library services may be placed in a trust (or trusts) owned by the community, and schools encouraged to group into co-operative trusts, sharing resources to benefit children.
Lambeth Council is not abandoning services. We are working with residents to provide them. The response from the community has been encouraging. Unlike Cameron’s Big Society, our co-op council is ready to fly.
No, not in Streatham, where I live, but in the area where I grew up, in Reading.
Liberal Democrat councillor for Katesgrove ward, Warren Swaine, decided to pass comment on the recent performance of my good friend and neighbour Chuka Umunna, Labour Member of Parliament for Streatham, on BBC Question Time.
Cllr Swaine (pictured) tweeted this:
“I am waiting for the Labour guy to claim, ‘Is it because I is black’ as a defence for being a muppet.”
Disgusting. Loathsome. Detestable.
I watched Chuka on TV, as I often do, and thought it was an excellent performance. As a press officer I used to brief people up for Question Time, and still do occasionally. So I can claim to know a thing or two about effective QT performances. I texted Chuka afterwards to say so.
Chuka is young, bright, articulate. He’s a very capable politician, in the Commons, in the media and, crucially, in the community he serves. Warren Swaine has shown himself to be the reverse of that, the negative, the underside of the stone. He is a bilious disgrace to his party, the people who elected him and the office he holds. If anyone is a muppet, it is Swaine. A racist muppet.
I read today that Cllr Swaine has now ‘stepped down’ from his role as Cabinet Member for Environment and Sustainability on Reading Borough Council, but not before turning his
not inconsiderable mind to maligning black community leaders on his own doorstep.
Reading is a town (it should really be a city) with a significant black and minority ethnic population. Cllr Swaine, who uses being half Sri Lankan as a defence when it suits, chose to question the integrity of campaigners trying to prevent funding cuts (by his Tory Lib Dem administration) to Reading Council for Racial Equality. Swaine said on his blog:
“Maybe I can be forgiven for thinking that they [RCRE] aren’t quite the spontaneous groundswell of support they were supposed to appear as.”
Swaine also sought to suggest RCRE has leanings towards Labour. RCRE director Rajinder Sophal has responded:
“Cllr Swaine came to RCRE disguised as a friend but actually with malice in his heart. We treated him nothing other that as a friend and colleague and we feel let down by his outburst.”
I do hope that in 2012 the voters of Reading will assist Warren Swaine in ‘stepping down’ from his role as a councillor.
Last night’s meeting of Lambeth’s Cabinet was a difficult experience, as I hope I conveyed in my tweets sent from Room 8, Lambeth Town Hall. This is my commentary on the meeting as I saw it.
As Cabinet met to reluctantly agree the massive cuts which have been handed down by the Tory Lib Dem government to Lambeth – totalling around £90 million – residents protested in large numbers inside and outside the building.
Police and security guards were posted in various places around the Town Hall to keep order. I was asked for my ID as I came through the main entrance. Inside Room 8, it was hard to find a seat, but I eventually spotted one and settled down as the faux Big Ben chimes of the Town Hall clock struck seven.
The meeting was called to order by the Leader of the Council, Steve Reed, who explained that Cabinet members would speak first, in turn, setting out the context of the cuts in their individual areas, and then the agenda items would be taken all together for comments from residents.
This approach, as I said to Steve afterwards, could have been satisfactory if the first part of the meeting hadn’t taken 35 minutes, leaving the audience to grow restless and frustrated and the heckles to increase in frequency. By the time it was the turn of residents and other representatives to speak, people had heard more than enough of the polite political manager-speak and were eager to lay into any and all politicians, Labour, Lib Dem or Tory. Incidentally, Steve Reed has also blogged thoughts about the meeting here.
First to speak from the residents were children who use adventure playgrounds asking for them not to be closed. They were assured that adventure playgrounds would not be closing. (Some calls of ‘What about libraries?’ from the floor, applause).
Then tenants’ representatives. The Chair of Lambeth Tenants’ Council, Rita Fitzgerald, gave a thoughtful speech, welcomed the freeze in service charges and pointed out ‘the council does listen’, thanking Cllr Lib Peck (Housing) for the time and effort she puts in. Then Jean Kerrigan urged Cabinet not to ‘roll over’ but to stand up to the Tory Lib Dem government. ‘Stand up to the Government,’ she said. ‘They’re Tories, of course they’re draconian.’ Applause.
Next up, the borough’s union leaders, Unison’s Jon Rogers and the GMB’s Bill Modlock, to oppose all job cuts. Around a thousand jobs are at stake – a quarter of the council’s workforce face redundancy in the coming years. Modlock’s speech was measured and sympathetic to the difficulties the council faces, which he acknowledged were not of its making. But he warned Cabinet ‘Don’t ignore the people’ and to have a genuine dialogue.
Rogers of Unison on the other hand, was more for laying into Labour councillors, which always pleases the tankies among the audience but doesn’t make for constructive debate. He went as far as comparing Labour Lambeth to a Vichy regime, a puppet for Tory Lib Dem cuts. As I commented at the time, bollocks. Rogers finished to applause, after which Steve Reed pointed out that his suggestion of raiding the £30m reserves (the emergency pot which the District Auditor requires us to maintain) would bankrupt the council, and was not enough anyway to stave off £90m cuts. Bankrupting Lambeth Council had been tried before, Steve said, in the 1980s and failed. (It was also tried by the Lib Dems in 2002-2006, though more by incompetence than design, leaving Labour to inherit a borough with only £500k in reserves, enough to keep the council going for a few days in an emergency).
Then the NUT reps, Sara Tomlinson and Ray Sirotkin, were up to speak. As they tend to condemn everything Labour Lambeth has tried to do in education (building schools – wrong schools, raising standards – wrong standards, etc etc) I doubt anyone was expecting much support. They spoke angrily in defence of schools (even the wrong ones) and libraries. Fair enough, though schools are probably the best protected service we run, despite the Tory Lib Dem axe falling on Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme – which the NUT used to regard as a capitalist outrage anyway). Tomlinson told the Cabinet members they didn’t look angry enough. Applause. Apparently more anger is required. ‘Like in Egypt’ somebody piped up.
Then Steve Reed called the one Liberal Democrat in the room to speak. Usually there would be more, hanging back on the difficult issues or surfing the mood of the audience on the easy hits. But only Cllr Roger Giess was there, the others being holed up upstairs holding an alternative budget meeting (that will be interesting to see). Giess is your typical, central casting Lib Dem – face like an under-baked pie, smug in voice and manner. The smugness wasn’t to last, for as someone next to me muttered ‘Here’s the real enemy’. Someone (not me) shouted ‘Tory pimp’, to loud applause.
Giess tried to smug his way through his three minutes, but it didn’t go well. He called for people to be ‘realistic’, which was met with derision coming as it did from the mouth of a Lib Dem. He said he would have liked to see a better office accommodation strategy. Oh dear. Services for residents are facing huge cuts, a thousand jobs are being lost, and Lambeth Lib Dems are obsessing about desks. Yes, desks. The kind on which managers who aspire to being humorous keep little signs saying ‘the buck stops here’. But the buck never stops on the desk of a Lib Dem, does it, Cllr Giess?
He smugged on, trying to critique cuts to scrutiny. Not a wise move as he’s Chair of Overview and Scrutiny, for which he gets an allowance of (if memory serves) just over £10,000 in addition to his basic councillor allowance. Laughter, scorn. He ended his speech and slid swiftly to the far door, like a rattled snake. When I looked over again, two minutes later, he was gone.
Then, after the orange sorbet, the cordon bleu mutton arrived at the table. Cllr Clare Whelan, Conservative. She spoke, to cries of ‘Tory scum’ and worse. She did her usual ‘awful’, ‘ghastly’, ‘think again, I implore’ routine. Shouts of ‘Where did your children go to school?’ from the floor. ‘They’ve grown up, they’ve left home’ she non-replied. Laughter. The atmosphere in the room was becoming more and more heated. Security and police now visible in the hallways outside Room 8.
At this point I noticed the snowy head of an elderly man in the audience. Something spectral about him. Could it be the Ghost of Lambeth Past? Yes, it was former Labour leader of Lambeth, Ted Knight. Knight of the living dead, architect of the reckless, irresponsible excesses that brought Lambeth to its knees in the 1980s, excesses which led to massive debt. Debt which would worry some third world countries. Debt the borough is still saddled with. More of him in a moment.
Lee Jasper was speaking in that way he does when there’s an audience. He harangued Cabinet to ‘use every mechanism to challenge’ the Tory Lib Dem government. As a side issue, I reflected, as I listened, that if Ken Livingstone had won the 2008 Mayoral election instead of Boris Johnson, I’ve no doubt the Tories would now be looking at abolishing London government all over again.
Anyway, shortly afterwards, Cllr Kingsley Abrams, a Labour councillor, addressed Cabinet. It had already been stated from the floor that he was the only member of Labour Group to vote against the budget cuts. He said he would fight to the death to save Minet library in his ward. Kingsley called on the Cabinet to resign and get ‘proper jobs’. Steve Reed remarked angrily that Kingsley’s behaviour was ‘disgraceful, coming from a Labour councillor’. Shouting ensued between Cabinet Member for Children and Young People, Cllr Pete Robbins, and Kingsley. The audience started shouting for Cabinet to apologise to Cllr Abrams. Chants of ‘Apologise’ and ‘Shame on you’. A policeman entered the room.
Back to Red Ted. He still has a powerful voice, for a 77-year-old. I jotted down what he had to say, verbatim. This is it.
I’m speaking tonight along with those representing those most vulnerable within the community. Can I just say that in actual fact I’ve heard tonight how savage these cuts are going to be.
I actually saw in the South London Press that the Leader of the Council on his Twitter – a useful mode of communication – told us that when he was last at a Cabinet meeting tears flowed down the young faces of the Cabinet members as they realised the savagery of the cuts they were being asked to make.
And yet you’re going ahead and making them. I’ve never heard such cynicism from people like yourselves. The Tory cuts programme is going to destroy the Welfare State at local level, you know that. And yet you act as the axe-wielders for the Coalition.
Instead of protecting the people that elected you into office, what are you doing? You are actually acting as the agents of this coalition government. Far from really saying no to the government, you are in reality telling us that these savage cuts you are making tonight will in practice be much more difficult next year.
And so you’re promising not only the cuts of tonight but also the cuts of next year too. And you’re sitting there having been elected to represent working class communities. What I would say when you say you all claim to have no choice, well that’s a lie. You do actually have a choice.
In the 1980s when councillors said no to Thatcher, they could actually be surcharged. They could lose their home, they could be made bankrupt. You have no such challenge tonight. You would not face those penalties.
In actual fact the only penalty probably you would at the end of the day face is a loss of income as a councillor . But surely you’re not in the business for that, you’re in the business to represent us. I will draw to a close. Can I just say when you tell us your cuts will be better than the opposition’s cuts, can I just say – tell that to the park rangers. A P45 from a Labour council is a P45.
In other words your cuts are as bad as anyone else’s cuts. You cuts are going to destroy the services here. So don’t hide behind the fact that you are making better cuts than anyone else. You weren’t elected to make cuts. You were elected to represent working class people. Working class. Say no to the cuts! No more cuts!
So there we have it – councillors of Lambeth past could be surcharged, now they can’t so it’s OK to set an illegal budget. Except, Mr Knight, it’s not. If we were to set an illegal budget the council would be taken into government control and cuts would be made which would be far worse in many vital services.
The meeting ended just before 9pm. I overheard Cllr Jim Dickson, Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing asking Ted Knight (who lives in Norwood in Lambeth) why he hadn’t attended any local Labour Party meetings where cuts had been discussed. He replied that he had been in Cambridge ‘organising people’ (to do what was unclear).
I reflected, on the bus home, that in Ted Knight’s day, we would probably have been there all night, with occasional trips to the long-defunct basement bar, denouncing each other, forming shaky alliances and breaking them minutes later, plotting and counter-plotting, devoting dwindling energies to futile gestures that achieve nothing for the people who voted for us, enjoying the sound of our own voices and the thrill of our own dogma, and bringing Labour into such disrepute that the Liberals – unbelievably – arose in Lambeth as the ‘responsible’ alternative to the Tories.
That was Lambeth in the 1980s. There were some in the audience last night, like Ted Knight, who would love to turn back the Town Hall clock, calling on us to break the law and set an illegal budget.
Lambeth in 2011 is different. Labour in Lambeth is different. Since 2006, Labour has been sorting out the financial mess of decades and seeking to improve key services. That job has now been made all the harder by the massive, ideological cuts, too fast and too deep, imposed on us by the Tory Lib Dem government. We are freezing the Council Tax for a third year, while we seek to protect frontline public services for the most vulnerable in our community. The living dead on the far left would happily destroy that.
Lambeth endorsed Labour last year – 44 councillors and 3 MPs. Elsewhere in the country, the Tories and Lib Dems were let in, and let loose, by those who chose not to vote Labour. Their reasons are various, that is their responsibility. But to those who now choose to blame Labour for cuts which councils across the country are being forced to make, I’d say this. By all means blame us for what we got wrong when we were in government, but be sure of your facts. If you now think you have a right to blame Labour for the destructive actions of a Tory Lib Dem government YOU helped to create, you are wrong. While you dream of the perfect sort of Britain you’d create, conscience untroubled, back in reality Labour councils like Lambeth will be clearing up your wreckage for years to come.
Here is an article I wrote for the conference special (October 2010) issue of Total Politics. The brief was to provide practical advice to a Labour candidate campaigning against a Lib Dem incumbent.
Before May 2010, the Liberal Democrats were viewed by many Labour and Conservative activists with distaste and derision. Labour and Tories could unite in agreement that Lib Dems were not principled or serious and often downright dishonest.
From a Labour activist’s perspective, Lib Dems are more than ever these things. I suspect many Tories lie awake at night hoping for a chance to win an outright majority and kick Clegg, Cable et al out of the Whitehall bed.
With Lib Dem hands on the levers of government, it’s possible to show what a vote for them really means. It will be a struggle for Lib Dem politicians, blooded by government, to maintain the image of well-meaning community insurgents. Every pothole is now theirs to fix, not just point at.
But challenging a Lib Dem incumbent is tough. They have local profile, good name recognition, media contacts and the resources of town hall or Parliament. They live in constant campaign mode, living the ‘working all year round, not just at election time’ mantra of many a Lib Dem Focus.
Establishing yourself early as a serious, active contender is vital. As soon as you are selected as a Labour candidate, you must start campaigning. And you must not stop. Your opponent certainly won’t. A good candidate devotes weekends and most weekday evenings to campaigning, and forgets about holidays of more than a fortnight.
An early start is a good opportunity to test out voters’ attitudes to your Lib Dem opponent, distil the issues that might sway their vote towards you, and build your own local profile by attending public meetings, the school gate and the church fete. It is also a chance, crucially, to define your opponent in contrast to you.
Analyse and define your opponent in the context of the ConDem coalition. Whether they support it or not, they will be standing on a local or national manifesto that is defined in some way by the actions of the ConDem government. Work out how ConDem public sector cuts will affect local hospitals, schools and policing. How jobs lost will impact on voters. Lead local – and vocal – campaigns against unfair cuts.
Take on the mantle the Lib Dems love to wear: be the candidate with the positive local offer, the hard-working local champion, on the side of local residents. But be more than local – people rarely vote out an incumbent unless someone seeming better comes along. Be that better candidate, show you also have a positive vision for the ward, the constituency or the country, and energy to deliver.
At the same time, set the agenda in your favour. Let’s suppose the major issue for near-future elections will be government cuts. Challenge your opponent on their support for the ConDem coalition and their support for cuts. If police numbers are cut locally, force your opponent to defend that. If they are in favour, go for them. If they hesitate or wobble, go for them. If they go off-message, go for them. Depending on their stance, you can define them as either uncaring, irresponsible, incompetent, slippery or weak. They will hate it.
The Lib Dems have never been in such an awkward position before. Seize the advantage. Campaign on trust and betrayal. Did people vote Lib Dem for a Tory government? Do they feel betrayed by the Lib Dems? Do they feel let down? ‘Lib Dem let downs’ could be a major theme for your campaign literature. The more you rattle Lib Dems, the less effective their campaigning becomes.
Build your support over time, allowing word of mouth to help you. A common mistake is thinking that the short campaign is when most voters make up their minds. Actually it’s important to get your message across long before, and keep restating it.
Don’t be afraid of repeating messages again and again in every leaflet, direct mail, petition or on the doorstep. In political communication it’s only when voters start reciting your message on the doorstep that it’s starting to get through.
Set yourself contact targets. Conversational quality in canvassing is important, but there’s no point if you are only speaking to five voters a week.
Pace yourself with a different doorstep technique for different phases of a campaign. A year out you will have the opportunity to listen to concerns or get petitions signed. Six weeks out, you need speed.
Because Lib Dems say different things on different doorsteps, they work most effectively as lone operatives. Labour campaigners work best as a team. Grow a campaign team of members, family and friends and make sure you thank them after every session.
Study your canvass data. Is it reliable? Is it up to date? If not, it needs to be. Approach known Lib Dem voters and listen to their concerns. Find common cause through issues large and small. Keep gently reminding them that a vote for the Lib Dems has now been scientifically proven to be a vote for the Tories.
Using the marked register, target people who vote but are previously uncontacted. A local survey with a question about voting intentions, delivered to every home can be a great way of finding friendly voters. When you find people who aren’t registered to vote, get them registered. Engage with those who don’t vote to encourage them to vote Labour. Explain how a postal vote makes voting easier.
Make yourself as contactable as possible. A regularly updated blog giving your contact details is a must. Not only is it a place to express your views, it shows the amount of work you do, building incrementally with each update. Use Facebook and Twitter to build online networks, but don’t think they will win it for you.
In the end, the only way to beat a Lib Dem opponent is by mounting a strongly organised ground campaign, defining yourself as the better candidate, setting an agenda that favours your messages and policy positions, canvassing like mad and getting out your vote on the day.
It’s a very strange sensation, coming 93rd in the Total Politics poll of the 100 favourite Labour blogs. It means I’m fractionally more popular than Austin Mitchell, who came 99th. I am unsure how to deal with this level of celebrity.
What feels most strange is I really don’t deserve to be in the list – though of course I’m grateful to whoever voted for me. I’ll try to blog more regularly to justify the touching optimism of their votes. But, truth to tell, the Total Politics poll wasn’t on my radar, and nor was this very occasional blog.
My glittering 93rd place was effortless. Literally effortless. I did absolutely nothing to win any votes, and seeing myself propelled to the coveted 93rd spot came as a bit of a shock. I had one of those almost-falling-off-chair moments. It felt a bit like winning a school prize for not doing any homework.
I’m reminded of the time I was in a team representing my (comprehensive) school in a public speaking competition. We finished second, defeated by our hated rivals, a grammar school. Finishing second – silver medal, general glow of achievement, better luck next time – it doesn’t sound that bad I suppose. But there were only two teams taking part. Young man, they were better spoken, said one of the judges. We woz robbed.
But life goes on. I have, I must admit, had a very off and on attitude to blogging, to the extent that my blog posts in the past year have been about as frequent as panda sex. In the autumn of last year I rediscovered a love of messing around with a video camera. Armed with the editing software on my computer, I’ve turned out some YouTube videos I’m more proud of than anything I’ve written in a blog. So maybe that explains why I haven’t been doing words – I prefer making movies.
But as there are clearly innumerable numbers of people out there with an eager interest in what I have to say as 93rd most popular Labour blogger, I’ll try to overcome my blog-block and write a bit more.
Meanwhile here’s a video I made of Streatham Labour’s hard-fought campaign this year that saw Chuka Umunna elected as our MP, and some Labour councillors of some merit (one is 93rd most popular Labour blogger believe it or not) re-elected.