Wednesday, 30 April 2014

You don’t create a financial crisis by building hospitals- you do it by employing too many bankers.

The Hope Centre is a large evangelical church located on Upper Huntbach Street in the city centre of Stoke-on-Trent. It shares premises with an NHS mental health centre and so the entrance is somewhat fortress like.

When I arrive at around half past six on a grey spring evening a cheery red and green leaflet fixed to the reinforced glass doors tells me this is where the North Staffs People’s Assembly is holding its inaugural meeting. A trail of similar posters guide me up to the room where the meeting is to be held, its early and I’m almost the only person there and there is a palpable sense of concern as to how many people will actually turn up.

I wander around the room looking at the posters on the wall describing the church’s work with charity groups overseas and, more tellingly with the local food bank and am reminded that the left and the more socially active sections of the church have always been linked. The fight against austerity has, if nothing else, given both an opportunity to let down their often self-created barriers and engage with the wider community.

There are also stalls representing CND and local anti-racism campaign group NORSCARF. In one corner a group of women from Wool Against Weapons are showing off the long bright pink scarf they have knitted as part of a national project to be unrolled between two nuclear weapons establishments. It is a brilliantly day-glow riposte to the most deadly military braggadocio of them all.

Later in the evening Anti de Klerk of the People’s Flotilla Against Austerity will talk about the treatment of people living on the canal system following the sell- off of British Waterways by the coalition. Describing as she does so treatment so prejudicial it is hard, or rather we’d like it to be for our own peace of mind, to imagine it happening here; but it all too sadly is.

By a quarter to seven there are around fifteen to twenty people in the room and by the time the meeting proper starts this has risen to around thirty, not bad for a political meeting in Stoke.

The atmosphere is friendly, most of the people present seem to either know each other or at least to be comfortable with having a shared perspective. That could be somewhat insular, but on this occasion is more positive and thankfully free from the sensation that a bitter split over some issue that will be incomprehensible to anyone outside the loop might break out at any moment.

The meeting is introduced and chaired by Jason Hill, a long time campaigner against austerity representing the local Trades Council. He gives a brief overview of the impact government austerity policies have had on the local area since 2010, saying there is a ‘massive task’ ahead to reverse the damage done by a systematic attack on public services.

Jacqui Howard of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity outlines the origins of the movement as a response to the effect austerity has had on working people and the public services. The movement originated in London and there are now a hundred local groups around the country, all working to coordinate efforts to campaign against austerity and to promote the belief that it is possible to create a society based on social and economic justice.

She is young, articulate and clearly has a passionate engagement with her subject. All of which makes for a refreshing change from the usual run of semi-robotic aspiring politicians, most of whom though adept at engaging with the media tend to be animated by the fire of their own ambition rather than a zeal to do good for society.

Next to take to the podium is James Meadway of the New Economics Foundation who in his contribution aims to ‘peel away’ the ‘rhetoric’ surrounding the government’s austerity policies. He launches into a spirited attack on Chancellor George Osborne, currently being hailed as the author of an economic miracle, although most people are yet to feel the benefits of the supposed recovery.

He says the government have convinced the public that the last Labour government were wildly profligate with their money, despite the inconvenient fact that up to 2008 Labour spent just 39% of GDP on public services, the Major and Thatcher governments spent, respectively, 40% and 41%. The resulting push to reduce the deficit at all costs has caused a decline in living standards of a severity not seen since the thirties and is part of a politically motivated attempt to rebalance the economy in a way that benefits the wealthy few rather than working people.

What is needed, he says, is a concerted effort to challenge all and every cut, with exceptions perhaps for obviously unnecessary exceptions such as scrapping Trident, and a determination to propose and defend an alternative economic model. One where decent, secure jobs can be created through increased investment in public services.

Most people in the hall accept this as a fact, many outside it would agree with what James Meadway says on an instinctive level, but they have had a hugely effective snow job done on them by a largely right wing media. A constant drip of stories about ‘scroungers’ and threats that the left wants to spend, spend, spend until the country is bust have somehow persuaded the people most likely to lose out if public services are chopped down that they should help to swing the axe.

Sarah Honeysett of the local CAB takes to the stage to outline the impact of government ‘reforms’ to the benefit system on local people. The loss in income following changes to the benefits system equates to £108 million, it would take, she says, ten thousand jobs paying the minimum wage to make up the shortfall; and they’re hardly likely to materialise any time soon.

She also highlights the cruelly contradictory nature of the new benefits regime with the ‘bedroom tax’, unreasonable methods of assessing whether people are fit to work at all and aggressive ‘sanctions’ combining to trap claimants in a nightmare worthy of Kafka.

You get the impression from listening to someone with wide experience of how the reforms are being implemented on the ground that a benefits system intended to help people facing adversity is being remodelled into one designed to punish the poor. Which sounds dangerously Victorian and should scare witless exactly the same people who are being whipped into a frenzy by the tabloids over ‘scroungers’ living high on the benefits hog.

The gaps between speakers are filled in with poems from former Birmingham Poet Laureate Stephen Morrison-Burke. Political poetry is sometimes derided as being overly earnest and maybe a little bit silly, as he rolls beats effortlessly and name-checks a roll call of radical icons from William Blake to Rosa Parks this talented young man shows that in the right hands it can also be funny, entertaining and even profound.

The crowd for this event was undeniably smaller than the organisers must have hoped and also much less diverse, getting people motivated in a city where political life has atrophied due to years of Labour hegemony is a struggle. It was though a positive evening, it brought people with a shared purpose together to combine their efforts and may, in the long run, give some much needed hope that austerity can be resisted.

Monday, 21 April 2014

It will take more than a charm offensive to make people satisfied with this council.

Last week Stoke-on-Trent City Council announced that it intended to launch a ‘charm offensive’ to win back disillusioned citizens after a survey showed their reputation is amongst the worst in the country.

The survey, conducted by consultancy firm Westco cost £25,000 and was carried out in 2012 although the results were only released last week.

It shows that only 50% of people in Stoke are satisfied with the way the council does its job as opposed to a national average of 72%. The council is also seen as performing below the national average on giving value for money, just 30% of the people questioned said that it was compared to a national average of 56%.

In response the council plan to launch a revamped communication strategy aimed at highlighting their achievements in attracting investment to the city.

The local press are seen as key to delivering the new communication strategy, the survey found that just 44% of Sentinel readers were satisfied with the performance of the council compared to 64% of non-readers. This, its author’s remark with a surprisingly straight face, is due to the paper reflecting the views of its readers; blimey fancy that.

The council seem to have spent a lot of money to be told things they should have known anyway. In fact any advantage they may have gained from the survey will have been undermined by public anger at yet more money being wasted on consultants when services are being cut to the bone.

There is also something slightly unsettling about the survey’s failure to understand a few basic facts about the relationship between the press and politicians in a democratic country. Any press officer deserving of the name dreams of placing a ratio of two to one positive stories with the local media, most though are intelligent enough to realise that isn’t going to happen.

Put simply countries where the press lavishes unreserved praise on politicians are seldom free, Britain, for all its faults, is a free and open democracy. The Sentinel is quite right to reflect the views of its readers; that’s its job, if Mr Pervez and his cabinet don’t like that they should either pull their socks up or get another job and leave the politics to people with thicker skins.

That the council could and should communicate better is self-evident, doings so though won’t address the problems at the core of public dissatisfaction with their performance.

The stranglehold exerted on the political life of the city by the Labour Party means there is no effective opposition in the council chamber. It is a truth universally acknowledged that hegemony will eventually turn into hubris, hence decisions such as moving the civic centre to the CBD and the council’s continued illogical faith in the ability of Realis to deliver the City Sentral shopping centre are defended with dogged determination not because they are believed to be the right thing to do, but because admitting their mistake would cause the leadership to lose face.

The absence of an effective opposition means the scrutiny system does not work properly, handing a huge amount of unsupervised power over to unelected council officers, reducing councillors to little more than a rubber stamp. If the key decisions are taken out of sight by people they have never heard of is it any wonder local voters are dissatisfied with the council?

By far the biggest problem though is the poor quality of the majority of councillors currently sitting in the chamber.

In an environment where one party has a virtual choke hold on power qualities such as independence of mind and a willingness to be awkward when you believe your cause to be right do not flourish. Ambitious members of the Labour Party who want to be selected as candidates and then shooed into safe seats rapidly become adept at toeing the party line and saying only the words written for them by regional office.

There are a few notable exceptions amongst the Independents but their voices tend to get drowned out by Labour councillors saying and doing what they’ve been told to. A few candidates with ability from any party might come to the city for a short time to use it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, but for the most part it is the time servers who prosper, making the political life of our city much the poorer as a result.

If we want a council to be satisfied with then it is up to the people of this city to do something about it. We have to buck the trend of recent years and get out and vote in significant numbers, it is impossible for any council to build a real mandate if much of the electorate refuse to vote.

When we do vote more of us must break the surly bonds of habit and vote for someone, anyone, other than the Labour Party. As a former member that isn’t an easy thing to say, but we need a revived and more representative council, one that isn’t under the thumb of a complacent party willing to squander money on being told things it should already know while its tenants fear eviction and the lines at the food banks grow longer.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

There is more than a ‘feel’ of too many about government phone intercepts.

Police may be overusing their power to gather information about people’s communication data, so says Commissioner for Interception Sir Anthony May.

In 2013 there were 514,608 requests for information such as who owns a particular phone and who the owner may have called, this, Sir Anthony says, ‘has the feel of being too many.’

His report clears GCHQ of breaking the law, an accusation levelled at it by Edward Snowden. Concern has also been expressed that the police are using their interception powers in areas the law does not intend them to and that may infringe civil rights, the report finds that only a fraction of the requests made were for purposes other than the detection of crime.

Responding to the report Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC that it showed that ‘public authorities’ did not engage in ‘indiscriminate random mass intrusion.’

Foreign Secretary William Hague, also speaking to the BBC, said that a ‘senior and independent judge’ had looked into whether the police and other agencies misuse their interception powers and ‘concluded the answer is emphatically no;’ the government was though, he said, open to suggestions to strengthen the oversight framework.’

Speaking about the number of phone intercepts Sir Anthony May told the BBC that it ‘really does require to be investigated whether there may not be an institutional overemphasis in police forces on progressing their criminal investigations and an under emphasis on privacy.’

During the period covered by the report there were 970 errors made in the interception process, two of which resulted in warrants being executed at the homes of innocent people.
Don’t you just love judges, they have such a way with words. Be it puncturing the egos of cultural icons, ‘who are the Beatles?’ or, as in this case wielding understatement like a scalpel, they can do the most remarkable things with the English language.

Saying that 514,608 has about the ‘feeling’ of being too many is roughly equivalent to Scott of the Antarctic lifting the flap of his tent and saying ‘blimey it looks a bit chilly out’.

To me it has the ‘feel’ of a massive disconnect between we the public and the agencies who are supposed to be protecting us.

In the post Snowden world the old line having nothing to fear it you have nothing to hide no longer cuts the mustard. If the police and the government feel obliged to intercept phone calls on this scale then even the most innocent amongst us will start to feel we have something to hide and much to fear.

Whilst I realise that the apprehension of terrorists and serious criminals will always require some degree of interception of phone calls and other forms of communication surveillance on the scale at which it is starting to be carried out now does nothing to keep our society safe. In fact it might make it a more dangerous and less trusting place in which to live.

At worst we could end up in a situation not dissimilar to that faced by the hapless residents of the former GDR, where husbands and wives routinely spy on each other and walls really do have ears; usually attached to a stasi agent. A society where everyone it watching everyone else crushes trust and allows every mean spirited bully the chance to become a tyrant just by turning informer.

Does all this sound a bit far- fetched, maybe even a little paranoid? Consider then the calls made with the smirking support of the coalition by certain sections of the media for you and I to rat on the ‘benefits scrounger’ in our street; a dystopia of suspicion and public denunciations is only a moral panic away.

I defer to Sir Anthony’s superior knowledge of the law when he says the police and other agencies haven’t breached legislation as it currently stands. That doesn’t though stop me from thinking that if phone calls are being intercepted on this scale in a single year then the law is badly in need of being changed, because it is an ass.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Bedroom tax protesters take to the streets in Hanley.

Yesterday people around the country took to the streets to mark the first birthday of the government’s ‘bedroom tax.’

Riding by bus up to Hanley to take part in the local protest I couldn’t help looking out at the suburban streets passing the window and wondering how many people living there had had their lives blighted by the ‘bedroom tax.’ Out of all the austerity policies inflicted by the coalition it seems the most overtly cruel, striking as it does at one of the most basic requirements of a worthwhile life, the need for shelter.

The figures are stark, on Friday the Sentinel reported that since the introduction of the ‘bedroom tax’ 1304 people have fallen behind with their rent, many of whom have never previously been in arrears; 5189 people have applied for emergency help to pay from the council and the number of people using food banks has also increased.

When I get to the town centre the protest is smaller than might have been expected, this isn’t a carnival of outrage like the March on Stoke, just half a dozen or so people gathered around a trestle table in the rain. All around them shoppers rushed here and there clutching bags on the hunt for a bargain they probably didn’t need, a symbol, perhaps, of a culture where retail therapy is the treatment of choice when it comes to dealing with the uncertainties of modern life.

The placards several of the protesters hold are mostly handwritten, emphasising this is very much a grassroots driven protest, mainstream politicians seem to have a somewhat tortured relationship with the ‘bedroom tax’ and the whole austerity agenda. Nationally the Labour Party have intimated they will scrap the tax but few people at the protest believe this is more than an election promise liable to be broken rather than kept. Locally the ruling Labour group has won few friends by implementing savage cuts to public services whilst at the same time lavishing money on a new council headquarters.

Darryl, the quietly spoken young man who seems to be nominally in charge of proceedings, tells me the main purpose of the event is to highlight the help available to people struggling to pay the tax, the council fund set aside for this purpose has been poorly advertised. When I tell him I used to be a member of the Labour Party but left when the lack of internal democracy within the organisation became unbearable and have since joined the Green Party he says his own allegiance lies with ‘revolutionary’ politics, specifically the Socialist Workers Party.

He might just have a point, locally and nationally there is a need for some kind of radical change. The political system seems ever more like a cosy club for people who all went to the same schools and universities and have only a limited understanding of what life is like for average families. Quite how that change will come about though is unclear, the first past the post system makes it all but impossible for parties outside the three dusty monoliths to make a real impact and many voters seem to operate on instinct when they get to the ballot box.

The atmosphere is convivial, most people seem to know each other from one protest group or another, and many are involved with several groups, a reminder that the pool of politically active people is small.

Gillian, who works for a housing association and has travelled to the protest from Stafford tells me that she sees the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’ at first hand every day of her working life. She tells me about people being driven to despair by the financial burden of paying the ‘bedroom tax’ whilst struggling with the brutal and arbitrary sanctions imposed by the benefits system.

The worst of it, she says, is that the public seem to support the welfare reforms even though they are both ineffective and demonstrably unfair. Most people seem unaware that one stroke of bad luck could put them on benefits and in an often intolerably pressurises situation with little support, as Martin Niemoller might have put it if when they came for the benefits ‘scroungers’ you went shopping who will be there when they come for you next?

Lisa, another protester with an impressive list of groups she actively supports talks enthusiastically about the soon to be launched North Staffs Peoples Assembly. It certainly offers an opportunity for the disparate and sometimes fragmented network of groups opposing austerity to work together and make more of an impact.

She also tells the half dozen of us still standing around the trestle table that a friend attending a similar protest in London has called to say they’ve had more than a hundred people attending and even had a positive reaction from ‘white van man’.

It would be wishful thinking to say the Hanley protest has made anything like that much of an impact. A few members of the public have approached the stall and most have been supportive, but the day has really been more about people who are already politically active networking.

By one o’clock the whole thing has come to an end, the trestle table and leaflets have been packed away, the handful of protesters still standing around the stall shake hands and go their separate ways. Sitting in a nearby pub making notes about the day I watch the shoppers rushing past the window and think that most view the crisis of social justice slowly unfolding in this country through the media generated prism of a conflict between ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’.

I couldn’t help thinking of Gillian and the tales she told me of people knocked flat by the system that should be giving them a hand up. How many of the people rushing past the window, I wondered, realised they were walking an economic tightrope with only the flimsiest of nets there to catch them were they to fall off?