Labour have taken 53 out of 54 seats on Lewisham Council in the party’s best result in the borough for 50 years (since 1964). Mayor Steve Bullock has been returned for a fourth term with his share of the vote rising from 35% in 2002 to a staggering 51% in this election. The big story has been the decline of opposition political parties locally. It’s easy to look over the strange death of the inner City Tories amidst the media excitement over the rise of UKIP. In 1968, the Conservatives took a staggering 59.6% of the vote in Lewisham. They now fail to break a share of the vote that averages in the low teens. Even in 2002, the Tories took 21% of the Mayoral vote, this time they took just over 1 in 10 votes.
The Liberal Democrats have been decimated too. While on a personal level I feel sympathy for the often conscientious Liberal Democrat councillors who lost their seats last night, they misjudged the mood of the electorate. From 2010, the Liberal Democrats tried to portray themselves as a sensible force behind the tidying up of the public finances. In the Council chamber they portrayed Labour as swivel-eyed leftie loons, who couldn’t be trusted with either the Council’s or the nation’s wallet. Fortunately for Labour, the public don’t buy this and their collusion with the destruction of urban local government deserved punishment.
Without any significant opposition, some have raised concerns that Labour’s super-majority will be bad for local politics. I’m (predictably) less concerned. The Mayoral system is a useful break on arbitrary decision making. It’s a similar relationship, albeit on a very different scale, between the President Obama and Democrat Members of Congress. Knowing they have different elections to win, Members of Congress are more likely to speak out on local issues in their patch. I think we’ll see a similar relationship between backbench councillors and Sir Steve. Local Labour politics could become quite noisy and robust. The spectre of the 2006 local elections where Labour lost many councillors will continue to haunt the local party and keep the fresh new faces of 2014 on their toes.
The biggest challenge for Labour will be the scale of the cuts to come. Setting a balanced budget in my first year as a Councillor in 2010, with tough decisions on local libraries, street cleaning and redundancies, was a fractious process with a riot outside the town hall. New councillors, yearning to protect their communities, will find cuts in their wards hard to stomach. Lewisham is in the process of losing 30% of its budget leading to the closure of services on a scale unseen in post-war history and greater than during the Great Depression. The cuts will continue to be the big local story for the year ahead. With a significant Labour majority there will be the political space to take a long-term view while we prepare for a Labour government from 2015 that takes a less masochistic attitude towards councils (here’s hoping).
One interesting trend will be the role of local bloggers as a form of “unofficial opposition”. With only a single opposition councillor, outside the process of scrutiny undertaken by Labour councillors (which is an important break on the decisions of managers), a major source of push-back will be from the local blogosphere. Luckily, in Lewisham we’re well served with an increasing number of bloggers writing about the local elections (I’m looking at you @alternativeSE4 @blackheathbugle @bobfrombrockley @brockleycentral @catfordcentral @clogsilk @DeptfordDame @EastLondonLines @Transpontine). They will be increasingly important players, alongside the traditional printed press, in Lewisham politics in the coming years. It will be interesting to see how their role is facilitated by the council – will they join the press table during council meetings?
As of midnight, I will no longer be a Lewisham councillor. It’s been a challenging 4 years, but a role I’ve really enjoyed. One lesson I’ve learnt, people have a negative view of politicians, until they actually meet them. Hardly anyone I spoke to in person was rude, while most people had a lot of time to challenge me and engage in political conversation. We’ve not hit the tipping point yet where people are dissuaded from entering politics because the environment is too hostile – I hope we don’t get there – but keeping politics civil, in an era of cuts, is going to be a big challenge.
Jon Cruddas talks to Michael Harris about the BNP, how to revive the Labour party and the wine that focus groups drink
This article was originally published by Total:Spec Magazine in 2008.
Symbols are very important to the Left. Many of the ‘modernizers’ who according to your opinion either a) captured, or b) revitalised the Labour party in the mid-90s, had little truck with the symbolism of the past: the banners, the marches; even the party’s colour, red, was replaced by blushing crimson or the incongruously regal purple. Blair’s metropolitan fetish for modernity has meant he is rarely pictured with the lumpenproletariat, to avoid antagonising the chattering classes. So out went photos of the Prime Minister in greasy spoon cafes, and in came the now de rigour holiday snaps of Blair and family at some celeb’s home au gratis. I met some Iraqi trade unionists a few weeks back and they were keen to tell me about their visit with Labour MPs to the Durham Miner’s Gala, a working-class festival of banners, brass bands, and booze. These Iraqi trade unionists understood the important symbolism of this now museum-piece relic of working-class culture in a manner Blair does not: needless to say, Tony Blair has never attended as Labour party leader, and is the only leader never to have done so (his parliamentary seat is 10 miles away). Subtly, symbols and Labour’s history are part of Jon Cruddas’ message: he understands and feels comfortable with these symbols, and perhaps doesn’t really care if they do frighten the middle-classes.
In 2000, Peter Mandelson banned the singing of the anthem the ‘Red Flag’ from the Labour party conference, a song which opens immodesty, “The people’s flag is deepest red, It shrouded oft our martyr’d dead”, not quite in keeping with the parvenus’ view of what new Labour represented. To Cruddas, the dropping of the Red Flag was akin to blasphemy: “We’re made far too much of a rupture with the past and we should be proud of what is, after all, a rich history.” It is this very history, the history of a movement which emerged from an act of defiance by the Tolpuddle Martyrs into fully fledged trade unions and an onwards march into the mass membership Labour party that Cruddas understands and wants to bring into the modern era.
Jon Cruddas’ stated aim is to be the next John Prescott, that is the deputy leader of the Labour party. We know that Gordon Brown – except only for an act of God – is to be crowned leader of the Labour party after his relatively patient wait since a pact in Islington between the soup and the sorbet, so the attention of the press has turned to who will replace the venerable Prescott. Cruddas is one of 7 declared and expected-to-declare candidates including Hilary Benn, Hazel Blears, Peter Hain, Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson, and Jack Straw: he is the only candidate who is not a member of the Cabinet.
Cruddas is a union man. Whilst working as the PM’s deputy political secretary, he was seen as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the trade union movement inDowning Street. When he left to contest a safe Labour seat in 2001, the Prime Minister was left without a conduit to the trade unions and his relationship with them rapidly deteriorated.
Cruddas’ opponents are all too quick to accuse him of being a union placeman, digging up the mumbles of some at the time of his selection as a parliamentary candidate, which (even by the standards of politics) got rather dirty. At the time, Cruddas was one of three trade union activists along with Tom Watson and John Mann, who went from the upper echelons of the trade union movement straight to rock-solid safe Labour seats. Many of ‘Blair’s babes’ (the horrific media epithet given to newly elected women in parliament) were appalled at the seemingly old Labour trick of securing unbeatable Labour seats for working-class, white males. One senior woman politician said of his selection, “Jon Cruddas was eased into place with TGWU funds to back him”. A union official blasted back: “Some of these middle-class women are not really bothered about getting more women into Parliament… they just want more places for female lawyers and other professional women from wealthy backgrounds. They do not want to see working [class] people in Parliament full stop.” It was a moment of class war that was no longer supposed to exist in the modern sanitised new Labour party.
There is certainly no doubt that Cruddas is close to the T&G trade union, which as one of the ‘big four’ unions now provides most of Labour’s funding (since Lord ‘cashpoint’ Levy has found donors less willing to cough up), and a not inconsiderable number of the ‘bright young things’ who staff parliament wear T&G ribbons around their neck to support their passes, and in turn Mr. Cruddas.
In fact, I got to speak to Jon Cruddas through a trade union colleague, which was lucky as Mr. Cruddas is rather the media darling at the moment. I was assured however, ‘you’ll get the same amount of time as The Times did last week’, ah, being a union member comrades!
Jon Cruddas was born in 1962 in Cornwall to devout Roman Catholic parents. A lot of media attention has focused on his links with the unions, but none on his religious upbringing. I asked him about the link between his politics and his Catholic upbringing: “[my] social and community interaction was mostly through the Catholic Church, so it was driven by ethics of service, homelessness and poverty based around quite radical Catholic activity”. Catholicism provides an important, but overlooked backdrop to his politics; one of his political heroes is the assassinated Catholic Archbishop ofSan Salvador, Óscar Romero (who the last Pope attempted to make a saint), and his middle brother became a Catholic priest. At the recent ‘Defend Freedom of Religion Rally’ he attacked Jack Straw’s comments on the veil, “I am a Catholic and I come from an Irish Catholic tradition. I talked to members of my family about their feelings about the debate about the veil and religious symbols, they said if that debate had been … [about] Catholicity, they would have felt hunted”.
After a spell inAustraliain which he became “heavily involved” in the trade unions there, he returned to theUKto take a Doctorate in Philosophy atWarwickUniversity. Whilst the cozy atmosphere of student politics didn’t suit, “the student union didn’t interest me at all”, he became politically active as a result of the Miner’s Strike; “it was a profound seismic political event”, and the imposing and controversial figure of veteran Labour politician Tony Benn, “I voted Benn in 1981. I saw that as the route [for radical change]. I was very disappointed with the whole right-wing drift of the government, at the back end of the 70s. The Labour party was very factionalised, and I was drawn to the Left, not in a factional way, but because I saw Benn as quite a refreshing figure. I went with a lot of it, it chimed with my experience of youth unemployment, the bomb, and the Miner’s Strike.” In a sense, Cruddas hasn’t entirely left the legacy of his flirtation with Bennite politics in the 80s, his calls to rebuild the Labour party into a mass membership party are uncannily familiar to those of Mr. Benn, as is his belief that the style of leadership that Blair espouses and the structure of the party is about to change. “The page is turning now on a specific period of the Labour government, people have left the party for a whole series of reasons not less a lack of involvement in the democratic procedures of the party, policy failures that a lot of people have concerns with such as the War [in Iraq], top-up fees, the perceived authoritarianism of the government, Blair himself”, he breaks, not quite content to put the boot into his old boss at No. 10, “… where I sit as the local MP in one of the most challenging environments in the country the need for a Labour government, a radical Labour government, is as acute now as it has ever been and arguably even more so.”
Dagenham is a troubled place. In the early-1920s, the world’s largest social housing development was built – at a time when the Soviets were having a real go at building mass housing projects – the vast Becontree Estate turned Dagenham from a village to a vast town overnight and is still home to 100,000 people. Many of those who came to Dagenham were a first wave of ‘white flight’ migrants, who fled from the increasing Jewish population of Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Bow, to a homogenous white existence in Dagenham. The decline of the famous Ford car plant, which in the 1960s employed 40,000 and gave much of the area its employment, turned an old fashioned suspicion of the multiculturalism that lay down the road inLondon, to pure bigotry. In the eighties, neo-Nazi thugs cut out the kidney of a North African man on the District Line near Dagenham; Tony Lecomber the ‘BNP bomber’ grew up here, and the nail bomber David Copeland, a psychopathic ‘National Socialist’ lived next door in Barking. At the last election for Barking and Dagenham council, of the 13 council seats the BNP contested, they won 12. Jon Cruddas as the local MP, faces the serious possibility at the next election of being ousted forBritain’s first BNP MP, it is worrying indeed.
I ask Jon why people vote BNP: “It’s a really complicated phenomenon which takes different forms in different parts of the country… So you need a certain understanding of forces which combine in one particular area, in our area it is about massive demographic changes colliding with a long-term legacy of poverty and real concerns about access to public services like housing and healthcare.” Housing and healthcare really are the BNP’s two recruiting sergeants. As immigrants and Black Britons have moved from the centre of the capital to Dagenham in search of cheaper housing, the BNP has attempted to capitalise through clever mistruths. Recent campaigns include giving NHS Somali language leaflets to vulnerable pensioners and claiming they told foreign Muslims how to skip waiting lists, printing a leaflet called “Africa in Dagenham” which said the council were paying Nigerian families living in Tottenham £50,000 to move to Dagenham, and naming a local tower block “Kosovo Towers” – it was soon daubed with swastikas and racist graffiti by local neo-Nazis. The pace of change is certainly fast, a commonplace amongst locals is: “I can walk from my house to the shops, 1,500 yards, and never hear an English voice.” Jon concurs, “I think we have the fastest changing community in the country”, but he doesn’t let his government off the hook, “overriding this change is a sense of disenfranchisement by the Labour party, a sense that the party has moved away from them. A sense that all of the political parties becoming increasingly interchangeable and articulating an agenda that is relevant to a different place and community than ours.”
According to Cruddas, the reason the BNP are so strong is because Labour are now weak. Cruddas thinks that the structures of the party have become too closed and that “opening them up democratising them and handing them back to the membership is a proxy of re-enfranchising people back into the political process”, and that doing this will enfranchise people in Dagenham at the expense of the 45 marginal seats the political parties chase after (or ‘super-turbo marginals’ as Jon mockingly refers to them). “So the debates about the structures of the Labour party are key debates about re-democratising society, [to create] a more radical policy agenda that goes with the grain with communities like mine, rather than people who drink…”, there is a pause, I like to think here that internally Jon spent this time thinking which drink was typical of new Labour focus groups, ‘Claret, no, too mid-nineties’, but he continues, “the focus group member, you know what I mean?” Cruddas has spent a lot of time working on his local Labour party, getting back the old membership and bringing in new members: “Interestingly enough, in my experience at local level membership has gone up, activity has gone up, the age profile has gone down [and] the membership is coming from a whole series of different communities as well”. Part of his local party’s revival, against a background of moribund Labour party that has lost 200,000 members since 1997 (half its membership), is the threat the BNP pose, but I imagine another part is the role of Jon himself as a charming salesman for a politics we thought had disappeared.
Cruddas is not convinced that we no longer need to change to the world, a la Fukuyama, “I mean there is this notion that this is an age of contentment compared to the previous era of the Cold War, the bomb, class war, Thatcher, I would argue those insecurities are more acute now actually. They take very different forms but it means that the case for political activity and radical political activity is even more acute now than it was 25 years ago when I got involved”. I begin to play out a standard argument you hear a lot at the moment, that people are interested in the big issues that Cruddas refers to (the environment and Third World poverty especially), but not in monolithic political parties. People will sign up to single issue campaigns, but as consumers we are not prepared to sign up in totality to a political party’s programme. Mr. Cruddas does not agree, “I think that’s a bit lazy. The usual argument is political parties are inevitably in decline, they belong to a previous era, its all single issues, blah, blah, blah”, I fear I oughtn’t to have mentioned this, “I think this is really lazy thinking, it sells the past on organised politics and it hands [power] over to cartels of power in terms of the press, industrial capital and authoritarian groups in the centre of political parties… saying that this is inevitable offers a very simple alternative to actually getting involved to change [things].” There is for Cruddas no alternative to getting stuck in and getting your hands dirty, moreover the current ‘authoritarian groups at the centre of political parties’ (the spin doctors and Special Advisors) are according to Cruddas about to be banished along with the “focus groups, key seat organisation, the middle-England agenda, the interchangability of politics, because that is creating chasms and vacuums that will be filled by a more radical politics on the left, and actually on the right as well… it will have to or else more extremist forms will come in and fill those vacuums.”
The Cruddas agenda is one where politics reaches out beyond the 45 ‘turbo-marginal’ seat scrap of electoral territory the main parties entrench their armies on, and instead reach out to places like Dagenham where the proto-fascist BNP are active. That means more local activists and so more members, and perhaps exorcising the ghosts of Labour’s past: “there’s a view in some quarters that if we become a more democratic party, then some mystical band of Trots will take over. I think the biggest problem we face now is not being infiltrated by a latter-day Militant Tendency but no-one joining at all.” Yet, the question key Labour figures such as the Immigration Minister Liam Byrne are asking of Cruddas is whether his agenda will do the one thing that any political position needs to deliver – another election victory. Whilst the tried and trusted Blair strategy of appealing to the middle-England of marginals has given Labour a historic third term, Cruddas’ Bennite strategy of big ideas and a big party is as of yet untested. Whether it will be given a chance is up to the 200,000 Labour party activists Cruddas wishes to empower.
Lewisham Council is in the process of building new council houses. Yes, you read that right houses. After a considerable amount of hard work attracting grants by the Labour party, and the sale of some older buildings formerly used as offices and centres by the council, we’re in the process of building up to 300 homes in the near future.
The initial projects for social housing and low-cost housing in Lewisham Central will be as follows:
Mercator Road, SE13
This is the site for the first new homes in the programme and planning permission for the scheme was granted in September. The scheme consists of four three-bed and two two-bed homes, all of which will be let at social rent levels and managed on the Council’s behalf by Lewisham Homes. The Council hopes to have appointed the contractor and handed over the site before Christmas with a view to starting on site in early January 2014 and completing 10 months later in November.
There will also be new affordable home ownership on Mercator Road too. The plan is to build some private housing for sale to peole who currently live in Lewisham at a 20% market discount on the market rate with 26 X 1 bed and 1 X 2 bed homes. Dependent on the results of the consultation and approval to dispose of the site, and then the planning process, work could start on site in the first half of next year.
Community self build scheme on Church Grove
Over 100 residents have expressed an interest in taking part in the proposed self build scheme on Church Grove. Our London, a social enterprise, is bringing these residents into groups to help them to understand the options for self build and support them to develop their ideas for the site. The idea is that the residents selected will currently be in social housing, or on the council waiting list, so the new housing reduces demand for social housing and the waiting list further.
There will be a discussion day on Saturday 5th October, from 10 until 12 at St. Mary’s Centre which will present some successful self build schemes from around the world. You can register here.
The Chiddingstone Extra Care scheme
Earlier in 2013 Lewisham Council successfully bid for £2.3m allowing a new 51 unit scheme to provide extra care housing for vulnerable people. Planning and a consultation is still needed but hopefully an excellent proposal will come forward that will allow us to top up our social housing.
Will Stevens, a journalist, has been a member of the Labour party for 3 years. Today, he announced publicly on Comment Is Free that he was quitting the party because:
Ed Miliband is so afraid of the ‘Red Ed’ tag, he’s done nothing to challenge the austerity and anti-poor narrative of the coalition
Meanwhile, the true opposition to the government is to be found away from Westminster. David Blanchflower, Polly Toynbee and even the Institute of Directors have all made a better job of holding the coalition to account than Labour.
Will’s piece is so far the finest description of an increasing modern phenomenon that treats the low-level tittle tattle on Twitter, as the world as it is. It is the tiresome media-centric nonsense that thinks what’s happening on Twitter or in the blogosphere is somehow more important than community organising. That op/eds and thinktanks do more than the very complex work of local and national politics. That Newsnight sets the entire political agenda, not thousands of community meetings or protests about the bins, planning projects, schools or hospitals.
I really like Polly Toynbee. I have a lot of respect for her as a journalist and as someone who has fought for election. But having spent literally weeks of my life, knocking on doors in the snow, rain and wind speaking to people about their everyday concerns I find it absolutely hilarious that Will thinks that opinion pieces in the Guardian are somehow worth as much as the work of a political party going out every single weekend and talking to voters.
Will probably doesn’t know this, but this week Labour-controlled Lewisham Council (alongside an amazing civil society campaign) successfully took the Health Secretary to court and won. Our local hospital’s A&E services may now not face the axe. This means a hell of lot to hundreds of thousands of people. This news made a light ripple in the media, less than George Mudie’s comments that Will quotes.
Bubble politics is here to stay. Most voters don’t care about what’s trending on Twitter. But judging political parties by the media narrative, and not what their land armies are doing, is naive. And it’s a mistake the Conservatives are making at the moment.
This letter was originally published in The Guardian on Friday 12 July 2013.
We welcome Ed Miliband’s bold speech setting out reforms to ensure that Labour politics is more open and that machine politics is consigned to history. Organisations like Pragmatic Radicalism, through its Top of the Policies events, are pioneering new ways to encourage the participation of the broadest possible range of people in Labour policy-making. We support Ed Miliband’s view that Labour must “reach out to others outside our party” in order “to genuinely build a movement again”, and agree that primaries may help this process. While no panacea, experimenting with primaries between now and the next election will show the British public that we are an outward-looking party that aspires to bring in a wider range of people as our candidates, not just a narrow elite.
John Slinger Chair, Pragmatic Radicalism
Cllr Mike Harris International officer, Pragmatic Radicalism
Jonathan Todd Vice-chair, Pragmatic Radicalism
Amanda Ramsay Vice-chair, Pragmatic Radicalism
John Mann MP
Gisela Stuart MP
Steve Reed MP
Jenny Chapman MP
Graham Jones MP
David Lammy MP
Ann Clwyd MP
John Woodcock MP
Kevin Barron MP
Lord Rogers of Riverside
Cllr Theo Blackwell London Borough of Camden
Cllr Simon Hogg London Borough of Wandsworth
Cllr Rachel Rogers Chair, Labour Group, Weymouth and Portland Borough Council
Robert Philpot Director, Progress
Joe Dancey Acting director, Progress
Peter Watt Former general secretary of the Labour Party
James Bloodworth Editor, Left Foot Forward
Hopi Sen Former head of campaigns, parliamentary Labour party
Cllr Mike Le-Surf Leader, Labour group, Brentwood Borough Council
Anthony Painter Author, Left without a future?
Cllr Stephen Cowan Leader, Labour group, London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham
Jess Asato Labour PPC for Norwich North
Alex Smith Former Ed Miliband adviser/ Editor LabourList
Jonny Medland Secretary, Battersea Labour party
Atul Hatwal Editor, Labour Uncut
I’m Mike, I’m putting myself forward to be your Labour Parliamentary Candidate. I believe I can win this seat back for Labour and ensure the people of Ilford North will get the best deal from a future Labour government.
Ilford North needs a candidate who will bring home the 7,000 voters who stopping voting Labour here between 1997 – 2000. A candidate with personal integrity, who has fought corruption and worked hard to solve complicated problems.
I would be an MP who gets things done. I took on 4 international banks and forced them to stop selling the government bonds of a vile dictatorship that tortured and murdered people (BBC). I’ve campaigned against the lobbyists who undermine our democracy. I also secured cross-party support to ensure we saw a new Defamation Act pass in the last session of Parliament, ensuring big corporations and ruthless oligarchs can no longer silence free speech in this country.
I have a track record of campaigning and more importantly, winning for the Labour Party. During the local elections in 2010, I built up our local party so voters came home to us. Labour took 45% of the vote up from 30% the election before, one of the top 5 swings in London. Ilford North needs a candidate who will do this again.
More importantly, I will stand up for your values. Whether ensuring the Royal Mail stays in public hands, campaigning to build more council housing or getting behind small businesses.
I will speak to you over the weekend and hope to meet you in the coming weeks. Please feel free to call me directly on 07974 838468.
This article on pay day loans was originally published by the News Shopper.
I once borrowed from a legal loan shark. I took out a loan of £100 and a week later, for the privilege, I had to repay £120.
At the time, I was between jobs and the Nationwide had helpfully slashed my overdraft.
I was lucky enough to escape this debt trap and pay back my debt – but for families across Lewisham using a loan shark is an everyday reality. In fact, Lewisham has London’s worst pay day loan problem – according to the Step Change consumer credit counselling service.
If you walk down Lewisham High Street, these pay day firms offer loans at rates up to 4,000 per cent. That’s a rate over 200 times even what an average credit card charges. Rip-off Britain is alive and well.
Yet, it’s clear that people don’t realise how expensive these loans really are. Normally when there’s a lot of competition, the price of a product falls – but even as new shops have opened up in Lewisham, the interest rate charged hasn’t fallen and may have gone up. The market just isn’t working.
In Lewisham, the average person who uses these short-term loans owes £530 and has two separate loans. We’ve got to help these people out of their debts.
At the end of September, Lewisham’s councillors debated legal loan sharks. We heard evidence that made my blood boil. I told our meeting that one loan company had sent an employee out in costume to promote their loans during the Olympic torch relay through Lewisham; another councillor said employees of one firm had given out leaflets outside the job centre queue in Catford.
Unanimously, with cross-party support every councillor backed Labour’s motion to try and tackle these parasites.
There’s a lot we would like to do but sadly the government won’t let us. We want the ability to stop new loan shops opening in the same way we can stop too many late night bars from congregating in the same street, and we would like the government to set a maximum cap on the interest that can be charged.
But there’s a lot we can do. The council supports Lewisham Plus Credit Union, an alternative to the big banks that can provide low cost loans to people. The cost of a loan with the credit union could be up to 20 times less than with one of the legal loan sharks.
You can help too. Instead of the miserly rates offered by the high street banks, you can save with the credit union so they can lend more to families at a reasonable rate – you could even earn a better rate of interest on your savings!
This article on pay day loans was originally published by the News Shopper.
Local people need to pass this message on to their family, friends and neighbours, as credit unions don’t have big advertising budgets but rely on word of mouth recommendation.
I’m also calling for Lewisham’s residents to sign a national petition calling on the government to give councils the powers to hold back the endless spread of legal loan sharks.
The recession has made this problem worse, with more people relying on credit to make ends meet. But it’s a false economy as the unregulated wild west of legal loan sharks is shackling the UK’s poorest borrowers with the highest price for credit in Europe.
Yet, this industry doesn’t need to exist – for most people their local credit union or building society can lend them money cheaper. Together we can help people out of their debt traps, but as a community we need to take action, and now.
I’d describe myself as a friend of Progress. I certainly don’t think that the organisation has become “a party within the party”, nor do I think the GMB’s motion at party conference can do anything but hurt Labour.
But Progress does have serious questions to answer on the organisation’s funding. It’s frankly bizarre that Progress called for Open Primaries in selections for parliamentary candidates, yet only in April this year did it publish who funds it. There’s no doubt that Progress is well-funded, to the tune of £368,000 per annum, a clear sign of the vitality of Progress. With this in mind, why does it continue to take donations from groups whose values may contradict those of the Labour party?
Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander has spoken out against human rights violations in Bahrain, and even called for the Formula 1 race there to be cancelled:
Bahrain is not Syria. But that does not mean F1 should collude in presenting to the world an image of an island paradise that is far removed from the violence taking place in the streets and villages just walking distance from the race track.
Yet, one of Progress’s donors is Bell Pottinger, a lobbying firm that has worked on behalf of the government of Bahrain. After 7 died following a police clampdown early in 2011, protesters gathered outside Bell Pottinger’s London office with placards reading ‘You can’t spin the unspinnable’. It made little difference, Bell Pottinger’s Chair Lord Bell told PR Week that he felt under no pressure to resign the account. Subsequently, as the situation worsened the account was frozen. Bahrain isn’t the only authoritarian regime Bell Pottinger has represented in recent years, the roll call includes the Yemen, Sri Lanka and a country I feel strongly about, Belarus. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:
Bell Pottinger boasted to undercover Bureau journalists that it helped engineer the lifting of an EU travel ban on the man dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’. Part of the PR team included former British diplomat Sir David Richmond.
Belarus is known as Europe’s last dictatorship. In recent years, Labour Ministers and MPs including Douglas Alexander and Progress contributor Denis MacShane have condemned the dictatorship in Minsk. Yet, Progress has taken money from an organisation that used to work for that dictatorship. It doesn’t make sense.
Progress also accepted up to £7,500 worth of funding from another lobby group, the European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS). As I outline in the report ‘Azerbaijan’s silenced voices’, TEAS is not an ideal affiliate for any progressive organisation:
The London-based TEAS is one of the slickest and most well-funded lobbying operations anywhere in Europe. The President of TEAS is Taleh Heydarov, the son of Kamaladdin Heydarov, described in a US embassy cable leaked by Wikileaks as possibly ‘more powerful than the president himself… Heydarov controls more visible assets and wealth within the country than the president’
The leaked cable explains how Heydarov built his power network (from his position as Azerbaijan’s Chairman of the State Customs Committee, and his current position as Minister of Emergency Situations) which includes a paramilitary unit with anti-aircraft battery, a unit of building inspectors that can stop any construction project in the country they deem to be “unsafe”, and a family Airbus A319 corporate jet. The Wikileaks cable goes on to outline the structure of the company: “Many of the family’s operations are part of the ‘Gilan’, Qabala’… or ‘United Enterprises International’ family of companies”, which are involved in construction, tourism, banking and have monopoly control of the juice drinks market. All of these companies are registered at the same address as TEAS, and TEAS is described as an “affiliate” of United Enterprises International.
The European Azerbaijan Society and Bell Pottinger are not ideal partners for Progress. In order to win the argument over its role within the Labour party it needs to be clearer about the type of donations it will and will not accept – and draw clearer lines. Labour activists and the unions are right to question the Progress of today. I hope this marks the beginning of reform, not the end.
I’ve asked the candidates for Progress’s strategy board the following question: –
“Would you use your role on the strategic board to ensure that all donors match Labour’s values?”
You can read their responses to my question here.
Originally published in the New Statesman, 11 July 2011.
A bigger state isn’t necessarily a better state, argues Mike Harris.
Under Gordon Brown the Labour party went through an intellectual desert in which radicalism of any shade was viewed as highly suspect.
While the Tories took big ideas to the core of their mission – especially Phillip Blond’s Big Society (demolished in the London Review of Books here) – Labour went into the last election with an ideology so narrow and statist we may as well have used Hobbes’s Leviathan as our manifesto. The public viewed us as the ‘big state’ party.
As Josie Cluer, John Denham’s former special adviser, says:
During 2010, Labour sometimes sounded like we thought all that mattered in public services was increased investment. To any question raised about quality or poor service, every Labour minister and activist had been taught to trot out the real terms increase in spending on key public services since 1997. We resorted to cheap political point-scoring by deploying “Tory cuts vs Labour spending” dividing lines. In fact, they were more damaging to us than our opponents.
In opposition, Labour is undergoing an intellectual renaissance. Sadly, much of it seems to be replaying the Blair/Brown/left dialogues of the past. Even if it isn’t, the blinkered media (many of whom made their careers upon spreading each camp’s smears) want it to be.
Pragmatic Radicalism, a series of snappy articles by Labour’s next generation, attacks the aridity of the past, and attempts to break out from the Blair/Brown rut we found ourselves in.
Luciana Berger MP launches the project tomorrow in committee room 12 of the House of Commons alongside Lord (Stewart) Wood, Ed Miliband’s strategic adviser, and the editor John Slinger, who if there is any justice ought to be in the next intake of Labour MPs.
The articles are diverse. Will Straw and Nick Anstead want reform of the party itself. In a brave move they embrace the offer in the coalition agreement to fund open primaries. Amanda Ramsay wants a one per cent football transfer tax to fund school playing fields. Larry Smith wants to ‘unsqueeze the middle’ with targeted VAT cuts.
One common theme is that the last Labour government felt that more state was better state. Josie Cluer writes: It’s a common doorstep conversation: why should I pay my taxes and work hardm when others milk the system?” She adds:
It’s the little things. Even though there are five million people on waiting lists for social housing, some people still rent out their council homes… those responsible for the 12.6 million missed GP appointments and the 4.3 million missed nurse appointments are not just wasting millions of pounds, they’re preventing people who really need healthcare from getting it…
The more often principles of fairness are undermined, the weaker public support for public services becomes.
It’s not just that Labour’s bigger state often failed the fairness test; it was given too many powers. I call for the rebirth of liberal Labour – whose heyday under John Smith saw Labour call for the European Convention on Human Rights ‘brought home’ into British law.
In a lecture to Charter 88 in 1993 he said: “I want to see a fundamental shift in balance of power between the citizen and the state – a shift away from an overpowering state to a citizens’ democracy where people have rights and powers.”
Smith’s ‘rights and powers’ is so much more uplifting than Blair’s ‘rights and responsibilities’. Key to a reborn liberal Labour is recognising the importance of the liberal tradition in our party’s history – a history that former Stalinist John Reid and David Blunkett did their best to bury. It’s a history we need to reconnect with in order to begin winning elections again:
Labour is now perceived as the big state party. Our reckless disregard for the personal sphere lost us 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010: we were the bossy party.
To recognise this history, Labour should call for a Bill of Rights that creates a home-grown privacy law, protects free speech and demarks the boundaries of state intrusion.
Admittedly, in otherwise thought-provoking articles in the collection, the Pavlovian impulse to make cheap points about the Tories sometimes obscures sounder criticisms.
In Tom Tabori’s article on housing he outlines some depressing statistics: 1.5 million adults in the UK live in homes with overcrowded conditions; a quarter of overcrowded families have children sleeping in living or dining rooms; the Government classes 250,000 social homes as overcrowded. Yet according to the Government, five million people are still stuck on waiting lists.
Labour failed on social housing, but Tabori is too polite to say so. I would argue that without the ability to criticism the last Labour government, whose record on housing was patchy at best, we’re unable to discover our blind spots.
It’s been a good seven days for Ed Miliband. He took on the largest media owner in the country – and won. If he is prepared to listen to his vocal membership, Labour has a manifesto in waiting: both pragmatic and radical. The disastrous 2010 election must not be repeated. Never again should ‘big’ ideas be taken so lightly.
Mike Harris is a Labour councillor in Lewisham Central and Head of Advocacy at free speech organisation Index on Censorship. He tweets: @Cllr_MikeHarris
Following on from my article in Forefront magazine on trade unions and social media, I’ve been advising Unions21 the leading think-tank, on how trade unions you use social media to improve their public image. You can read the publication ‘The Future for Union Image’ online.
As Director Dan Whittle says:
Unions have not had such a high media profile for years.
More than half the population backed the aims of the March 26th March for the Alternative according to YouGov – but a third of people still see unions as old fashioned.
So what can unions do? These are three of the ‘tough love’ ideas our contributors have put forward:
Perform a social media audit
Facebook, Twitter and blogs are ever more important sources of information – and as trust in government, public institutions and almost everything else declines, people increasingly rely on their friends or even celebrities for their news and opinions.
Mike Harris recommends unions should perform a social media audit to identify their most highly networked members and involve them in delivering their communications. High profile supporters can be used to attract new interest online and well crafted online ‘asks’ can be used to build support and membership.
Drop the jargon
Writer and trainer Paul Richards argues that trade unionism, like every other walk of life, has developed its own slang, jargon and insiders-only language, every bit as impenetrable as polari, doctors’ slang, cockney rhyming slang, computer hackers’ slang… He reminds us that talking about collective bargaining, constructive dismissal and transfers of undertakings is language impenetrable to most people and off-putting and alienating to many.
Please do contact me, for an informal consultation on how your union can improve its image using social media.