Sunday, 30 August 2015

Corbyn suggests women only carriages and Labour goes off the rails.

Last week Jeremy Corbyn, the surprise front runner in the race to be Labour leader, suggested introducing women only railway carriages in response to concerns about safety on public transport. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth from his fellow contenders.

Yvette Cooper told the BBC he was 'turning back the clock, not tackling the problem', whilst Andy Burnham said that 'in this day and age we shouldn't even be considering the idea of segregated travel.'

Britain last had railway carriages reserved for women only in 1977, a relic of Victorian prudery and many other countries including Mexico, Japan and India have separate women only carriages on trains.

Women's Minister Nicky Morgan said the idea 'smacked of segregation' and Sarah Wollaston, chair of the health select committee said having women only carriages would 'normalise unacceptable attitudes.'

Hang on, everybody take a deep breath, calmer now? Good, then we'll try to look at things sensibly.

Jeremy Corbyn in his slightly diffident way told The Independent the paper that broke the story he wanted to 'consult with women' and open the issue up to 'hear their views on whether women only carriages would be welcome', with no more sinister intention than to try and 'make public transport safer for everyone.' What he didn't at any stage do was issue a proclamation that this was a policy Labour would go to the country on at the next election.

Actually there is a problem figures released by British Transport Police recently show that sexual offences committed in and around railway stations have gone up by 25% and they have launched a campaign urging women to report incidents. Rail minister Claire Perry even suggested last year that introducing women only carriages was an idea worth considering.

Considering possibly, faced with a problem you should at least consider every option, but not, I think worth adopting. I'm with Yvette Cooper and Nicky Morgan in not wanting to see segregation on the railways or anywhere else.

Instead we should be tackling the immediate problem by enforcing existing laws robustly and using public education campaigns to change attitudes and behaviour in the same way as they did around drink driving a generation ago.

The moral panic that greeted a modest suggestion made by a modest man has nothing to do with the unlikely prospect of men and women having to travel in separate train carriages. What it is really about is the panic that has gripped the political establishment following the remarkable rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

The pattern is as familiar as it is tedious, he makes a policy suggestion and all hell is instantly let loose. He is accused of being either a dippy idealist or a dangerous radical; a thoroughly bad egg anyway.

If you think he's got the boys and girls in the Westminster bubble rattled you're almost certainly right. Corbyn was only allowed into the race in the first place on the complacent assumption that he would finish nowhere, now it looks like the could win.

The reason for this is devastatingly simple, he's everything the other candidates aren't. Where they are slick and cynical he is homespun and earnest. The public response to this has been as powerful as it has been positive.

Jeremy Corbyn probably won't much care for the comparison but he resembles nothing so much as a senior member of the Church of England. He has that of intellect and otherworldliness and, most importantly, he is so firmly convinced in his beliefs he isn't afraid to be himself. What you see really is what you get.

How very different to his three opponents, who probably wouldn't recognise a genuine belief if they tripped over one. Where Corbyn engages in a conversation with the voters they alternately wheedle and hector at them from their ivory towers.

On this specific issue Corbyn genuinely wants to engage in a discussion with the public. The other three want to follow standard political procedure by passing the whole thing through a couple of focus groups, turning it into a policy framework only their civil servants will ever read before doing nothing about it.

Corbyn's approach can, it must be admitted, be a little bit scatter-gun. Some of the policies he has put forward have about them the well meaning impracticality of student politics, others though, like renationalising the railways ring true to the public mood.

Whether he wins or not on 12th September Jeremy Corbyn has changed the Labour Party and maybe politics as a whole forever. He has shown that if politicians have the courage to speak honestly about their beliefs the public will respond to them.

As its chief architect Tony Blair harrumphs to the press about 'Corbynism' being 'Alice in Wonderland politics' New Labour suddenly looks older than the hills and a lot less likely to endure. It might be too soon to predict what will take its place, but these are interesting times to be on the left.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The council needs to rethink its priorities following cuts to the Infant Feeding Team.

North Staffs Green Party today announced its support for the campaign to protect Stoke-on-Trent Infant Feeding Team (IFT) led by Jo Haywood and Antonia Dykes.

The IFT could see its funding cut dramatically from 1st September, this would result in the axing of jobs and clinics and the closure of the 24 hour helpline run by the team.

The service is delivered by the NHS and is funded by Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Currently just 56% of women in Stoke-on-Trent breastfed their babies compared to a national average of 80%. This has serious consequences for the health and development of local children, something the team was set up to address.

North Staffs Green Party Campaigns Coordinator Adam Colclough said: “ Since it was set up the IFT has done magnificent work to promote breastfeeding and improve the health and life chances of children across the city, that good work is being threatened by these cuts.”

He added that: “ As another round of spending cuts imposed by central government loom we recognise that the council has to make some tough decisions. Spending will inevitably have to be cut in some areas, but the decisions regarding where and by how much should be taken on a basis of doing the least possible harm and protecting vital services.”

The Green Party fought the 2015 general election on a manifesto committing it to taking action to bring an end to austerity in the NHS. This included pledging to increase funding by £12 billion to help improve mental health care and bring back NHS dentistry services. The party also pledged to end market based commissioning and procurement and making the way the NHS is run more transparent and patient friendly.

The Green Party also gave a manifesto commitment to ensure the NHS gave special attention to the well-being of children during the vital first 1001 days of their lives, from conception to the age of two.

The party was, the Campaign Coordinator said, “committed to ensuring the young people who will be the future of our country get the best start in life possible”, he added that “ supporting the people who work for and use the IFT is one way in which we can put the principles that make use different as a party into action.”

He called on the council to “rethink its priorities regarding spending cuts, something the last administration failed to do with devastating consequences for vital public services.”

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The DWP using fake claimant stories adds insult to injury for people struggling with benefits sanctions.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) hardly has a brilliant reputation when it comes to sensitivity and common sense. Even so its latest gaffe scales heights of institutional idiocy never before achieved.

Thanks to a freedom of information request lodged by Welfare Weekly the DWP has been caught out for using case studies from 'fake' claimants accompanied by stock photographs in a leaflet explaining benefits.

The leaflet contains case studies purporting to support the controversial regime of benefits sanctions introduced for claimants who miss appointments or fail to carry out requested actions.

In these 'Sarah' twitters blithely about losing two weeks benefits for not writing a CV when asked to and 'Zac' rhapsodises about how understanding Job Centre staff were when a medical appointment clashed with a meeting.

A spokesperson for the DWP told Sky News the case studies were 'based on conversations our staff have had with claimants' and were designed to 'help people understand how the benefits system works.'In particular 'when sanctions can be applied and how they can avoid them by taking certain actions.'

There can be few more stressful situations to be in than out of work, probably fearful over how you are going to pay the bills and having to negotiate the mad maze of the benefits system.

The very last thing claimants, or as the rest of us like to think of them, human beings who could be us but for a different turn of the cards, want is to be patronised by leaflets designed to help them.

Far more benefits sanctions are the result of incompetence and a bull headed refusal to listen on the part of the DWP than any failure to comply on the part of people looking for work. Needless to say the consequences of losing even a week's benefits seldom fall into the 'aw shucks' category portrayed in the leaflets.

If you want an example of what I mean how about the man I met outside a charity shop in Stoke, he was waiting to start the shift of 'voluntary' work arranged for him by the Job Centre. He looked gaunt and had trouble walking with the aid of a stick, the spirit may have been willing but his health would prevent him from working; so why force someone like that to jump though hoops for their benefits?

Losing benefits thanks to the imposition of a sanction and the resulting struggle to get an intransigent officialdom to listen to any mitigating circumstances has cost people their lives. Even if they do manage to get their benefits restored they are left feeling traumatised and anxious.

If officials at the DWP want to indulge their literary leanings that's fine, everyone should have a novel written in dog eared exercise books tucked away in their bottom drawer. What they shouldn't do is create malicious little fictions designed to minimise the impact of the awful slow motion car wreck of benefits reforms on the most vulnerable people.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Setting Britain's children free is surely a revolution we can all support

At some level we always knew it was true, that modern children are less free than those of us who grew up in the seventies and earlier were. Now it has been proved through scientific research.

Academics at the University of Westminster have ranked England in seventh place for parents giving their children the freedom to roam, based on a survey of 18,000 seven to eighteen year olds.

Amongst the things striking fear into parental hearts are letting their children cross main roads, cycling in traffic and being out alone after dark.

The survey says, quoted on the BBC News website 'even the oldest children are restricted in what they are allowed to do.'

Unsurprisingly perhaps the free-wheeling Finns top the table for letting their children run free with the Germans coming a surprise second.

The survey found that just 28% of youngsters in England travel to and from school on their own and even at secondary school age only 25% are allowed out alone after dark.

Ben Shaw of the Policy Studies Institute told the BBC 'obviously we've got to protect children but part of their development is that we allow them to gain independence.'

Too true; almost every problem relating to modern childhood stems from it having been transformed from an obstacle race survived by the lucky into a cocoon that smothers in the name of protection.

When children played outside obesity was almost unknown, exercise burnt off the excess energy behind all but the worst bad behaviour.

What went wrong? The private motor car turned suburban roads into rat runs, hyperactive tabloid scaremongering put a malicious stranger in every shadow.

The end result is two or more generations of young people who, if their families can scrape together the cash, live cloistered lives where they are shuttled between school and organised activities.

This has made our young people fatter, less happy and more lonely than previous generations and, perversely less safe. Sooner or later the apron strings have to be cut and they are tipped out unprepared into a world that is seldom kind to innocents.

What is to be done? We need to stop thinking of our towns and cities as places where people are warehoused; and start thinking about them as communities again.

There needs to be serious investment in public transport so that owning a car is made impractical. Something that, incidentally, would make most Britons richer, healthier and less stressed whether they've got kids or not.

More needs to be done to get kids walking to and from school and once they're there to get them doing their learning outside.

All this sounds like starry eyed idealism, the province of well meaning people who wear dungarees and knit their own beards. That's a bad thing?

The Labour Party is starting to look fondly at its core principles as touchstones for making policy rather than amusing artefacts; the Greens have always advocated better public transport, and cities designed on a human scale.

If there really is a wind of change blowing through the dusty halls of politics shouldn't the youngest in our society benefit? Setting our children free is surely a revolution we can all support.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Local Greens hold their first social at Keele.

A slightly shabby room above a student bar on the campus of Keele University, the sort of place like minded people would choose to meet and talk about changing the world.

This week members of North Staffs Green Party held its first social event at the Keele Postgraduate Association. Around twelve members attended the event and organiser Steven Maddocks described it as having been 'very successful' with a relaxed atmosphere, everyone at the university had, he said, been 'very welcoming.'

The event had, he said, 'done everything it set out to do' by giving members and people interested in joining the party an opportunity to socialise and discuss issues relating to politics and the environment.

The topics discussed ranged from how Newcastle becoming a transition town make the local economy greener and fairer, with several members suggesting ways such a project could be introduced through community groups working in partnership.

There was only moderate enthusiasm expressed for plans put forward by President Obama to make America's energy more environmentally friendly, with the consensus being that they are too modest to make a real impact. What little will be done could be rapidly overturned by an incoming Republican administration, as one member put it the changes made would 'go away because Obama will go away.'

Members also discussed the remarkable rise of Jeremy Corbyn from also ran to bookies favourite in the race to be the next leader of the Labour Party and the impact on UKIP of a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU. The consensus was that a likely vote to stay in would diminish their support, although they could continue as recipients of the 'anger vote.'

All this sounds very much like what it was, an exercise in student politics, dogmatic intransigence and antagonism that often marks it was absent. The prevailing attitude towards other political parties was one of conciliation and a willingness to work in partnership on shared priorities.

This could resonate with a Labour Party that is moving rapidly towards a position further to the left that that held by its local leadership. One member said, with their tongue not too far in their cheek, Green Party socials could be the ideal place to take your left leaning Labour friends for a night out.

There was a certain earnestness about the discussion to be sure, the majority of those present were in their early to mid twenties; the age when idealism blossoms. It was tempered though by a mix of knowledge and openness to other points of view.

This chimed with the intention expressed by Steven Maddocks that the socials should be a way of introducing people to politics who wouldn't come to another kind of meeting.' An 'easy way in' free from pressure to sign up, obscure rituals and the feeling of simmering anger that often traps the left in a ghetto of righteous but impotent anger.

This was a place where generations and viewpoints could meet, explore their differing positions and then agree to differ on specifics whilst being united by strong shared values. It would be hard to imagine the big three parties staging a similar event, were they to try the whole thing would be managed into banality by their overly centralised structure.

The steady growth of the Green Party in Staffordshire, following a strong showing at the general election, is hardly comparable to the renaissance in the fortunes of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left, although there are similarities.

Both respond to a desire for a type of politics that works from the ground upwards, where members have a real role in making police and disagreements are handled with maturity before they become schisms. As I left on Wednesday evening I did so feeling that I had spent a couple of hours in an atmosphere where the business of politics is done in a quieter, more collegiate and far more mature way than at Westminster or down at the Civic Centre.

The next Green Party Social will take place at the Keele Postgraduate Association on the campus of Keele University at 6pm on 4th November.

Adam Colclough is the Press Officer for North Staffs Green Party.