Monday, 29 July 2013

Goodbye Home - Hello Ghetto

The Tories continue to churn out legislation designed to destroy the Welfare State.  It’s almost as if – in case they lose the next election – they are determined to leave it wrecked beyond salvage.

And – as I have said before – they are attacking on every front, with such a barrage of cuts and changes that, as fast as you turn your attention on one thing and start to oppose it, they are attacking something else behind your back.

This morning, news came out of yet another assault on Britain’s Welfare State, when Eric Pickles, Secretary of State at the DCLG announced that social housing tenants who earn more than £60,000 are to be forced to pay market rent (rather than the 80% ‘affordable’ rent they pay at the moment). 

Another Nasty Tory Policy
At first this seems just another typically nasty and divisive piece of Tory bile.

We know now how the Tories work:

  • First, they identify a small group of the population – in this case, high-earning social housing tenants.
  • Next, they wage a propaganda war against them, suggesting to the rest of the population that this group is somehow stealing from them, and needs to be penalised for the benefit of the majority – the ‘we-cannot-afford-it’ argument is the usual justification.
  • Then they float/consult on a suggested penalty for these ‘scroungers’ and – when the initial outrage has died down a bit – move in and hammer them. 

So it comes as little surprise to find that this is what has happened to high-earning social tenants:

Plans set out by the Communities and Local Government department last week state the government will enshrine in law that the onus is on tenants who earn above the threshold to reveal their earnings ‘to ensure they are making a fairer contribution’.  
Of the very few people beyond those-directly-affected who even know what is happening, many will read the rhetoric and actually agree.  Why should people who could afford to buy their own house ‘take up’ valuable ‘social’ housing?  And why shouldn’t they pay market rent – the extra money can be used to build more much-needed social houses.

The Flawed Initiative
But think about it – begin to look at it for what it is, a Tory initiative, and look for the social damage, and for the hidden agenda (because there always is one).

High-waged people living in rented, social housing have a reason to do so.   It is a major financial decision to choose to pay rent all your life for a house you will never own.  Perhaps their job is not secure, or needs them to move about the country.  Perhaps they have family living nearby for whom they need to care. This is yet another Tory regulation, of which the social consequences have been inadequately forethought.

More to the point, the reaction of many people faced with a sudden 25% hike in their rents will probably be to move.   Firstly, this is likely to undermine, not strengthen, the Registered Housing Providers who are already (because of the ‘bedroom tax’) finding it difficult to let larger houses.  More to the point, moreover, when people make the inevitable decision, and decide to put their money into a mortgage rather than rent, it will increase demand for private houses and lead to a rise in house prices.  Given that this is also the inevitable outcome of the government’s help-to-buy scheme, we can fairly much assume that this was the government’s intention all along ... a housing bubble.

The Death of the Welfare State
But what I want to concentrate upon is not the flawed practicalities of the scheme, but upon its flawed principles.

Because – when you charge high-earning tenants full rent – you are making a mighty statement about social housing.

When Newton Aycliffe was built after the war as the embodiment of the Welfare State, no private housing was allowed at all.   It was ALL Council Housing, and everybody was expected to live in it – the manager next to the mechanic, as they explained at the time.  We had ‘all been in it together’ during the war, and we were going to ‘all be in it together’ as we built post-war Britain.

When I first came to Newton Aycliffe, therefore, as a young Oxford graduate, I automatically went into a Council flat.  There was no stigma attached, no idea of my Council house being in any way ‘inferior’ or accommodation for the inadequate; even then, almost all the housing in Newton Aycliffe was Council Housing (and very nice it was too).

Of course, Thatcherite Britain long-since ditched such Socialist ideas – private housing estates burgeoned all over Great Aycliffe, and ‘Council’ housing became ‘Social’ housing, with all the baggage that the word entails.
And now, this new measure puts the final nail in the coffin.

‘Social’ housing is no longer to be an option for people able to support themselves – they should be in private rented accommodation, or should be ‘aspiring’ to own their own property.
No. ‘Social’ housing is for the poor. For those on benefits. For those unable to look after themselves. For the 'failures of society', and those without acceptable ‘aspirations’. 

‘Social’ housing is to be ghettoised … it is to become the British equivalent of the South African townships.

Housing as a Means-tested Benefit
And there is a second, even darker, connotation to this restriction of social housing to poor people, because it amounts, essentially, to the means-testing of housing.

It thus subtly reduces the status of the social tenant – even if they are paying the full 80% rent – to ‘scrounger’.
Theirs is not an economic contract, paying an agreed rent for the house provided, as a full and equal citizen.
No.  Social house tenants are getting a means-tested cheap deal.

This is not a case of getting housing benefit to pay your rent if you need welfare benefit.  The social house itself has become a welfare benefit.

This latest DCLG announcement, therefore, is designed to the same end as the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and other new DCLG rules that see social housing, not as a ‘home’, but merely as a temporary, revolving-door accommodation, into which you move because you cannot do otherwise financially, but out of which you are expected to move when your circumstances change. 

It is the death of the Beveridge vision for housing.

After the second world war, politicians such as Attlee, Bevan and Beveridge adopted a socialist model of Council Housing to try to solve Britain’s severe housing shortage.  Personally, I cannot see why what they did then would not work again now.

But, looking at what this Tory crowd are doing to our housing, I cannot help but think that they would feel that fighting the war had been a wasted effort.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

How to solve the problem of our town centres … in one word.

Today, I will tell you how to reinvigorate the town centre ... and it isn't by remodelling the pedestrian zone. 

The out-of-town decision
Wednesday was my wife’s birthday, so on Tuesday – old romantic that I am – I decided to go and buy her a present.  I knew what I wanted, and knew where I could get it.

I’m at County Hall.  It’s lunchtime.  I have an hour free, and I decide to pop out and get the gift. 

So where to go?

Durham is nearer.  But oh the hassle of going there.   To drive right into the centre involves a Congestion Charge.   There is often a queue into the multi-storey car park, and I hate those places anyway.  Meanwhile, parking anywhere in Durham costs; the nearest place I can think of where I could park free and walk is County Hall.

What about the park-and-ride? Well that costs too – £2 whether you use the bus or not – and involves all the inconvenience of waiting for a bus, and then the discomfort of a bus ride, and then having to walk to the shops from the stop.

So I went to the Arnison, out-of-town shopping centre.   It was little further away than Durham, but I could drive there, park up, and get out right next to the shop I wanted to go to.
Which I did, and a very nice present I bought too!

The Parking Problem with Town Centres
So yes.  It’s lazy, and ecologically unsound, and it’s destroying our town shopping centres … but we live in the age of the car.  And the out-of-town shopping centre, with its ease of access and free, convenient parking, wins every time.

If you think about it, it’s the same in Newton Aycliffe.  Cobbler’s Hall seems to be thriving – it always seems full of shoppers.  Tesco’s gets 40,000 visitors a month.  But if you go to the town centre, you rattle around like a couple of beans in a can.

And the difference?  Parking in front of the shops.

There is plenty of parking in Aycliffe, and it’s free … but you have to park and walk.
And in this automobile age, it’s too much.
Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is – it’s a faff, and it turns a two-minute diversion into a 20-minute epic.

It’s a no-brainer, actually, when you think about it.  About fifty years ago we decided that we did not want cars in our town centres, and we started taking measures to exclude them.  What we did not realise was that, when we drove the cars out of our town centres, we were also driving out the people who drove in them.

And if we want to get those people back, we have to allow back the cars they travel in.

The Solution

Beveridge Way, Newton Aycliffe – in an era when we were not trying to drive the car out of our town centres.

Forget Mary Portas – it was a waste of ink.

What our town centres need to organise is some way to replicate the park-and-shop attraction of the out-of-town shopping centres.

I can see that in many old town centres this will be difficult, but in Newton Aycliffe it could be easy.

If I owned the town centre I would level the shops on the west side from the Halifax to Woolworths, relocate the lessees, and turn that whole area from Greenwell Road to the front of Boots into a huge free car-park.

Let the cars ‘get at’ the shops, easily, and the shoppers will arrive with them.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Are the Tories 'Evil'?

Recently, in response to a Sunny Hundal article, both Mark Ferguson of LabourList and Owen Jones in the Independent have come out publicly to say that “the Tories aren’t actually evil”.

Yes they are dismantling the Welfare State.  Yes they are destroying the NHS.  Yes they are abolishing Legal Aid.  Yes they are wrecking the economy of the North East.  All this acknowledged, but all that – it is suggested – does not make them ‘evil’.

An Era of Cuts
Of course, it is a moot debating point – both Ferguson and Jones argue that all this does not make the Tories evil in the religious sense of the word: is
 it fair to label Mr and Mrs Deluded of Surrey ‘evil’ in a Satanic way? 

But if that is all it is to Messrs 
Ferguson and Jones - a debating point - then it shows where they are coming from.

Both of them are writers who are making their money and their status from commenting upon the political situation.  They have both become well-known, and are comfortably well-off.  

And they clearly regard the whole show as a political game – a point-scoring debate.

How do I know?  Because neither of them think the Tories ‘evil’.

Yes they can observe the Tories’ actions and denounce them. 

“Cruel? Certainly. Unforgivable? Beyond doubt,” comments Owen Jones.

But these are the observations of the dispassionate observer, not the outcry of the victims. Neither Mr Ferguson nor Mr Jones are actually suffering on account of the Tories’ policies … in fact they doing rather well out of them.

Evil as a relative, rather than an Absolute, Concept
To be honest with you, the Tories’ policies have affected my personal lifestyle only marginally. But, here in the north-east, they are devastating my community, and the lives of many of the poorest and most vulnerable local people.

What Ferguson and Owens need to appreciate is that the destruction of the Welfare State is merely objectively ‘cruel’ and ‘unforgiveable’ … until you find yourself trapped by the bedroom tax, or unable to get a crisis loan to visit your son in hospital.
It is when the issues become subjective that you start to declare the Tories ‘evil’.
Much the same can be said about the NHS, legal aid and the economy.
Try asking one of those council workers who have lost their job, or who have had their pay frozen year upon year, whether they think Tories are ‘evil’.

The abuse-term ‘evil’ is much easier to discuss dispassionately when you are wrapped into the Westminster bubble, than when you rely on the local foodbank to feed your children, knowing that you will not be allowed to make another visit for three months.

The vitriol of ‘evil’ comes then, I would suggest, much more easily to the lips.

We Need More Nye Bevans
Aneurin Bevan once got into trouble for describing the Tories as ‘lower than vermin’.
I often wonder how he would get on in today’s anodyne, oh-so-polite-and-reasonable triangulating Labour Party.

But let’s not forget that the anger and hatred that fuelled Bevan was the motivation which wrenched a Britain ruined by the War out of the Hungry Thirties and into the Welfare State.

To my mind, we need more Nye Bevans.
Are you, as I, not amazed that there is so little anger against what the Tories are doing, so little outcry - so little response, not least from the poor people affected, but also from the caring middle classes?

I suspect it is indeed because we have not yet, as a society, realised that what the Tories are doing is evil, and thus we have not come to realise - as Britain did in 1945 and 1997 - that we are morally obliged to cast them out.

And just one more point, about Mr and Mrs Deluded of Surrey.

Nye Bevan had lived through the war, and he knew that to sit back and allow evil is in effect to condone it.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Save Our Lollipop People

I recently received one of those round-robin petitions from a couple of people in my ward, asking me to 'save our lollipop people'.

It is certainly an emotive issue, but is it one where we can declare unilateral support?  This is my reply

Dear petitioner,

Thank you for your email asking me to save our lollipop ladies and men and maintain spending on road safety by the council to enable children to make a safe journey to school.

It is important that I begin by telling you that this reply is my personal response, and is not in any way an official ‘County Council’ opinion.

So may I begin by assuring you – having been a teacher for my entire working career until retirement – that the safety of children making their way to and from school is of very great importance to me.

An Era of Cuts
Having said that, however, may I take this opportunity to apprise you of the situation facing the County Council, as I see it at the moment.  As you will be aware, since it came to power, this government has made huge cuts in the funding to local government.  This has been accompanied by measures to discourage Councils from raising council tax, even by the rate of inflation.  Thus Councils have found themselves caught between falling funding and increasing costs, and this has necessitated significant savings … or, as you and I would call them, ‘cuts’.      

People, wrongly, often believe that their council tax funds the activities of the County Council.  Actually, council tax revenue covers only one-fifth of the Council’s budget.  Given that the total shortfall 2010-17 is expected to amount to £202m, even if the County Council were to double its council tax, it would still not cover the total sum needed.

Thus, inevitably, the Council is having to make savings.  Back in 2010, facing what were even then described as ‘unprecedented’ reductions in funding, the County Council conducted a major consultation exercise, in which it asked the public where they felt the savings ought to be made.  That consultation identified management and support services as the preferred focus for cuts.  (A later review, in 2012, indicated that people were generally satisfied with the way the County Council was making the savings.)

July is the time of year when Councils calculate the end-of-year outturn, and begin to make their ‘medium term financial plans’ for the future.  Thus Durham County Council’s Cabinet were told, last week, that the County Council is on target to save £113m by the end of this financial year.  However, further government measures ‘in the pipeline’, along with extra cuts announced in the June Spending Review, have meant that the County Council expects to have to find nigh-on a further £90m additional savings by 2017.

£202m amounts to almost a quarter of the total County Council budget, so you will appreciate that this will involve the Council having to make some very painful decisions.  This is particularly so because the Council has already made huge cuts to the ‘back-office’ functions favoured in 2010 – we are, now, reaching the point where it may have to look at cuts that will bite into valued services.

Prioritising One Cut Against The Others 
What I can assure you, however, is that – before any decisions about further cuts are taken – the County Council intends this autumn to hold another extensive consultation exercise, to ask the public where they wish the emphases to be placed.  The choices offered are likely to be horrific, with people being asked to choose between things like youth workers, potholes, winter maintenance, litter, funding for voluntary organisations, tourism, apprenticeships and a host of other essential services.  You will be able then to decide for yourself how you will rank children’s safety on the way to school (legally a parental responsibility) on the list.      

You ask me whether I will guarantee to ‘save our lollipop ladies’.  The answer has to be that, at this point, I cannot see how any such guarantees can be made.  I appreciate that, faced by an email petition trying to ‘save the lollipop ladies’, it is easy to regard them as a benefit, and to send off the letter asking your local councillors not to cut that service.  Councillors regularly receive such emails, on behalf of a range of causes.  However, to keep the lollipop crossing patrols, those Councillors will be forced to hit other services, and it is important that we make sure that we will not be cutting services that are more important still.  It is a matter, not of absolute, but of relative value.   At this point, nothing is guaranteed, apart maybe from those services which the County Council is legally required to undertake, such as the care of looked-after children.

All We Can Do Is...
In 2010, voters elected a government which has decided to slash council spending.  What we are witnessing, consequently, is the wholescale (and probably permanent) restructuring and reduction of ‘local government’.  My personal belief is that we need to hang on to as much as we can, make the necessary savings as painlessly and sympathetically as possible in line with the wishes of local people and, wherever possible, explore alternative ways of delivering those services we regard as essential within our communities.

Within that larger picture, however, I have noted with sympathy your wish that children’s safety on the way to school might be a priority issue.

Please feel free to get back to me if you wish to discuss this matter further.


John D Clare

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The LibDems on Durham County Council – Opportunism not Opposition

A wise politician knows his opponents and so, in that spirit, I follow a number of people with whom I disagree.  One of them is Nigel Martin, erstwhile LibDem leader on the County Council.

 in his blog, Cllr Martin shared his ‘gripes for the day’.  This is my reply.

Gripe No.1
Cllr Martin’s first gripe is about Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting at Seaham.  In order to make itself more accessible, the Cabinet routinely holds its meetings in different locations around the county.  Cllr Martin has no beef with this in principle; his complaint is that the only ‘local’ matters on Wednesday’s agenda involve two Durham issues – St Oswald’s School and the approval of a lottery bid for Wharton Park.
‘Why not hold it in Durham?’ he asks.

Now I have only been a County Councillor two minutes, but even I can appreciate that the dates and locations for Cabinet meetings have to be set well in advance, and certainly long before the specific agenda of any particular meeting has been decided.  A glance at the online list of Cabinet meetings confirms this.  So – given that neither can we set agendae months in advance, yet nor can we change the location of meetings at the last moment – it doesn’t take a genius to realise that location and agenda are not always going to dovetail neatly.

So – it’s a petty quibble by Cllr Martin … but I could have forgiven even that had it not been for the fact that, emblazoned down the right-hand side of his blog, twice, was the information that Cllr Martin is a Friend of Wharton Park!  So, for a member of the opposition, this Cabinet meeting should have been a red-letter day – the time when the Labour Cabinet approved the lottery bid for the cause of which he was a proud advocate.   To moan about that meeting is bad form, is it not, and smacks of political opportunism. 

Gripe No.2
It is this accusation of opportunism, however, that I need to pursue more vigorously as I come to Cllr Martin’s second point – his motion to have all meetings of the County Council and Cabinet broadcast.

Cllr Martin’s proposition, of course, is the second LibDem motion I have encountered in my short time as a County Councillor.
At the last Council meeting, Cllr Wilkes laid down a motion to charge supermarkets an 8.5% local rate, to use to boost jobs, shops and services (as they do in Northern Ireland).  Although we rejected it (the current English local rate is more beneficial for small traders, and in County Durham we cannot afford to discourage supermarkets, which are major ratepayers) I can remember thinking that it was a jolly good suggestion, and good on Cllr Wilkes.

As those of you who follow me on facebook know, however, last Thursday I went to a NALC conference in Sheffield.

One of the workshops I attended was on the Sustainable Communities Act, run by a group called ‘Local Works’.  Imagine my surprise then when, towards the end of the session, the chap from Local Works exhorted us to join the Local Works campaign to charge supermarkets an 8.5% local rate, to use to boost jobs, shops and services (as they do in Northern Ireland)!
I felt cheated, to be honest.   It was not Cllr Wilkes’s idea at all, but a crowd-pleaser he had stolen to run with, presumably to win favour electorally.

Another of the workshops I attended, you may know, was on engaging with the local community, a session which descended into a debate about … yes you’ve guessed, Eric Pickles’s controversial idea to allow all meetings of the County Council and Cabinet to be broadcast.
i.e. ANOTHER current bandwagon the Lib Dem have thought to jump on!

Actually, Cllr Martin ought to have gone to that workshop – if he had, he might have deemed it wiser to delay his motion.

For filming council meetings is – as anybody but a bandwagon-jumper would have realised – fraught with legal and practical difficulties.
Some of the issues which came out of the workshop were:

  1. what about councillors who don’t want to be filmed – do they have to be forced to allow themselves to be filmed?
  2. what about officers – do we have to insert clauses into their contracts stating that they must allow themselves to be publicly broadcast?
  3. what about visitors – will we have to get them to sign disclaimers/permissions to be broadcast publicly?   And what will happen if any of those visitors are children?
  4. what about fair use of those broadcasts – are we going to assert conditions requiring that they might not be edited to misrepresent … and how are we going to enforce such, should somebody for example stitch together a collage of clips of Cllr Martin to make him look ridiculous? 
Personally, I agree with filming council meetings, but I have the sense to realise that – even if and when we decide to do it – it will require more than an opportunistic motion trying to grab the limelight.
It will need a very careful re-writing of the Council’s constitution in this regard, and clear rules about what, when and how.  It will cost.  And it will be a legal minefield, and it needs broaching and introducing wisely.

Which is not something we are likely to get from Cllr Martin’s motion. 

The difference between Opportunism and Opposition
As I have written before, the TRUE job of an opposition is to track the ruling group, to monitor them, find their mistakes, and hold them to account.

To be fair, the LibDems on the County Council may be brilliant at that. I have only been a County Councillor three months. 

Nevertheless, I have not seen any evidence of that so far. All I have seen thus far of the LibDems is two stolen ideas, floated as shallow, ill-considered motions to Council, opportunistically seeking a bit of publicity and public approval.

I'll be watching them, and I'll tell you if they start to do any better.

Come Back New Labour - All Is Forgiven (Well, Not Quite)

Today, at the Miner's Gala in Durham, Unite leader Len McCluskey will warn Ed Miliband to 'distance himself from New Labour'.
I think he is completely off target - but can it be that everybody is mistaken but me?

New Labour and Blairism
Everybody on the left of the Labour Party nowadays is attacking the 'Blairites'. And not just the left - it was Ed Miliband that made the break with 'New Labour'.

Now Tony Blair was my MP for many years, and I heard him talk many times.  And I have to say that what is often attributed to 'Blairism' is not what I understood by 'Blairism'.

It is true that Blair made the Faustian Pact with Capitalism.  That, of course, was his 'Clause Four' moment that everybody is talking about.  The price of that pact was that Labour renounced nationalism - and Labour did.  

But - and this is VERY important - New Labour did NOT renounce socialism.
The back of your Labour Party membership card still begins: 'the Labour Party is a democratic socialist party'.

Tony Blair's political position - can you remember it - was 'the Third Way'.  
This was NOT the cynical electoral 'triangulation' it is often adopted as by those on the Party's right nowadays.  

Blair's political point was that, in between the stand-off between Labour's socialism and Thatcherite capitalism, there was a 'third way' - a way that would benefit from the best of both worlds.  Basically, Blair's stance was that he could help capitalists to make their money, because a New Labour government would then use that money to help the poor and disadvantaged of society.

In some ways, therefore, Blair's 'third way' could be represented as more truly socialist than the traditional Labour Party that he succeeded.  Traditional Labour had introduced social security as a net to stop the poorest of society starving, worked with the unions to improve conditions and wages, and introduced Grammar Schools to help bright working class children escape into the middle class.  Blair's assertion was that this was not good enough - what was needed was social remodeling, which would rather raise the condition of the entire lower classes.  So New Labour introduced a minimum wage for every worker.  Its ambition was that every child would go on to some kind of further education (50% of them to university).  And it introduced SureStart so that every child might have the kind of advantages in life that wealthier children have.  
In such ways, moreover, Blair's Labour was much more 'Big State' than nationalising traditional Labour had ever thought to be.

There was a lot that was wrong with New Labour.  It was in essence dreadfully middle class and patronising.  It fostered a state-dependence culture which curses us today.  And as time went on it lost its way and became mere unbridled neoliberal capitalism -- which, having been unleashed, eventually turned upon its mentors and destroyed them.

But, originally, Blairism was never the right-wing evil it is presented as today.  It was an ethical, middle-class, rejection of Thatcherism which failed because it never quite understood the lower-class culture it was trying to help.  But it was geniunely trying to help.  It was inherently socialist in nature, and it saw in the state a mechanism to solve society's problems.

To be honest, there is still a lot of the old-fashioned Blairite in my position today.

Progress Labour and a Failure of Political Education
How different from old-fashioned Blairism are the people who stand on the right of the Labour Party today.

Think of what Ed Miliband and his Progress-dominated Shadow Cabinet stand for.

  • They are wholly neoliberal supporters of austerity.
  • They believe in the small state.
  • They are cynical triangulators, believing that Labour needs to follow the polls and say what the electorate are thinking - to the point where I have suggested that Labour should change its name to YouGov Labour.
  • They accept many of the Tory policies which are re-impoverishing and disadvantaging the poor.

i.e. Progress Labour is far, far to the right of original Blairism.

There was, yesterday, a blog published by the political writer and former Labour Party supporter Hopi Sen entitled: On being on the Far Right of the Centre Left.
It is worth a read to see what those on the right of the Party are saying nowadays.

But can you see the BIG MISTAKE he makes?
Consider these comments he makes:
  • “I think Social Democracy works – it… [etc.]‘
  • ‘What I love about social democracy though, is… [etc.]‘ 
and many of the readers' comments below the article.

They ALL talk about 'social democracy'. They all assume that Labour is a social democratic party.
But Labour is not a social democratic party. 

If you want a party that is social democrat, join the Lib Dems.

Remember what it still says on the back of your Labour Party membership card, that ‘the Labour Party is a democratic socialist party’ ... which is *very* different.

Having realised this, scan back through Hopi Sen's article and see if you get anywhere a sniff of anything even slightly 'socialist'.

That is where the Labour Party is going wrong - many of even its leading members have not a clue as to what the Labour Party stands for.
The BIGGEST of all the failures of the Labour Party has been, imho, a failure of political education.

I know that bringing back 'old-fashioned' Blairism is not an option, and that 'Blairite' has become shorthand for the extremists on the far right of the Party.
But it is a misnomer, and we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Miliband’s ‘Falkirk moment’ – a fear and a fact

Well, it’s happened.
Ed Miliband has outlined his scheme to ‘mend not end’ the ‘Union problem’.
My immediate gut verdict?

My fear
My fear is very pragmatic – it’s money.
The Unions currently provide the lion’s share of Labour Party funding.
They also provide huge chunks of the money for affiliated candidates in local and national elections.

They do so via the political levy, which is currently an opt-out system – union members can refuse to pay it but, unless they actively do so, they pay it automatically … and the unions give it to the Labour Party.

Ed is now proposing to change this from an opt-out to and opt-in system. Union members will not pay automatically into the political levy; instead they must actively choose to be affiliated to the Labour Party.

This strikes me as the least thought-through idea I have ever heard.

For a start, how is it going to happen? How is Ed Miliband going to make the Unions stop collecting the political levy, but instead turn them into Labour Party recruiting agents, joining people up to the Labour Party, and organising their fees for them, through the unions’ financial mechanisms, but into the Labour Party revenue stream?

Ed Miliband hasn’t a clue either – all he can suggest is that he has asked Ray Collins, former General Secretary of the Labour Party, to lead work on how to make this a reality.
Ed Miliband is proposing get the Unions to organise their own impotency by directly recruiting for the Labour Party.
Best of luck.

The funding
But my fear goes beyond the scheme’s unworkability.

It would be my guess that millions of Union members – most of whom, let’s face it, genuinely could not give a fig about politics - will opt, not to opt-in, but will prefer to put the money into their pocket or into their union.

And Labour will go bankrupt.

Ludicrously, Ed has not made the reform of Labour-Party funding conditional upon the reform of other party funding. This is the funding equivalent of unilateral disarmament. So, as it is proposed, the Tories will continue receiving their £_thousands from big business, the Bahrain govt etc., … and we will be fighting from branch subs.

Ed has committed electoral suicide – and all, as a colleague pointed out to me – because of as yet undefined, unproven allegations about Falkirk!


The context
Maybe, if addressed properly in the correct context, this might have been made to work.

Ultimately, it is possible to argue that individual, active affiliation is better than a mass political levy. Maybe, with negotiation, it might have been possible to get the union turkeys to vote for their own political Christmas.

And, yes, most workers might be expected not to opt in. But, perhaps, with the right campaign to convince them of the worthiness of the scheme, with the active cooperation and support of the Unions’ leaders, and in connection with a series of lead-up initiatives to reconnect union members with local branches and local activists … perhaps it might have been turned into a mass-recruitment of union members into the active Labour Party, such as Ed envisages.

But that’s not the current context, is it?
The scheme is being floated as a punishment and admonishment of Unite for trying to fix the Falkirk selection. It is being proposed in the teeth of the opposition of Unite (and indeed of many left-wing activists). And it is being driven through as a knee-jerk reaction which seems self-evidently to be a case of Jim Murphy and the other Progress leaders seizing the opportunity to get rid of their union thorn-in-the-flesh once and for all.

In such a context, although I am Labour-to-the-core, even I can wonder whether, if I were a loyal union-member, I would not tell the Labour Party where to put their request for my affiliation fee. And, if I did opt in to any party at all, would it not make sense to send my money to the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC)?

The fact
But all this brings me to the final point – and it is here when I move from speculation to undeniable fact.

Where was the consultation with the Party members on this initiative?

Ed Miliband’s speech bangs on about democracy and representation. He wants to see members actively involved.
It’s all rubbish.
And the fact that it’s rubbish is proven by the fact that – on this major, cataclysmic, sea-change in the Party’s strategy and nature – he has just chosen to announce it as an edict from on high.
And my only involvement has been that he sent me an email this morning telling me that he wanted me to be the first to know what he was going to say, and of, quote: ‘the steps I will be taking’.

Now there’s an imperious ‘will’, don’t you think.

I have been asked (in the Your Britain campaign) what I think about a few issues (such as a British investment bank), but on this vital issue Ed Miliband has simply got together with his Progress friends in his Shadow Cabinet and imposed a right-wing solution on the Party.

So much for a democratic organisation!

The direction
Often it’s the little things that cause the most distress, and the thing that upset me most this morning was a little phrase in one commentary which stated that this was a start, but that ‘Ed Miliband is still to the left of the electorate’.
My heart fell.

All today’s announcements about affiliation fees are merely a part (primaries are another) of a Progress push to change us from a left-wing democratic socialist organisation which campaigns to persuade the electors that our beliefs are right, into a centrist-tory organisation which sets its principles where the electorate happen to be - no longer New Labour, but YouGov Labour.

Today, Ed Miliband seems to have chosen his allies, and declared his direction, and he has invited the organisations and people he is rejecting to help him.

I started off by saying that this is my immediate, gut verdict to what has happened today. I totally reserve the right to have got it wrong.
I desperately hope that I have – for the Party’s sake.

But at the moment I am finding it hard to believe that any good will come from all this.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Battle of Falkirk, 2013

There is a ‘line’ in the Labour Party – especially amongst left-wingers – that the Falkirk ‘packing’ story is a side-issue being jacked up by the Tories to damage Labour.
I don’t agree. It may well be eventually brushed under the carpet, but I think it is a defining issue for Labour and one which, eventually, will make or break the Party.

I have watched the Falkirk story unfolding with a feeling of despair.

Labour right-wingers such as Jim Murphy and a whole host of retired Blairites have leaped on the story as a chance further to attack the unions’ alleged influence within the Labour Party. Despite the undeniable evidence that – even if Unite have been trying to take over the Labour Party – they are clearly too inept at politics to ever do so, the Labour Right are using Falkirk as a lever to try to force Labour to ditch the unions once and for all.

By contrast, Unite’s reaction to being caught with their fingers in the till has been, alternately, protesting undying loyalty to Ed Miliband, then accusing the Labour Right of exaggerating the issue to try and stitch up the unions. #EmbarrassingReaction.

Finally, after a deafening silence during which the story spun out of control – whilst The Guardian reported that he was ‘furious’, and had resolved to cut Labour’s ties with the unions – Ed Miliband has at last put pen to paper and intervened. Apparently, Labour needs to ‘mend, not end’ the union link … whatever that may mean. And having thus reduced policy to a undefined sound bite, a whole array of Labour MPs has lined up to declare the matter solved.

Falkirk – a catastrophic disaster
I wish I had their confidence. I think Falkirk has been a catastrophic disaster for the Labour Party.

Firstly, amongst those millions of middle-class, southerner, just-to-the-right-of-Labour people-who-vote, Falkirk has raised again the spectre of the ‘loony left’ as a significant faction within the Labour Party. Dan Hodges is a hated figure amongst Labour lefties, but he knows this constituency well, and I absolutely believe him when he say that ‘Labour is toast’ … at least amongst these voters. Just when Ed, Ed and Liam might have been lulling them into a sense of security by a string of intransigent neo-liberal statements on welfare and borrowing, in weighs ‘mad McCluskey’ and upsets the apple cart.

On the other hand, of course, amongst those millions of working-class, northerner, left-of-the-Labour-leadership people who have left-wing principles and may well be Union members themselves (though who often don’t vote), Falkirk threatens to be the last straw. They have been growing ever angrier with a Labour leadership which won’t even renounce the bedroom tax. Now – as the Party not only cracks down on an (albeit clumsy) attempt to challenge the Party machine’s domination of selections, but actually hands its findings over to the police – they could be forgiven for giving up altogether on their attempt to express their politics via the Labour Party. Another couple of Falkirks, and the Labour Party might as well change its name to ‘Progress Labour’ and have done with it.

Last night, Labour’s lead in the polls was down to 5 points.

A catastrophic disaster for the Labour Party? Well, maybe on its own not decisively catastrophic, but add a couple of similar confrontations and it may well turn out to be so.

Party selections and their manipulation
I received a tweet from one chap who suggested that Labour Party candidate selections were perhaps not at the forefront of people’s political concerns. Maybe he is right. But even if he is, I would suggest that they ought to be at the forefront of people’s political concerns.

In elections – especially general elections – most people do not vote for the candidate, they vote for the Party. You only have to look at the number of MPs who turn out to be an absolute jackass to realise this. In such a situation, therefore, it is the candidate selected by the Party who either wins or loses the election, and thus on the constituency party falls the onus of choosing someone good.

But who are these ‘constituency parties’ which exercise such a vital function?

(NB all of what follows is quite as true for the Tories as for the Labour Party.) 

For the most part they are relatively small groups of people, drawn from a very narrow base, often loosely related by marriage, family or friendship. At most normal constituency meetings, a ‘good turnout’ is measured in the dozens not the hundreds, and many of these are woefully ill-informed about political issues beyond their immediate community.
For a selection meeting there will be a better turnout, but the cost of drawing in the increased numbers is a corresponding growth in the aggregated ignorance. Most of the people in the room will have not a clue about any of the issues being played out by the handful of political illuminati on the executive.

So who to vote for? Nobody, even the newcomer, wants to be tricked by a smooth-talking con-man. And thus ‘the word goes out’. One or two high-status individuals within the constituency will choose their preferred candidate, and it is respect for their judgement, and their influence, which recruits, first the Party faithful and thus, by a sequence of personal recommendations, the local Party-as-a-whole.

Thus it is, not that a candidate can get selected by using this process … no candidate ever gets selected without using this process.

And it must now be clear how open the process is to manipulation.
That is how Party favourites and SpAds are ‘parachuted’ into constituencies. Someone on high has a word with the constituency beasts, the word goes out, and selection is pretty much a forgone conclusion.

And that also explains how things go wrong at places like Falkirk. Given the small numbers involved and a normal margin of error, I would like to guess that there are few constituencies in the country where a couple of hundred new members all with one aim would not alter the result. At Councillor level, in some wards, a large-family-and-a-couple-of-friends will get you selected.

Giving the Man-In-The-Street a say
I have no idea what Unite have been doing wrong in Falkirk but, to be fair to them, the unions have been quite open for some time now that they want their members to attend local Labour Party meetings, to get involved, and to exert an influence on the politics of their local Labour Party.

At the end of the day, one has to ask what is so wrong with this? If a whole load of lefties decide they are going to join up to the Party, and providing they agree to abide by the Party’s rules and ethics, why shouldn’t they then try to influence its policies, and why shouldn’t they then vote for a candidate of the kind they want?
It seems quite clear that, at Falkirk, those newcomers didn’t follow the Party’s rules and ethics – maybe didn’t even follow the laws of the land – but, that apart, if large numbers of union members choose to get correctly-involved in the Labour Party, have they not the right to be heard … to be counted.

Under New Labour, the Labour Party ceased even the pretence of being a working-class party. Faced by the moral evil of Thatcherism, thousands of morally-motivated middle-class people joined the Party, took it over, and ousted the Tories. I was one of them. Thus the Labour Party became, not a party of the poor, but a Party of the relatively well-off who were morally-motivated to do good things for the poor.

Poor people, of course, were welcome – the middle-class leaders needed footsoldiers to deliver leaflets and populate the meetings. But the Party leadership became – and still is – overwhelmingly middle class.

And under this assault by nice people who had superior education, undeniable skills and an ability to win arguments, the working class first capitulated, then stopped going … and eventually stopped voting altogether.
What is the point in politics – the twittering classes have stitched up politics altogether.

And it is this situation which the Unions – albeit it in the most ham-fisted and ill-conceived way – have been trying to address by encouraging their members (whom they regard as more genuinely working class) to get involved.

The disaster of Falkirk
If wrong has been done at Falkirk, then it needs stopping. People who join the Labour Party have to obey the Party rules.

But what must not be allowed to happen is that Falkirk is used by the Party powerful as an opportunity to reassert the power of the party machinery within the selection process.

As most Party faithful – and as someone who was one of Tony Blair’s (loyal) constituents – I am fully aware that Labour CANNOT go into the next elections on a 1983-style left-wing manifesto. We have to adopt a mildly-left-of-centre stance which will play to the morally-motivated middle classes, or we will not get elected.

But anybody who thinks that merely moving ever right-wards to secure the centre is a strategy-to-get-elected is sadly delusional.

The biggest challenge facing Labour lies on the left. It is how to motivate those millions of poor and working-class people who currently see no point in politics … and indeed usually know nothing about politics. It is how to engage them, how to attract them, how to involve them, and how to give them a genuine voice in what the Party is saying or doing.

It is not the relationship between Party and Unions which needs mending, it is the CLPs and the candidate selection processes which need expanding, reforming and democratising.

At the battle of Falkirk in 1298, William Wallace faced Ed Longshanks. Wallace had mobilised the populace and defeated the authorities, but at Falkirk Ed Longshanks used his superior resources and strategy to destroy the movement and regain control. 

Let’s hope that Falkirk, 2013, is not the time when Ed Miliband destroys the chance for a popular voice within the Labour Party.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Say Yes to Homes

Yesterday, I got a lobby letter from a local resident who had signed up to the National Housing Federation's 'Say Yes to Homes' campaign.
Here is my reply - it is specific to Aycliffe, of course, but the points it makes are applicable to almost any Labour-controlled Council area.

Dear <lobbyist>

Thank you very much for your email regarding housing, which I will try to answer as fully as possible.

May I start by saying that I regard the housing crisis as one of the biggest problems facing this country today. As you read my reply, you will see that both the Councils of which I am a member are actually doing practical things to try to help solve the crisis.

I have to add, however, that I am outraged by the ‘Say Yes to Homes’ video which tells people, simplistically that ‘all they have to do’ is to ‘hold their local councillors to account on building new homes’ and the housing crisis will be solved. One wonders just exactly what this magic wand is that the National Housing Federation think local councils can wave at the problem and why – given that the answer is so ‘simple’ – they have not done so already.

Release of land
One of the things of which local councils are often accused is failing to release land for housing. They are accused of a NIMBY attitude which refuses builders planning permission.
This accusation, of course, is linked to applications to build on Green Belt land. There are basically three categories of land – brownfield sites (which have been built on before), greenfield sites (hitherto undeveloped), and Green Belt land (land outside the cities, and protected from development by law since 1947 to prevent unrestricted urban sprawl into the countryside). Many developers want to build on the Green Belt and, under this Tory government, that demand has become more strident, using the housing shortage as a lever.

The claim that councils are not releasing land is the greatest nonsense I have ever heard.

The Durham County Plan (‘Preferred Options’) identified eight areas for house building in Newton Aycliffe – space for 1869 houses – and far more, actually, than the population is expected to grow in the next 20 years. Most of these sites are within the built area of the town. You may know that I have fought for 20 years to prevent building inside the town – I believe that our town’s health and attractiveness comes from the large areas of green inside the built environment, and that there are plenty of places to build on the outskirts. Nevertheless, I withheld my objections, because I know that houses are so very necessary, and because I judged it worth losing some of our greens to allow housing development. 

The County Plan even envisages the release of Green Belt land, north of the city of Durham – one of the first letters I received as a Councillor this year was a letter from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, asking me to support their campaign to prevent this. I did not support that campaign, again, because I believe that, given the housing crisis, homes must for a while take precedence over even the Green Belt.

But in fact, far from being refused planning permission, builders are sitting on thousands of sites across the country, which have planning permission for housing … but which they are not developing.
For example, in Newton Aycliffe, one of the most beautiful natural areas we possess – site ‘O’, just to the west of the Woodham Way roundabout – has planning permission, but sits undeveloped. The Huntsman pub applied for, and was given, planning permission to build three houses on part of its land – that site now stands unkempt and neglected, for sale, undeveloped.

The problem is not that the councils are not releasing land – the problem is that the developers are not developing it.

Council housing
So why don’t the Councils themselves just build more Council houses? The answer is money. As you will be aware, the government is cutting council budgets stringently. Neither can councils borrow money to build houses – the government imposes a strict borrowing cap, and has so far refused lobbying by the Local Government Association to raise that cap so that councils can build more houses.

Indeed, the rules governing Council houses are so deleterious, and the funding opportunities so limited, that councils are finding it impossible even to upgrade the council homes they possess, and most councils have been for some time transferring ownership to Registered Social Landlords (RSLs). You will remember that this happened in Newton Aycliffe some time ago (when Livin took over the Council houses), and DCC announced just this week that it is to transfer its last 19,000 homes to three new RSLs (Dale & Valley Homes, Durham City Homes and East Durham Homes). This – which is against the principles of many Labour councillors such as myself – is simply because RSLs will have a better chance of providing new homes than the council. Again, principle is giving way to pragmatism, and the need for houses.

Commercial developments
At the end of the day, this government is in principle against the growth of public sector housing, and it is looking to the private sector to build the homes. As it turns out, however, an initiative to encourage self-build has collapsed, and the number of new houses being built is at a low and declining.

One of the biggest problems is that housing developers do not want to build the kind of houses people need (so-called ‘affordable’ houses, bungalows etc.) because these kind of developments do not make enough profit. The developers want to build four-bed detached houses. Consequently, in Newton Aycliffe, the market is awash with four-bed detached houses … which are not selling (which is why further development has ground to a halt).
For a number of years, one of the ways the council tried to encourage private developers to build ‘affordable’ houses was by inserting provisos into planning applications that – to build the houses they wanted – they had to build so many ‘affordable’ houses. What we are finding, however, is that, now, a number of those developers are coming back to the council and arguing that they cannot deliver those affordable houses because the cost makes the business model unviable; they are therefore seeking permission to not build the affordable houses. Planning rules mean that those applications are often being agreed.

So we are not getting the ‘kind of houses we need’ … and, actually, the private housing estates are still not being built even then.

Affordable homes
What about the RSLs/Housing Associations? Could the council not help them to build/acquire and rent houses?

Actually, we are. DCC has granted Livin permission to build houses on garage sites, and the former Greenfield Home site. Even the little Town Council has got in on the act, coming to an agreement to release some of its land to Livin, to allow Livin to turn a small site into a much larger one to build bungalows (and, I have to say, the new Livin houses are of an excellent standard). Recently, also, the County Council began an ‘Empty Homes Cluster Programme’, a £4.4m scheme to bring 120 uninhabited houses back into use – the Council will purchase empty properties and do them up, so they can be rented out; the areas which will benefit in south-west Durham are Chilton, Coundon and Ferryhill.

But why are the RSLs not doing more? And is this the fault of the Councils?
Again, the problem is money. Livin’s business model, when I last heard, was to build about 150 houses a year – a drop in the ocean against the 7000 families on the waiting list. Recently, a developer who genuinely wanted to include affordable properties-for-rent in a small village housing development was unable to do so because they could not find an RSL prepared to buy and take them over.

The key institution with the kind of funding available to build the millions of homes needed is the government and, at the moment, they are pumping quantitative easing into the banking sector, rather than house-building and, until the government changes its policies for funding housing, we will not see any significant growth in the RSL sector.

Indeed, the government’s so-called ‘bedroom tax’ is severely damaging RSLs. At the one end, it is hitting RSLs’ rents because the poorer people, trapped in houses with spare bedrooms and unable to get out, are having their housing benefit cut … and are rapidly falling into arrears. In the meantime, at the other end, RSLs are finding that – for fear of the bedroom tax – people are not renting larger 3- and 4-bedroomed houses which are, for the first time, standing unoccupied. Thus, in two ways, the ‘bedroom tax’ is destroying the RSLs’ revenue stream, and wrecking their plans to provide more social housing.

There are conspiracy theorists who suggest that the bedroom tax is not aimed at people on welfare at all, but is an attempt to wreck the financial viability of the RSLs. Large financial institutions have had their eye on housing for some time and, if the RSLs were to collapse, they could be acquired very cheaply by big investors. Even if this is not true, the effect of the bedroom tax threatens to be disastrous for the RSLs’ building plans.

In conclusion
I am not very hopeful that we have a chance of solving the housing crisis under this present government.

At the risk of getting all political on you, what housing needs is a massive publicly-funded programme of council house-building, such as under the socialist Labour government after the war. This government (as, to be fair, the New Labour government before it) will never undertake such a programme, and the market-led model it favours is never going to produce millions of new homes, which will slash prices and the developers’ profits.

My biggest worry is for affordable rented housing. The government has defined ‘affordable’ rents, not as what people can afford, but at 80% of the private market rent. Therefore, it suits business to keep the housing market restricted, so that rents are forced up. Eventually, even ‘affordable’ rents are going to hit the Welfare Cap … and then how are poorer people going to afford somewhere to live? We are not even heading in the right direction to solve the housing crisis.

I am so grateful to you for raising this issue, and for caring enough to lobby me about it. I put housing as an issue on both my manifestos, and I hope this letter assures you that, both I personally, and the councils on which I sit, are actively seeking ways to help address the housing crisis.

What can you do?

The Labour Party recently held a consultation, asking people to comment on the housing policies it should adopt when it gets elected into power. Although the consultation is officially ended, the website is still open to comments here.  At least you will be able to see the kind of things Labour is talking about doing.

I know that your Labour MP is as anxious as I to overturn current government policies and to address the housing issue, but there is no reason why you can’t contact him.

And if you wanted to get involved at a local level yourself, you could go along to your local Labour Party Branch meetings and put your comments and questions..

I hope this reply is satisfactory – please email me back if there is anything else I can do or tell you.

John D Clare
County Councillor, Aycliffe North and Middridge