Monday, May 25, 2015

Remembering Val

My friend and inspiration Val Smith passed away recently, after a battle with cancer. Val was a remarkable and special woman. Here are some of my favourite memories of her:

Popping out for a pint of milk and a piece of casework

When I first got involved with the Labour Party, I heard tales of a legendary councillor who was so well known and well respected on the estate where she lived that when she went out to the shops, someone would spot her and ask for help to sort out some problem or other: their housing repairs, their immigration status or the noisy neighbour making their lives miserable.

But this was no legend, it was just how Val lived her life. I had the great privilege to see her in action, and whenever people asked for her help, she’d always listen patiently, offer good advice and do her best. Even if all she really wanted was to pick up some groceries.

As a local councillor for more than twenty years, and the office manager for her husband Andrew, the local MP, Val was a champion for people who’d had a raw deal and needed someone on their side to help them. Her version of social justice was a realistic, practical and rooted one. Val was particularly proud of Blackbird Leys, where she lived for nearly forty year and represented for twenty seven. As the old saying goes, on the Leys everyone knows someone who’s been helped by Val Smith.

The search for calm

I worked for Val for two years in Andrew’s constituency office. All that Val ever wanted from her work was a nice, calm day. Unfortunately, as anyone who’s ever worked for an MP or worked in politics will know, calm days are few and far between. Lack of calm could be caused by things such as a day spent on the phones to the Immigration Advisory Service, Pete hiding under his desk to avoid a particularly demanding constituent’s calls, or the time when I left the dial up broadband on overnight.

Managing a group of young men in our early twenties, the state in which we left the office at the end of the working day was often a particular source of uncalmness for Val. She would usually be the first one into the office in the morning to see what a mess we made: not a calm start to the day. Pete and Laurence would arrive at work to hear Val explain what she thought about this in no uncertain terms. This experience was not improved for them when I would then turn up to work a bit later, to be greeted by Val (who by this point had worked off her irritation on them and was in a good mood) like a long lost friend.

If the general working day was a disappointment in terms of calmness, the run up to elections was even worse. Boxes of leaflets everwhere, mess and chaos, Andrew injuring himself on a door while out canvassing...election campaigns provided an endless supply of dramas and annoyance for Val, who ultimately just wanted to spend her day helping people and then get back home to spend time watching Midsomer Murders with her cats. If at the end of the working day we hadn’t got through all the letters or there was still work that needed to be done, Val would just take it back home and make sure it all got done in the evenings or at weekends.

I wish that the people who wrote spiteful articles and went on about how MPs shouldn’t employ family members could just have spent a little time working with Val to see how wrong they were.

“You’ll never get me out of my car”

As well as working for Val for two years, I also served alongside her as a councillor for four years. Her passion was for reducing homelessness and improving housing in Oxford. Anyone living in a council home which was improved as part of the Decent Homes Standard, or about to move into one of the new council homes which are currently being built has a lot to thank Val for. Val was a brilliant councillor. She was kind and welcoming to new councillors like me, and a great role model. When she spoke in council and Labour Group meetings, she was thoughtful and a voice of common sense and reason.

Val was involved in the Oxford Labour Party in the 1980s, and so had a high threshold for dealing with daft ideas. She was targeted by the “Independent Working Class Association” who denounced her as “a traitor to the working class” during the 2000s before they made the discovery that given the choice, working class people would rather vote for Val than the IWCA. But while Val experienced the highs and lows of local politics with good humour and great dignity, just occasionally she felt the need to try to steer discussions back towards Planet Earth.

During one particular discussion in the Labour Group about how much to put up car parking charges up by, I remember Val’s impassionated plea: “Let’s get real about this. You are never going to get me out of my car.” Val was a great champion for social justice, a campaigner against homelessness, and proud to serve on the County Council’s Adoption Panel. But she knew that a rooted Labour Party also needed to be aware of motorists and not lose touch with the majority of our supporters.

The special signal

The election count in 2005 was nerve wracking. Nationally, there had been a big swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats (younger readers: ask your parents what a “Liberal Democrat” was). The results had been counted and the candidates were about to gather on the stage for the announcement of the results. Val saw Andrew give a little wave, and she looked devastated. The wave Andrew had given was the special signal which they had agreed, so that Andrew could let Val know before the results were announced if he’d lost, so that she had a chance to prepare herself.

Except that, in the heat of the excitement, Andrew had forgotten what the special sign was. In fact, he was just asking his campaign team to come up, because the tallies showed that he had won by just under 1,000 votes. We were all delighted when the results were read out, but none more so than Val. What had happened in 2005 was that amongst the people in Oxford who were voting on national policy issues, Labour had lost the argument to the Liberal Democrats. However, amongst people who were voting on which was best locally, and who would make the best local MP, Labour had won massively. Overall, this proved just enough for Andrew to be re-elected.

Five years later, the Lib Dems were back for a re-match. I arrived in Oxford for the final two weeks of the campaign. Andrew’s campaign team were exhausted and facing the prospect that all their hard work would count for nothing in the fact of ‘Cleggmania’ (younger readers: etc etc). When all around seemed dark as night, it was Val who kept Andrew going, made sure we ignored the polls and focused on what needed doing locally. On election day in 2010, Labour beat the Liberal Democrats comprehensively, including winning over 85% of the vote on Blackbird Leys.

Andrew spent seven years as a Cabinet Minister, responsible as Chief Secretary to the Treasury for planning Labour’s investment in public services and as Secretary of State at the DWP for the largest ever falls in child and pensioner poverty. Child poverty rates fell throughout Andrew’s time in the Cabinet, and have been rising ever since he left the Cabinet. This was a true partnership: Andrew in Whitehall helping take 600,000 children and one million pensioners out of poverty and Val in the office in Cowley and at home on the Leys making sure that local constituents got great representation and service. None of it would have been possible without their combined talents.

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It is possible to take people like Val for granted, to assume that they will always be there with their kindness, good advice, and her humour. In a fairer and more just world, Val would be able to enjoy her retirement, time in France relaxing with Andrew, and time with Mirai, her granddaughter. And in a better world for the Labour Party, Val would have a big role to play in the debate about our future.

She wouldn’t need to read articles about how Labour might win back the support of working class voters, or pamphlets about how Labour could combine our passion for social justice with an appeal to the majority. We can learn so much more from Blackbird Leys than Oxford University about what Labour should do next.

I will miss Councillor Councillor Councillor Val so much. I’d planned to finish this piece with some rhetorical flourish, urging anyone who cares about social justice to learn from her example, her quiet determination to do good, her commitment to her working class community. But I can just imagine Val reading something like that, giggling a bit and rolling her eyes, as if to say: “what on earth are you boys on about now.”

Friday, March 21, 2014

Why should "Teenage mistakes" matter in politics?

Recently, the BBC announced that Duncan Weldon would be Newsnight’s new Economics Correspondent. Naturally I was delighted. I known Duncan since he was eighteen, and this is a job which he’ll be brilliant at. A former hedge fund manager, economist, and political adviser, he’s shown that he knows how to take difficult and incomprehensible economic policy issues and communicate them in a clear and accessible way, winning praise across the political spectrum. More importantly, Duncan started his journalistic career right here at this very blog http://don-paskini.blogspot.co.uk/2008/03/wealth-creator-writes-about-gold.html , demolishing the nonsense about teh evils of Gordon Brown selling off our gold!!! It is a very encouraging precedent for aspiring journalists to start off writing for me and end up on the telly reporting for the BBC. But when Duncan was appointed, I also knew what would happen next. And sure enough, someone has dug up an article which he wrote when he was nineteen about something stupid he did when he was sixteen, all as part of the vicious political ‘game’ of politicos who were at Oxford together and who have risen through the political and media ranks since, all trying to destroy their political opponents by any means however cynical or trivial. He’s explained what happened on his own blog - http://duncanseconomicblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/my-teenage-mistakes/ , and to describe it as a storm in a teacup is to do a disservice to weatherbeaten crockery. The real story here isn’t ‘teenager does something stupid’. It’s the extent to which politics and the media is a closed circle where what people did at university more than a decade ago is fair game to be used against them, because it is such a closed and elite circle where what someone wrote in Cherwell student newspaper is something that still matters. Some of the people shopping this story around the papers and feigning outrage at youthful flirtations with the far right will have been at the OUCA sing songs where they sung songs such as ‘Dashing through the Reich’ (if you don’t know what OUCA is, then trust me, you really really aren’t missing much). A lot of the coverage of politics in national newspapers isn’t actually for the benefit of their readers, but is code for different sets of politicos to attack each other, to the bemusement of anyone outside the bubble. I always hoped that some of the brilliant people who I knew at Oxford and who are still good friends, such as Duncan, would go on to fulfil their potential and make full use of their skills and talents, as indeed they have. But I also assumed that they would be a few alongside a much greater number of exceptional and talented people from all backgrounds and walks of life. Instead, most of the talented people w are shut out from politics and the media and the game of politics rages on. That is why Duncan is being attacked today, and why at some point soon the equivalent will happen with some Tory rising star who today is enthusiastically sticking the boot in while secretly hoping that their turn to take a public beating won’t come. Really and truly, not just in this case but for political allies and enemies alike, this kind of stupidity and fake outrage about what people do when they are teenagers needs to stop.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Lessons from Hackney

Last night Hackney Council passed a budget with £44 million of cuts, amidst protests from anti-cuts campaigners. Having looked at their budget, I think councillors have done very well in extremely difficult situation - unlike in many other councils, no youth facilities will be closed, no libraries shut, no reduction to key services like recycling or street cleansing, no restrictions on care to be provided to our oldest and most vulnerable of residents, and the council is maintaining services such as support for victims of domestic violence and youth crime intervention work which the national government had cut funding for.

There is an irony in watching protesters who say all political parties are just the same with one breath, while with the next protesting against the Tory/Lib Dem decision to end Labour's policy of giving more money to the most deprived areas.

Hackney councillors will face an even harder job next year, with a further £26 million in cuts needing to be made. I think it is worth revisiting an article I wrote in 2009, in response to Hackney's decision to freeze their council tax.

There are good reasons for trying to keep council tax low - particularly in poor areas where it was historically amongst the highest in the country. But it is one of the few ways that local councils can raise money, as the following example shows:

If Hackney Council had decided in 2006, instead of freezing their council tax, to raise it by 1% per year, then they would have raised roughly £900,000 per year, at an extra cost to the average household of £10 per year (more for people in higher value properties, less for people in lower value properties, and nothing for people eligible for council tax benefit).

Over four years, this would mean that the average household would be paying an extra £50 per year, and the council would have an extra £3.65 million to spend on local services. This year and next year, it would also have received an extra £90,000 from central government in council tax freeze grant.

If, instead, councillors had raised council tax by 2% per year, then the average household would be £2 per week worse off (more for wealthier households, nothing for the poorest households), and the council would have approximately £7.5 million in extra revenue, including council tax from residents, extra council tax benefit and council tax freeze grant.

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Now, obviously, an extra £3.5-£7 million in revenue wouldn't prevent all the cuts, and higher council tax would make life even tougher for many people, particularly lower paid workers and pensioners who are just above the threshold for receiving benefits. But, crudely, the overall impact of small annual increases in council tax would be that young professionals in the trendy bits of the borough would now be paying more taxes to provide services for people with long term illnesses to receive social care, young people to be able to go to enjoyable and safe activities on the estates, and victims of domestic violence to get support when they need it.

Labour councils are still boasting about having taken the "tough decision" to freeze the council tax. I think most councillors are doing their best now in desperately tough times, but a really tough and correct decision would have been to raise council tax while Labour was in power, in order to help protect our communities when this bunch of sub-Thatcherite extremists took over.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Is there a "new politics of identity"?

The Searchlight Education Trust's "Fear and Hope" research is very interesting, and points out a number of challenges and areas where further investigation would be useful. I'm less convinced, however, by the claim that there is a "new politics of identity". Or, rather, I think the case is not yet proven.

For their research, the authors commissioned an opinion polling company to ask people a whole load of questions about identity politics. The shock horror finding reported in the press was that 48% would definitely or would consider voting for a party which would "defend the English, create an English Parliament, control immigration, challenge Islamic extremism, restrict the
building of mosques and make it compulsory for all public buildings to fly the St George's flag or Union Jack."

But before answering that question, people had been asked more than fifty questions on immigration, what they think about different religions, the extent to which different religious groups cause trouble, the extent to which different religious groups are similar in terms of habits, customs and values, freedom of expression, national identity and much more. This will have put people in a particular frame of mind when they got round to answering the question about support for a new non-violent far right party.

For example, we don't know how many people found the questions on identity really boring and stopped completing the survey part way through, or starting clicking answers at random (I've done this with YouGov surveys on brand awareness). If a large number of people who started the survey dropped out part way through, then it would suggest that claims about a "new politics of identity" are somewhat overstated.

This is not to dispute that the findings are interesting, but to measure the impact of the 'framing' of the questions, it would have been interesting to compare how many people would support a non-violent far right party if asked about it as the first question, rather than after answering several dozen questions on related subjects. We can see, for example, that the poll found that more people identified with the Tories than with Labour, and higher levels of identification for UKIP, BNP and the Greens then other polls have found.

An interesting comparative piece of research, which someone like the TUC might consider commissioning, would be to conduct a similar kind of poll but with a different set of questions.

For example, I wonder how many people would express definitely or possible support for a party which pledged to "defend ordinary working people, crack down on bankers' bonuses, protect British manufacturing from unfair competition, withdraw from the European Union, reduce excessive spending cuts by taxing the rich and renationalise the railways" after being asked lots of questions about bankers' pay, whether ordinary people get a fair deal, whether Britain benefits from the EU, whether they support spending cuts such as closing libraries and whether they think privatisation is appropriate for public services.

I reckon you could get at least 50% support for that party (let's call it the Bony Tenn Party) if you'd asked the right questions, which could then be used to argue that the time has come for the return of the Alternative Economic Strategy.

Searchlight might well be right that identity politics is increasingly important and that Labour is "marooned" in its response. But they need to do more than one big opinion poll to make that case convincing.

Shorter version of this post - what Yes Minister said.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Three questions to ask your councillor

One of the keys to effective local action is making sure that campaigners think ahead and get decision-makers to respond to them, rather than waiting for decisions to be announced and then complaining. In that spirit, here's three questions to ask your local councillor:

1. What have you done to make sure your council obeys the laws on promoting equality?

Some anti-cuts campaigners have been urging councillors to defy the law and set illegal budgets, to which nearly all councillors have responded by explaining why it is important to obey the law.

But obeying the law doesn't just mean supporting enough cuts to balance a budget. If these cuts are decided on "without due regard to the statutory equality needs in the performance of its functions as required by s71 Race Relations Act 1976, section 76A Sex Discrimination Act 1976 and section 49A Disability Discrimination Act 1995", then they can be quashed by a judge.

As a general rule, any decisions about funding cuts should be supported by a full equalities impact assessment. Councillors don't have to carry these out themselves, but they need to ensure that council officers have done this properly. This applies both to councillors in power, who need to make sure that they are not complicit in breaking the law, and to those in opposition, who should use these laws to scrutinise decisions effectively.

I think this is a much more fruitful approach for anti-cuts campaigners to adopt - rather than urging councillors to act illegally, we should instead urge them to obey the law. Councillors have a decent argument that it would be harmful for them to set an illegal budget. They have absolutely no good excuse for waving through cuts without considering the impact on equalities.

2. What are you planning to do about the government's plans to increase council tax for millions of low paid households?

After years of pious talk about how unfair they think council tax is, the Tories and Lib Dems plan to impose council tax rises on up to 5.8 million of the poorest people in Britain in 2013. They have announced that they will cut the budget for council tax rebates by 10%, while leaving it up to local authorities to set their own criteria for eligibility (which goes against their plans to simplify the benefits system).

So local councillors will get the choice - do they cut services even further in order to prevent tax rises on those least able to pay? Or they could start work now to get the government to abandon these proposals (and maybe even get our shadow ministerial team to take an interest).

3. How will you work with anti-cuts campaigners to win council tax referenda?

From 2012, any rise in council tax beyond the amount set by central government will have to be agreed in a referendum. Although there is a vocal minority who are protesting against cuts, recent surveys have shown that at present a majority of people favour deeper cuts to many local services such as housing and homelessness and adult social care.

If councillors don't want to preside over a system where each year they get to make deeper and deeper cuts and provide an ever more restricted range of services because they would lose a referendum on raising council tax to maintain services, then they need to work together with anti-cuts campaigners. There will never ever be a majority for a referendum on raising council tax, but with the right preparation there can be a majority for maintaining decent services rather than cutting them even further.

Many of those who have turned up to anti-cuts protests are exactly the people who councillors should be desperate to work with - people who are passionate about local services and who want to see them defended. There is a big danger that they get disillusioned by taking part in ineffective protests and just give up. Instead, councillors need to develop a strategy to build relations with them and involve them for the future. I'd hope, for example, that some of the young people whose first political experience was protesting at a Town Hall over the past couple of months would be standing for election for Labour at some point over the next few years.

This strategy involves trying to listen and find opportunities to reverse cuts to services like youth clubs which have got people engaged in anti-cuts campaigning; identifying people who are passionate about their community and helping them to be effective in campaigning for new services; and finding ways of developing joint campaigns with anti-cuts campaigners, for example on the changes to council tax benefit mentioned above.

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One of the frustrating things about seeing increasing antagonism between councillors and anti-cuts campaigners is that there is so much where they are on the same side. Hopefully, these three questions are the start of a dialogue which reminds us how much unites, not divides, us.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Cameron praises social enterprise saved by Future Jobs Fund

I've been watching the documentary about the "People's Supermarket", a co-operative supermarket in north London which is owned by its members, all of whom pay a fee to join and agree to work in the shop with the aim of creating "a sustainable food cooperative that responds to the needs of the local community and provides healthy, local food at reasonable prices".

On 15th February, David Cameron went to visit it, hoping to associate this social enterprise with his plans for the "Big Society".

One thing which the documentary mentioned was that while the supermarket was trying to establish itself in the first few months, it was able to employ some young trainees through a government scheme. Without these trainees working alongside the members, the supermarket would have collapsed and gone out of business.

David Cameron and his allies often claim that the aim of the "Big Society" is to replace the "Big State". They argue that because government has got so big, it crowds out these kind of initiatives and prevents people from getting on and being self-sufficient.

But as the People's Supermarket experience shows, reality is somewhat different. Far from being crowded out, this social enterprise was able to get help from the government when it needed it. It was able to hire trainees on short term contracts with the government paying their wages, in order to get time to establish itself and get more members involved, while also giving young unemployed people a chance of a job.

The name of the "government trainee scheme" which supported the People's Supermarket was the Future Jobs Fund. The Future Jobs Fund, of course, was one of the first programmes which David Cameron's government cut.

The People's Supermarket avoided being a victim of Cameron's cuts by no more than a few months. Rather than turning up for photo opportunities and claiming that this is an example of his Big Society, he should learn the lessons and bring back the Future Jobs Fund.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How to stop David Cameron's Corporate Welfare plans

David Cameron has announced that the latest version of the Big Society is that just about all public services will be opened up to be run by the private sector. He says that these "are more significant aspects of our Big Society agenda than the work we're doing to boost social action".

The Big Society started off with the idea that people would run services for themselves, but it became clear that this wasn't going to work, so Big Society 2.0 was that it was all about promoting charities. Then it became clear that many of these "Big Society" charities were being wiped out by the cuts, and anyway, they were very ungratefully complaining about the government.

So having given up on the people and the voluntary sector, the Big Society is now all about getting the private sector to run services. Unlike the users of public services or the voluntary sector, the private companies can be relied upon not to complain about the government, and will be suitably grateful for large sums of government money coming their way.

There are any number of reasons why this is a bad idea, but I just wanted to focus on a very revealing quote by the architect of this Corporate Welfare programme, who is reported as claiming that "responsibility for fixing the deficit can be transferred from the central state to the customer by transferring responsibility for the cost of services via a market to purchasers of public services."

Get that? If you use public services, the responsibility for fixing our budget deficit now falls on you, not the government.

I firmly believe that this is an even less popular idea than the original Big Society one, and one which more people should know about. It also highlights a key feature of the Corporate Welfare programme, which is that it is bound to lead to service users and taxpayers getting ripped off.

I've run some consultation meetings over the last few weeks about the government's NHS reforms. Out of all the different proposals, the two which worried people most of all were firstly that services which people rely on might be got rid of as a result of the changes (for example local hospitals closing), and secondly, that these private providers will run rings round the doctors who are commissioning services and exploit loopholes in contracts to increase charges for services which are currently free, or demand more money to keep a service going. This is, after all, the business model for the many of the American companies which will be bidding to win healthcare contracts (along with denying sick people the chance to claim on their health insurance to pay for their medical care).

The government proposals which protect users of public services and taxpayers if a service gets taken over by the private sector and closed down or loopholes get exploited can be summarised as:

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Crucially, we don't have to wait until the next election in order to stop and reverse some of the most malign aspects of these plans. The Tory Corporate Welfare plans will attract all sorts of people looking to make money from government contracts. Some will have a genuine belief that they can run a service at a higher quality and lower cost, while others will believe that they can make money by cutting costs, and deliver the bare minimum required of them (as with cleaning in hospitals or safety on the railways).

What Labour should do is announce that they are very concerned about the lack of protection for service users and taxpayers, and announce that a future Labour government would put in place legislation which allows every corporate welfare contract to be reviewed. In cases where it is clear that the taxpayer is being ripped off or service users are getting a worse deal, the contracts will be declared null and void, and the contractor will be liable to fines equal to a proportion of the profits they made from the contract. (The mechanism could be something like 5% of service users have to request that the contract be reviewed, in which case the service is reviewed by a citizen's jury).

The advantage of this is that the threat of it will be enough to protect people from the worst of the corporate welfare parasites. Companies won't bid to take on contracts and provide the bare minimum, or exploit loopholes to charge patients for services if they know that there is a risk that they could end up losing the contract and getting fined if the Tories lose the next election.

This would highlight the way that the Tories are putting the producer interest of a small number of private companies ahead of the needs of taxpayers and service users, whether in the NHS or now across almost every single other public service. Those who are confident that they can provide better services have nothing to fear, while those that want to get rich on government handouts should look elsewhere.