Thursday, 31 December 2009

Carry on Campaigning – my 2010 resolutions

This is what I resolve to do in 2010:

Defend sheltered housing

Continue to campaign against the axing of sheltered housing wardens – in Barnet, where it is being carried out by the nasty Tories, and nationally where it is being carried out by the nasty Tories and nasty Lib Dems – not forgetting that it’s the fault of nasty Labour in the first place for removing the ring fence from the Supporting People budget.

Barnet’s Tories, predominantly the woman who is now leader of the council, Lynne Hillan, thought this would go through without too much opposition – anger, yes, but not actual opposition. They were wrong, there has been a vigorous campaign led mainly by Barnet’s own David Young, plus Sheltered Housing UK (SHUK) and Barnet Community Campaign (BCC) and Barnet trades council.

And, with a little help from Judge Milwyn Jarman QC, the move to axe has now been ruled ILLEGAL. Barnet council’s only recourse, if they want to persist in making these cuts, is to appeal the legal decision. Are they politically hard-nosed enough – in other words, sufficiently NASTY - to do it, especially with the council elections looming?

Future Shape of Barnet council

Continue to insist that Barnet residents should shape their own future, not have a budget airlines model of council service delivery foisted upon them. The trades council and BCC will seek residents’ views, and debate the issues raised by the Tories’ proposals, for example, to fast-track planning applications where applicants are prepared to pay a bit extra. We will press the Tories to specify what they regard as core services and what as extras that residents will have to pay more on top of the council tax they already pay to receive.

Cut the social roots of the far-right

Combat the threat posed by the far-right BNP, EDL and others. Campaign for better public services, housing and jobs for all, in place of a vision of society where those at the bottom must fight among themselves for the basics. The UK is a rich country – we only need to distribute the wealth, the power and the decision-making more evenly. Racism is an ignorant ideology; we need to argue against it, but also to fight the social rot in which far-right movements can grow.

Personal goals

Exercise more; sort out finances, yadda, yadda, yadda... Happy new year to you all!

Monday, 28 December 2009

1989-2009 - truly an anniversary to celebrate

It started with a trade union? The Polish Solidarnosc (Solidarity) trade union was founded during strikes in the Gdansk shipyard in 1980-81 and continued underground after being repressed. In 1988-89 it played a vital role in ending the Communist regime in Poland.
I think socialists - and you should know by now that I am one - need to say where they stand on 1989, the year the Berlin Wall was torn down, the clearest symbol of the end (almost) of east European and Russian Communism. The most recent and possibly grimmest 20-year anniversary was that of the execution, on Christmas Day, 1989, of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife.

For me, then as now, the end of Ceauşescu's brand of political and economic rule is something to celebrate. That doesn't mean that I have to approve of everything that has followed in its wake. It doesn't make me a fan of rampant capitalism to say that I hate Stalinism.

I won't go into detail, as readers are probably not interested in the internecine struggles of the far-left. But I can tell you that the group I was associated with in 1989, and still am, was far-left and called itself 'Trotskyist', but had recently come to the - to most people obvious but to the left decidedly awkward - conclusion that Russia and the Soviet bloc countries did not represent, in however 'deformed or degenerated' a way, an advance on capitalism. Indeed, we believed that in many ways they were - gasp! - regressive compared to capitalism.

Shortly after and obviously quite independent of this 'change of line' by a tiny British Trot group, the whole east European Stalinist edifice came crashing down.

Much of the left actually mourned this. Militant, forerunner of the Socialist Party, cheered Romanian miners, supporters of Ceauşescu's regime, when they were mobilised to beat up 'petty-bourgeois' students demonstrating for democracy. Socialist Action, with whom the recently deceased aide to Ken Livingstone Redmond O'Neill was involved, wrote in 1990:
"The destruction of at least some of the workers' states in Eastern Europe, and the imperialist reunification of Germany are both the greatest defeats suffered by the working class since World War 2..."
I think such attitudes were wrong, thought so then and think so now: 1989 was a great revolution, a liberation from a terrible tyranny.

OK, you might charge, I want my cake and eat it? Since 1989 it has been easier than ever for those who think capitalism is the best economic and political system humanity can devise to point to the great, failed 'socialist' experiment as negative proof they are right.

Of course, you can't sum up 200-odd years of history in a blogpost (what fool would try?), but my simple answer is: socialism is a creation of capitalism, it grows out of capitalism. There is nothing inevitable about it, but it is, in many ways, a natural development of capitalism. It certainly isn't possible in conditions of scarcity. Yet, for historic reasons, because socialism was attempted in the impoverished east rather than the affluent west, it failed. If you were to look for a simple explanation for this error, it would be the failure of the German revolution (yes, I'm going back almost 100 years) and the failure of the Communist parties of western Europe to stand by the Communist parties of the east, leaving the socialist 'experiment' isolated, and, during the Russian Civil War, besieged by capitalist powers.

What is very clear is that there can be no socialism without democracy.

All of this might seem completely whacko and beside the point to readers - who are possibly somewhat interested in my views on the sheltered wardens cuts or Barnet 'Future Shape' - but I thought I must, before 2009 is out, give a basic outline of my thinking on these matters; or, in a sense, excuse myself from the failure of east European communism.

On a personal note, if for no other reason than that it (almost) ended the horrendous Cold War, which cast a  shadow over my own life as I grew up, along with everyone else's, 1989 is a year I remember with relief and joy.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

No time to be cold

I hope the residents of East Barnet get their gas supply back soon, or at least an adequate supply of electric heaters - and enough power in the grid to keep them on! You can read about this story in the Barnet Press and in the Times series.

It probably wouldn't be the Christmas that cold East Barneteers would ask for, but can't Barnet council show some initiative and offer to put on Christmas meals and celebrations in some public place for those that want to come? It's a time to think big.

We hear about the shocking number of people these days who eat Christmas dinner alone, this could also be an occasion to make the case for more sociable Christmases - for those that want them.

The snow in Kent thwarted my plan to visit my dad today, but not before I'd stood around in chilly Charing Cross station for an hour. I should make it to my mum's tomorrow, however, as the railway line to Rochester is open.

Both my parents have freezing cold houses, but I am not good in the cold, I think I am part lizard. Merry Christmas!

Another year older, still not making much sense

Blimey, this year has flown by. It seems no time since I was wandering about in the late summer sunshine on Totteridge Lane and missing the astonishing Christmas lights; now they are back again!

Whatever I think about millionaires in general, the plutocrats of Totteridge do put on a good show, and I can only think that they do it for the benefit of passing motorists and bus passengers. If you can travel that way, go and have a look, they are worth the trip.

I spent my birthday mainly pursuing one of my favourite activities - eating. I had sushi and sake in a Japanese restaurant in Angel, cake and coffee in a Lebanese cafe off Oxford Street, and meze and wine in a Greek restaurant in Whetstone, the Lantern.

My mother lived 16 years in Greece, but I'm not an expert in the cuisine, language or anything, as, carelessly, I only visited her every three years or so.

Back home now, across ice, snow and fog. Have you noticed how the cold air is trapping horrible traffic fumes close to the ground, and how all but the main roads are still covered in ice?

And while I am in inconsequential rambling mode, have you noticed the fatal design flaw with the revamped King's Cross underground? Yes, that's right, you have to walk bleedin' miles to get to the trains.

Good night, all!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

2009: the whiff of woodsmoke

As another birthday hoves into view (yawn), I thought I would write a brief review of the year. I am calling 2009 the year of woodsmoke.

I got my first whiff of it at the Visteon Enfield occupation in April. Workers sacked by Visteon, a Ford spin-off company, occupied their former workplaces in Belfast and Enfield, and made an attempt at occupation in Basildon. In Enfield, with their union reps threatened with imprisonment, the workers agreed to leave the factory but immediately blockaded the factory entrances. They manned them 24 hours, kept warm at night by braziers, hence woodsmoke.

The plan was that if the company wanted to take machinery out they would have to honour the contracts they had made with the sacked workers regarding redundancy pay and pensions. The workers were also, but only half-heartedly, asking for jobs elsewhere in the Ford empire.

I visited Enfield Visteon several times, and on one occasion, a freezing cold night, with a stalwart of the Barnet sheltered housing wardens campaign who must remain nameless in order to avoid victimisation by his employer.

The Visteon workers won something (you can't imagine how good it feels to say that): their redundancy money. The company quickly struck a deal - better than people had hoped - when the Visteon workers threatened to go and talk about their case with workers at the profitable Ford factory in Bridgend.

However, the issue of pensions was left aside and today many of the former Visteon workers - now re-named Visteon pensioners - are battling to get the money they are due.

My second whiff of woodsmoke was during the Vestas campaign on the Isle of Wight. More than 400 workers at the Vestas wind turbine blade factory on the Isle of Wight faced the sack, when the company decided it could make bigger profits mothballing the factory and shifting its focus to Colorado.

A small group of workers, with some prompting from environmental and labour activists, occupied the administration suite of the factory, until made to leave by a court injunction. They too set up a blockade, although it was always much looser and more symbolic than that at Visteon. This was shown when the company finally moved the remaining blades out of the factory in September.

I helped to administer the Save Vestas blog and visited the Isle of Wight for one or two days every week, for two months, in order to meet the people involved in the campaign and understand the lie of the land.

An important feature of the Vestas campaign was the so-called Magic Roundabout - a camp of Vestas workers and supporters on a small traffic island in front of the Vestas factory. Braziers and woodsmoke loomed large in that experience. Below is a picture of me breaking up a pallet to feed into the brazier (this photo should destroy any chance I might ever have had of being elected to anything in Barnet).

We got a whiff of woodsmoke at the Climate Camp on Blackheath in the summer, but I personally only visited for one afternoon and evening just to see what all of the fuss was about.

When the Vestas campaign moved into a new phase (some of my friends will insist on this formulation), after the blades were removed, I thought I was done with woodsmoke for the year. But, no!

The remaining Magic Roundabout residents were recently evicted, and, together with some Climate Campers and others, some of them have been camping out in Trafalgar Square while the Climate Summit was on in Copenhagen, in order to draw people's attention to the issues.

I visited them on Monday 7 December, the day of the national sheltered housing wardens march, which set off from Trafalgar Square for Downing Street; and again last night, after some inevitable Friday-before-Christmas boozing.

The main feature of last night's visit was a brush with a security guard employed by Chubb - we had a friendly chat, once she'd cleared me off the base of Nelson's Column. I thought I would go up and have a look at the panels (one of them celebrating Nelson's sea battle off Copenhagen in 1801). I suspected that this is not allowed, but apparently it is - so long as you do it before 11pm. You can clamber about on the Landseer lions, etc, with impunity up until then!

I didn't stay long last night - it was too ruddy cold and a welcome N5 came along. But I did get that whiff of woodsmoke again - and, boy, does it cling! To hair, to clothes...

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Sheltered housing residents win in court

Read a report on the Times series website here.

The decisions by Barnet and Portsmouth councils to cut the wardens from sheltered housing schemes was taken without proper regard to the rights of the residents under the Disability Discrimination Act.

Judge Milwyn Jarman QC said:
“neither authority in my judgement had any or sufficient regard to such an impact upon those residents with disabilities as a separate group or to the need to recognise that the taking into account of those disabilities may involve treating disabled persons more favourably than others.”
According to the Times:
Solicitor for the claimants, Yvonne Hossack, said: “We're absolutely delighted for all the people of Barnet who have been affected by this.

“Luckily it will mean a happier Christmas for them.”
Congratulations to everyone who has taken part in the campaign to save the wardens. No doubt vigilance and more political campaigning will be needed as Barnet council shows no signs of being ready to be corrected, and will probably appeal the decision.

Guardian report of the decision here, linking it to the whole easyCouncil project.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

SIOE in Harrow - there WERE many more of us than them

Back safe and sound, thankfully, from Harrow where Stop Islamisation of Europe (SIOE) finally revealed themselves to be a tiny group of people with very much a minority interest, as they could only mobilise 20-odd people.

Still, they stood forlornly (valiantly, they will claim) in the car-park in front of Harrow Civic Centre for two hours in the cold, protected by several hundred police.

Harrow mosque had debated how to deal with this second provocative demonstration, and came down on the conservative side, calling for Muslims and anti-fascists not to counter-demonstrate.

Nonetheless, 200 or so of us counter-protestors were there, supplemented by stewards from the mosque coming to have a look, and knots of local young people. The mosque sent legal observers who were also at the disposal of the counter-protest. SIOE turned down the mosque's proposal to come and discuss their concerns about Islam (see report in Harrow Times). SIOE are revealed as an implacable and tiny group of worked-out Muslim haters.

So much for them. Thankfully, the larger, more disparate and harder to fathom English Defence League did not turn up to support SIOE. They have called a demonstration in Stoke for 23 January, where the BNP are strong. It's all getting nastier in the world of the far-right. Meantime, are we going to keep keeping our heads down?

I do believe that most people reject their views; why, then, are they being allowed to parade around the streets week in week out? I don't believe in banning them marching; I do believe in those who oppose them showing up to let them know how unwelcome they are.

I don't think SIOE will come back to Harrow. They have had their anti-mosque protest - and a very sorry affair it was. But they and other far-right groups can continue to flare up anywhere at any time, like a brushfire. Are we in a state to extinguish them?

Friday, 11 December 2009

There are many more of us than them - so get to Harrow on Sunday!

I have spent some time in the last fortnight building for a demonstration - or, rather, a counter-demonstration - to be held in Harrow this Sunday. In September, a small anti-Islamic group, Stop the Islamisation of Europe (SIOE), called a demonstration outside the newly built Harrow mosque (the old, frankly tiny mosque is next door). On that occasion, they did not organise very well and two dozen of them were kept by the police in a pub while a crowd of about 2,000 anti-SIOE protesters milled around in front of the mosque. The police told the SIOE to go home in the end.

The main story of that day was that the SIOE, who had tried to organise a provocative demonstration in a quiet suburb that none of them would visit ordinarily, were completely outnumbered and thought better of it. Unfortunately, the press relayed only pictures of some Muslim youth clashing with the police - which did happen, but which was very much a byproduct of the main events.

In the last couple of months, the English Defence League, a separate group from SIOE, but just as anti-Islam and swimming in the same far-right swamp, held a number of demonstrations in English towns. To the bystander these marches looked much like a group of football hooligans threatening to go on the rampage. EDL marchers gave Nazi salutes and abused Asian people.

Taking heart from this, the SIOE has decided to come back to Harrow again to whip up more trouble; their second demonstration is this Sunday afternoon.

I have been persuading trade unionists to join the counter-demonstration. The mosque is divided in their response; they are under a lot of pressure to rein in 'their' young people and are also telling anti-fascists to keep away.

I think that's a mistake. It is no good looking down at the pavement as the EDL and other far-right groups goose-step around our city centres. We tell ourselves that they are only a minority element; if that is so, why are they allowed to dominate public space in this way, week after week, in town after town? The sooner that all the private anti-racists get out and demonstrate their feelings in public, the sooner the EDL will get the message and go home.

I'm not advocating fighting the far-right, I'm advocating turning out to show that we outnumber them. If anyone wants to come to Harrow on Sunday, there are some more details on the Barnet TUC website:

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Medieval, bad for the poor, corrupt - the public verdict on Barnet easyCouncil

A quick report of the trade council stall at Barnet Christmas fair on Sunday 6 December. Sunny but, with the wind, very cold - I have a cough now. Never mind that.

As last year, we had a very good response from the fairgoing public. As last year, there was a lot of recognition of the issues around the council's 'reform' plans, which we were all calling 'Future Shape' last December and are calling 'easyCouncil' this December.

In the 12 months inbetween, we have seen few concrete proposals, but the council has spent a lot of money on consultants and created much anxiety, mainly among Barnet council staff but also among many residents.

We didn't find anyone on Sunday saying that the easyCouncil plan is a good idea. Here are some of the negative comments people made:
'It's medieval.'
'It will be bad for poorer areas.'
And, on the idea of fast-tracking planning applications for those who are prepared to pay more:
'That's bribery, isn't it?'
I couldn't have put it better myself.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Everyone deserves frills - say no to easyCouncil!

I've been coming up with all sorts of dignified slogans for the trades council stall in Barnet high street on Sunday 6 December. If you are there tomorrow you can admire my handiwork. But after an evening spent inhaling the fumes from marker pens and a home laminating kit, I am feeling light-headed and thought you might enjoy (yet again) this picture of someone who appreciates a frill or two or three.

When private business fishes in public service

Barnet trades council will have a stall in the high street in Barnet this Sunday 6 December during the Christmas fair (must check weather forecast), 11am to 4pm.

We had a stall last year (lovely, bright day) and attracted a lot of interest when we talked about Barnet council's Future Shape plan. A year later, to be blunt, the residents of Barnet are almost as in the dark about the council's plans as they were then.

In this year, a new word has been coined, 'easyCouncil', and Barnet council is it! We know that we might have to pay extra for more things in the future, but we still don't know what things and how much extra. Grandiose schemes to contract out almost all council services have foundered for want of a company prepared to do more than 'cherry pick' the easiest, plummest parts.

An acquaintance recently told me about his brother's experience weighing private medicine against the NHS. His brother believes in private medicine: he wants something done quickly, he's willing to pay. He took his daughter to a private hospital to have her earring removed as her ear had become infected. They offered to give her a general anaesthetic and remove it, for a large fee.

The man and his daughter passed an NHS hospital on the way home and popped into A&E for a second opinion - why not, it didn't cost anything. The doctor dabbed the girl's ear with antiseptic and removed the earring with pliers.

Private businesses exist to make profits, which is fair enough, that's the way many people make their living. But when private businesses get involved in providing public services, they only want to do the easy bits, and, since they are making money from the transaction, you can be sure that whatever they do could be done more cheaply 'in-house', ie, where a profit will not be creamed off.

That's not to say that the public sector doesn't need better management and so on, but achieving that is the challenge we should set for politicians - not how much can we outsource.

Friday, 4 December 2009

She wasn't as ill as we thought

About nine weeks ago my boyfriend's mother became very ill. She seemed to have some sort of alarmingly rapidly developing dementia, and she went into hospital. It turned out she 'only' had a bladder infection. Apparently, it is common when old people get this for it to have a devastating impact, making it hard for them to move about and making them delirious - if it isn't treated quickly.

Now the NHS has delivered her back to us, restored to health; she is able once more to drive everyone else around the twist (only joking). The episode goes to show how looking after old people at home, usually a job for amateurs, would be easier and safer if carers got a lot more professional training. Rather like new parents caring for an infant, carers learns on the job, but carers are probably much less well prepared than most new parents!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Sheltered housing wardens: two demonstrations and two days in court

Tomorrow, Monday 30 November, Barnet residents of sheltered housing and their supporters will demonstrate at 11am outside Conservative party HQ at 30 Millbank and at 12.15pm outside 10 Downing Street. This is to show opposition to the axing of sheltered housing wardens ahead of the judicial review of Barnet council's decision to make such cuts.

The judicial review is this week on Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 December at the High Court on the Strand. There will be rallies outside the courts at 10am each day of the hearing.

On Monday 7 December there is a national protest against sheltered housing cuts. Assemble 3pm in Trafalgar Square for a march to Downing Street to hand in a national petition.

Friday, 27 November 2009

"Vote Fiona Bulmer: less carrot, more stick for Barnet's disadvantaged families"

I was once told I mustn't say anything nasty about Lynne Hillan (I'm still waiting for that sub-plot to unravel) so I won't. Hillan is favourite to succeed Mike Freer as leader of Barnet council when he steps down in a few days' time.

The Hendon Times suggests that another candidate is Fiona Bulmer, Underhill councillor and cabinet member for children's services. Since the last cabinet meeting, which approved moving to the next phase of the Future Shape programme, I have taken to calling Bulmer 'Carrot and Stick'.

One of the 'problems' that the latest Future Shape report addresses is that of 'disadvantaged' people; not that they HAVE problems, but that they ARE a problem - to Barnet as a whole:
A high level analysis, using an illustrative case study approach, estimates that the costs for the Barnet taxpayer for the 2% of families facing multiple disadvantages is £87.2 million per annum taking into account loss of income and council tax.
The best solution to this 'problem' that the report comes up with is the idea of mentors, ideally recruited from the communities from which 'disadvantaged' people come. I guess the idea is that such mentors can say: I dragged myself up by my own bootstraps, so can you.

Reading the report I have concerns that mentoring is going to be done as far as possible on the cheap. I also think it is wrong to blame the poor for their own poverty. We live in an unequal society, and getting more unequal. I came from a fairly 'disadvantaged' family myself and certainly have screwed up a few times in my life. Many people do. But coming from a working class or 'disadvantaged' family means the effects of mistakes are amplified. Failing to recognise that is a big failure in my view. Middle class and rich people moralising against 'disadvantaged' people is just plain offensive.

But, anyway, at the cabinet meeting, Fiona Bulmer's unique contribution to the debate on this was to ask, believe it or not, whether mentoring didn't risk spoiling the disadvantaged. She wanted mentoring to be time-limited, to have outcomes, and, if it didn't work, for there to be sanctions. If you must, carrot - help with analysing your 'issues' and thinking about ways to sort them out - but, most definitely, stick if this novel approach doesn't deliver desired results on time.

Carrot and stick. I have been trying to think what sort of stick might be applied to a disadvantaged family or individual that doesn't respond to being mentored quickly enough. Perhaps Bulmer would have them driven to the bounds of the borough and banished forever to Brent, say, or Camden, if they would have them.

Another year over, another closing-down sale

This time last year, the vultures who normally couldn't afford to shop there but liked their stuff fell upon the stricken furniture cum ornamental knick-knacks store the Pier as it folded and everything in it was sold off cheap.

I know, I was one of them. I have a collection of tasteful throws to show for it.

This year, starting tomorrow, people who normally couldn't afford to shop there will have the chance to fall upon the stricken book and magazine cum stationery store Borders which has gone into receivership this week and begins a sale at all its shops on Saturday.

Yes, you will be able to snap up cheap Christmas gifts. But how long can this 'good news' go on? I never understand why people think capitalism is efficient, progressive, etc., when we see things like this happen.

That carefully built up brand and company ethos wiped out, its workforce forced onto the dole, the disruption, the everything must go sales. We're told business is like evolution, the fit will survive. Competition forces businesses to be efficient, innnovative, yada yada yada. It all looks like a bloody big waste of time, resources and human effort to me. No wonder a few tears are shed over it as well.

I can't muster the enthusiasm to go and pick over the remains this time. Perhaps it's just been one of those years.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Barnet free of Freer? Not yet a while

It had been expected by people who know more about these things than I do, but Mike Freer will step down as leader of Barnet council in December, in order to concentrate on his other political career: prospective parliamentary candidate for Finchley and Golders Green.

Read a little more detail on the Hendon Times website here. His likely replacement is his deputy Lynne Hillan.

Piece at last! Hendon Times Future Shape report sees light of day

It looks as though the hapless journalist at the Hendon Times has finally written an article about the Future Shape scrutiny committee that Barnet council leader Mike Freer can live with. The third draft, the article reprinted below has lasted on the Hendon Times website for a full 24 hours, after two earlier articles were pulled because they did not present 'the facts' in a way acceptable to Freer.
Council chiefs questioned on "easyCouncil" Future Shape plans
4:59pm Tuesday 24th November 2009
By Sarah Cosgrove
COUNCIL chiefs have been questioned on their Future Shape plans at a public meeting.
The council's Business Management Overview and Scrutiny Sub-committee at Hendon Town Hall in the Burroughs on November 16 called in the decision to go ahead with the mass reorganisation of council structure, asking for clarity on several issues.
These included a list of what the council would consider core services, what the council would provide as a basic package for all residents and how it intended to create a joint public sector with non council public services such as health.
In response Cllr Freer repeated explanations he has given before and referred councillors back to the Future Shape report.
In formal written responses Cllr Freer said it was not possible to provide definite answers to many of the questions at this stage.
On core services he said: “Without detailed conversation with the private and third sectors, any assumptions about what they are willing to provide are yet to be tested.”
He added that Future Shape wanted to draw a line under the old debate of statutory and non-statutory services and create a new model.
“What's core and non core will change over time.”
But leader of the Labour group, Cllr Alison Moore was not satisfied.
“How are you going to what you're having as a discretionary service is if you have no idea what your basic service is? She asked.
Cllr Freer said talking about a “basic offer” for all residents was “misleading” and the question assumed a reduction in services.
“The services that people get are related to their needs and capabilities,” he said, adding that the authority would seek to provide the same services just in a different way.
Cllr Freer gave the example of a community given a budget and a list of options and deciding how much they would want to spend on services like street cleaning and lighting.
But Cllr Moore questioned the “level of complexity” in the idea.
Cllr Freer spoke about “locking priorities” for a few years at a time and moving from contracts of a few years to “lifetime based” ones where there would be more flexibility without changing the provider.
“Nobody has said this is going to be easy, it's a work in progress, some of it will never see the light of day,” he said.
After calling a decision already made by the cabinet the scrutiny committee can vote to send it back to the cabinet to be reconsidered.
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Moore said it would have been an academic exercise to put the motion forward as Tory members of the committee would have voted it down.
Conservative committee members had no questions about Future Shape.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Barnet council rubbish collection fiasco - another fine mess!

Mike Freer, leader of Barnet council, has been doing some damage limitation on remarks made at a Cabinet scrutiny committee by the council's chief executive Nick Walkley. Did Walkley really say that under the council's Future Shape plans rubbish collection might not be a core service? Yes, he did.

When local paper the Hendon Times reported this, the story was quickly pulled from the paper's website. The journalist was sat down (metaphorically or actually, it doesn't matter) and made to write another story where Mike Freer explained what Nick Walkley had really meant to say. That under Future Shape rubbish collection would remain a core service, but that the council would work at minimising the amount of rubbish it had to collect.

The trouble was that the second story the journalist had to write did not suit Freer either. It too has been pulled. Why? Because, again, the journalist took the trouble to write down what the subject actually said: Freer had described his chief executive's remarks about rubbish collection as 'clumsy' and 'cack-handed'.

This makes Walkley, the man Freer hired, look bad, and it makes Freer look bad as well: he is clearly not much better at managing the message than Walkley.

What a pair! When I think of the two of them together in future, you know who will spring to mind?

And, shamefully, after two pulled articles, Barnet residents are still no closer to knowing whether under the council's Future Shape plans rubbish collection will be a core service or not.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

No place for rubbish in Future Shape?

The Hendon Times has a long report of the Cabinet scrutiny committee held on Monday. This is a chance for councillors to grill the Barnet Council Cabinet closely on decisions they have made. What happens in fact is that the Labour and Lib Dem members of the committee ask some searching questions and the Conservative members of the committee sit tight-lipped - but that's a minor point.

This Monday they were asking questions about council leader Mike Freer's Future Shape plan for changing the way council services are delivered... and which services are delivered. A lot of the worry people have had about the plans is what constitutes 'core services' - what can we be sure the council will deliver in return for our council tax, and what will be 'extras' that we might be required to pay extra for (the easyCouncil model)?

Well, Monday's replies are not at all reassuring - or very enlightening. We might not even get our rubbish collected as a matter of course in Freer's Future Shape. Read the report here.
Dear readers, sorry, if you click on the link above now you will just go to the general news page. The story was posted yesterday but has apparently been pulled from the Hendon Times website. It has been replaced by this.

Clearly Mike Freer's Barnet council want to manage the way Future Shape is perceived very tightly, and they have had a word in the editor's ear. If they are this jumpy this early in the process, they are in for an anxious ride. We all are.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Doing a ton

I shall be 45 in December. This has prompted me to make some macabre calculations.

Assuming that I live three score years and ten plus five for advances in modern medicine I will be 75 in 2039. Should I live to the current average of my grandparents' ages, about 87, I will die around the year 2051. If I make it to 100 (my maternal grandmother is nearing this milestone but I haven't had her advantage of a calorie restricted diet in youth) I might see in 2065!

Doing these sums helps me to to think about who will be on the throne when I am old (assuming my campaign for a republic is unsuccessful), who will send me my telegram!

I can calculate roughly how meagre my state pension will be; just how crowded Colindale will be by then; and even begin to imagine, based on how much culture/technology, etc, have changed in the time I have already lived, what sort of music people will be listening to, how few clothes the singers will be wearing, what vehicles we might be travelling around in, and what fuel they will run on... that's assuming we are all still here.

I find thinking about these things oddly comforting - or it could just be the Seasonal Affective Disorder kicking in. Anyway, it makes a welcome distraction from my other labours.

Council cuts: suddenly Barnet wants to know what we think!

The Hendon Times alerts us to the fact that when it comes to making unpopular decisions Barnet council is suddenly all agog for our opinion. I think it's called passing the buck. Anyway, here's the report with the details of where and when you can have your say on which of your limbs you would prefer to have hacked off. Opting for corporeal wholeness is not an option.

Have your say on next year's council budget

By Sarah Cosgrove

Residents are being asked how the council should “tighten its belt” in its budget next year.

Barnet Council is holding five events over the next few weeks to test run its budget plans for 2010/11.

These will be three residents' forum meetings, which are to include a period set aside specifically for budget consultation, and two Leader Listens events which will adopt the same structure.

The council will also be giving residents the opportunity to comment on its website at

Councillor Lynne Hillan, cabinet member with responsibility for resources said: "We face a twin pressure of increasing demands on some services with restrictions on funding.

“The credit crunch is hitting both the council's income and national budgets and we are obviously in for a period of belt tightening.

“Barnet Council already has low back office costs compared to other London boroughs which, along with a comparatively low grant from central government, limits our options for another round of efficiency savings.”

Cllr Hillan said the council's Future Shape plans will make structural changes which will save money but said councillors would have to make difficult decisions.

Where you can have your say:

Monday November 23 - Finchley and Golders Green - St Michael's Church, The Riding, Golders Green, from 6.30pm.

Tuesday November 24 - Chipping Barnet - Chipping Barnet Library, 3 Stapylton Road, from 6.30pm.

Wednesday November 25 - Hendon - Barnet Multicultural Centre, Algernon Road, Hendon, from 6.30pm.

Thursday November 26 - 6.30pm (budget section at 7.30pm) - Deansbrook Junior School, Hale Drive, Mill Hill, from 6.30pm.

Thursday December 9 - 6.30pm (budget section at 7.30pm) - Hampstead Garden Suburb United Synagogue, Norrice Lea, Hampstead, from 6.30pm.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Brent Cross and green bans

It's going to be another interesting week in Barnet politics. On Wednesday 18 and Thursday 19 November there is a special, extended planning and environment committee to look at Barnet council's regeneration plans for the Brent Cross area.

This deeply unlovely part of the borough certainly needs attention, but Barnet's plans are looking less and less designed to improve life for people in the area and more and more like a cash-cow for the council, with the focus on expanding retail. Barnet council needs money, but is this a good way to make it? Neighbouring boroughs Brent and Camden have had their noses put out of joint, as Barnet's plans will impact on their own residents, but they have little say in what Barnet does.

You can see the plans on the council's website here.

A formidable coalition is forming against the plans and in favour of a call-in by the Secretary of State for the Environment. Visit the Brent Cross coalition website here. Barnet trades council has joined the Coalition, which might seem at odds with our concern for job creation, but we are for sustainable job creation, and it would not be the first time that labour movement bodies have campaigned for the environment.

An episode in labour and environmental history that deserves to be better known is the green bans imposed by the Builders Labourers Federation in New South Wales, Australia.

This group of badly paid and downtrodden workers built a union in the post-war period on democratic participation by members and taking up bread and butter issues in their industry, particularly health and safety. As one contributor describes it, in an inspring film made about the union, "Rocking the Foundations", they set out to 'civilise their industry'.

When they had built up their own strength, they used it to support environmental campaigners objecting to particular construction projects in and around Sydney throughout the 1960s and early 70s. They imposed 'green bans' where, to take one example, construction workers in the union refused to work on a plan to build on Kelly's Bush, the last remaining undeveloped bushland in the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill. They protected low-cost working-class housing schemes around the Rocks area of Sydney against demolition to make way for office blocks. And they stopped the Royal Botanic Gardens being turned into a carpark for Sydney Opera House.

Yes, that's right, they stopped construction projects that would have made jobs for construction workers, in order to protect the environment.

As one contributor says in the film, what's the point in earning a decent wage if you then have nowhere decent to live and nowhere to spend your leisure time? For very many reasons, we are a long way off being able to appeal to construction unions to slap a green ban on the current Brent Cross scheme! But the green bans episode is an impressive example of what can be done when workers are mobilised around environmental issues.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Transition Burnt Oak? Why not!

In inverse proportion, it seems, as world leaders fail to act against catastrophic climate change, Transition Town mania is gripping the UK. I recently joined Transition Belsize - I can get there on the Northern Line. Tonight in the foyer of Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre I met some people well on their way to founding Transition Brent.

This movement began in the more likely setting of Totnes, Devon and is an increasingly global movement. You can find out more about Transition Towns (and villages/cities/forests/islands) here.

The basic idea is:
A Transition Initiative is a community... working together to look Peak Oil [the end of cheap oil] and Climate Change squarely in the eye and address this BIG question:

"for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?"
For an idea of what a Transition Initiative does, take a look at Transition Belsize's meetup page.

You won't be surprised to learn that this is a very middle-class movement. This is a strength - it is well-resourced. But it raises the question of how far this movement can reach into the wider population, therefore, of how much effect it can have. Could there ever be a Transition Burnt Oak, for example? For it really to grow, I think this movement will have to address what environmentalists tend to call 'social justice issues' - what I call, class issues!

The main item of local news in Kent where I've been for a week is the government's decision not to build a new nuclear power station (they have two already!) at Dungeness, largely for environmental reasons: it's a special habitat for wildlife. Most of the local people are clamouring for a new nuclear power station to be built in the area because it will mean jobs. It's a topsy-turvy world, all right.

I am involved with a campaign called Workers' Climate Action. It champions the far from revolutionary idea that we need a "just" transition to a low-carbon economy. That is, a transition which recognises the fundamental fact that most people in this society need to work in order to live. Dismantling polluting industries should go hand in hand with creating new 'green' jobs, and ordinary working-class people should have control over the process.

Otherwise, it just isn't going to happen!

So maybe Burnt Oak is not ready to be a Transition Town just yet, but just maybe it is ready to be a Just Transition Town.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Danger! Educated Gypsy, and Other Wonderful Books I'll Never Get the Time to Read

Just up the road from Barnet in Hatfield is the University of Hertfordshire. I have just been reminded that it has a department of Romani Studies.

Read some warm words about the Department and indeed the University's publications department:
"You could... do a lot worse than buying the entire back catalogue of the University of Hertfordshire Press, a tiny but valiant publishing house which is the main source of Romani Studies in this country. They publish works by many of the acknowledged world experts: Ian Hancock, Thomas Acton and Donald Kenrick among them and a fascinating array of books by Roma people themselves."

Louise Doughty, Independent on Sunday
I am editing a trade catalogue which lists publishers' forthcoming titles. The work from a mechanical point of view is dull, but the subject matter interesting. If only I didn't have to work so hard I would have time to read some of these fascinating titles! (Let's not forget that these fascinating titles represent someone else's work.)

Among many fantastic looking sociology titles, Danger! Educated Gypsy by Ian Hancock looks like a good read.

Next time Brian Coleman starts on about travellers, we might have more ammunition for our arguments with him.

Sojourn in the Medway Towns

I used to consider myself to be someone from Kent who has lived for a long time in London. I finally did the math the other day and worked out that I have lived about 29 years in London - 25 of those since I arrived an innocent fresher at UCL, but also four in my early childhood.

My parents lived for a while in Hackney and then... Finchley! My first memories are of Finchley. We lived in Long Lane and I went for a term to Martin school. My mother was very young and did cleaning jobs for Jewish ladies. (That's what she called them - 'my Jewish ladies'. I imagine they called her 'my cleaning woman'.)

So, totting it up, I only lived 15 years in Kent. Formative years, mind you. I'm visiting my mum in Rochester now, or, rather, house-sitting for her, looking after her cat and ploughing through the most enormous amount of tedious editing work. Back soon.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Chipping Barnet and feng shui

I went to a Barnet trades council meeting in Barnet last night. We usually hold our meetings at the Bull Theatre. I enjoyed my trip out as I had been confined to the house through illness for four days. But it wasn't wise taking the 251 bus to Whetstone in the rush hour traffic, I overheard some deeply tedious conversations which made me wish I was back talking to myself in my own living room.

And when I got up to Barnet my choice of Jenny's restaurant for my supper probably wasn't wise either. Anyway, the meeting was fine, but by the time I left Barnet I was all out of sorts.

I don't know a lot about feng shui - except that it's complete rubbish, of course - but I think High Barnet's is bad. And I blame that church. St John the Baptist church at the top of the hill. That too big, too ugly Gothic Revival church occupying the junction of all the main roads, blocking the flows of energy, or something like that.

I shouldn't be surprised to learn that the church is built on the site of a gallows, because it gives me the willies. Wikipedia tells me that the original church was expanded to its current monstrous size in late Victorian times:
It is a late example of the Gothic Revival Style by Victorian architect John Loughborough Pearson, begun in 1890-91 and completed after his death by his son Frank Loughborough Pearson.
I really don't get Victorian religiosity - almost all churches I see built at this time would make me recoil from Christianity. When I was a girl, I used to go to a Salvation Army troop of Brownies - perhaps that's where my horror stems from!

Anyway, I'm sure Barnet went downhill after they built that horrendous church. Apologies to any regular worshippers at St John's - I'm sure it's possible to grow to love it.

Barnet's troughing Tories

People criticise Brian Coleman for the high number of lunches and dinners he consumes in his numerous official capacities. (Of course, the main complaint is that he never pays for them.) But a glance at the Chipping Barnet Tories' website makes me wonder whether Coleman isn't just an exaggerated example of the political species as a whole, for to judge from this and this, being a Tory seems to consist of attending and occasionally hosting an endless conveyor belt of lunches, teas, suppers and other divertissements - with nibbles.

A bit like an exchange of pointless gifts at Christmas (or other major cultural/religious festival), Tories seem to be constantly entertaining each other in their own beautiful homes - except that it is not just reciprocal, each time something gets creamed off the top for the local Tory party coffers.

Before anyone accuses me of having an anthropological obsession with Tories (I have, everso slightly, in the long run-up to the election), I was looking into it from a practical point of view, wondering how me and my trade union and lefty mates could get some more cultural life around our political activism.

We clearly don't have anything like the social wherewithal to match Barnet's Tories, but I'm wondering whether we can do better than the odd snatched pint in the pub after a meeting, which is what passes for social interaction among us at the moment.

Anarchy in Barnet

A friend recently suggested that Barnet trades unionists put together a newsletter like the Hackney Heckler, which is produced to reflect left-of-centre campaigns in Hackney.

I wondered whether we have the activist base. For starters, are there any anarchists in Barnet? Hackney Heckler has a good input from anarchists, I believe, who are a mainstay of the Hackney Solidarity Network which produces it.

For curiosity's sake, I will give a prize if anyone can put me in touch with a Barnet anarchist.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

If only we could all be more like Beyoncé

I have had the flu/a bad cold which meant watching more television than I usually risk. There were some good things on, but, of course, some deeply disturbing things as well.

When I was young I would have prayed for something like T4 (that's teen programming on Channel 4, not a terminal at Heathrow). On Sunday I enjoyed the new generation "90210" - no, really, I did. It is more 'edgy' and grown-up than the first generation "Beverley Hills, 90210" - you can imagine the teens in this series taking time out to go vote for Obama before they tear each other to pieces over a handbag in a sale.

But after that there was the much more disturbing home-grown "The World's Greatest Popstars". This week the praises of Beyoncé were sung by Kimberley Walsh, a member of Girls Aloud. Now, I would have thought this was against the rules, as Girls Aloud is one of the other contenders for the award of World's Greatest Popstar.

But never mind that, more alarming things were going on. Kimberley is a pretty young woman but she wore a disturbing amount of make-up, could barely move her head lest she dislodge her hairdo, had some sort of weird padding going on around her shoulder area (or maybe she's just built like that), and couldn't look into the camera (or perhaps that's just the way they filmed her).

Kimberley's heroine Beyoncé Knowles is, granted, in many ways, 'absolutely amayzing', but then she's hardly had the most normal of lives. She joined her first girl band when she was eight years old. Her father gave up his day job to devote himself to training his daughter and her friends in a sort of girl band 'boot camp'. After a few false starts, Destiny's Child was born.

I concede that Beyoncé provides a role model of a young woman who knows what she wants and has the sass to go out and get it - girl power! But hers is not a career path that's open to all.

The most disturbing part of the presentation of Beyoncé's gifts was the time given over to admiring her booty bounce dance. Don't get me wrong, it's a good party trick, but is this really what a young woman today must aspire to achieve?

Below, almost gratuitously, are some shots of Kimberley Walsh before and after a spell in girl band boot camp. I was going to include a video of Beyoncé's booty bounce but after trawling YouTube for a while, and seeing some of the other booty bounce videos on there, I decided I didn't want any part of it.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Twins in Barnet - now that's what I call news!

There we have been, worrying about prosaic things like the future of council services in Barnet, when all the time real news was being made on our streets! The Sun draws our attention to the fact that the X Factor house is in Golders Green and local residents - including the Chinese ambassador - are having a crappy time living near it.

This is my favourite quote:

Peri Wiseman, 14, from Hendon, North London, said she travelled for an hour on the bus just to see John and Edward.
What have we been saying all along - the traffic is just terrible in this part of London!

Monday, 26 October 2009

The future looks anything but easy

Mike Freer's Future Shape report, complete with easyCouncil elements, went through Barnet council's cabinet meeting on Wednesday 21 October, as we knew it would.

It was a depressing experience for those of us who oppose it, showing that Freer can ride out a certain amount of political flak - Future Shape has been controversial since it was first mooted and a head of steam built up against it, but not enough. Now Future Shape is going on to its next phase.

Some of us thought that Freer would be kicking himself when Future Shape was tagged as easyCouncil, but I always suspected that he intended that to happen. He likes his easy labels, does Freer. He thinks that's all voters can understand.

One of Freer's refrains is 'if the voters don't like it, they can vote us out in 2010', or words to that effect. On such occasions, I reply that he has a very shallow conception of democracy, whereupon he sits back and look smug because, shallow conception that it is, that IS about all the democracy we have!

The last word is far from being spoken on Future Shape. For my part, I'll go into some of the details in future posts.

Here is a selection of reports about the Future Shape plan from the mainstream media. For the most part, they read like rehashes of council press releases:

BBC - Council pledges 'radical' plans
Guardian - Council backs radical 'easyJet' services plan
Telegraph - Book me a seat on low-cost easyCouncil
Telegraph - Bin taxes are back! Two councils want to charge families more that do not recycle

An exception is a report in the local Hendon Times reflecting some of the anxieties of the council workforce.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The BBC's Nick Griffin night

Last night's "Question Time", I fear, will have done the BNP more good than harm. All the people who already hated Nick Griffin will still hate him and will have enjoyed the majority of the audience giving him hell. He deserved it.

But he played his cards very close to his chest, denied all the worst things, mugged, smiled a lot, joshed with Bonnie Greer, and told the establishment politicans some uncomfortable home truths. Jack Straw had no answer when Griffin talked about the Iraq war - you could hear the audience sitting on their hands so as not to clap him.

Labour, Tory and Lib Dem all seemed to be in denial about the fact that a lot of people don't like seeing two men kissing - it's true. That fact is not the end of debate on that issue, but it's true. The vast majority of people in the UK are of white English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish descent; their ancestors have 'been here' for hundreds of years - what conclusions flow from that it's not clear, but it's a fact. The establishment seemed to be in denial.

The only actual policy debated all night was immigration - and on that the three mainstream parties bickered and fell over themselves to compete on the BNP's territory.

Then there was the actual format of the programme. Having decided that the BNP has crossed the threshold whereby, playing by the usual rules, they must be invited onto the programme, the Beeb then tore up the rule book and geared the whole show around exposing - it looked more like ritually humiliating - one of the panellists.

All in all, I think it was a gift to Griffin and the BNP. Anyone who might have been wooed by him, probably was.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Why I'll join the protest at Television Centre tomorrow

This evening BBC director general Mark Thompson is defending the decision to invite Nick Griffin onto "Question Time" tomorrow night. I think it was a bad decision - made in the first place not by him but by the editors of the programme.

They had the discretion whether to invite Griffin on or not and they chose to invite him on out of some mistaken sense that since he gets x% of the vote he therefore has earned the right to x% of airtime. The simple fact is that going on "Question Time" normalises Nick Griffin and his politics and we can't afford to normalise him.

Nick Griffin will be answering whatever questions are put to him on the night; they could be on anything - climate change, the postal strike, "The X Factor" - on some level, appearing on this show helps to normalise Nick Griffin.

There's nothing normal about a party that won't allow non-whites to join it, has violent thugs among its leadership, preaches hatred of a whole religion (just one for now) - Islam - hates trade unions and socialists, gay people, the European Union, foreigners, glorifies a mythical white race and its supposedly spotless past. A fascist party, that offers only reactionary answers to social problems.

In late teenage I finally cottoned on to the fact that most people on TV are middle-class and probably went to public schools. There's nothing wrong with that as such, but it isn't normal. The people who populate our television screens, on the whole, and commission and schedule the programmes, etc, are not, collectively, normal. I think a lot of them live in a cocoon. Their values are skewiff. On this occasion they think they are opposing censorship and standing up for free speech. I think they are dangerously out of touch.

Censorship: however "establishment", the BBC is not the state. "Question Time" is a programme, not a national election, and certainly not a party political broadcast. I would be against the British state censoring the BNP - I'm against the state censoring political expression. But, to repeat, the BBC is not the state.

Free speech: the right to free speech does not oblige people to give the BNP a platform. In a Guardian article Lib Dem Chris Huhne makes a reasonable fist of explaining why he will debate Griffin, including this:

I would not appear at a meeting organised by the BNP, and nor would I extend an invitation to them. It is no part of the business of an elected liberal to drum up larger audiences for our most reviled opponents. They are welcome to their freedom of speech, but they can choose their own street corner and their own soapbox without my help.
He sounds as though he has a much sounder grasp of what's at stake here than Mark Thompson.


The simple fact is, I think, a lot of middle-class people, and especially at the BBC - who also gave the BNP a soft ride in a "Newsbeat" interview recently, of all things - are complacent about what the BNP and other far-right or racist groups, like the English Defence League, represent.

If it is a defence to say that the BNP gets 6% in elections, what is the establishment going to let them do if they start getting bigger votes? I don't trust the establishment or the state to save us from fascism. The BBC, on the current showing, will just roll over and say "well, a lot of people like them, you know".

On 10 October about 500 English Defence League racists and fellow-travellers and - alas - people they picked up on the day, had the run of Manchester city centre while an anti-racist counter-demonstration was corralled by the police in Piccadilly Gardens. The fascists are audacious and the only thing that can persuade them to back down now is large mobilisations of people who oppose them. That happened in Harrow a few weeks ago, although I fear that the fascists have learned lessons from that day and might come back for a second try. In any case, they are currently on a tour of the UK, with Scottish and Welsh Defence Leagues also being set up.

Free speech is not the issue. Stopping the fascists from growing is the issue and the more of us that show up when they show up, the easier that will be.

The CWU ate my hamster

Today I've been enjoying some of the newspaper headlines around the looming postal strike. As you would expect, many find angles that cast the postal workers' union, the CWU, in a bad light:

Postal strike threat to swine flu vaccination programme

Post strike could hit Christmas military mail

One of the more unlikely front pages was the Daily Mail's - a picture of strike breakers queuing up behind a chain link fence. The full story shows that their concern is simply about who might be getting their grubby mitts on readers' letters:

Royal Mail is hiring thousands of 'strike-breakers' who have not had their references checked or been vetted for criminal records.

The company's decision to bus in 30,000 casual workers, to clear a mail backlog caused by previous strikes and the two-day national stoppage beginning on Thursday has already triggered a furious row.

Now the Mail has learned that they are being hired - on the minimum wage of £5.80 an hour - after only cursory interviews.
I don't know all the ins and outs of the dispute, but I do know that postal workers are low paid, they will not receive strike pay when they are out and that striking will cost them. Yet the high turnout in the strike ballot and the large majority for a strike shows that the workers' grievances - over job cuts, management bullying, workload - are serious. Naturally, I will be showing support on the picket lines tomorrow morning.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Tally ho! The Tories are coming!

The RSPCA recently drew attention to the alarming rise in dog-fighting in the UK. A report on the BBC website includes news about one fight in a Mill Hill park. Of course, the sort of people doing this are largely assumed to be working-class yobs. An RSPCA spokesperson explains:
"It's a lot to do with the sort of MTV gang culture - people want to look hard, they want to look tough, with a dog that looks tough."
I wrote a blog about this back in July and I think it is sad and a damning indictment of the sort of society that we are/have become.

But exploiting dogs' natural, aggressive instincts for sport is not confined to the working classes, of course. News comes that David Cameron's Tories would repeal the ban on fox hunting with dogs, if they form the next government. See, for example, this nice partisan report on the Daily Mirror website.

Of course, there are many differences between a bunch of brutalised working-class idiots setting their dogs on each other in a park, which we all condemn, and a bunch of aristos or nouveau-riches galloping after a pack of hounds after a fox, which some of us regard as a noble pastime and part of the indissoluble social glue of rural life. That is, setting aside class double-standards, when it comes down to it, there is no difference at all.

Here is my favourite militant vegan punk band Active Slaughter with their song "Born Free" and an upsetting video reminding us why it is right that fox-hunting is banned and why that ban should be enforced.

Frank Field hoist by his own petard

I am quite enjoying the story about Frank Field protesting his innocence of involvement in the MPs' expenses scandal and refusing to pay back some of the money he received. You can read about it here.

I'm sure Field IS quite innocent. It is just nice to see him being unjustly accused of being a benefits scrounger, as his late political career has been built on berating the feckless, cosseted children of the welfare state. A modern-day Samuel Smiles.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Manifesto for the public services - 1st draft

It won't have escaped your notice that we nearly had a completely financial meltdown last year, and are currently in a recession. Moreover, despite the fact that they weren't the cause of this, you'll have got the message from almost all political parties that it is the public services that will get hammered in order to restore the national finances.

Barnet council trade unions, Barnet trades council, and a number of residents have launched a draft manifesto for the public services to serve two purposes in the coming period:
- as a benchmark against which we will judge the policies of politicians seeking our votes

- as a set of principles to guide our own actions.
If I were to summarise its contents at the moment it's: we will defend public services!

I must stress that it is a draft, an imperfect document (though a darn sight better than anything any of the mainstream political parties is offering). We are inviting residents' and other organisations in Barnet to join the process of discussing the manifesto, the issues raised in it, and proposing amendments. The manifesto will be finalised, taking on board people's suggestions, in the spring at which point people can decide whether they want to put their names to it or not.

If you would like more information about this I suggest you email Barnet trades council - - as they will be playing a coordinating role. Thank you. I think this is a pretty exciting development, albeit the road we are embarking on looks long.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Is it a bird, is it a plane? The Future Shape report arrives

You can download the Future Shape report and other documents to be discussed at Barnet Council's cabinet meeting on 21st October from here.

I haven't read them yet but I can see they're packed with colourful diagrams - always a bad sign!

Other items on the agenda will be the Brent Cross regeneration scheme and the council's response to the recession, so a very lively evening is in store.

Council unions, Barnet trades council, and residents opposed to the Future Shape privatisation plan will be lobbying outside Hendon Town Hall, the Burroughs, from 6pm. The Cabinet meeting starts at 7pm and several questions are tabled from the public about Future Shape and other matters. Come and join us!

It didn't take them long - Barnet Tory curbs on resident participation

When I attended my first Barnet Cabinet meeting nearly a year ago and put a public question it was a chastening experience. I was most surprised to learn that public questions to Cabinet were almost unheard of. For a year now, however, opponents of the council's 'Future Shape' privatisation plan and cuts to sheltered housing wardens have made it our business to put questions on those matters to the Cabinet.

Now Barnet's Tory council have voted to restrict which matters the public can address during Cabinet meetings - details in the press release from Barnet's Labour group below. It didn't take the Tories long to begin closing off the avenues of complaint that we have against their policies. This is the administration that spouts a lot of rhetoric about finding new ways to engage with residents. Any way that suits them, it seems, not us.

Barnet Tories curb public participation rights

Conservative councillors have forced through changes to public participation rights that will restrict what questions can be asked by members of the public at council committees, including, Cabinet, Scrutiny, Environment & Planning committees.

Conservative councillors on the Constitution Review Committee voted on Monday night to stop members of the public submitting questions on any matter in the remit of council committees and ruled that questions must be restricted to items on the agenda at any particular meeting.

The rule change was proposed by Cllr Melvin Cohen, who recently attracted criticism for accepting an extra allowance of £7,500 for chairing the Constitution Review Committee that meets just four times a year.

Leader of Barnet Labour Group, Cllr Alison Moore said:

“This is just the latest blow to democracy in our battle to stop the further erosion of public participation rights in Barnet. This Conservative council has an appalling record on public participation and consultation. They have cut the number of Resident Forums, reduced public speaking rights at Planning meetings, and now this – what are they afraid of? Frankly it's a disgrace, and we will be opposing this rule change at Full Council.”

Ends. Notes to reporters:

1. Section 4, Paragraph 4.1 of the Council's Public Participation rules states that:

“Anyone who lives or has a business in the borough may ask the Leader or Cabinet Member chairing the meeting of the Cabinet or Cabinet Committee, or Chairman of any committee, or sub-committee, a question on any matter within its terms of reference.”

Last night's vote proposes that Full Council changes this rule to read:

“Anyone who lives or has a business in the borough may ask the Leader or Cabinet Member chairing the meeting of the Cabinet or Cabinet Committee, or Chairman of any committee, or sub-committee, a question relating to an item it is considering on that occasion.”

3. A copy of the relevant sections of the Council's Constitution can be found

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Barnet wardens fight is an example for all

Yvonne Hossacks, the lawyer acting for a number of sheltered housing residents in Barnet and other areas, has succeeded in her motion for a judicial review of Barnet council's decision to axe its sheltered housing wardens. This means at least a delay in the axing of the wardens, because the council cannot now terminate the contracts for the existing service when it wanted to.

It also means that sheltered housing, as it deserves to be, will still be a live issue in the run-up to the next local - and general - election.

Congratulations to David Young and all the other sheltered housing residents in Barnet who have refused to just give up the service they value and rely on. I have been involved, through Barnet Community Campaign, in organising some protests and also want to praise those who have been involved in those.

Sheltered housing is an important, but only one of the areas of public services that are coming under attack and which will come under attack in the coming months and years. We have got to mobilise many more people in the defence of their services. The tenacity and imagination of David and his comrades (if I can call them that) in the campaign to defend their warden service is a great example of where we all need to be heading.

Times report of the judicial review here.

The return of the smooth man

I try not to base my blogs on unkind personal observations, but sometimes one can't help noticing things about people. My mother (this post is not about my mother), like most human beings, had descriptions for people based largely on their appearance. And made value judgments based on that.

Sometimes she would describe a man as 'smooth'. 'Oh, he's a bit smooth.' Sometimes she would describe someone as 'smarmy' - this is worse than smooth, but smooth is bad enough. Smooth men played golf, they never travelled by bus, they had glass decanters of sherry on their sideboards. They almost definitely, inevitably, to a man, voted Conservative.

That's what they did. What did they look like? They had smooth, rounded jawlines, with just a tiny bit too much fat on them, and tidy hair, probably parted, with the hint of a quiff.

Anyway, why I'm thinking about this now is because I can see the return of the smooth man in politics, they are waiting in the wings, crowds of them, waiting to move back into the centre of our television screens... because the Tories are coming back into power.

I really hadn't taken much notice of the Tories for years, but now I will have to, I suppose. I will try not to judge them by their appearance, and only by their deeds, but, in honour of my mother's judgment, I cannot resist compiling a small picture gallery of smooth, Tory men. This lot just make me shudder. The last gentleman is David Pugh, the Conservative council leader for the Isle of Wight, where I have spent some time this summer.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Romanian families: don't punish people for being poor!

A shocking story about Romanian families who have been living in an unused football stadium in Cricklewood. Twelve of their children have been taken away by social services, after the electricity has been cut to the stadium - which is going to help them how?

When Romania joined the EU, Romanian migrants weren't granted the same rights to work and settle in the UK that, say, Polish migrants were when Poland joined the EU. In other words, they had the basic bad luck to have been born in Romania, not Poland... or the UK.

My take on all of this is that people shouldn't be punished for being poor. Most people in Britain were poor until not so long ago - absolutely poor, as well as relatively poor. People would do well to remember that before they start tutting and shaking their heads at how other people live.

And Barnet council should house the families, not take their children away!

Sunday, 4 October 2009

I was lost in Barnet

While my other half visited his mother in hospital this afternoon, I went for a walk (I'm all heart). He dropped me off on Hendon Wood Lane and I followed part of the Dollis Valley Green Walk.

This is one of the footpaths that won a Mayor of London makeover grant in the 'Help a London Park' popular vote earlier in the year. I don't know whether it was more deserving than candidates that did not win, but I'm all for upgrading ALL of London's green spaces so I'm glad that it will have some money spent on it.

I don't know which parts are going to be upgraded; I suspect the bit I was on needs some better signposting. I know that at a certain point I was following one path and then there were dozens to choose from and at that point I got lost. I walked along some unfamiliar streets with unlikely names like Quinta and Nupton, past a posh new primary school called Whitings Hill, and up a hill that belongs to Barnet Council that was freshly mown, from the top of which I could see no familiar landmarks whatsoever.

Then I found my way back to Totteridge Lane which is far more familiar to me, being the route of the 251 bus, and had a cappuccino in the Orange Tree pub that I usually sail past. It's good getting lost, frankly. We all feel under so much pressure to have everything under control always, that it was nice being completely clueless. Now that I'm home, however, can I resist the urge to look up my route on Googlemap?

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The campaigning year in pictures - and it's not over yet!

I decided to submit a picture to the labour photo of the year contest (strictly amateur!) organised by LabourStart. I thought I must have something from the Vestas dispute (see last pic) - when I looked through I remembered what a busy year it's been! I'm posting a few snaps here from the period from last December - the first Future Shape lobby of the council. If you like any of them, please let me know which because I can only submit one pic to the contest and need help choosing. Thank you.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Times readers think Brian Coleman should not be Barnet's mayor

The online poll being conducted by Times newspapers in the wake of Brian Coleman's standards sub-committee defeat shows readers overwhelmingly opposed to him continuing as Barnet's mayor. Among nearly 600 voters, 81% say he should not continue, 15% think he should, and 4% think he should but only if he apologises for his misdeed.

These results are more grist to the mill in which Coleman's political reputation, deservedly, is being ground to dust. And the poll is still open... vote here!

Is this the most patronising blogpost ever written?

Not this one. This one.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

In the full glare of... police, camera, action

Have just returned from the Isle of Wight where Vestas moved their blades. That wasn't supposed to happen! Well, you can't win them all.

I don't know how many police have filmed me today, too many. I also made the mistake of saying I am a journalist, so then they wanted my NUJ number and to know who I work for, whether I 'follow protests' (no, but I've organised a few in my time).

I don't do much in the NUJ, but I should do more. There is a whole debate there about what is a journalist. I do earn my living from journalism, and could earn a lot more if I did more of the lucrative stuff and less unpaid work covering protests. My aim is to get paid for this work, but that seldom comes off.

Proper journalists, as far as the police are concerned, stand only where the police tell them to stand, take their pictures with big, expensive company cameras, submit expense forms for all out-of-pocket expenses, rather than spending their own money, and, of course, are 'neutral', ie, not emotionally involved with what they are writing about/photographing.

No one is neutral! Worrying mainly about your career, and only writing about what is safe and respectable might keep the police happy but this is not being neutral, this is highly political. The difference is that it is in tune with the dominant political ideas in society.

I hope I can finally work out how to get pictures off my crappy camera phone because I have some great shots of the massive police operation it took to get Vestas blades out today, snapped from the shrubs on the shoreline, where I stood my ground, to the consternation of the Hampshire Constabulary, refusing to go and stand in the press pen.

They couldn't stop me, because I was on a public footpath, but they do have plenty of pictures of me to make sure I don't step out of line in the future.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Day of righteousness part 2: Save Vestas blog

Barnet's trade union bloggers can teach Barnet council a thing or two about using social media to get their message across and communicate with 'constituents'., the network for UK union blogs and bloggers, has announced its top 25 union blogs for 2009.

The site run by Barnet Unison is at number 24 and the SaveVestas blog which I have helped to run for the three months it has existed is at number 4.

There are two reasons why SaveVestas has done so well - (1) a lot of work has gone into it, and not just mine - there is a small team of us contributing in different ways; (2) it reflects an important campaign which has had a big impact on the labour and environmental movements, and certainly on the Isle of Wight.

In short, lessons for Mike Freer to help him with his lamentable 'Leader Listens' blog:
(1) blogs don't write themselves;
(2) blogs need a reason to exist beyond simply showing that the blogger - in this case, Barnet council's leader - has a blog.

The campaign on the Isle of Wight is not over yet. So I shall continue to be just part-time on this my own blog, but hopefully for not much longer!

Day of righteousness part 1: Yvonne Hossacks

Yvonne Hossacks, campaigning solicitor on behalf of sheltered housing residents fighting the threat to their wardens, has won her solicitors disciplinary tribunal.

No more detail on the case but the following website will show you how much Yvonne is appreciated by her clients:

Yah boo sucks to those local authorities who have tried to shut her up by taking out complaints against her and trying to end her career.

Gintare lives with Herkus and Marijus, OR The Lithuanian Section 28

Last year around this time I was handing in my Masters dissertation in European Politics. I'm still not sure how one settles on a dissertation project, but I wound up writing about EU anti-discrimination law with particular reference to LGBT discrimination. It was very interesting - the topic, possibly even the dissertation.

After spending a whole year immersed in the minutiae of this topic, however, I abandoned my involvement as soon as I could! But I still get email updates from various organisations on it, and see that the Lithuanian parliament has passed a law very like the UK's now, thankfully, repealed Section 28.

Do you remember Section 28? It was the Tories' homophobic injunction that a local authority "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". It was enacted in 1988. The Labour government got around to repealing it in 2000 in Scotland and 2003 in the rest of the UK.

Section 28 was an attempt to prevent school libraries stocking books such as Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin which, shock-horror, portrayed homosexuals as normal people leading normal family lives. It didn't occur to the Tories then that books like this only reflected what has gone on, when not suppressed, for the whole of human history: there have been and always will be gay parents.

Hasn't a lot changed in 20 years? I remember, as an undergraduate student, demonstrating outside town halls with administrations that were going down the Section 28 route - Haringey, Rugby - while all around the country, other local authorities were pioneering positive images of gay people.

Not enough has changed though. Homophobia is still rampant today, even in the UK. School children now use 'gay' in a pejorative sense to mean 'not much cop/wimpy'.

In Lithuania, the "Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information" (!) "classifies public information about homosexuality and bisexuality with other prohibited material that portrays physical or psychological violence and the display of dead bodies", according to Amnesty International.

We still have a very long way to go before human sexuality is free.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Stay of execution for Barnet's sheltered housing wardens

Barnet council's plans to remove the wardens from sheltered housing schemes in the borough are on hold as campaigners have won an injunction. Read all about it here in the Guardian.

Congratulations to Yvonne Hossacks' team and the indomitable sheltered housing residents of Barnet who are not giving in easily.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Nudge me, shape me, anyway you want me... now, how about YOU collecting my rubbish, educating my children, and getting off my back?

Some of you will remember that instantly forgettable song 'Bend me, shape me' by Amen Corner. Even I remember it!

Barnet council leader Mike Freer, in his endless quest for publicity, and not satisfied with merely being notorious for Future Shape and easyCouncil, has got yet another media outlet interested in another piece of gimmickry, this time, the council's experiements in nudge (using social psychology techniques to get Barnet residents to change their behaviour) and 'place-shaping' (I still need that explaining to me).

The BBC news website today has a piece called 'Can politicians shape our behaviour?' to introduce a programme at 8pm on Radio 4 - "Persuading us to be good" (repeated on Sunday at 5pm - I'll catch it then).

I'm not much given to quoting from scripture, but the phrase 'physician, heal thyself' springs to mind whenever I hear Freer starting to talk about other people's behaviour. Read the trailer article here.