Sunday, 24 August 2008

Musings and ramblings on a Sunday afternoon

Most Sunday mornings I go to Isleworth Congregational Church, where for several years I have had the honour of serving as a Deacon.

I tend not to preach about my religious convictions. Whilst I may have carved a niche of sorts in the world of local politics, my theological grounding is limited to say the least. My commitment to my Church, such as it is, derives from instinct rather than scientific analysis. I think that is why they call it faith.

Without wishing to imply any disrespect to those good men and women who give up their Sunday mornings to come along and preach, I do on occasions find my thoughts wandering onto other matters - sometimes inspired, it has to be said, by something the preacher has said.

This morning I found myself reflecting on my activities of the past couple of weeks. In short, I have been using the political "quiet season" as a window of opportunity for trying to earn a crust.

When I first became a councillor, back in 1998, a councillor's annual allowance was in the region of £1,400. There was no question that this was just what it said on the tin - an allowance - and not a salary.

That allowance has since grown in increments to a little under £10,000, proportionately a massive increase but still not in itself a salary. Interestingly, these incremental increases all took place under the previous New Labour administration, who supported pay increases in office but oppose them in opposition.

With the introduction by the New Labour government of the new Executive or Cabinet system, a goodly proportion of the workload which used to be spread more evenly now falls upon the shoulders of a small handful of councillors. Acting upon government guidance the previous New Labour administration, which oversaw the introduction of this system in Hounslow, drastically ramped up the allowances available to Executive councillors (a hike which, again, they claim to be against now that they are in opposition and no longer benefit from it). The current administration took this one step further earlier this year and increased Executive allowances again, once more as a response to formal recommendations.

What this means in effect is that, as an Executive member, I now receive £16,000 per annum on top of the £10,000 that I receive as a councillor. As it happens I didn't support the increase when it was proposed at Borough Council (a matter of documented historical record, although that inconvenient fact doesn't stop my opponents from pretending that I did). I didn't support it, not because I don't honestly feel that I and other Executive members can justify such an amount with the work we put in, but because the government, having advised Hounslow and other councils to pay "realistic" salaries (let's face it, they can no longer be called expenses) to Executive members, then didn't make any extra provision to enable us to do so without eating into our own already scarce resources.

Now I make no criticism of fellow Executive members who manage to perform their civic duties whilst holding down full-time employment in other areas. However, speaking personally I do not feel I could function as effectively as I demand of myself if I had the added burden of holding down a 9 to 5 job in the market and so, consequently, I have made the decision not to do so.

Criticism of that decision comes primarily from two sources. The first and most obvious is the bitter, failed ex-councillors who were unceremoniously dumped by the electorate (although you'll never hear any suggestion from them that they might have been at all to blame for their own predicament). These are people who held office when members' allowances were at an absolute minimum and who, perhaps understandably up to a point, feel resentful that those whom the electors chose to replace them with are now receiving remuneration on a level which they
personally did not enjoy. It is a particularly cruel irony when one considers that they represented a political school of thought which was fiercely materialistic in its outlook.

The second is those who, quite simply, presumed that councillors already lived in mansions, drove Rollers and received six-figure salaries. The look of surprise on the face of constituents when they discover that, as Lead Member for Housing, I still live in an overcrowded, rented flat on what many deem to be a "problem" estate (unlike the previous crowd, "it's not what you know but who you know" forms no part of the philosophy of the new administration) has to be seen to be believed.

In actual fact being through my own choice a "full-time" Executive member leaves me between a rock and a hard place. Unlike the councillors of 1998 I cannot claim to be doing the job solely for love. And yet with a family to feed and a roof over their heads to keep I still need to pay the bills. Love is a noble cause for which to work, but when I told my bank manager I loved him his reply was "I love you too, but what about your overdraft?".

And so it is that I've been sitting at my desktop PC for the last two or three weeks, devising ways of bringing in an income which will supplement that which I receive from the local authority without committing me to working fixed hours. I have started to build websites and blogs with that ignoble but wholly necessary purpose in mind.

So this is where the story comes back to my attendance at Church. Because for all the effort I put into promoting my local political cause, an effort which I am now trying to imitate in promoting a business of sorts, it occurred to me that I have done little by comparison to promote the work of the Church. My lack of theological expertise is mitigation, but not entirely an excuse. There are things I can be doing, and haven't been.

It is funny how adversity often teases out introspection. Have no fear, you won't be hearing me ringing bells or preaching in the High Street any time soon. But a little bit of time devoted to something which has sustained and inspired me so much in my life must surely be a sacrifice worth making?

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