Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Big Society or No Such Thing as Society?

I’m still trying to get my head around “The Big Society”, what the Prime Minister David Cameron describes as his “vision and passion”. I am particularly keen to understand how it is to be reconciled with the view that “there is no such thing as society”, articulated by Margaret Thatcher, now Baroness Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister back in the 1980s.

On the surface of it it would seem to be something of an oxymoron. If society doesn’t exist then it cannot be big. Or, conversely, if it is indeed big then the view that it does not exist has to be wrong.

So what exactly is society? What is this thing that is simultaneously big and yet not really there?

Society in its most basic form must be that state in which we live beyond our own selfish existence. It is that common experience that we share whenever we interact, be it socially, in the supermarket, at the bingo hall, down at the local pub, even indeed passing each other in the street and acknowledging the fact that the other person is there.

It may also be, if you prefer, the way in which we support each other by using the skills each of us possess to benefit others, whether we do so for a wage or out of purest altruism. It could be the shopkeeper taking our order, the postman bring our mail, the doctor making us better, the bus driver getting us to where we want to be. We cannot do all these things for ourselves, but by plying our particular trade in the service of others we all manage to muddle along somehow.

The voluntary aspect of being a society is altogether more special. After all it is something from which we derive no personal gain, and which we really don’t have to do. Running a scout group, giving advice, helping out at the local school, organising a residents’ or tenants’ association or an action group – all of these things serve to make life more enjoyable and the environment in which we live more pleasant.

So when Mrs. Thatcher told us there was no such thing as society was she denying that the altruism of what is admittedly an active minority actually existed, that there was behind all of it an ulterior, selfish motive? Or was it just an expression of wishful thinking?

To say there is no such thing as society suggests that people in general are concerned only with Number One, with the furtherance of their own careers and the unrelenting accumulation of personal wealth. It is a call to those who give of their free time to call it a day and to return home to the counting table. It envisions the whole of life as a metaphorical ladder upon which the objective is to climb whilst if necessary treading on the head of the person below.

If this is indeed what Mrs. Thatcher meant then why is it that a quarter of a century on another Conservative Prime Minister sees fit to champion what he calls The Big Society? He after all has never, as far as I am aware, denounced nor even distanced himself from the shocking opinions of his distant predecessor.

In the light of the commonality that exists between the Thatcherites of old and adherents of modern Conservatism it is reasonable to look upon Cameron’s Big Society with a certain degree of scepticism. What is it about the society that the Prime Minister envisages that would find favour amongst those who continue to venerate the undisputed champion of the culture of self?

The answer must logically be found in the fact that the voluntary sector offers something that professionals employed in the public sector per se cannot – work done for free. Why pay a librarian when a retired person looking to get out and meet people or a student in need of work experience and a reference can manage the local library on a day to day basis for nothing?

This cheapskate cynicism is rightly condemned by the Conservatives’ traditional opponents in the Labour Party. Sadly though the criticism focuses usually not upon the exploitative instincts that underpin the Tories’ new-found commitment to a society the very existence of which they were denying not so long ago, but upon the very rationale of volunteering and community self-help.

“Ordinary” people, we are told, are too busy scratching a living to be much bothered about putting anything into the community of which they are a part. All the average (acknowledgements Neil Peart) are concerned about is putting food on the table and clothes on their children’s backs.

Fortunately, so the argument continues, there exists an expert political class (them) whose calling is to manage all our society’s affairs for us. That political class comprises a social elite (whether by education or birthright is unclear) that is specially and uniquely trained to understand all our needs and to deliver them to us in the way that only it knows best.

Back in Portugal

I’m back in Portugal, chuffed to be able to spend an extra week in the sun due to the fact that we didn’t use the timeshare one year back in the dim and distant past.

This time my daughter Rosie is with me. On Sunday she earned a lot of respect from balcony dwellers by jumping into the outdoor swimming pool. By comparison with England it is warm here (t-shirt and shorts), but it isn’t that warm!

I’m very embarrassed that I still can’t speak the language, other than to order a beer and say “Thank You”. I keep promising myself that I’ll take a crash course, but with three jobs and counting I never seem to find the time. It seems so disrespectful to travel to another land year after year and just to expect everybody to converse with me in my native tongue, even though everyone at the site is completely fluent.

Timeshares are for mugs, in this day and age non-owners can enjoy all the facilities we have for half the price. But I do recommend the Clube Praia da Oura to anybody looking to spend a week away from the rain and the cold.

Tomorrow we are off to Seville, partly so that Rosie can at least tell her posh friends that she has been to a new country. Hasta la vista (or is that Italian?).

Thursday, 8 December 2011


Residents win epic court battle against Thames Water over Mogden

ICG leads protest against Mogden expansion in 2009
Thousands of residents are celebrating after the High Court today ruled in their favour at the culmination of their epic battle against the water giant and the odour nuisance that it has continued to inflict upon our community with the timid, indeed sometimes willing, acquiescence of the London Borough of Hounslow.

Mr Justice Ramsay upheld the claim by 1,350 litigants from Isleworth, Hounslow, Whitton, St. Margaret's and Twickenham that Thames Water was liable for breach of duty in relation to odour nuisance from its Isleworth-based Mogden plant.

The judge also found that Thames had breached claimants' human rights under the Human Rights Act, in particular Article 8 of the Convention which protects the enjoyment of home and family life.

Scandalously, legislation due to be introduced by the government will prevent communities from instigating actions such as this one in the future without accepting prohibitive financial risk.

Nevertheless right now is a time for rejoicing, and for expressing my sincere thanks to all those residents who have worked painstakingly through the Mogden Residents' Action Group over many years to bring this about, often in the face of infuriating obstruction, procrastination and betrayal from those upon whose support we should have been entitled to rely.

MRAG and the ICG will consider the full implications of the Council's handling of the Mogden issue and of its attitude towards campaigning residents during the coming weeks.

The full Press Statement released today by Steve Taylor of MRAG is as follows:

Residents successful in ‘David & Goliath’ battle

After a long and arduous fight, 1,350 residents living near Mogden Sewage Treatment Works in Isleworth, Middlesex have won their mammoth battle against Thames Water Utilities Limited in relation to odour nuisance. The residents live in an area which comprises Hounslow, Whitton, Twickenham and St Margarets as well as Isleworth.

At the High Court today (8 December), Judge Mr Justice Ramsay handed down the judgment which holds Thames Water liable for breach of duty in relation to nuisance caused by odour from the Mogden plant. In relation to allegations of negligence surrounding their management and operation at the Works, Mr Justice Ramsey significantly found that Thames Water had, since 1990, failed to have a long term odour management and investment strategy to deal with odour from the site.

Mr Steve Taylor, one of the lead claimants, says: “I hope this case shows that David can take on Goliath in our legal system and win. The case was never about money; it was about holding Thames Water to account for the problems that it has caused us over the last 10 years. The huge impact on ordinary people's lives and on the environment cannot be underestimated. I am extremely grateful to Neil Stockdale and the Environment team at Hugh James as well as our Counsel, Stephen Hockman QC and John Bates, for relentlessly pursuing this case on our behalf. I believe this case is the first of its kind in the UK and the judgment in our favour will have a major influence on the way the managers and owners of sewage treatment works in England and Wales run their businesses"

Although this is a significant victory for the residents, the stark warning is that happy endings like this one might not be possible in the future. The Government plans to change legislation, effectively ending the current ‘no win no fee’ system, exposing claimants to huge upfront financial risks rather than being allowed to recover fees at the end if successful. This will lead to claimants having to take responsibility for both their own expenses and the other side’s costs.

Mr Taylor continues: “I’m shocked and very disappointed about the Government’s plans to change this legislation. The stature and financial clout of Thames Water meant we were only able to take this case forward because of the current ‘no win no fee’ system. Changing this system will deter others in similar situations to ours from bringing cases against big companies and will be a real obstacle for ordinary people to access justice. I would ask the government to think very carefully about the effect that this might have on people’s lives.”

Neil Stockdale, the partner at Hugh James who led the team dealing with the case said, “This result is a vindication of the residents’ genuine desire to protect their environment from blight. Unfortunately however, cases like this will no longer be possible in the future if the Government’s proposed reforms to the funding of litigation are enacted next year.

“The Government is proposing that individuals take cases like this at their own risk; people just can’t afford to take such risks, particularly when they are up against the likes of Thames Water. If people don’t stand up now and oppose the Government's bill they will forever be powerless to take action to protect their legal rights in all sorts of cases. What the Government is suggesting is a real scandal and the biggest threat to access to justice we have ever witnessed in the UK.”

Damages were sought against Thames Water for nuisance caused by odour and mosquitoes but claimants also sought for an injunction to prevent continuing nuisance. Today, the Judge has accepted 18 of the 30 allegations of negligence that were made in addition to finding that Thames Water had breached the claimants’ rights under the Human Rights Act, specifically Article 8 of the convention which protects the enjoyment of home and family life.

The Judge said that the claimants had been caused to suffer significant inconvenience and annoyance from odour over and above that which was inevitable.

In relation to Human Rights, High Court Judge Mr Justice Ramsay says of his decision: "Because I have held that Thames Water failed to carry out the work and conduct the operation at Mogden Sewage Treatment Works with all reasonable regard and care for the interests of other persons, including the claimants, it follows in my view that Thames Water failed properly to respect the rights of claimants and did not do all they reasonably could to prevent odour from migrating from the Mogden Sewage Treatment Works. They did not do what they should have done as a public authority in relation to the rights of the claimants".


Sunday, 20 November 2011

Where Is Our Money?

Residents demand answers after 250 march to save St. John's Community Centre

Any talk of "consultation" would seem superfluous now after a massive 250 local residents turned out to let councillors and the London Borough of Hounslow know that we want to keep our Community Centre open.

The march, organised by the Independent Community Group (ICG) and supported by the St. John's Residents' Association, The Isleworth Society (TIS) and 32 user groups based at the Centre, at one point filled Linkfield Road from the gates of St. John's Gardens almost as far back as Loring Road. Two local councillors - Theo Dennison (Syon, one of the Lead Members responsible for presenting the Report to Cabinet proposing closure) and Ed Mayne (Isleworth, Cabinet member) - attended the protest and took the time to hear residents' concerns.

Nobody can now be in any doubt at all as to the determination of local people to halt this latest assault by the Lampton Road bureaucracy upon Isleworth's ability to organise and to function as a community.

And now the attention has turned to the small matter of the £250,000 which was set aside at the 2010 Hounslow Council Budget Meeting specifically for the purpose of repairing the roof of the Centre.

When the Lead Member's Report, prepared by senior officers, was submitted to Cabinet on Tuesday, 8th November by Councillors Corinna Smart and Theo Dennison one of the reasons given for closure was the cost that would allegedly be incurred in bringing the property into full repair. Significantly, however, no mention was made of the quarter of a million pounds set aside for this very work by Borough Council in March 2010 at the insistence of the ICG.

Neither of these councillors were members of the local authority at the time of the 2010 Budget Meeting (although some of their Cabinet colleagues were). Did they know about this allocation of funding? And if not, does this mean that senior officers deliberately withheld this crucial information from them when preparing the Report in order to ensure that Cabinet took the "right" decision?

Indeed, is the money even still there? And, if not, where has it gone and under whose authority has it been spent elsewhere (we have been assured that no member decision has been taken at any time authorising any such transfer)?

The lack of co-operation by chief officers towards the Community Group at the latter end of the coalition administration of 2006-2010, at best tolerated and in all probability encouraged or possibly even instigated by our Conservative coalition partners, is a matter of demonstrable record. However if it transpires that chief officers have ignored the legally binding decision of a Budget Meeting then the line is crossed into completely new territory and such an act could not possibly be ignored nor swept under the carpet.

Residents supported by the ICG are using all means available to them to gain access to this vital information and this blog will be updated with any new developments. 

Watch this space.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

It's Not a Problem, the Answer is No!

This was the response I gave when asked by the then Lead Member for Finance, Councillor Gerald McGregor, whether the Community Group councillors who at the time represented the wards of Syon and Isleworth would have a problem with him implementing an officer recommendation to "dispose of" (i.e. sell for development) the Community Centre on St. John's Road.

Councillor McGregor fully understood our position, and obligingly withdrew the proposal from his list of potential economies.

Our position was simple. We were councillors for Isleworth and for Syon. More than that, we were community councillors for Isleworth and for Syon. This building served over 30 user groups in our own back yard. If, holding the balance of power on the Council, we couldn't keep this building open then there was little point in us being there.  A little while later we secured £250,000 from the 2010 council budget for some essential repairs to the roof of the building for good measure.

The senior officers bided their time. A change in administration and, they deduced, the election of councillors less committed to their individual wards and less inclined ideologically to support independent community groups meant they could once again offer up St. John's Community Centre as a sacrificial lamb, in preference to any of those internal departmental savings that senior officers so dislike.

Sadly, it appears they were right. A report to Cabinet (formerly known as the Executive) on November 8th agreed "in principle" to dispose of this popular and widely-used community resource, "subject to consultation".

The significance of this caveat is moot. On the surface it would appear to suggest that massive public opposition to the closure could have the effect of halting it. On the other hand, no provision has been made for returning the item to Cabinet following any such consultation, which would conversely suggest that the decision is considered to be final irrespective of the outcome of a consultation that is being undertaken purely as a statutory duty.

The Community Group has taken a more relaxed and engaging approach towards the current Labour administration than had been the case in the past. Individual councillors have seemed more accommodating, more prepared to reach out to us as a community and to embrace the unique localist spirit that remains in Isleworth in particular in spite of our election reverse.

But we would be failing in our duty to our local people were we to stand back and watch the desecration of our community's infrastructure. Whether such spiteful assaults on our civic life are member or officer driven, we must resist them and we will.

Back in February over 300 Isleworth residents braved appalling weather to march in support of our Library and Public Hall. We call upon them to turn out again to defend St. John's Community Centre.  We were supported at that time by our Conservative MP Mary Macleod and by our three Isleworth Labour ward councillors.  We hope we will be again.

Isleworth is a vibrant, thriving community. We will not be closed down, whether for budgetary savings or for political advantage. Please turn out on Saturday and support St. John's residents and user groups as they fight to keep a valuable community asset in the hands of the local people.

March to Save St. John's Community Centre

Saturday, 19th November 2011

Meet outside the Centre, 10.30 am

Friday, 14 October 2011

Deja Vu on the Streets of Libya - Spot the Difference

Further to my article yesterday something I recently predicted would happen, has happened.

Pro-Gaddafi demonstrations, albeit at the moment rather small ones, are beginning to break out on the streets of Tripoli.

The response of the new Western-backed government? They have opened fire on them!

Can somebody please refresh my memory as to why NATO claimed to have become involved in this conflict in the first place?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Playing the New World Order's Tune

The forces of the Libyan "revolution".  Will you tell him or shall I?

There was a time, in a previous life, when I was happy to sing the praises of the almost-but-not-completely-deposed Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

It was a time, after all, when I dealt solely in absolutes and, having read the Green Book and marvelled at its convoluted strategy for total democracy, I would hear nothing that suggested revolutionary Libya was any less a paradise on Earth in practice than it was in theory. The Third Universal Theory, to lend it its correct title.

Of course in truth Gaddafi's Libya was anything but a paradise. Power games, between tribes as well as politicians and army generals, and some simple realities about human nature and the personal ambitions, and innate corruptability, of some ensured that not everybody stuck to the manual. Clearly it became a dictatorship with an idea, and one which wasn't too fussy about some of the friends it made around the world in its efforts to carve for itself an ideological niche that would challenge the twin evils of capitalism and communism for the hearts of minds of the people of the world.

But the diet of lies, so barely concealed as to be insulting to the intelligence, that has been fed to the British public in respect of the current NATO campaign has led me instinctively to sympathise with the pro-Gaddafi elements as they continue their desperate, impossible fight against hopeless odds in those few isolated Libyan cities that remain outside of "rebel" (i.e. NATO) control.

From the moment the United Nations gave them the green light for intervention the NATO bombing campaign has quite obviously had nothing whatsoever to do with "protecting civilians" and everything to do with regime change. The fact that there remain up to 10,000 civilians holed up in Sirte, and that NATO is bombing their city relentlessly whilst turning a blind eye to the completely indiscriminate rocket attacks being made upon them by the inexpert and untrained "rebels" provides us with indisputable evidence of this.

Yes Gaddafi was a dictator, a murderous one to boot, but considerably less so than many of the rulers in the region whom the West is actually arming as well as doing regular business with. The difference is of course that Gaddafi was a dictator with a political ideology that, in times of real economic strife such as those we would seem to be heading into, presented a real danger of being taken seriously. After all, who wants a Third World leader who, unlike us it would seem, was able to provide an efficient free healthcare service and universal access to education without increasingly prohibitive tuition fees?

How embarrassing was it for our political establishment to see Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing and released on compassionate grounds two years ago due to his terminal cancer, still alive after all this time thanks to a drug that is freely available in Third World Libya but had been kept quiet about and withheld from British cancer sufferers because it is too expensive to issue?

Who wants a Third World dictator who, in his own small way, had begun to build his own political power base in Africa to rival those of the US superpower or the almost-super powers of Russia and China? Not much we can do about the global machinations of such giants on the world stage, after all. But Libya?

Most of all, who wants a Third World dictator who threatened to trade his people's own oil in "African dinars", based upon gold reserves, as opposed to US dollars?

Understand this and you will understand how a man who was a political pariah in the 1980s and 1990s became cuddly Uncle Muammar in 2003, and how his elite forces became worthy of SAS training little more than a year ago, only for his "dictatorness" to be suddenly rediscovered earlier this year.

We are told the ground forces that are currently struggling to overwhelm Sirte in spite of their massive numerical superiority and unanswered NATO air support are "revolutionaries". But revolutions come from the people, they are not imposed by foreign powers. What has happened in Libya has not been a revolution, but an invasion.

Even now, after having taken Tripoli, the "revolutionaries" have been entirely dependent upon NATO air power in order to take a small city from the scattered remnants of an already defeated army. These guys may believe they are fighting for freedom, and their grudges against the old regime may be well-founded and very real, but they will discover before very long that they have in fact been the foot soldiers of a far more subtle and sinister dictatorship than their eccentric ex-Brother Leader could ever have imposed upon them.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Hounslow Homes Annual General Meeting 2011 - Election Lost, Argument Won?

Whilst I certainly don't pine for my old "job" these days, it was slightly surreal to find myself sitting in the Council Chamber at the Civic Centre in Lampton Road on Thursday evening.

The reason Caroline and I were so doing was that we had accepted an invitation, sent to us both in our capacity as former Board members, to attend the Annual General Meeting of Hounslow Homes.

The AGM itself is something of a formality. The local authority is the sole shareholder of Hounslow Homes and the various appointments, retirements and other items of business are approved (hopefully) by the Lead Member for Housing, currently Councillor Steve Curran, on its behalf. I know how it works because I did the job myself for three years between 2006 and 2009.

But it was good to spend a little time chatting with some old acquaintances - officers from Hounslow Homes and the Council, Board Members, and councillors from both the political parties that managed to retain representation on the London Borough of Hounslow amid the carnage that saw off all the independents and minor parties in May 2010.

Obviously there were differing opinions as to the success or otherwise of the current administration. Everybody agreed, not unreasonably, that it was a difficult time to be a councillor, with the swingeing cuts that all local authorities are being forced to make. In many respects I am glad not to have this responsibility.

There seemed to be a general assumption across the board, both from officers and politicians, that the ICG in general and I in particular would be seeking to restore the pre-2010 status quo when the next local elections come around in 2014, an assumption that certainly should not be made. Times change, things move on.

What pleased me most of all at the Meeting was hearing the Chief Executive of Hounslow Homes, Bernadette O'Shea, referring positively to the concept of localism during her short address to the meeting. Bernadette and other senior officers spoke favourably and often about localism and empowering tenants when I was Lead Member but the cynic might say, well, they would wouldn't they?

But they speak of it still, and that is hugely encouraging.

During my days as Lead Member some of my then coalition colleagues did not think particularly highly of Bernadette, but I always found her approachable, intelligent, innovative and - best of all - honest. Whom she may or may not vote for in the privacy of the polling booth was never of any interest to me.

When reflecting upon the mood of the AGM it crossed my mind that in some situations it was maybe possible to lose a vote yet still win the argument. Certainly the advantages of embracing the wider community seem now to be apparent to most of those involved with the local political scene.

If the ICG never involves itself again in electoral politics I am satisfied that we will still clearly have left a legacy to be proud of.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Only Two Cheers for Community Politics

By David Boyle

I wasn’t there to hear the Birmingham conference back the community politics motion. I had meant to be but had to go back to London early.

It was one of those pieces of sacred Liberalism that you daren’t speak against, but I would have done. I’m not sorry it was passed but the party must also understand that there is another side to it.

Community politics may be a revolutionary doctrine, but BAD community politics – and we have practised some of that occasionally, let’s face it – damages the party and damages the political process.

I know I’m on sacred ground. Criticising community politics at a Liberal Democrat conference is like criticising the Pope in St Peter’s Square. But there are four very good reasons why we must go into this with our eyes open:

First, because we’ve long since abandoned real community politics in favour of its outward manifestation – a blizzard of leaflets with no obvious ideology. Which have been copied by every political opponent for a generation.

Sometimes there is no ideology beyond the demand to stuff paper. Sometimes even worse, there is a kind of off-putting and desperate campaigning on empty.

Second, because community politics has become muddled with New Labour’s rhetoric about ‘empowerment’.

Empowerment is a nonsense for Liberal Democrats. People already have the power. Even Tony Blair, even Ed Miliband, can’t distribute it. It isn’t theirs to give. The point is to encourage people to use their power, and to teach them how.

The third reason is that the intellectual underpinnings of community politics are now riddled with dry rot and need to be renewed. We know so much more now about what works than we did in 1970. We have concepts like social capital and co-production.

There are radical ideas out there about the power shifts in public services when users work alongside professionals. There are techniques about revitalising local economics. By comparison, community politics is almost as vague as the Big Society, which basically means: ‘wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had lunch together’.

The party could not even bring itself to write a radical new localism policy this year. We ran out of intellectual puff.

The fourth reason may be very naive. But it seems to me that community politics has became infected with the corrosive language of the political classes. Some of our leaflets – like our opponents’ leaflets – are so disconnected from real life, so unpleasant in their accusations as they drop through the letter box, that many people find them repulsive. That is hard but true.

So this is what I believe. When our tone of voice alienates people – not just from one political party but from them all – then we’re not practising community politics.

Unless community politics is capable of rescuing politics itself, unless it is generous enough to embrace everyone in the community, unless it is based firmly on an ideology which includes working in public services, and economic action too – unless it does all that, then it won’t revitalise our party and it won’t work.

There needs to be the same generosity of spirit that was there in the original community politics, so that the prime purpose is to spread power – no matter which political party benefits to start with.

Don’t forget that the political crisis isn’t just ours. The total membership of all political parties is less than the circulation of a small magazine in Smiths. So the new community politics has to be different. It has to be about training everyone in political, economic and social change, locally and face to face.

Did the motion say that? No it didn’t.

David Boyle is a member of the Federal Policy Committee, a fellow of the New Economics Foundation and his new book The Human Element is published next month.  This article appeared in Liberal Democrat Voice.

Party Activists Should Escape the Herd

By Will Self

Hee-haw! Massed infantry being ordered to storm impregnable defences, their successive waves scythed down by the inexorable enfilade of machine gun fire. This surely is what we associate with the phrase "lions led by donkeys".

And yet there is a still more pathetic phenomenon in the field of human endeavour, and that is donkeys being led by donkeys. It occurs in warfare certainly, and it also happens in that introversion of the aggressive impulse we call democratic politics.

In the past few years we here in Britain have almost taken a perverse pride in the self-immolation of our political class. Fiddling their expenses, kowtowing to media moguls, bowing down before psychopathic dictators, grovelling to security-averse bankers - is there, we wonder, any further baseness to which our erstwhile governors will not descend? And so we urge them on in their corrupt limbo-dance, while gaily chanting "how low can you go?"

Of course, as with any binary moral judgement, implicit in our condemnation of "them" is our exaltation of "us". We aren't like them - vain, duplicitous and meretricious. We are sanctified by the fact of our apathy alone. After all, if we do nothing we cannot reasonably be blamed for anything.

Nevertheless, we are blamed. Blamed for our very refusal to play a bigger role in the civic realm apart from once every lustrum or so milling around the polling booth with the rest of the extras. Commitment, responsibility, engagement - these are just some of the buzzwords that have resounded around the conference centres of provincial cities in the past fortnight. Doubtless when the Tories assemble in Manchester next week that much-vaunted Big Society will loom large.

Yet looking at the neatly-bridled donkeys on the platforms, and listening to them bray, it struck me that really it was too easy to lay all the blame for the straw-like insubstantiality of contemporary British politics at their stable door. For when the television cameras tracked sideways, revealed were all the other donkeys that helped haul them up there. Yes, I am referring to the membership.

If those of us who do not belong to any of the main political parties ever have cause to doubt ourselves, we need only take the most cursory of looks at these endlessly biddable Dobbins in order to confirm us in our righteousness.

Tell me is there anything more supine on this fair earth than a party conference audience rising to deliver a standing ovation? Carefully orchestrated by party stewards, these so-called activists display a mental passivity that makes the average X Factor audience look like the participants in one of Plato's symposia.

And can we think of any benighted populace, ground beneath the jackboot of state tyranny, who would so speedily and rhapsodically declare that this hackneyed phraseology represented the very flower of rhetoric? I think not. But lest we imagine that party members only succumb to a herd mentality when they're corralled together and issued with regulation coloured saddle cloths, it's worth examining the breed in isolation.

I have - gulp - friends who belong to political parties, and the other evening over dinner I asked one of them, who was preparing to go a-conferencing, why it was that he persisted with the whole futile go-round of the dressage arena. "Well," he told me. "You have to understand that unless you participate you can have no influence whatsoever, and therefore no opportunity to see your ideas and your principals become enacted in the form of government policy."

"But," I cavilled, "you can't tell me that you supported the invasion of X?" "No," he conceded, "I most certainly didn't." "Nor," I continued, "did you approve of the light-touch regulation of Y." That's true, he admitted, it made me profoundly uncomfortable.

"And what," I persisted, "about the Z partnerships that have ended up wasting such a prodigious amount of taxpayers' money, and which your own leadership now concede were ill-conceived? You didn't think they were an effective way of renewing old schools and hospitals, did you?" "Well," for a donkey he looked decidedly sheepish, "no, no I didn't think Z partnerships were going to do much good."

I could've gone on but I like to give a donkey sanctuary quite as much as the next man, so I contented myself by observing: "Which then, precisely, of your ideas and principles did the government formed by the party to which you lend your unswerving allegiance actually transform into effective legislation?"

However, while my friend's ears may have been long, this was something he wasn't able to hear. Instead of answering me he began to talk about consensus and unity and collective responsibility and how that as it was to the cabinet, so it was to the party as a whole.

How like a politician, I thought, as he evaded answering the question. And indeed, that surely is the problem with the main political parties' grassroots-eating membership, almost to a jack and a jenny they are made in the image of their donkey leaders.

This kind of politicking is something we have come to take for granted. Indeed, to be a "consummate politician" is in our lexicon synonymous with being blandly evasive.

We have come, sadly, to take it for granted that our political leaders and their followers will also spend a disproportionate amount of time butting and biting members of their own herd. The only point at which a halt is called to this internecine idiocy is when an election is called - and then a disproportionate amount of time gets spent butting and biting the other herds.

So it goes on, the adversarial character of our politics paradoxically inducing a deadening conformism. Indeed, it is the inverse correlation between the fissiparous character of the major parties and the winnowing away of their convictions that, over and above everything else, has characterised British politics during the past quarter-century.

The last time one of the "Big Three" split over a matter of principle rather than personality, the Social Democrats whirled away from Labour into inner space, only in seven short years to be snagged in by the dark-yellow star of the Liberals. Twenty-three years on, some of those SDP members will have had the joyous experience of rising to their hooves to applaud the actions of a government they have helped to put in power, a government with the policies of which they probably disagree point-for-point.

It is the same for Labour, it is the same for the Conservatives - both parties contain substantial minorities that, in as much as they have any passion left at all, passionately dissent from the centre ground their leaders are determined to hold - and if at all possible extend - at any cost.

Is it any wonder that such a charade is a massive turn-off to a public that see real issues, pressing concerns and genuine anxieties at every turn? The main parties continue to haemorrhage members, while those left behind are those who prefer to be clots.

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution William Butler Yeats penned The Second Coming, a reactionary dithyramb the words of which still resonate almost a century later. Yet how strange it is that our own comparatively lacklustre era can also be evoked by the same ringing declamation: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

Evoked, that is, with this caveat - that the passionate intensity of the Millibands, the Cleggs, the Camerons and all those who frenziedly applaud them masks a vanishingly small amount of real conviction.

For Yeats what troubled his sight was that mythical and frightening creature the manticore - "a shape with a lion body and the head of a man" that came slouching "towards Bethlehem to be born". But what should trouble our sight are the more homely silhouettes of the donkeys being led by donkeys trotting back to their paddocks from Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Hee-haw. 

Reproduced with acknowledgements to BBC News Magazine.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

I Know It Sounds Absurd, Please Tell Me Who I Am

I don't know whether it is just my age, creeping dementia or a profound insightfulness that has caused me to be uncertain about the domestic political situation, but for the first time in my life I really do feel unsure about where we are all going, locally and indeed nationally.

For many, many years right up until about a year or so before the local elections of 2010 it was all very clear. As a champion of my community's rights of association, as an advocate of civic power and of a real and meaningful participative democracy the enemy sported a rose and a red rosette. Whilst I had long been aware that the gang in the blue corner cared little about the things that most inspired me and espoused an "I'm All Right Jack" philosophy that was in many ways antithetical to the mutuality of the communitarian ideal that remains close to my heart, I had felt reassured by the impression received that, as long as it didn't cost any money, there was no real hostility from this particular source to the aspirations that I and those around me held dear.

Then came the vicious rearguard action by the senior management team at the London Borough of Hounslow, and the lack of support that I and my fellow community councillors received from our coalition partners when it did come, and suddenly we were on the back foot. The jury remains out as to whether the officers were following a political agenda laid down by our partners, or whether it was an officer initiative to which our partners willingly turned a blind eye, but in not very much time at all some real lessons were being learned that I for one had hitherto had no inclination we were in need of learning.

At the general election that was held on the same day as the locals I voted for the Liberal Democrat candidate Andrew Dakers. Really it was something of a no-brainer. I had met the Conservative candidate Mary Macleod, who was subsequently elected, on several occasions and had found her to be affable, friendly and charming. Presumably she still is. But she was in my view surgically attached to her party in a way that could not be said of Andrew and this, coupled with his excellent performance as a quality local councillor over a sustained period of four years and my own natural progressive instincts, made him the absolutely obvious choice.

Then came the ConDem coalition government. To begin with it struck me as a reasonably good idea. Whilst I am not much interested in national politics I took the view that the previous one had not had very much going for it and that the LibDems would at least be involved. Progressive politics without the control freakery.

It would also have been churlish of me not to have given the new government a chance before criticising. I had, after all, been part of a group on the council that had gone into coalition with the Conservatives for four years on a local level. Sometimes one has to just go for it.

Meanwhile in Isleworth the victorious but still wet-behind-the-ears Labour team embarked upon a thoroughly bizarre, though as it quite turned out short-lived, leafleting campaign, attacking their defeated ICG opponents hysterically as though another election was to be held the very next week.

I was told the leaflets were withdrawn from circulation before very many actually went out. It was a sensible move, the ICG had indicated that it would not be taking an automatically adversarial position to the new councillors and the leaflets frankly just gave off an impression of stark fear, not to mention bad sportsmanship, when what the new councillor team should really have been doing was getting down to business and carving a niche for themselves within their new constituency.

A year on the picture looks so very different, from where I am standing, on both fronts. The arrogance of the Conservatives in their attacks upon ordinary working people ("We're all this together") does not sit well with their kid glove handling of the banks, whose responsibility the current economic crisis is. The free market, "sink or swim" mantra does not seem to apply in this case. When the bankers are needing a bail-out we are all good socialists after all.

And today came the news that working people will once again have to be employed at the same place of work for two years, rather than one, before having the right to seek protection from unfair dismissal at a tribunal. This may not be the most widely publicised or controversial piece of legislation to emerge from this government, but it is as clear a statement of intent as any. Why else would such a piece of legislation be introduced other than to send the message to employers that their rights to exploit and abuse are going to be upheld with a vengeance by this government?

The Lib Dems, it seems to me, are between a rock and a hard place. Despised by their coalition partners, whose instinct I know from first-hand experience is to betray (because they think it is just "politics" to behave like this and will for some reason be forgotten very quickly), they will be undermined all the way by the pro-Conservative media as the ICG was by the chief officers at LBH. The stitch-up over AV was a portent, if ever there was one, of things to come.

I have to say that I would still vote for Andrew if the general election were to be re-run tomorrow. First and foremost it is important to have the best possible constituency MP.

But - and here's the crunch - were anyone to ask me which of three main parties I would consider myself a supporter of I would have to, in truth, align myself to the ranks of the "Don't Knows". Indeed that was the answer I gave YouGov, for the very first time, when I encountered the question in a survey a week or two ago.

I actually find that I quite like Ed Miliband, and it doesn't surprise me too much that a significant section of his own party doesn't. Little things, like admitting that his party could "learn from" the wider public and speaking up for communities, not as a perceived adjunct of the Labour Party but in their very own right, is not language that I would ordinarily associate with Labour and must have some of his own supporters quietly seething. But either he understands or at least his advisers do, and if the latter one must be confident they will explain it to him.

He doesn't act, as some others do, as though he and his close colleagues were the custodians of some revealed truth that the wider populace lack the sophistication and wit to grasp for themselves. He seems to acknowledge that there is a world outside of the Labour Party which he and his cohorts might actually benefit from tapping into, hence his rather intelligent efforts to create a kind of "halfway house" between support and party membership.

Locally, too, I am not discouraged. Library cutbacks presented in council propaganda magazines as good news stories and whispers of community halls being closed down on the quiet do leave a bad taste, but councillors do at least seem to be engaging insofar as the rigid party structures will allow. They are never going to wield an effective power of veto, as we community councillors did, but they are at least interacting with local people.

What I guess I'm saying then is that it has taken me two decades of mature, rational analysis, and sustained personal involvement, to reach the point where, for the first time in my adult life, I really don't have any long-term vision or idea of where it is all taking us. I'll continue to fight for libraries and community halls, you can be assured, but for the time being at least I feel I am very much a spectator of the political game.

Monday, 19 September 2011

A Walk Too Far (Or a Tale of a Middle-Aged Man's Arrogance)

I have now more or less recovered from my second consecutive and final unsuccessful attempt to walk the Thames Path between Isleworth and Abingdon in Oxfordshire.

Some people may remember that I tried five years ago to walk the same route with only one stopover, only to have to throw in the towel after some 55 miles. On that occasion I was able to blame my preparation and my equipment, having in an extraordinary display of amateurism miscalculated the distance between here and Windsor by some ten miles. This time I once again omitted to take into account a massive detour that seems to have been incorporated into the route around the same area, but cannot blame this for my inability to complete the walk.

Instead it was simply a case of too much - having completed 75 miles over the first two days I set off on the third with the underside of both heels inflamed like balloons and resplendent in a worrying shade of yellow, without any prospect at all of covering the remaining 20 miles within the required 10 hours.

Having gone through the motions of limping the four miles between Streatley and Moulsford on the third day (in at least as many hours), and mindful of the fact that I had just a couple of weeks beforehand been diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes (which requires one to take extra care of one's feet), I decided to call it a day upon arrival at the Beetle and Wedge and to spend the next hour or so immersed in a pint of Heineken Export and a large plate of mixed nuts and olives.

So near yet so far, as they say.

But the three-day event was for me something of a surreal experience. Whilst I am unlikely to attempt it again, now that the pain has abated there are some pleasant memories, as well as some not so pleasant ones.

Amongst the latter was the unfamiliar experience of having been almost all in after just fourteen miles, at Walton Lock. I frequently walk for 10 to 12 miles as a recreational activity and certainly wasn't prepared for the experience of early blisters, near-torrential rain and pushing into close to gale-force winds. So early into the walk the experience had ceased to be pleasant and I was faced with the reality that this was going to be an arduous ordeal and not the stroll in the park that it had looked to be on the website.

Nonetheless I persisted, and at 20 miles I was between Shepperton and Staines and encountered not one but two people of my regular acquaintance. The first was a guy who drinks in a local club with which I am familiar, the second was my cousin who was visiting her mother (my aunt) at her home in Chertsey.

At Staines I met up with Caroline and Joe (Rosie had gone back to school the day previously) for a coffee at the Thames Lodge Hotel. The coffee was pricey but the service was wonderful and we were really made to feel welcome despite my disheveled appearance which did not best suit the surroundings.

Then I moved on, first to Runnymede, then to Datchet and later to Windsor, where all the detours are and which seems to carry on forever. Windsor may be a proud and historic place but it is truly the graveyard of this particular walk, the point at which one begins to wonder whether it ever ends. As if the horrendous detour through a cow field and then around the streets, always it would seem in driving rain, was not enough the river walk between it and Maidenhead comprises the longest six miles known to man.

Having completed a dubious 44 miles (dubious in the sense that it was almost certainly more), I stopped off at a bed and breakfast in Marlow where I was able to enjoy a bath once I had finally managed to climb into it, and then the next morning it was off again along the 31-mile route to Goring.

After a largely pleasant walk past some picturesque riverside dwellings and public houses it was a relief to arrive at the particularly splendid town of Henley, where the quite stunning scenery continues into Shiplake and Sonning. At one point upon reaching the latter I wanted to leave the path and enjoy a pint in an old pub that had been recommended to me, but it was 100 yards off the route and I just couldn't motivate myself to add the extra distance to my schedule, which must sound quite of weird when one considers the overall distance involved with the walk but be assured that at the time it made perfect sense.

Past the enormous presence that is Reading one passes through Pangbourne and Whitchurch before encountering the beautiful town of Goring, from where one walks across the bridge to Streatley where my second bed and breakfast awaited.

After settling in at the house I ventured, very slowly, across the road to The Swan at Streatley where, unbeknown to me, the comedian David Walliams had stopped off along the route of his heroic charity swim for Sport Relief. He had not managed to actually reach Streatley by water at that point as he had originally planned due to illness, but he had proceeded to the hotel by taxi before returning to Wallingford the next day to continue where he had left off. By the time I had reached the hotel and had settled down with a glorious pint of Addlestone's cider he was, presumably, tucked up in bed, but I enjoyed a wonderful evening at the venue enjoying a couple of pints with his film crew, as well as having the benefit of a long friendly chat with the hotel manager Karl Bentley and some of his delightfully sociable, helpful and efficient staff.

Although I didn't actually stay there overnight I cannot recommend this wonderful hotel enough as a place to relax and enjoy a drink and some food. During a telephone conversation with my parents I discovered that The Swan had previously been a restaurant owned by the late drag artist Danny La Rue, of whom my mother had been a fan, and that I had visited the restaurant in the company of my parents as a child. Small world.

The following (Thursday) morning, having enjoyed a hearty breakfast, I hobbled uneasily onto the street and back onto the Thames Path with the assistance of a walking stick that my landlady had kindly lent me, but it became immediately apparent to me that I would not reach the speed required to make Abingdon by nightfall and I had begun to have serious concerns about my health. Nonetheless the four miles that I did manage to complete were not uneventful.

First of all somewhere around Cholsey a crowd appeared from nowhere to run headlong down the towpath towards me. After a moment of two I caught sight of Mr Walliams, whom they were following, maintaining an impressive speed between two red and yellow canoes in spite of the problems he had encountered the previous day. He was being followed by his press team on a boat, and when one of them spotted me and shouted out asking me how the walk was going I was touched and felt more than slightly honoured.

Then into a big open field that seemed to stretch for miles a female walker caught up with me and asked me what I was doing. When I explained about the walk she handed me a ten pound note to put towards the cause.

A few yards and about half an hour later I was suddenly overcome by the need to sit down. I was by this point in really bad pain and it took me several attempts and some 40 minutes simply to get back onto my feet. During my time on terra firma the most extraordinary, not to mention slightly eerie thing happened. When I looked up what appeared to be a huge red kite was hovering overhead, moving closer and closer down towards me. Kites are carrion feeders, and it was clear the creature had become alert to my distress and was pondering the prospect of a rather hefty meal. At first I laughed, but as it became closer I felt it prudent to wave my walking stick to reassure the bird that I was still very much alive, whereupon it flew swiftly off. How creepy is that?

Although what I had decided was to be the finishing point was by this time in sight it still took me some 30-40 minutes to reach it, and that as they say was that. After the aforementioned pint and luxury snacks I took a taxi to Cholsey, and then a train to Richmond to finish the day off with around six pints of Abbot Ale at the Cricketers pub on the Green before being collected in the car by Caroline.

Was it worth it? Probably - I have hopefully raised enough money to buy a boat for the sports department at my son's school, St. James Independent School for Senior Boys. The school has been extremely kind to my son and to us his parents and I feel pleased and privileged to have been able to give something back.

Should anybody who hasn't done so already feel my efforts to be worthy of a donation, no matter how small, sponsors can be given at uk.virginmoneygiving.com/PhilipAndrews.

Will I try it again? I doubt it. There could be no excuses for failure this time beyond advancing years and I need to start taking my diabetes seriously. The doctor counselled lots of exercise but I'm not sure this was what he had in mind.

In closing I would like to say a big thank you to those who have sponsored me already, and also to those who encouraged me along the way by following my progress on Twitter and on Facebook.

Here are a few (sadly not very good quality) photos that I took along the way, there are more at the sponsor site above:

Monday, 15 August 2011

Three Months Go West

Other than a post for the sake of a post towards the end of June it occurs to me that I've not updated this blog now for over three months.

One or two of those few who noticed have asked me why this is. The simple answer is that I have just been too busy - busy trying to earn a living, busy with the kids, busy being busy.

During this short period I have been away once again to my beloved Isle of Wight, staying at the Park Resorts site Thorness Bay with the family. It was the first time in a couple of years that we'd been based at Thorness Bay despite having visited the site once or twice since. More recent trips to the Island have involved stays at Landguard, Rookley Country Park and Gurnard Pines. Whilst I like all of these sites there was a certain "coming home" feeling about spending four nights at Thorness after such a long absence.

I have also undertaken to do a 95-mile sponsored walk between Isleworth and Abingdon along the Thames Path early next month to raise some funds for the sports department at Joe's school, St. James School for Senior Boys in Ashford. St. James has been really kind to Joe, and to us his parents, and I wanted to do something to repay that kindness. For more details of the proposed walk please see my new sponsor site at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/PhilipAndrews.

If you would like to sponsor me by making a donation, no matter how small, so much the better and many thanks. Please just follow the instructions on the site.

Oh, and on Friday the doctor confirmed to me that I have Type 2 Diabetes. Whether it was knocking 80% of the alcohol on the head, losing nearly two and a half stone, improving my exercise routine or adopting a low-fat vegetarian diet that brought it on I guess I will never know.

On the community front things are relatively quiet. The ICG has circulated a newsletter throughout Syon and Isleworth wards to leave our calling card but the libraries are still open and residents continue to organise over issues of concern such as a proposal to open a Sainsbury's store in South Street, which would be devastating for many local businesses.

More on this, and other things, anon.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

No Particular Reason For Posting But...

...it occurred to me today that I have not made a new post on this blog for the whole of June, and June will be leaving us in about half an hour from now.

Pressures of work, I am afraid, but normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

I am still around - some will be pleased to hear that, others less so.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Concert for the Japanese Earthquake Relief Fund

On Wednesday 11th May at 7.30pm, the Sisters of Nazareth are hosting a concert for the Earthquake Relief fund in the chapel at their Hammersmith Convent, 169 Hammersmith Road, W6 8DB.

Works by Tomas Luis de Victoria and J.S Bach are being performed in the chapel by Cantores Missae and Yu Yasuraoka, violin. The chapel is a wonderful performance space, decorated by a follower of William Morris, very seldom accesible except for Sunday Mass.

Tickets are £25 at the door or call 07886 176227

Reproduced with acknowledgements to Councillor Paul Lynch at ChiswickW4.com.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Ich Bin Ein Schotte

The late President John F. Kennedy once famously declared "Ich bin ein Berliner" as he addressed thousands of Germans by the Wall in West Berlin.

When he meant, of course, was that their struggle for freedom was his struggle too, that their aspirations were his aspirations. Is was an assertion of their common humanity and of the belief they shared in freedom and democracy.

Some of those in the crowd actually found his declaration slightly amusing. It was not that they didn't share his passion for freedom. More the fact that what he had actually said to the assembled throng, literally translated, had been "I am a jelly doughnut".

A "Berliner", you see, was and is actually a term given to a particular German pastry with a jelly filling. What he should have said, apparently, was "Ich bin Berliner", which is how a German-speaker who was actually from Berlin would have put it.

I hope that by proudly reminding the world of my distant Scottish ancestry, albeit only recently discovered, I have not inadvertently revealed myself to be some Caledonian delicacy. I mention it only because of the fierce sense of pride I have in the fact that, in contrast to the inane to-ing and fro-ing between equally discredited political options provided to the English people by the English establishment, the Scots would appear finally to have decided that enough is enough and have given the Scottish National Party (SNP) a clear overall majority in the Scottish Parliament and thereby a platform from which to launch a serious bid for Scottish independence.

Why should I, a resident of English Isleworth, be so enthusiastic about Scottish independence? I'm not, really, except for one thing. As with the AV debate (which it would appear has been lost, for the time being at least), an opportunity has been provided to wake people from their deep slumber, rooted in the belief that nothing will change because nothing can change and that, therefore, nothing should change. It is a deadly and debilitating mentality that allows the establishment to walk all over its subjects, and to lie to them and to deceive them with impunity without so much as a thank you for their tame and frankly embarrassing acquiescence.

The SNP now can, indeed will be expected to, press for the complete independence of Scotland from an English-dominated United Kingdom. English people have nothing to fear from this, and nothing to be defensive about. We should wish our Scottish cousins well, and help them to realise their aspirations in a spirit of goodwill and kind neighbourliness.

In the meantime, for the UK, nothing will quite be the same. Which is a good thing, because the "same" means the same lies, the same deceit, the same spin and the same coming together of squalid vested interests, even where those interests may on the surface of it appear to be antagonistic, just as we witnessed from the "No" campaign during the referendum.

So fundamentally corrupt and wicked is our present establishment that almost anything that shakes it up, knocks it down and generally gives it a good kicking has to be a good thing.

It had never occurred to me that English political life might have been done such a service by the Scottish National Party but politics can be a funny thing, and full of surprises.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Osama bin Laden is Dead

Of that I am in little doubt.

Inevitably the killing of the al-Qaeda leader by US Navy Seals and his almost instantaneous burial at sea has given rise to speculation that he is not really dead, that the media announcement of his demise was in fact a hoax and that he is really still alive and living in the Afghan mountains.

Personally I do not buy this.

According to Muslim burial requirements bin Laden's body needed to be laid to rest as quickly as possible. To have failed to have done this would not just have shown disrespect to bin Laden's memory but, far more importantly, to the entire Islamic faith.

A burial at sea is only permitted either when death has taken place at sea or when there would have been a significant danger that if buried under land the body would be exhumed or stolen. In bin Laden's case the latter obviously applies.

To announce his death when he was still alive would be an unacceptably high-risk strategy for Western leaders. He would only need to reappear at some later stage and their credibility, and that upon which the whole foundation of the New World Order is built, would be forever in tatters.

If any conspiracy theory has to be considered the only one with any legs is that that has it that bin Laden was already dead. Keeping him "alive" for several years in order to justify an relentlessly aggressive foreign policy does make some sense. As does "killing" him at a time when a war crime, already shielded from the world's news media to some extent by the Royal Wedding, has been committed in Libya by forces of the NWO bent on regime change for political, economic and strategic reasons.

The removal of bin Laden would in such an event serve the twin purpose of deflecting media attention from the Tripoli incident and of enabling the West, as soon as is practical and decent, to begin to close the book on the war with al-Qaeda at a time when Western foreign policy has shifted to the point where our "leaders" are to all intents and purposes making common cause with them in their war against Libya.

On balance I still tend to the view that bin Laden was killed last night, as per the official story. But what a shame it is that our leaders are so deceitful and untrustworthy then whenever something of this import occurs those of us who actually take the time and trouble to think for ourselves instinctively look for the "real" story before accepting the official one?

Monday, 25 April 2011

Conservatives "Sacrificed Ministerial Office for the Sake of Coalition" Says Tory MP

If there is one singular argument for a change in the voting system it is the arrogance of the politicians from the two major parties and the way in which they all seem to believe that the democratic process belongs exclusively to them.

Take this quote from Mark Pritchard MP, Secretary of the Conservative 1922 Committee:

"With each of them (Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne) presiding over major government departments they've never had it so good.

"Their personal and political sacrifices are infinitesimal compared to those made by hundreds of public sector workers losing their jobs each week and many of my Conservative colleagues who gave up ministerial office for the sake of the coalition".

Excuse me? Precisely which of Mr. Pritchard's Conservative colleagues "gave up ministerial office" to enter into coalition with the Liberal Democrats?

I was rather under the impression that we had a Labour government prior to the general election of 2010, and that the coalition was a necessary outcome of no party having achieved an overall majority at that contest.

This confused belief on the part of a Conservative politician that his party entered into coalition as some kind of favour rather than due to it not having won enough seats in its own right is not entirely unfamiliar to me. The same sense of shock and indignation was evident on the part of some Conservative councillors during the 2006-2010 administration at the London Borough of Hounslow who genuinely couldn't understand why the ICG had been "given" two seats on the Executive.

Reading the local community forums and witnessing the most virulent mouthpieces for the two major parties, usually engaged in exchanging equally useless soundbites and slogans idiot-style, making common cause against a democratisation of "their" political system is a joy to behold.

I could not have made a better case for a "Yes" vote on May 5th.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Blogger Bloggers Beware - Avoiding Random Deletion

I've just received a call from a friend who, like me, uses the Blogger application to share his thoughts and to keep in contact with the world around him.

At least he did use the Blogger application. Because a few days back, without any warning whatsoever, his blog was deleted by Google, whose product Blogger is, on the grounds that it was allegedly a "spam blog". Despite his appeal for a review (which Blogger claims is conducted by human beings but quite obviously isn't), his content remains deleted and he has been told by a sneering customer "services" oik he will not be getting it back.

I had visited the blog many times before it was removed and can confirm that it was quite manifestly not a spam blog, no more so than this one. Google's robots, it would appear, identify blogs as "spam" quite arbitrarily, and the appeal process as far as as I can tell does not actually exist.

I like the feel of Blogger, its user-friendliness and its extensive range of applications that are easy to follow by a technological zombie like myself. I could probably transfer my work to a Wordpress site, but all the effort that I have put in to publicising this particular website address and building page rank will then have been in vain. For the time being at least I feel that sticking with Blogger is marginally the better of two problematic options.

But this new enthusiasm that Blogger seems to have developed for randomly decimating its own customer base does worry me somewhat. With well over 300 posts on this blog and counting the thought that it could just be switched off for no good reason alarms me.

So for the benefit of other Blogger users, I would like to offer two pieces of advice which they should heed urgently:

1. Always back up your blog. Go to Settings, click Export and save your blog to an .xml file on your hard drive. That way, if your blog is deleted you will have a copy of your material that you can either import to another Blogger blog or transfer to a Wordpress application.

2. Do not use Google AdSense. Including AdSense in your site would seem to trigger the interest of the Google robots and, frankly, for the absolute pittance that you will earn by incorporating AdSense into your blog it really isn't worth the risk.

Follow these two pieces of advice and there really isn't any reason to have any sleepless nights over this.

And enjoy your blogging!

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Sleazeballs of the World Unite

As I previously stated on this blog I haven't thus far allowed myself to get carried away in the debate over Alternative Voting. I cast a "Yes" vote by post and have made a couple of comments in support, but until this morning it was not something that had taken centre stage in my list of priorities.

This morning a document arrived through my letter box that changed that all.

The "No" campaign has brought together the Conservatives and the larger part of the Labour Party who, despite the differences that may appear to exist between them on the surface, have managed to gel seamlessly into a united front for the preservation of their own cosy little carve-up in which the input of the general public into the political process is retained at the scantest level possible whilst still being able to maintain the charade that we live in a democracy.

The no-expense-spared glossy issued by the "No" campaign contrasts markedly with the modest, two-colour A4 sheet issued by the "Yes" group. But the real contrast lies in the depths to which the "No" campaign has been prepared to plunge in order to con the public into voting for the maintenance of their privileged, lazy lifestyles. Thus the contempt that the establishment parties have for the wit and intelligence of the voters upon whose continued support they ostensibly depend in opened up for all to see.

Typically the hook upon which the "No" campaign hangs is money. Not only are establishment politicians themselves obsessed by money, but they assume the general public is also. Pursuing the lie that AV will cost the county £250m to implement, they point out that this amount could provide 2503 doctors, 6297 teachers, 8107 nurses, 35885 hip replacements or 69832 school places.

Putting to one side for the time being the fact that these are annual costs whereas the £250m that is alleged to be the cost of converting to AV - even if it were true, which it isn't - would be a one-off cost, what do really think the chances are that this government will take on all these doctors, nurses or teachers with the money it "saves" from a "No" vote?

Much more likely it will end up in the pockets of the bankers or the non-dom, tax-avoiding fat cats so beloved of the party in power as the rest of us continue to tighten our belts whilst being reassured that "we are all in this together".

One could just as easily ask, of course, just how many teachers and nurses we could be taking on with the money we are wasting prosecuting a dishonest war in Libya, occupying Afghanistan or maintaining a nuclear "deterrent".

Then we are asked to consider the unpopularity of AV and the fact that it is only used in a few countries worldwide, with the inference contained therein that the rest of the world operates First Past The Post.

It doesn't, of course. Much if not most of the world enjoys some form of real proportional representation. But we are debating AV, not PR, precisely because David Cameron was not prepared to have a referendum on anything other than AV and Nick Clegg was, frankly, too weak to call his bluff when the coalition deal was being agreed. Now Clegg is being ridiculed by David Cameron, amongst others, for seeking approval for a voting system that David Cameron foisted upon him! You just couldn't make it up, could you?

But without doubt the most pernicious argument of all appears on the back page of the glossy, under the heading "AV Leads to Broken Promises" alongside a photo of Nick Clegg holding up a placard containing the promises he broke over student fees when he entered into coalition with the Tories. Remember it the Tories, more than anybody else, who are supporting the campaign that has produced and is circulating this glossy leaflet. The Tories are publicly ridiculing Clegg, their own coalition partner, for sacrificing his own credibility in order that they might realise their political objectives.

I dearly hope the general public has the foresight and the intelligence to see beyond the gloss, the spin, and the combined unscrupulousness of the two big vested political interests who have carved up the political process between them in this country and whose self-serving spin machines have for the time being at least come together to try to pull off one gigantic confidence trick against the very people in whose name they purport to govern. But if the self-serving vested interests do succeed, I hope even more dearly that the Lib Dems will take stock of the situation, understand that they have been had, and do something about it very quickly.

There would, after all, be nothing left for them in continuing to support a coalition partner that sets them up and stabs their backs so shamelessly and so publicly whilst pursuing a neo-Thatcherite political programme in government that depends entirely upon Lib Dem support.

This has to be make or break time for Nick Clegg, and I wish him well.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Some Dates For Your Diary

Two important events will be taking place in Isleworth this summer:

Monday 18th July: 6.30 for 7 p.m

Talk by Christine Diwell - An A-Z of Isleworth at Isleworth Library

Start off with tea/coffee and a 10 minute presentation by Sanda Connolly (an outreach worker for library services), followed by an informative talk by the Secretary of The Isleworth Society.

Saturday 13th August: 11 a.m. from the Library

Guided Walk

Theme - "Following the TV series Filthy Cities, explore Isleworth's own grimy past from the smoke of steam trains to odours of pigsties, a soap factory and Mogden Sewage Works".

A 90 minute walk led by Christine Diwell, ending at the Library for coffee.

£1 entry will be charged.

At a time when Isleworth's community is under threat from all sides it is important that residents turn out to demonstrate their solidarity with local groups such as TIS and the ICG, who are fighting to preserve our local facilities. As both these activities are taking place at or around Isleworth Library it is particularly essential that they are well-supported, and that the right message is sent.

Please put these days in your diary and come along and give our tireless local campaigners the backing they deserve.

The Deed Is Done

Well, the ballot paper arrived this morning and it has been completed and is in the post. It is official, the "Yes to AV" campaign now has at least one vote.

Anything that shakes up the archaic and self-serving political system in this country has to be a good thing, if only because it will demonstrate to the public that things can be different. There is always another way.

Let's hope the referendum brings about a fairer system of voting but, far more importantly, that the switch will prove to be the harbinger of a real, meaningful shake-up of the seedy Old Boys' Network that is the two-party system in this country.

Councils Cut Back on Free Adult Social Care

The number of councils in England cutting back on free adult social care has increased by 13% this year, a survey has suggested.

The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services study found just 26 out of 148 councils would fund people in "moderate" or "low" need, down from 41.

The moves follow a sharp reduction in central funding for local authorities.

However, the government said it had recently allocated an extra £2bn a year by 2014-15 for social care services.


The survey revealed that 19 local authorities had raised the eligibility bar for free adult social care.

Only 22 councils in England out of the 148 which responded will now fund those assessed as having moderate needs, down from 36 last year.

This category includes people who are so ill or disabled that they have trouble preparing a meal for themselves or taking a bath.

Six councils have now opted to limit help to people in "critical' need, which includes those suffering from life threatening conditions.

Some authorities say the need to save money has left them with no option but to cut one of their biggest areas of spending.

Andrew Harrop, of the charity Age UK, said people could die as a result of the cuts and many more may land up in hospital unnecessarily.

The government has set up an independent commission on social care, which is due to report in July, and will put forward plans in a White Paper by the end of the year.


Andrew Dilnott, chairman of the commission, said there was no doubt that social care was being squeezed and there was "a growing amount of unmet need".

He said the current system seemed to "invite variability" and "there was merit in trying to find an assessment system... that seems to give people more of a sense that there was fairness and equality across the UK".

But he said regardless of the cuts, the system needed to be reformed.

"The balance between individual responsibility and state responsibility that we have at the moment doesn't seem to be the right one, it's widely seen to be unfair.

"What we found is that many people think it wouldn't be unreasonable for them to make some contribution.

"They just don't want the system that they face at the moment where if they turn out to be one of the least fortunate who ends up needing a very great deal of care, that they lose everything," he said.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "Protecting and improving local social care services is vital, especially for the most vulnerable.

"The coalition government recently allocated extra money - meaning an additional £2bn a year by 2014-15 - to encourage more joined-up working, support the delivery of social care and protect the most vulnerable in society.

"This funding, together with an ambitious programme of efficiency, should enable local authorities to protect people's access to services and deliver new approaches to improve their care."

Reproduced with acknowledgements to BBC News.

Friday, 15 April 2011

John Baron MP - A Lone Voice of Integrity Amid a Sewer of Deceit

Fair play to John Baron MP, astonishingly the only one out of 306 Conservative MPs in the House of Commons who understands the difference between imposing a No Fly Zone to protect civilians and bombing a sovereign nation into submission in order to steal its natural resources:


It seems clear to me that Cameron and Hague simply assumed that Parliament, and the United Nations, either wouldn't notice when the terms of the original UN resolution were being flagrantly violated, or would turn a blind eye. But unfortunately for these two utterly deceitful and contemptible excuses for human beings it would appear there are some who care for the rule of law, and for truth.

Anybody who has been involved in politics for any length of time will confirm that the very biggest mistake anyone can make is to believe one's own propaganda. Cameron, Hague and the national media have invested a lot of time and effort into selling the conflict in Libya as being one between an entire, unarmed population that spontaneously rose up against oppression in the selfless, lofty pursuit of some high principle and a universally despised dictatorship that suppresses them by force, shooting and killing them indiscriminately for fun.

The reality of course is that whilst Gaddafi's regime certainly is a ruthless dictatorship in a great many respects it also enjoys the support of a signicant proportion, quite possibly a majority, of its population, particularly in the west of the country.

It looks increasingly likely too that the insurgents, far from being unarmed innocents (with a tank division and an air force), represent in fact an unholy alliance of militant Islamists and Western lackeys who were misled into believing that the nature of Gaddafi's regime and its lack of a conventional army of any consequence left it vulnerable to any sudden attack from within, especially when fortified by Western air power.

In their lust to bring about regime change by deception in a country that was threatening to become just a bit too possessive about its own natural resources Cameron, Hague and Sarkozy misjudged an awful lot of people. They overestimated the capablities of their "rebels", misunderstood the structure of Gaddafi's power base in the west of Libya, and probably assumed too that Barack Obama would be keener than he apparently is to out-macho his chimpoid predecessor.

They seem too to have reckoned without the courage and decency of a solitary backbench MP, whose potential to expose them and their agenda is almost limitless should that be his desire.

I want to see more democracy and improved human rights in Libya, but this can only come about by honest pressure and courageous political engagement. Not by deceit, military bombardment and pillage.

The amusing irony is that as everything that can go wrong does go wrong in their increasingly wobbly North African crusade there is one law that Cameron, Hague and Sarkozy are going to find themselves increasingly compelled to acknowledge, and that is the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Whatever humiliations and repercussions they suffer they will only have themselves to blame.

Direct Action to Save Chiswick Day Centre - Saturday, 16th April

Hounslow Council is threatening to close the Chiswick Day Centre due to funding cuts. The Centre is a vital local resource providing much needed support and respite care for vulnerable pensioners and the disabled in Chiswick, and the only place in Chiswick to do so.

Come join us for tea, cake and bingo at a peaceful protest pop-up Day Centre, dress code is plucky pensioner granny-chic; sparkly cardies, hair rollers, zimmer frames and bi-focals.

Meet at the War Memorial on the corner of Heathfield Terrace and Chiswick High Road at 10.45am, for a location that will be revealed on the day.


Reproduced with acknowledgements to Carrie Richards at the Chiswick W4.com forum.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Write to Your MP to Help Save Our NHS

Your name, address and email address


Dear MP

There has been a lot said about how the NHS reforms will affect doctors, NHS and PCT staff who no doubt have the best interests of patients at heart, but do have conflicts of interest – their jobs and their roles. I do not have any conflicts of interest. I have only one concern – the standard of healthcare I will receive. The complete dismantling of a system which has served us for over 60 years, leaves me fearful about my future care and with many unanswered questions.

Such fundamental changes require time for consideration with all views being taken into account, especially patients who will be the recipients of the reforms. With ‘consultation’ taking place whilst the Bill is being read and 52 consortia already in place, albeit a pilot, I don’t feel that patients have been involved in decisions about reform and wonder if lip service is being paid to the ‘consultation’.

I hope that you will be able to answer the above questions and the following unanswered questions:-

  • Where is the evidence base to demonstrate that these reforms will produce a better standard of care for patients? Are patients going to be part of just a huge experiment that may or may not work?
  • Many of us treated in both primary and secondary care, why are hospital consultants with their expertise not involved with GPs in designing services and how money will be spent?
  • How can I have the promised greater choice and more involvement in my care when consortia will have already decided from which of the “any willing providers” they will purchase services? Will I be given an informed choice of treatment which, by definition, could be the information that the consortium cannot afford my treatment this year? Will I trust my GP to give me a truly informed choice when they are in control of the financial and administrative running of the NHS?
  • The stated intention is to overturn the previous emphasis on targets and make quality of care and clinical outcomes the benchmark for setting service standards. Are “benchmarks” just a different term for targets? Who defines the benchmarks and are they set nationally or locally?
  • Where is the logic in scrapping PCTs when the same work will have to be done by GP consortia while at the same time running their surgeries? Do GPs have these skills or will this management be farmed out to private companies?
  • Apparently all hospitals have to become Foundation Hospitals, is this irrespective of the standards of care they offer?
  • Given that the element of price competition between any will providers appears to have been removed, what role does Monitor have?
  • Where is the accountability? What is the complaints procedure for patients if the level of care is not satisfactory or does not meet standards?

I would like to stop the Bill in its present form and slow down the process so that I can be provided with the evidence and the answers I need. I need “no decision about me without me” to become a reality.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely

Your name