Saturday, 31 December 2011

Here's to a better year in 2012! Even in Barnet...

2011 was a strange year. I've never felt moved to write corny greetings on New Year's Eve before, but I'm going to this year.

On a personal note, I've been reminded too many times for comfort this year that time and tide wait for no man and that I am a man. Well, obviously, I am a woman but you know what I mean.

In 2010 my dear grandmother died, but I didn't feel so miserable then as I have this year when too many people died untimely. Ali, Patrick and Alan I knew personally and will miss. People close to me have also lost loved ones, and one of those has had a big impact on my life this year.

We have lost some national figures as well, Brian Haw stands out for me.

In the world at large, I'm sure there have not been an extraordinary number of deaths, but there were many that were truly shocking, for example, the 77 Norwegians murdered by Anders Breivik, and those who died during the riots in August.

If I tried to enumerate the astounding international and national political events that took place this year, I wouldn't do it half as well as the Sunday supplements will tomorrow so I'll spare us both.

I wish everyone well always. But humanity is divided against itself, men from women, nations, races, religions, along lines of sexual orientation and physical ability, age and so on. In all these tensions, real and imagined, I don't take a side. But there is one way that people are divided where I do: class.

I don't believe that we can make progress in healing all our other divisions unless we end the inequality of resources and opportunity which stifle many of us as individuals and the absurd waste inherent in the capitalist system which stifles us as a species.

I don't expect most of you to agree with me, but I'm sure there will be times in the coming year when we will share views on the way things are going in Barnet - downhill! - and class, I believe, has a lot to do with that.

There, I have left myself wide open to some digs from David Duff. So I will end with something my grandmother said, which was hardly original but effective. She always said it as a toast: "Here's to those who wish us well, and all the rest can go to..."

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

I have tickets for Boris... or do I?!

The online form to apply for tickets to the TalkLondon event at the Peel Centre, Aerodrome Road on Tuesday 17 January seems to be OK now. They have removed the captcha thing which wasn't working.

However, while I now have my e-tickets (oh, yes, I'm bringing a friend), I'm also informed:
Doors open at 6pm and entry is first come first served.
So, do I have tickets or not? Anyway, I'll get there with some well thought out questions.

Thinking of organising a little protest beforehand as well; with it being held at the Peel Centre, there is no question of it not being well policed so it can't get out of hand!

P.S. Mr Mustard says, in response to an earlier blogpost, that Brian Coleman is due to chair the event - which I am sure he will excel at (not)!

Fly away, Boris!

I've just made it back home across the North Kent marshes, as seen in a Dickens adaptation on a television near you - part two of the very enjoyable "Great Expectations" is this evening.

As you might know, this area is where London mayor Boris Johnson would, if he got his way, site a massive new airport. Just today, a new article in the Independent gives an idea of what such a monstrous project would cost, but apparently architect Norman Foster having done this sort of thing before has ideas of how it could be done in North Kent.

Seeing the bleak landscape shown in Great Expectations - and it really hasn't changed much since, save you can now shoot right past it in minutes on High Speed 1 - you might imagine that the locals would be grateful to be rescued from mudflats as far as the eye can see and dragged into the 21st century with the addition to the area of a sparkling new international airport, but I understand most are opposed and I am with them.

I will be among the many chaining themselves to the bulrushes if Boris's vanity project ever seriously looks like getting off the drawing board. Good God, man, quite apart from saving the birds, that's where I learned to ride a horse!

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Barnet bloggers put another Yule log on the fire burning under the Barnet administration

Making it three posts in an afternoon - and me with a train to catch! - can I draw your attention to the Barnet council civic awards? Usually, not desperately exciting to most, the competition could be more interesting this year.

Barnet CPZ Action are nominating Barnet blogger Mr Mustard (aka Derek Dishman) for services to blogging and his part in the campaign against the CPZ charge rises, and David Attfield, also for the latter.

There will be other people who should be honoured, I would include all my other fellow Barnet Bloggers, Mrs Angry, Mr Reasonable and the incomparable Barnet Eye. The bloggers have done a great job this year scrutinising the failings of the current administration.

Private Eye has just honoured the Barnet Bloggers, Mrs Angry in particular, in its 2011 "Rotten Borough" awards:
The past year saw a growing trend for councils to use the law, or the threat of legal action, to stifle free speech and limit public scrutiny of the way elected representatives spend tax payers' money. Councils seemed particularly alarmed by the increase in 'citizen journalists' writing blogs and tweeting - and holding councils to account in ways that many local papers no longer have the balls to.

Highly commended: Tory 'easycouncil' Barnet was one authority which took fright at the interest shown in its activities by electors - in particular a busy group of bloggers. It seriously considered prosecuting one of them, 'Mr Mustard', under the data protection act, until the information commissioner told it not to be so silly. Meanwhile it hired security men dressed in black paramilitary style uniforms to intimidate members of the public who turned up for an important budget meeting. Hats off to the bloggers, in particular 'Mrs Angry', who revealed that the company, MetPro, hadn't got a proper contract, and used unlicensed, non CRB checked staff.
With all the plaudits rolling in, I don't think we'll be going away next year! To take part in these exciting elections - the awards ceremony would be a hoot - visit this webpage. You only have until 31st December to make nominations!

Recycling Christmas cards already!

I haven't had time to sort out a super-dooper Christmas card for you, so I've nicked one from Barnet CPZ Action! I hope they won't mind.

Barnet's traders in particular will be grinding their teeth at the callous indifference shown to their plight by Barnet's Tory council this Christmas.

Foregoing the 'amnesty' on parking charges in the borough, which they have implemented in previous years, the Tories have ploughed ahead with raising parking charges and made sure that a council debate on parking, called for by the Labour group, will now take place in late January when most of the damage has already been done.

The Labour Party are collecting signatures for a petition which could lead to a further council debate... in March. That's a fair way off, but it would shine a very unwelcome light on the Tories' policy in time for the GLA elections in May when incumbent Brian Coleman, the mastermind (I use the term loosely) of the parking policy, is hoping against hope to be re-elected as the representative for Barnet and Camden.

The Labour Party petition, hosted on the council's own website, says:
We, the undersigned, request Barnet council to reverse the parking charge increases implemented in 2011 that are having such a damaging impact on our local town centres and residents at a time when they can least afford it. We need action now to help small businesses and relieve residents. We believe that reversing the parking charges will increase the number of shoppers in our town centres, giving struggling local businesses and traders a much needed boost and helping our hard-pressed residents in these difficult economic times.
Sign the petition here.

Put the jam in Boris's doughnut, or something like that, on 17 January

TalkLondon, London mayor Boris Johnson's occasional roadshow, comes to Barnet on Tuesday 17 January.
Join the Mayor, Boris Johnson, Isabel Dedring, the Deputy Mayor for Transport, and a panel of local representatives, for an opportunity to question them on investing in Outer London.

When and where: Talk London Barnet will take place at the Peel Centre in Hendon, NW9 5JE on Tuesday 17 January, 7pm - 8.30pm. Doors open at 6pm. [6pm! Bring a sandwich and a flask of coffee!]

The panel will include:
  • Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
  • Isabel Dedring, Deputy Mayor for Transport
  • Cllr Cornelius, Leader of Barnet Council
  • Gail Laser, Chair of Barnet Traders & Barnet Town Team
Follow us on Twitter @talklondon
It's irresistible, isn't it? But just try applying for a ticket online! I've tried twice on two computers now, and the Captcha thingy just isn't working for me!

It's worth noting that Brian Coleman, GLA member for Barnet and Camden, yes, the "local representative", seems to have been dropped from the panel - well, I swear he was on an earlier lineup that I saw. And that Barnet traders are now prominent. Some sort of compensation for the havoc wreaked on Barnet's local businesses by the council's increase in parking charges - a policy spearheaded by Coleman?

Keep trying for those tickets! All of you! Whatever you have to say to Boris, not forgetting Mr Indecisive, Dithering Dick, Richard Cornelius, Leader of Barnet Council. And maybe, after all, Brian will be putting in a special mystery guest appearance; why wouldn't he? This is his patch and how could he resist the chance to shine in front of all his potential electors! This will be the hottest ticket in town this January, I'm sure of it!

TalkLondon website here.

Friday, 23 December 2011

2011 - a year of protest in pictures including quite a few taken in Barnet!

Taking my cue from fellow Barnet bloggers – who have been an inspiration all year – here is my words and pictures review of Barnet 2011. What a year it’s been!

JANUARY – the Barnet march against cuts and privatisation marched slowly from Finchley Central tube station to the Arts Depot. The picture reminds me of the very diverse opposition to Barnet Conservative council’s plans that is there to be rallied. It also reminds me of the fun I have had taking pictures this year!

FEBRUARY – the struggles for democracy in the Middle East were inspiring to anyone with a heart. Although the future still looks rocky throughout the region, the courage and audacity of people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria reminds us how dearly people prize freedom and how dearly they pay to win it. The picture is of a joyous demonstration in Trafalgar Square by Egyptians when Mubarak left power.

MARCH – the TUC at last, to use a phrase common among leftists, got off its knees and went so far as to organise a “March for the alternative” in London. Barnet trade unionists and residents were among half a million people who wended their way to Hyde Park where the speakers were quickly over and away. Ed Miliband rushed through the part of his speech, which said, “some cuts are necessary”. Most media attention was on the sideshow on Piccadilly – how protests are policed will be a recurring theme of the year.

APRIL – the Pinkham Way Alliance lobbied Barnet council against the proposed siting of a huge waste processing plant in their midst. The MetPro scandal, demonstrating the poor control Barnet council has over its procurement and contract monitoring, was surfacing at the same time so “Trust” was a big issue.

MAY – a weekday evening, central London demonstration against Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill was one among many manifestations of anxiety about the government’s plans to privatise the NHS.

JUNE – among the Conservative and Lib Dem government’s many attacks on working people, their plans to make public sector workers work longer, pay more and get less in pensions began to provoke anger among trade unionists. NUT, PCS, UCU and some smaller unions all struck on 30 June. Here is Barnet NUT on the central London march that day.

JULY – the anti-cuts and privatisation campaign Barnet Alliance for Public Services took a small protest to Westminster to the HQ of Capita, one of the big outsourcing companies bidding to run Barnet council services – for a small consideration of £275 million (that’s one of the "One Barnet Programme" contracts – there are more). While there has been a lot of protest about big business evading tax, there has not been enough public scrutiny or dissent over the handing over of big sackfuls of our cash to the MNCs to run our public services.

AUGUST – hundreds of Barnet council employees organised by their union Barnet Unison have taken industrial action this year, worried about the terms under which they will go into private sector employment if the council’s One Barnet privatisation plan goes ahead. Here workers in Revenues and Benefits picket North London Business Park on 6 August against an attempt to break their work-to-rule.

SEPTEMBER – dubbed “Barnet Independence Day”, 13 September saw a big strike by Barnet council workers being “bundled up” for transfer to the private sector. The picture is from a rally in front of Hendon Town Hall.

OCTOBER – central government has given local authorities less money this year so that rich bankers and corporations do not need to tighten their belts like the rest of us. Barnet council along with others has resorted to desperate measures to plug the gaps in its finances. In addition to making cuts, “Revenue Income Optimisation” involves such things as increases in parking charges, which are proving disastrous to local business, and the commercialisation of public spaces through charging funfairs a fee to use them.

NOVEMBERstudent protests against cuts, higher tuition fees and now the Higher Education White Paper resumed in the new academic year. A march on 9 November was effectively a moving kettle, as the police had tightened up considerably their control of protests. The young woman in the picture is looking at a companion “kettle” of electricians who have been striking and protesting to defend their pay bargaining system.

DECEMBER – the picture is from 30 November, the day of the big pensions strike, which saw perhaps two million public sector workers on strike. December has been a period when the government attempts to pounce on and stifle the dispute, which has so far united teachers, civil servants, local government workers and more.


My pictures from 2011 show the efforts of many throughout the year, which must be joined by the efforts of many more in the weeks and months ahead. To any faltering and wavering trade union leaders looking to settle the pensions dispute quickly and run, I say we’ve come too far to retreat now! To ordinary trade union members, I say hold your leaders to account and make sure they do what is best for you not them! And to anyone not yet in a union I say, isn’t it time you joined one?!

Here’s to the battles of 2012!

Further proof of my existence: Thursday was my birthday; plus a libraries update

I'm still working long hours and struggling to find time to blog - it's not that there isn't plenty of inspiration about.

I walked down Oxford Street this evening (Thursday 22nd); the lights, particularly at the western end, were quite spectacular. I came home via Golders Green where some sad garlands were strung across Golders Green Road; at the northern end a couple of shrimp-like creatures picked out in light bulbs were clinging to the top of two lamp-posts. If it's this bad in Golders Green I can't think how shoddy the lights will be in Burnt Oak.

On Twitter this evening, campaigners to keep Friern Barnet Library open have posted:
#FriernBarnetLibrary Open Xmas Eve 9.30am-1pm.Make sure you pop in & spread the festive cheer, it may be our beloved library's LAST XMAS :(
I don't know what progress has been made towards opening the "replacement" for North Finchley and Friern Barnet Libraries in the Arts Depot. If anyone has any updates, please let us know.

As things stand, Friern Barnet and Hampstead Garden Suburb Libraries are scheduled for closure at the end of March 2012. However, the council is currently reviewing the "community proposals" from campaigners at Friern Barnet.

My screensaver is a photograph I took outside Church Farmhouse Museum on the day it closed, 31 March, this year. There had been a community proposal to keep that building in public use, but the Council was not interested. They are interested in selling property.

Brent libraries campaigners have lost their latest legal appeal to keep six libraries open. They are considering whether to take their case to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the UK.

With the news this week that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs have let big business off £25 billion of tax people surely cannot accept that their libraries will close to save cash-strapped councils a relatively small sum.

And while I am in a shopping-list mood, can't Barnet have some better festive lights?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Stop Barnet - I want to get off! (Includes suggestions for things you can do to make Barnet a better place in 2012)

Just thought I'd let you know that I am still alive and I am still living in Barnet. Every time I went to put fingers to keyboard recently some fresh horror arose, worse than the last... that or I didn't get around to it! It is hard work earning a living and being mother to two demanding young cats.

But it has not escaped my notice that the borough is in some kind of political meltdown, not without a reaction by its hapless residents.

1. The council's crazy plan to let out some of its public parks for private hire has so far provoked a big public meeting and a petition, with more to follow, I'm sure.
  • To contact the campaign around Victoria Park in Finchley email:
  • To sign the petition around Lyttelton Playing Fields, Barnet click here.
2. The council's bad relationship with Barnet FC has broken down irrevocably, it seems. I don't really get fandom but I recognise that I am in a tiny minority in this, and I do get football in general. I certainly get keeping a social focus in Barnet - we have few enough of them.
  • To sign the petition to keep Barnet FC at Underhill click here.
3. And Barnet Council leader Richard "Clueless" Cornelius, in the teeth of the howling opposition from shopkeepers whose business is being hammered, persists in the disastrous move to cashless parking (let alone the move to privatisation). Has he not read this tale of woe from Westminster Council showing that pay-by-phone has lost the borough money?
  • To sign the petition on Barnet Council's website calling on them to reverse this year's parking charge increases click here.
Barnet's Labour Group have called for an emergency council debate on the parking situation. If the debate goes ahead it is likely to take place on my birthday. I can't think of a more splendid way to spend one's birthday than sitting in the public gallery at such an important event. More details if I get them...

UPDATE: The council say no, apparently, to the request for a special meeting. The Labour Group will persist and try to get some movement in January, but the shopkeepers of Barnet were hoping for parking charges to be suspended over the Christmas period to help make up for the lousy year they have been having. (I hope the voters of Barnet, especially those normally inclined to vote Conservative, keep all of this in mind in elections to come.)

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Keep Victoria Park, Finchley public! Meeting tonight

There is gowing resentment among residents about Barnet Council's plan to let out our parks for private parties. Residents near Victoria Park in Finchley are holding a meeting tonight, Wednesday 7 December, to discuss campaigning against this.
Residents are forming a petition and holding a public meeting tonight at St Paul's Centre, 50 Long Lane, Finchley at 8pm to discuss their concerns.
Read more in the Times series report "Residents concerned by Barnet Council plans to offer parks for hire".

Move over MetPro: another Barnet Council procurement scandal...

The Barnet bloggers are publishing the post below this morning and sending it to the press, ahead of the Barnet Council audit committee this coming Thursday 8 December.

Move over MetPro: here comes another Barnet procurement scandal - and this one is even bigger...

Barnet bloggers earlier this year exposed the scandalous use by Barnet Council of MetPro, an unlicensed security company which was paid a total of more than a million pounds worth of residents’ money despite the absence of any tender process, contract, or properly regulated payment system.

MetPro proved to be just one among hundreds of similar irregular arrangements sanctioned by the Tory authority, which is currently negotiating the outsourcing of £1billion worth of our council services to the private sector under the One Barnet programme.

During the months of the outsourcing tender process, in blatant defiance of the government’s stated policy commitment to transparency and greater accountability by local authorities, Barnet has consistently resisted, delayed or obstructed Freedom of Information requests by bloggers in relation to matters of public interest, including the much criticised procurement of contracts with service providers. We think we know why that might be.

At this coming Thursday’s audit meeting, 8 December, we are submitting questions to the committee about another case investigated by local bloggers involving the council’s long term use of another private company, RM Countryside, which has been paid more than £2 million pounds of local tax payers’ money with an apparent lack of compliance with the proper processes of tendering, contractual arrangements and the regulations set out in the Constitution.

We are questioning the efficacy of the internal and external audit procedures which are supposed to regulate the commercial activity of the London Borough of Barnet.

The integrity of the One Barnet outsourcing programme is clearly fatally compromised by the failure of the authority to regulate its own procurement, contractual and payment processes and we call therefore for an immediate halt to be made in this programme, and for an urgent, independent inquiry to be held into the disastrous lack of control of the authority’s commercial activities.

MetPro was a warning - a warning which has been ignored: now is the time to stop, investigate, and demand that the actions and decisions of our council in this and all other matters of concern are transparent and fully accountable to the residents and tax payers of Barnet.

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Travers-ty of democracy

I've given a couple of interviews to the press about the protest outside a recent Capita-sponsored conference that Barnet council's deputy chief executive Andrew Travers was due to speak at. (I presume he did: we weren't allowed inside to hear for ourselves. We're only residents, after all.)

There was a short report in the Times series.

My main message on why I took part in this protest is that I think it is wrong for the big outsourcing companies, such as Capita, Serco, BT, to have the privileged access to those in local authorities taking the decisions on outsourcing that they get at such events. And that all this is done behind the backs of those most affected by outsourcing: residents and council staff.

This is surely what happened when Andrew Travers went to speak at the conference on 29 November.

I have submitted the following Freedom of Information request to the council today (my first).
Dear Sir or Madam,

I would like to see any information/data that the Council holds in relation to the Capita sponsored conference, "New Models of Service Delivery - Opening Up Local Government Services to New Providers", on 29 November 2011. This includes but is not confined to anything that relates to the appearance of the Deputy Chief Executive Andrew Travers at this event.

Thank you.

Vicki Morris

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Using the s-word: debate between a Trot and a former Tory

I've written such a long reply to DCMD's comment on my "Using the s-word" post that I have to publish it as a post. The debate does raise interesting questions about the role of trade unions today, but I'm mainly posting it because I do take debate very seriously. The passages in quotation marks and italicised are from DCMD (former Tory); the other parts are mine (Trot).

"We are both agreed that ‘scab’ is an unpleasant word. You originally claimed to have used it because 'that’s the word we have'. You now state that you thought long and hard before using the word and that you would readily use it again."

Hello, DCMD, to reply to some of your points:

I didn’t, as you say, think long and hard about using the ‘s-word’; I said I hesitated before using it... What happened was on Tuesday night I wrote two blogposts, one addressed to residents not in the affected unions, asking them to support the strike by visiting picket lines; one addressed to workers in the affected services, asking them to support the strike by... striking. I wrote both quickly fairly late in the evening. I came to write the headline for the second article, I hesitated over using the word ‘scab’, but I decided I would use it because... that’s the word we have. I haven’t said I would ‘readily’ use it again, I said:
I also think that, regretfully, I would use the word again [because that’s the word we have] and risk giving offence again.
That’s very different, DCMD. All debates start out like this, with both sides thinking they have heard the other side saying something that it turns out they did not say. (You are and I are so far apart politically that it might seem pointless to discuss this at all, yet I do think it is important to account for what we say even to people who we wildly disagree with.)

"This admission exposes the intolerance of the militant wing of the Trade Union movement."

You accuse me of an admission; I’m ‘admitting’ nothing because I haven’t done anything wrong.

"Rog talks above about intimidation by management, but in your narrow view of the world, premeditated intimidation by the union is acceptable because, presumably, it is for the perceived greater good."

Picketing is about unions putting to workers who might cross a picket line the purpose of the strike with the aim of persuading them not to cross the picket line and break the strike. I’m not in the business of intimidating people. Yes, picketing is premeditated; it is not intimidation. You are right about it being for the greater good... of the workers.

"Calling someone a ‘scab’ serves no other purpose than to humiliate and ostracise that person from the rest of the workforce. Unions are supposed to stop bullying in the workplace, but are quite happy to use bully-boy tactics to enforce their view."

To scab, to break a strike, these are verbs, these are what the scab or strike-breaker does when they cross a picket line. You do not see the harm that does to the interest of the greater number of workers who have gone on strike (and to the strike-breaking worker's own longer term interest). Scabbing or breaking the strike of a union of which you are a member makes absolutely no sense. Unions exist as collective bodies, with a common purpose. If you don’t share that purpose or you undermine it, you nullify the body you are a member of.

The picket, as I described above, is not bullying. It is (a) still legal; (b) sometimes effective in that the worker who might otherwise cross the picket line after hearing the arguments for why they should join the strike joins the strike. This actually happens; I’ve seen it happen.

"It is risible to talk about union democracy."

No it isn’t. Far from it...

"Whilst a majority of those who voted supported the strike, the turnout for the ballot was very low. The only conclusion we can draw is that most people were apathetic about the strike otherwise they would have positively voted for it."

There are many reasons why a turnout will be low. It is noticeable that the turnout in the unions representing higher grades alone or the more ‘professional-type’ unions had higher turnouts than the big, general unions.

Some workers can simply be too tired/busy to vote; some, as you say, could be apathetic. Some might think that a one-day strike is merely a token and that their unions don’t have a serious strategy to win the dispute.

Some workers might feel that the Government is kicking working class people from pillar to post on so many fronts that they will have their way on this one as with the others. Ie, the workers feel defeated in advance of the battle. (You probably think this is a good thing.)

I think most people expected that there would be a majority for industrial action. I certainly did. In that case, people can leave the voting to others. And so on.

No union should be satisfied with the turnout, and I know that they are not. I know that union reps worked hard to increase the turnout. The result is that the ballots for industrial action were won. Any attempt by government to legislate for super majorities before a ballot can be considered won would be outrageous. (I’m sure you’ve seen the argument about Cameron being elected on a minority, etc. I don’t want to go into that now; you haven’t brought it up, so I won’t go and look up chapter and verse on it.)

"But even if the union had won a majority vote on a 100% turnout, that does not mean you can forcibly impose your will on those who dare to hold a contrary position."

Who’s forcibly imposing their will (besides the Government)? Picketing is not designed to forcibly impose the unions’ will on people. It’s not, let me reiterate, about one force imposing itself on another, but about trying to persuade workers – including members of the union – that crossing the picket line is not in their interests. It is not in the workers’ interest, generally.

"How dare fat-cat trade union leaders like Dave Prentice (£127,000 salary package) tell other people when they can or cannot work."

Dave Prentis earns too much. I agree. Trade union leaders should earn no more than the average wage of their members, they should be elected annually, and so on. I have a longer list of demands to make for union democratisation than you, I imagine.

But your indignation against Dave Prentis is a bit of a red herring. Dave Prentis was not the only person asking people not to go to work on Wednesday. The call to strike was made in the first place by the union members who work, day in day out, alongside those breaking the strike.

I do think there is a case for hardship funds for people who are in real dire need to draw on; the unions should set aside strike funds and raise funds from non-striking sections of the unions; and pay strike pay where they can. But it is usually feeble of strike-breakers to plead poverty – there are plenty of strikers who are in just as bad a situation as those who break the strike.

"If you genuinely believe in democracy, then you believe that other people are entitled to hold a contrary view to yours, and can act according to their own beliefs."

Yes, of course I believe that. But I also don’t believe in just shrugging my shoulders and saying que sera, que sera. I am an actor in events, if I can persuade people to do something different I will try.

Democracy: who decides what views are heard and represented? I’m not just going to leave people to make up their minds based on what they read in the Daily Mail - or even the Guardian!

"When Conservative Councillor Kate Salinger defied the party whip in the vote for increased allowances, she was widely praised by the left for standing up for her principles."

I can’t speak for the rest of the ‘left’. For myself, I didn’t praise her. I think she did the right thing: what did she do right? Stand up for her principles? No, her principles are neither here nor there if I think she did the wrong thing. What she did that was right was say that the allowance rises were bad. She was right about that.

"Of course, you are allowed to have principles when opposing those evil Tories. You are not allowed to have principles when standing up to the Brothers."

Yes, people have principles when ‘standing up to the trade unions’ (crossing a picket line); often they are the wrong principles, however. Selfish, short-term principles. Or simply not thinking things through. Or not understanding the arguments.

Let people have whatever principles they like! Just don’t expect me or the ‘brothers’ to accept the status quo!

"Prentice and his disciples..."

- I take it you mean the millions of trade union members -

"...are a throwback to the 1970s."

You mean, to the days when there was effective trade unionism in this country.

"They have failed to recognise that the world has moved on..."

- You mean, That Margaret Thatcher’s government smashed the unions, enacted strict anti-union legislation; that Blair’s government kept it in place and boasted about doing so.

"and militancy has had its day."

Well, perhaps it will return. I certainly hope so.

"We can argue until the cows come home as to what (and who) caused the recession;"

Now, that is a topic really worthy of debate...

"the reality is that we are where we are"

Who is this ‘we’ you keep going on about? You surely don’t believe that the recession is affecting people equally. A few people are still in a very nice place, while most are at least fearful for the future; some are already living very bleak lives and are soon to be joined by hundreds of thousands of their fellow countrymen and women.

"and most people understand this."

Look at the opinion polls. It is not at all clear that people agree with you. Which is a great - and pleasant - surprise given that they have the media and politicians continually drumming into them that we must accept austerity, the cuts, ‘there is no money’, we have been living too high on the hog, etc.

"The public understands that the country is broke."

Ah, you think so too. It isn’t, it’s the sixth largest economy in the world (I think - certainly enormous).

"They understand also that the pension system is at breaking point."

It isn’t. Look at the figures for the teachers’ pension, for example. There is no crisis in the local government pension scheme. Its value as a percentage of GDP is set to fall.

"According to official statistics, average life expectancy has increased by 8 years over the last 3 decades. That is a phenomenal increase"

- and good news...

"and you don’t need to be an actuary to understand what this means in terms of pensions."

You know a lot about pensions. Could you recommend a book, before I do?

I don’t believe that we can’t afford to pay people a decent pension. I don’t believe that people will need to work till they drop. Look at the wealth in this society; think how much knowledge we have. Is it beyond our ingenuity to organise our affairs such that we can enjoy restful, comfortable old age? For all. I don’t think so.

"Gordon Brown plundered the private pension industry to the tune of £5 billion a year, affecting millions of private sector workers, how many strikes did Unison call in protest?"

I have to look your reference up.

Unison represents public sector workers. It would be good if the level of solidarity across the public and private sectors were so great that Unison would strike for private sector workers’ pensions but it isn’t.

(Given that you don’t think workers within Barnet council, for example, should show solidarity with each other, I take it you are just using this example to call the unions hypocrites, but I still think the accusation is unjust.)

Unite and the other unions organising in the private sector should call strikes and protests, that I agree.

The public sector unions have made an effort to argue for good pensions across the board; the civil service union PCS has been in the forefront of a campaign called ‘Fair pensions for all’. Their argument is that pensions should be levelled up across the public and private sector, not down.

"The strike on Wednesday was a spectacular flop."

No, it wasn’t. Most schools closed. There were other effects – we are making our assessments. A lot of disruption was avoided in the NHS, where high levels of cover were agreed between unions and management.

"The country did not grind to a halt,"

- it was never likely to; who said it would?

"and where people suffered inconvenience it was relatively minor. Many union members were not on picket lines but out Christmas shopping - no doubt showing solidarity with shop workers. Dave Prentice’s response was a classic diversionary tactic. Instead of apologising for failing to understand the mood of the public..."

- I don’t agree, there was a lot of public support for the strikes. -

"he feigned outrage to launch a pathetic attack on Jeremy Clarkson for making what was clearly a joke about shooting strikers."

I don’t think he feigned outrage. Clarkson’s delivery was jokey, but there is nothing funny about the subject matter. Trade unionists are killed in many countries for their activities.

We have had a good, long debate about this in NUJ circles: most of us are more outraged about the media’s poor coverage of the strike – though not surprised by it - than we are about Clarkson, reprehensible though his remarks were.

"How many times do we hear from hard-line left wingers who say they will celebrate when Margaret Thatcher dies?"

You’ve never heard it from me, so don’t go laying that at my door...

"Such rank hypocrisy is positively nauseating, but is par for the course for those who resent democracy and freedom of expression."

If you’re keen on democracy and freedom of expression, I hope you will be campaigning to open up the mass media to reflect a wider range of opinions than is currently possible. Then perhaps the unions and their millions of members would get a fair hearing. We might be able to do without picket lines then...

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Using the s-word

On Tuesday night I wrote a blogpost in which I urged workers in public sector workplaces where the unions had voted to strike not to scab.

Some people don't like the fact that I used this word. I hesitated before I typed the word, to be honest. I thought about it, should I use the s-word or another word beginning with 's' which means the same thing but which - I believe - is in much less common use: 'strike-breaking'? I chose to use the word scab because not to would have been ridiculously coy, in my view.

Words have different registers; two different names for the same thing can convey different meanings. That's true for 'scab' and 'strike-break'. Personally I don't see a lot of difference in the register between these two words, but others do. If I gave unnecessary offence by my choice of words, I regret it, but I also think that, regretfully, I would use the word again and risk giving offence again.*

But all this is really beside the point and slightly pretentious. The people who have moaned at me for using the word 'scab' don't actually support trade unionism, effective trade unionism. They think people should cross picket lines and face no criticism for doing it.*

Trade unions are collective organisations. The current state of trade union democracy is far from perfect, but, in essence, unions are democratic bodies. You join one and you take part in the decision-making process of the organisation: electing leaders, deciding whether to go on strike or not. The members should respect the democracy of the union or the whole thing falls apart.

A trade union is not just there to offer cheap car insurance, or to help out an individual worker when they have difficulties with their boss. Well, it is there for those things, but the point is that a union can do those things and more besides only if it builds - and sometimes uses - its collective strength.

That is why when the members have decided to strike to defend pensions, the members of the union should respect that decision and respect the picket lines. If they don't, the whole thing starts to become pointless. Unions are called unions for a reason!

I am far from being the only person who has upset others by using the word 'scab' in the past week. In the recent period we have also seen, because there was no alternative, the return of such supposedly outmoded things as pickets - including here in Barnet - and now, on Wednesday, mass strikes!

With the (in my view, long overdue) return of class struggle, it is not surprising that we find ourselves debating such things as the meaning and use of the word 'scab'.

Well then, what should I say instead? "I say, would you mind not crossing the picket line? Thanks, awfully."

The trade union movement faces a battle for its life. It has been hammered in the private sector as its bases, heavy industry and manufacturing, have declined (and that helps to explain the decline of the private sector pension in comparison with the public sector pension).

Because of that hammering, trade unionism is now strongest in the public sector. But if it cannot fight and win on the many battles facing public sector workers - and public service users - it is doomed here as well.

The trade union movement is not a set of institutions; it consists of its members, participating and working with fellow members to give the union relevance. It really is a case now of united we stand, divided we fall.

Not crossing picket lines is a key part of that.

* In Tuesday's blogpost I didn't make clear whether my remarks were addressed to union members or non-union members. My remarks were primarily addressed to union members; I'm not sure you can be a non-member and a scab. I would try to persuade a non-member not to cross a picket line and to join the union.

Just to muddy the waters further, 'strike-breakers', I understand, primarily refers to workers brought in from outside expressly to 'break a strike' by a regular workforce.