Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Unlikely Socialists no. 2: John Barnes - but not the current England team

I don't know much about football, but I have heard of John Barnes. I've even seen him play!

Interviewed for the Evening Standard by the former BBC sports editor Mihir Bose, Barnes attributes England's woeful performance in the World Cup to the Premier League and its fostering of superstardom. What English football needs, says Barnes, is more socialism:

"Football is a socialist sport. Financially, some may receive more rewards than others but, from a footballing perspective, for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end.

"The teams which embrace the socialist ideology rather than having superstars, are the teams that are successful. Or if there are superstars they don't perceive themselves to be that. That's why I use Messi as an example. As much as he's a superstar he respects his team-mates and their collective efforts....

"Players from other nations when they play for their country are once again a socialist entity, all pulling in the same direction. The most important thing for every Brazilian player is to play for Brazil."
Well said, John. I can almost forgive you for that Mars advert now.


This blogpost is second in an occasional series on Unlikely Socialists - people who self-identify as socialists, whose idea of socialism I more or less agree with, and who are fairly famous and respected by the mainstream. The aim of this thread is to help rehabilitate the label "socialist" to something that more people will be proud to call themselves.

Barnet's five circles of housing hell

Barnet council is abandoning its largely fictional waiting list for social housing - as one example of how useless it has been, one woman bid 1,000 times for a home, but she did not have sufficient points, yet no one told her she was wasting her time.

Instead, the council wants to bring in a scheme of five bands with those in most need most likely to be housed - although they will only get a limited number of offers of accommodation. People who can demonstrate they do good works in the borough will be moved to a band further in, closer to the desired object: a decent, affordable home.

If you are deemed badly behaved, you will be stuck in an outer band.

To me, this band system doesn't sound very different from the old system; surely those in an outer band have damn all chance of getting a home?

It also reinforces the censorious character that has crept into the welfare state: the right of the powerful to allocate services on the basis of whether the poor are deserving or undeserving. Look, everyone needs somewhere decent to live, that's all you need to know!

There is a Barnet Press report of the changes here. The Labour group has called the new policy in for scrutiny on 12 July. These meetings are open to the public, although few attend usually. However, it would be good, if people are worried about the decisions being taken by the council, to come and show they do care.

The band system brought to my mind Dante's nine circles of hell. There is a reminder of what they are on Wikipedia here, in case your Wednesday afternoon needs enlivening. It is interesting to note that the inner, ergo most punishing, circles of hell are reserved for fraudsters and the treacherous. Actually, it is more like the seven terraces of Purgatory, where the sinful purge their sins in order to come a little nearer to Paradise. A council flat in Barnet, Paradise. Well, it's all relative.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Let's scrap London taxi drivers!

The Tories could be looking into automating the entire Tube system and getting rid of all the drivers. Brian Coleman, for one, is keen on the idea. (Thanks to Joe Robb for this story.) The justification would be to save money, and avoid the disruption caused on those - actually, very rare - occasions when Tube workers go on strike.

All the workers who lost their job through such an act of unnatural wastage would... do what instead?

A large part of the justification made by the Tories for their public spending cuts budget, which will inevitably end in massive job losses - most of those people doing useful jobs - is that the unemployed will be soaked up by a massive expansion of jobs in the private sector, doing... well, many of them, presumably, the jobs that they were doing in the public sector, only worse paid. Remember the care workers in Barnet who transfered from direct council employment to work for the Fremantle "charity" and had their pay, pensions and leave cut by a third.

This transfer of jobs from the public to the private sector will also result in a relatively few private individuals creaming off a profit from our taxes. Makes sense? Not to me.

As for the improving efficiency argument, I don't believe in creating work for the sake of it, but it is far better to have everyone working even at the risk of being under-employed than what we increasingly see: large numbers of people idle and in poverty while those "lucky" enough to have a job work long hours under increasing stress. Rather than cutting jobs, why not cut hours?

The fundamental question is: who benefits from increasing efficiency? Is it all of us, society as a whole, or just a relative few, our employers, shareholders?

And as for that Brian Coleman, he seems to be in favour of maximum efficiency for everyone else and minimum efficiency for himself. Unlike on London Underground, which seems to me rather thinly staffed, the ratio of worker to passenger in Coleman's case is close to 1:1.

Has he ever wondered how much those taxi drivers he uses are earning and whether he is getting good value for money? Not for a second, I don't suppose, because he's not paying the fares, we are.

Vuvuzela if you want to...

What's monotonous, loud and irritating, and, inexplicably, can't be banned? No, not Brian Coleman but the vuvuzela, of course. At last, however, someone has found a good use for them - and it's such a good use that they are completely redeemed in my eyes!

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) turned up at London Fire Brigade HQ with a vuvuzela orchestra to serenade the chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, yes, Brian Coleman. I'll bet he hated it!

Coleman has practically declared war on the FBU, so there is no risk of the trade unionists alienating him. About the only thing one can hope to do in order to stop the unstoppable Coleman is get on his nerves. It is useless trying to reason with him, or to appeal to his better side...

Here's a clip which conveys how inane and therefore how effective against the enemy the FBU protest was.

Thanks to Joe Rob of the Brian Coleman (aka Mr Toad) has got to go! blog for alerting us to this.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Wash me; or, London's mayoral race

"Let me take you by the hand,
And lead you through the streets of London."
-- Ralph McTell
God, I hated and still pretty much do hate that song! It was popular when I was a kid, and as a kid I detested mournful songs.

Still, what about those streets of London? They're filthy, aren't they? I've decided to give my vote in London's mayoral election to whichever candidate will promise to give London's pavements one thorough scrub during their term of office.

Yes, I know such a policy pledge could be seen as a candidate attempting to "bribe us with our own money", but I would interpret it more as someone showing some vision.

On the subject of the London mayoral race, with all the fuss around who Labour's candidate will be (I'm not remotely inspired by any of the likely candidates, btw), I got confused about how long it is till the actual election takes place, so I looked it up: you know, it's not until 2012! So why are we getting excited about it now?

Political scientists and commentators discuss whether UK politics is becoming more "presidential". Like the US president, who spends the second half of his four-year term electioneering, the London mayor seem to be less and less about getting things done and more and more about just getting elected. Or, if you're a Labour hopeful, simply getting on the ballot paper.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Standing up for old women

Sometimes people mistake me for an old lady, on account of my grey hair. I see them on the tube when I get on and there are no seats, hesitating about whether to offer me their seat. Usually they decide, with some relief, that I am not as old as my hair colour suggests, and I remain standing.

On the whole, I think people should offer their seats to people that they think might be less able to stand than them. Of course, sometimes that means you offer your seat to a lady who looks like she might be pregnant and merely has a fat tummy. Blushes all round. I suspect sometimes I fall into this latter category as well as the might be old on account of grey hair category, this must be very confusing!

On Tuesday I travelled up to High Barnet for the monthly Barnet trades council meeting. There was an unmistakably old lady standing from at least Tottenham Court Road, where I got on, to Highgate. This is outrageous! If I hadn't been standing down the other end of the carriage from her (that's my excuse), I would have gone and remonstrated with the cretins sitting down and pretending they hadn't noticed her.

Moreover, some of these arseholes were wearing wedding rings. What does that have to do with anything? Well, it clearly shows that they are capable of forming affective relationships with other people outside their own family. Unless they are totally narcissistic, you would think they would be able to consider the question, what if it were my elderly spouse made to stand there, and gone on to do the decent thing. Or, put another way, I wouldn't want to be married to anyone who wouldn't offer their seat to an old lady. Clearly, there are an awful lot of them out there, at least there are on the High Barnet branch of the Northern Line.

Here's a question to ponder: if it had been a carriage full of working class people, rather than a bunch of middle-class commuters, would that old lady have had to stand? I doubt it.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Who I remind myself of (more mouse than toad)

I often think we are rather cruel when we compare Barnet councillor and Chairman of London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority Brian Coleman*, AM FRSA to Toad in The Wind in the Willows without being prepared to subject ourselves to similiar wounding literary comparisons. So here goes...

I know myself better than anyone else does and, in the spirit of self-criticism, I can tell you now that there is more of a whiff of the Norbert de Varenne about me. If you don't know this character now, you will in a year's time when the upcoming film version of Guy de Maupassant's Bel Ami is released. (I've learned that there's a good 1947 film, "The Private Affairs of Bel Ami", based on this book, which I'll also watch out for.)

Bel Ami is a great story, about a cynical young social climber in 19th-century Paris, Georges Duroy; I read it when I was 20-odd. The gloomy minor character de Varenne fascinated me then, and I think it was because I could already see something of myself in him! The passing years, alas, only confirm that. Norbert de Varenne, I should say, is a morose journalist.

The other literary character I remind myself of is the little French woman in a cafe that so fascinates the hero Meursault in Albert Camus' L’Étranger. She sits ringing the programmes she is going to watch on TV (or is it radio programmes she is going to listen to?!) in a newspaper with a pen. I spend too much time in cafes, and probably look more and more like this strange, middle-aged woman, active but alone.

If both of these images are rather unflattering, I did say that I was doing this exercise in the spirit of self-criticism! I'm sure there are lots of more stirring literary heroes/heroines that I am like (ahem). Is it interesting that these two memorable characters were created by French novelists, or just a coincidence?

* For Coleman's latest indefensible deeds at the LFEPA, see this post on Adam Bienkov's "Tory Troll" blog.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Oh, that Hutton!

I've been out of it for a few days, so when I heard that mumble-mumble Hutton had been appointed to chair a government inquiry into the cost of public sector pensions, and that John Prescott had called him a traitor for it, I thought "fair comment". I thought they meant Will Hutton; that nice, liberal, social democratic journalist, and I was a bit puzzled that he should take such a job. In fact, of course, they meant the former Labour minister John Hutton, whose existence I have completely overlooked.

At the risk of repeating a libel, I thought I'd post here the opinion of the website Argyll News on the appointment of John Hutton to the job of f***ing over, sorry, reforming public sector pensions.

The particular beef that Argyll News has with Hutton is the subsidy Hutton gave to Vestas wind turbine company which induced it to move production from Argyll to the Isle of Wight, but it's also true to say that they just don't like him:

Pensions review: the problem with Labour’s John Hutton

Tuesday, 22nd June, 2010

The row over former Labour minister John Hutton doing the Pensions Review for the coalition Government has overlooked the fact that he is – John Hutton.

That’s the problem.

Calling him a ‘collaborator’ is unreconstructed tribalism.

Thinking about who he is is more to the point.

Hutton is an egotistical, opportunist careerist who has successfully sold his self-valuation in defiance of the evidence.

He was the obvious Labour figure to ask to get involved because his single interest is John Hutton. Standing down at the election because he had no desire to be in opposition, this puts him back in the headlines in a paid job.

Whatever he recommends in the pensions situation will never weigh with him in the balance with his self-interest.

Cross-party collaboration is what the public want to see. But John Hutton?

This is the man who ‘paid’ Vestas a British government subsidy to leave Campbeltown in Argyll and go to the Isle of Wight. (Not, thanks to Jim Mather, that Argyll didn’t do very much better with the energetic Skykon.)

And this is the man who, in his brief stint as Defence Secretary refused – in the face of serious new evidence - to grant an independent inquiry into the 1994 Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre.
Wikipedia adds to our picture the information that when he went to Oxford, Hutton joined the Conservative, Liberal and Labour Associations - very ecumenical. He was a close associate of Tony Blair. He once told the BBC anonymously that Gordon Brown would be a "fucking disaster" as prime minister - he got that right, then.

In June 2010 it was announced that Hutton would join the board of US nuclear power company Hyperion Power Generation. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments stipulated that he should not lobby his former department for 12 months.
Sounds like he knows - and cares - a lot about pensions.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

It never rains but it pours: Brent Cross redevelopment gets green light

The government has given the go-ahead to the Brent Cross Cricklewood redevelopment scheme that has caused so much anxiety in the south of the borough and in neighbouring Brent and Camden.

The Brent Cross Coalition, that has opposed the scheme, has issued a press statement:

Press Statement - Brent Cross Coalition Response to Secretary of State Failure to Call-In Application

We believe that allowing the current plans to go ahead will destroy communities and cause great harm to local town centres across North West London and beyond. The scheme should have been called in by the Secretary of State on those grounds alone.

The plans are discredited, out-dated and green-washed, with high-rise rabbit-hutch housing of poor environmental standards and a gasifying incinerator as the only supposedly “renewable” energy source. This predominantly car-based scheme will exacerbate air pollution at a time when the Government has already been given final notice by the EU for breaching air quality standards, and will also destroy any chance of a sustainable light-rail scheme across this part of outer London.

This ill-conceived decision by the Secretary of State does not bode well for future planning decisions, and is completely at odds with new Conservative Party policies on planning, and the recent Coalition Government planning statement. It rides roughshod over widespread local opposition from tens of thousands of people, which must now be heard at a public inquiry.

We will continue to fight this regressive, unpopular scheme, to replace it with a sustainable development that meets both 21st century standards and the needs and aspirations of the whole community.

Lia Colacicco, Co-ordinator,
Coalition for a Sustainable Brent Cross Cricklewood Plan

For further information/interviews contact:

Lia Colacicco, Co-ordinator, tel 07710 460 155
Alison Hopkins, Dollis Hill resident, tel 07917 717797
David Howard, Chair Federation of Residents Associations in Barnet, tel 07958 509 787

Coalition for a Sustainable Brent Cross Cricklewood Plan –
Barnet trades council has joined the coalition. I'm not sure what happens next, but watch this space.

Barnet council leader Lynne Hillan's comment is:

Schemes such as Brent Cross Cricklewood will help Barnet cope with the pressures of growth while preserving the essentially suburban nature of the rest of the borough.
Sooner or later, I think, residents in the crowded parts of the borough are going to turn. Must we all budge up a bit more so that those in the suburbs can enjoy their space and their greenery undisturbed? There must be limits to this.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Flexible working, my eye

Temporary and its pretentious cousin freelance work is crap, really. It's supposed to be all about controlling what you do and having more flexibility, but what happens in practice is you're so desperate for work most of the time you'll do practically anything a client wants you to do when they want you to do it.

And that's the whole point of it. Companies like to use temps and freelances because they don't have to give us holiday or sick pay, we have few rights and even fewer that are enforceable. In some industries, the trade unions don't pay enough attention to organising temps or freelances - yes, it's very hard to do, but it can be done, and if the unions showed willing perhaps it would seep into temporary workers' consciousness that unions are relevant to them.

Anyway, I'm just coming to the end of an enjoyable freelance stint with a regular client. But I can't help recognising many of the lines in this song as true. It's from Pete the Temp, a comedy act and a very competent musician, who I saw at a gig the other day. I'm infringing his copyright, by reproducing some of his words, but it should get him some publicity so I hope he'll forgive me.

The temp song

I wasn't invited to the work party.
No one makes conversation or offers me tea.
I used to have a name, now I'm...
The temp.
"Get the temp to do it," I heard someone say.
Now I'm filing in the storeroom on my own every day.
I'm as disposable as a paperclip, it's true.
I'm a temporary worker...
I'm a temporary worker...
I've got three degrees and a PhD
But I'm a temporary worker.

I just want a job with some dignity,
But I'm a temporary worker.
No medical insurance policy.
I'm a temporary worker
Free me from this time-sheet tyranny.
I'm a temporary worker.
This placement was supposed to last for just three weeks,
Instead I've ended up here for 17 years.
I'm the most senior worker here,
But they won't promote me, oh, no.
One day I left my phone to charge where my boss could see,
He sacked me for stealing electricity.
Now I'm a jobless, skill-less temp,
And I've lost my time sheet...

Pete the Temp
And the rest and more is here on Pete the Temp's Myspace site.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Colindale spring


Among the potholes we are still hoping to see fixed (well, the election has passed now so perhaps we should expect progress on this front to slow down) is the one on Colindale Avenue.

I am now calling this the Colindale spring, as the hole is due to the road collapsing on top of a leaking stopcock under the tarmac, and the pothole is full of water. Veolia dug the road up once (at least) and fiddled around under there, but they didn't fix the problem, which worsens each day.

The unfortunate people living next to the Colindale spring have their car splashed with dirty water every time a bus or car drives through the puddle. And, as you can see from these pictures, pedestrians must run the gauntlet every time they pass it. Fortunately, I suppose, the road is one lane at the moment, as the road is also being dug up outside Colindale station (this will last for several months). This means that people do at least have a minute to run for it while the lights at one end are red, and before the traffic from the other end arrives.

P.S. I would like to propose to the local Labour councillors that they get along to the Colindale spring and have their photos taken for the local paper. Then they could also appear on the fantastic Glum Councillors website. An opportunity is going begging.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Winifred Dean née Orford (1912-2010)

My dear grandmother died on Monday night. She was 97 and lived in sheltered housing in Hyde near Manchester. She'd fallen over a few times recently and went to hospital, reluctantly, to be checked over. They found she had a urine infection and a chest infection. She was being treated, but she developed pneumonia and died (what is it about hospitals?!).

My grandmother is largely to blame for me being political, I suspect. From her childhood experiences of poverty, she became a socialist. She wasn't very keen on trade unions, funnily enough, because she was passionate about the Labour Party and blamed unions for making life difficult for Labour governments. For her, Clement Attlee was the best leader the country ever had.

She grew up around the Walworth Road in Southwark. She was from a family that had been better off, but they had squandered a lot of it in relatively high living! Some of her relatives on her father's side were in the music hall, and they had jolly evenings in a big house in Streatham singing around the piano, and such like entertainments. My grandmother left school when her father died and her mother went out to work. Winifred had to help look after her siblings, a younger sister and four brothers. One of them, George, she used to take to see plays at the Old Vic.

The same George later worked at a printers, John Swain, in Shoe Lane (the company also had a works in Barnet). My grandmother worked there for a while as well. I have to check when she met my grandfather, Sydney Dean, a Wallasey man, but I think it was through her brothers. My grandfather was a career soldier, who also, fairly naturally, served in the Second World War. My grandmother's two daughters, Fay and my mother Elaine were born during and at the end of the war.

My grandfather was the last in a long line of Deans, a somewhat well-to-do family (that story another day!), and he was disappointed that his second child also had turned out to be a girl and that the family name would not be passed on. I understand he gave my grandmother a bit of a hard time over this. But their marriage was, I think, pretty good on the whole. My grandmother nursed her own mother Rose when she was old, the old lady lived until her death with Win and her family.

The family lived in Battersea and then Bexley. My grandfather was a postman after the war. Suburban family life was possibly rather dull. My grandmother had grown up surrounded by a large, boisterous family; she was very close to her brothers and sister. Now, my mother remembers, this small, nuclear family did not have a lot of company beside each other.

Nanny and Grandad (as I called them) retired to Broadstairs, where the family had always spent its holidays. I was born in Ramsgate extremely shortly after they moved into their big house in Rectory Road where they did bed and breakfast. All through my childhood I visited them there.

My grandmother enjoyed her new, more sociable life in Broadstairs. She was very active socially, and politically in the Labour Party. Her main activity was the Women's Section, particularly fundraising. She did this partly through selling bingo cards - we called them "swindle cards" but we always bought one when we visited.

The house needed repairs, and as they got older it occurred to my grandfather that they might be better off selling it and buying something smaller somewhere cheaper. And, probably, he wanted to go home to Wallasey. They sold the house in Rectory Road and moved up to Wallasey, to a very nice, actually quite large house in Canterbury Road. My mother liked to refer to herself as 'The Dean of Canterbury'.

Rather tragically, my grandfather died the very January after they moved. My grandmother stayed on in the house in Wallasey, probably at first too depressed by her husband's death to move, and then, as she made a few friends, some of whom became quite close, thinking she could make a reasonable life in Wallasey. She was there for nearly 20 years!

She was less enthusiastic about the Labour Party in Wallasey, which had a reputation as being rather left-wing. Independently of my grandmother, I knew some of the people involved, and I can say that she had a point. They were far more my sort of socialist than her sort of socialist, in short!

Instead, Win became more active raising money for Guide Dogs for the Blind. She was a great dog-lover, although she owned only one dog herself, as far as I know, Tuppence, a black labrador, old and cantankerous when I knew him.

Win had friends in Wallasey, but she was getting old, and even suffered a stroke (which she made a fair recovery from). We were slow in cottoning on to how old and frail she was becoming. I think we all learned some lessons about how important it is to respond and adapt to the body's changing needs, with Win as our patient guinea-pig, unfortunately! For example, when her eyesight was failing, it was only relatively late on that we explored the possibilities of the large-print book.

Win, however, was not one to grumble, and she enjoyed living in her big house 'with the high ceilings'. (She once turned down an invitation to go and live with my mother because 'she couldn't live in a house with low ceilings').

My aunt had a brain wave and worked hard to find Win a place in sheltered accommodation in Hyde, close to her. Given that she was already in her early 90s, it was lucky that Win got in. The flat in Chartist House (!), built on the site of one of the early Chartist halls, had low ceilings! But it was pleasant and had a nice view of the moors around Hyde, and a snooker hall where the lights burning late into the night fed our fantasies of lurid goings on.

I will miss my grandmother. Rather shamefully, however, I hadn't seen her since her birthday last September, when I went up for her party. A 100th birthday party would have been a lot of fun, even for Win with her failing body, but it sadly isn't to be. Win's mind was sharp to the end and she still knew how to love the people around her, and, I hope, knew that she was loved in return.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Where have all the squirrels gone?

Gazing out of the kitchen window today, my boyfriend's mother said: "Did you see the squirrel?"

No, I didn't, and neither had she. But we used to see a lot of squirrels. It was only at that moment that I realised how long it has been since I saw one.

It was a hard winter (let me remind you). Maybe it did for some of them. But we always used to see a mother and a couple of youngsters in the spring.

The squirrels use our garden as a rat run between the trees at the front and... Grahame Park open space. It is not far from our house, over the back. What's changed recently? As I reported in an earlier blog, the rather wonderful Grahame Park open space has been dug up in the interests of regeneration. It's not fanciful to think that the squirrels might have lost their habitat.

The large, grassy area with trees and a small lake that included swans is being replaced with a lot of flats and houses. I can see the cranes building them through my kitchen window.

Peeking through the hoardings around the building site, I think they are going to retain some of the lake so that they can sell the flats as waterfront apartments. What a joke! Pied a terre or toe in the water?

The residents of this area are promised an 'enhanced recreational space' in the new plans. It will be the size of a postage stamp by the look of things.

It is rightly popular for people to say that they want to preserve Barnet's green belt. I wish that people equally gave two figs about the small parks that make life down this end of the borough liveable. There is not even room for squirrels here now!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

A day in town, Or: My little pot boiler

I'm super busy at the mo, working full-time (no, I don't usually, though my bank balance tells me I must), and finally writing some articles I'd promised someone on 'The left and Europe'. This leaves little time for blogging, though, God knows, there are many things that should be blogged about.

By way of a pot boiler, I thought I'd describe the scenes in central London today. I was going to a No Sweat demo at the Disney store (but it was called off...). I went instead to sign up to the LSE library. Wikipedia tell us:

The main library of the LSE is the British Library of Political and Economic Science (BLPES). It is the home of the world's largest social and political sciences Library. Founded in 1896, it has been the national social science library of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth and all its collections have been recognised for their outstanding national and international importance and awarded 'Designation' status by the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA).

BLPES responds to around 6,500 visits from students and staff each day. In addition, it provides a specialist international research collection, serving over 12,000 registered external users each year.
Basically, anyone can join this library. You just have to go along, fill in an online form and present proof of address, and you're in!

I signed up but didn't have proof of address, so I went instead to the Waterstone's close by and browsed their second-hand department. I bought a few obscure titles which told me how people used to feel about the EU (or, as it has been severally known down the years, EC, EEC, Common Market, etc). (This is called 'original research', I'll have you know.) And I wrote down a great long list of slightly less obscure titles which I hope to read at the LSE library in the coming months.

Then I went to Downing Street to catch the tail-end of the rally against the Israeli attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla (there, I've said it). I don't agree with all the politics on display on such demos (I am a two-stater, though more and more pessimistic that this is a possibility). But I still think it's important to go.

Then I was due to meet a friend in Parliament Square (appointment missed).

As you know, the weather was great today. I was hot and I plonked myself down in a corner of the square, just opposite the statue of Nelson Mandela and over the road from St Margaret's Church, which lives in the shadow of Westminster Abbey.

There was much to see. A steady stream of people stopping to take their photo with the Nelson Mandela statue, including, while I was there, two small, white boys in England football shirts, whose mum took a pic of them and their teddy with Nelson Mandela (once an international terrorist), and a very short, Russian guy who looked like he'd just come off his national service.

Behind me the assorted mavericks of the Democracy Village pow-wowed among their tents. They have a number of sideshows - including the 'Soldiers, come home alive' banner and the Tiananmen float - rather well made medieval type pennants, and the area is picturesquely scattered with straw.

Brian Haw is miffed at this lot turning up, muddying his message and jeopardising his protest. Or something like that. There's also a bloke shouting on a loudhailer with some placards blaming various deaths of named individuals on the freemasons.

If you were inclined to think this lot a messy rabble, you had only to look in the other direction at St Margaret's Church, where a society wedding was taking place (I take it they were society, as the guests were all quite tall and very well-dressed). The bride was of African heritage, and a band of drummers was there to mix their music with the peals of the bells. A crowd of tourists gathered around to take pictures, and became mingled with the guests, although you could still tell which was which.

At the far end of Westminster Abbey, motley crews of Morris dancers were displaying their skills, their grey hairs, and collecting money for an Alzheimer's charity. I got unncessarily excited about the women clog dancers' red, white and blue costumes, which I felt sure must have been inspired by French revolutionary costumes. But they said they picked the colours themselves a few years ago, it wasn't traditional, and didn't I know that red, white and blue were British colours too?

Someone decent looking tried to chat me up as I admired the statuary on the front of Westminster Abbey. This doesn't happen every day. I went and had an Oreo McFlurry from McDonald's to cool off (I don't recommend it). This is what happens when the sun shines.

P.S. OK, this post took me about 40 minutes to write. When I could have been reading Can We Save the Common Market? instead.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The elephant in the room

I read this with some horror. It's by Tracie Evans, director of finance and commercial services at Barking and Dagenham... you know, the London borough that would have fallen into the hands of the BNP last month if it hadn't been for half the London labour movement turning out week after week to campaign against them - where are the thanks?

Anyway, as well as revealing that on her bank holidays she sips sparkling mineral water and covers up with sunscreen (so responsible), Tracie says:

...the Government will give us an in-year savings target and we will make them from wherever we can, although clearly, frontline services are also out of scope for savings.

So, where does that leave us? Up the Swanny without a...

Well it’s obvious, we can make even more back-office efficiencies on top of the ones we have already been making over the past few years. But seriously, how are we going to find an unplanned few million pounds. Perhaps it really is time to flush out all of those issues that have given local government its bad name in the past.

I would like to start to tackle the really big elephant in the room – staff terms and conditions. Government is consistently lambasted by the public for the generous conditions it allows its staff at the expense of the taxpayer – regardless, actually, of whether our overall conditions are, in fact, still that generous. Are we really ready to start increasing working weeks, reducing allowances, decreasing leave entitlements and probably the most contentious, abolishing free staff car parking.
Very droll. The last bit, not what went before.

It is in our interest to ensure that as little money is spent on back-office functions and as much money as possible is spent on service delivery. It is time to tackle the really hard stuff. Onwards and upwards – any other boroughs fancy a merger?
The elephant in the room, my arse. A herd of elephants is roaming around Westminster, tearing up trees and crapping all over College Green. Has been since the general election.

Why do public services have to pay the price of the bank bailout and all the crap that went before that? That's the real elephant. I remember how hard they pushed credit at us - "Why wait? Have it now!" - and that was just the advice of my bank to its high street customers. Never mind the rest of the rubbish that went on.

Now they are building up their reserves again, preparing to pay dividends to shareholders, and paying top bankers big bonuses.

But John Burgess, secretary of Barnet Unison branch, describes the scandal rather better than I can do in my current, rather ranty mood.

£1.3 Trillion (1,300,000,000,000,000) public money given to the banks.

£153 Billion (153,000,000,000) the Public Sector deficit that is driving the Con-Dem Governments Cuts Agenda

If I didn’t know better I sometimes feel the politicians almost relish the massive cuts packages they have been promoting for almost a year! Now is not the time to panic, and scaring citizens that we could be worse than Greece is just the act of a bully hoping that when they announce the cuts we will all roll over and accept anything they propose.

We must not roll over. When I return from UNISON Conference I hope to report that our newly elected General Secretary will have provided a plan for how we are to defend public services and jobs.

...I don’t know if it is just me but I am getting increasingly irritated by politicians talking about cuts in the public sector. What annoys me the most is how they talk about cuts to jobs and job creation in the same sentence! Just how does making 300,000 jobs redundant create jobs?

...I know what I don’t want to hear, I don’t want to hear politicians trotting out glib sound bites like “more for less!” Where does this myth that council workers have been having it easy all these years come from? We may have the easyCouncil tag but working in Barnet is not easy - it is hard work. Everywhere I go to meet members I hear the same message: ‘over worked, not enough time in the day to do the work.’