Sunday, 19 August 2012

Will the Real Hounslow Labour Party Please Stand Up (and other associated questions)?

“To get the message across that Hounslow falls too far short of what we all expect as councillors and residents the whole organisation is being reshaped from the top downwards - slimming down the lardy top tiers and testing Directors and Assistant Directors against their peers through competitive interviews with external as well as internal candidates. There's a new Chief Executive, one Department and three chief officers have already gone and the rest including the much mentioned Director of Environment will be leaving within a couple of months. Understanding that Hounslow has to listen to local residents, respond to the needs of the community and pull its proverbial socks up is a key requirement in every one of those interviews - hence the changing personnel…

“None of the above should dissuade residents from continuing to press for change and faster improvement - external pressure is essential. Just don't assume Hounslow is inert and unredeemable. I don't think anyone has a lower opinion of what Hounslow became, but that doesn't mean it can't be fixed…

“I think the overwhelming majority of councillors and residents are now agreed that Hounslow needed fixing and are keen to support meaningful steps to open up the council - the days for one party states and arrogant bureaucracies are gone.

“Being beaten in 2006 helped remind Labour members that most of them came into politics to make their communities stronger and better - hence a little more modesty, the willingness to work a little harder, focus on a limited number of practical priorities and to slim down, open up and transform the council. Self interest will continue to help – because doing nothing promises to see 2006 repeated.

“I recognise that Labour were appalling (it kept me out of local politics for two decades) and we are yet to be coherent on community engagement, but I don't think a bold new statement would be worth anything at the moment because there’s nothing for anyone to trust yet until we see something tangible delivered – I think Labour and the Council need to pay a lot more forward not make promises. And at the moment let's be frank, it is a struggle every day to get good stuff delivered by the Council – but perhaps surprisingly it is a challenge Labour members are now very much up for.”

These words from Theo Dennison, Labour ward councillor for Syon and former London Borough of Hounslow Cabinet member, certainly leave no room for charges of ambiguity. Even if, taking the unkindest and most cynical view, one was to dismiss his words as lacking sincerity, they still tell us that at least one person within the local Labour camp recognises the concerns felt by large sections of the community and understands that ignoring them is the surest and fastest route back to political Boot Hill.

This in itself, small and inconsequential though it may appear in isolation, is the local community equivalent of One Giant Step for Mankind. Councillor Dennison has already gone where no Labour councillor, in these parts at least, has gone before.

Difficult decision

I keep being asked whether or not the Independent Community Group (ICG) will be fielding candidates again at the local elections in 2014. The honest truth is that this will not be my decision to make, and to be equally honest I am really pleased that that is the case. It truly is an extremely difficult decision to make, and there are so many imponderables involved that those who will be entrusted with making it will not be able to do right for doing wrong.

Of course, as the party in power, the attitude of the local Labour Party is always a massive consideration. Councillor Dennison’s comments are very much noted. So too is the fact that none of his colleagues seem in any rush to endorse them, as indeed is that, coincidentally or otherwise, they would appear to have coincided with his demotion from the Council’s Cabinet.

It is difficult to see certain long-standing councillors not a million miles from Syon embracing the idea of the primacy of community, primacy that is over the diktats of a political party to which blind and unquestioning allegiance is for some almost a religious matter.

There are also pernicious outside influences that need to be factored into the equation. Perusing his Facebook page, far too much influence would still appear to be wielded over the politics of the Hounslow party by the peculiar and obsessive man-child of Southall. I’ll not massage his ego by mentioning his name – it is not him that is important, but the way in which others relate to him and, more significantly still, to his method. His ethics are the antithesis of everything Councillor Dennison would appear to stand for, and a cursory stroll around the Web would seem to indicate that his gutter politics approach is still very much more widely favoured by Labour decision-makers in Hounslow than that of the Syon councillor.

The old ways have in any event continued to manifest themselves on occasions. Just recently the Lead Member for Environment declined to meet the Mogden Residents’ Action Group (MRAG), a community group representing many thousands of victims of Thames Water’s neglect of its legal and moral obligations over the odour emanating from its Mogden plant, unless the residents agree to meet on his terms (that is in the presence of officers who have long demonstrated their lack of support for the community’s aspirations). This “we are in charge, not you” message is wholly inconsistent and incompatible with the resident-driven model that we desire to see.


One thing the ICG needs to accept is that if it abstains from the fray in 2014, it will find it much harder to come back in 2018 if that is what needs to be done. The effective Lab/ICG dichotomy which exists at present in both Isleworth and Syon wards will have been replaced once again by a Lab/Con dichotomy, and the organised community will have an uphill struggle trying to re-establish itself as the natural opposition to Labour. New residents will have moved in, old supporters will have moved out or passed away, and we will be back to where we were prior to 1998.

Thus if we are to place our trust in Labour we would need very good reason – with all due respect, far more than just Councillor Dennison’s rather optimistic word – to believe that the local party had taken real community empowerment to the heart of its politics rather than appending it to its schedule as some reluctant afterthought which itself would appear to be hotly disputed. To put it quite simply, if they are not going for it with enthusiasm now when the spectre of the ICG returning to the electoral fold is looming, why should they do so four years hence when that “threat” is less pressing?

I find myself wondering just to what extent Councillor Dennison actually believes that his local party is embracing the spirit of community empowerment. He must, after all, know his colleagues better than I do, and I know them well enough to know just how affronted some of them will be by the very thought of being led, as opposed to followed, by the massed ranks of the unenlightened.

His protestations could be indicative of his fierce loyalty to his colleagues. My feeling is that he is in fact, rather cleverly, leading them to a place where they will be left with no option other than to declare either for or against this new and, perhaps unsurprisingly in my view, better approach to engagement. Quite where he proposes to go should they cling obstinately to type remains anyone’s guess.

Of course it is not just Labour’s position that will inform the ICG’s decision. The Community Group needs to understand just what it is that it would be returning to. For councillors who have only experienced power and not opposition a rude awakening could be in store.

The fact is that even with six ICG councillors returned in Syon and Isleworth it is highly likely that Labour will hold an overall majority at the London Borough of Hounslow post-2014. With the coalition government out of favour and the local Conservative Party showing no obvious signs of ever being capable of differentiating between wishful thinking and cold reality it is easy to see several Tory seats in the west of the borough falling to Labour. Even traditional “strongholds” such as Hounslow South and Osterley & Spring Grove do not look particularly safe. A couple of bad weeks in the opinion polls and an unspectacular local election campaign could conceivably see them eliminated outside of their W4 comfort zone. Perhaps only then will the consequences of their idiotic behaviour during the later months of the Conservative/ICG coalition become fully apparent to all their own members and supporters.


Opposition is a place that bears no comparison with office, especially when you are a community councillor. It means going through the motions at Council meetings before inevitably being voted down. It means chief executives cutting you off after three minutes of your allotted five minute speech in the Chamber. It means officers passing you in the corridors of the Civic Centre and not daring to venture a smile or often even so much as an acknowledgement lest it be spotted by an eagle-eyed politico and held against them when the next round of redundancies comes around. It means any committees or panels that by accident of circumstance your group may dominate being closed down or “reorganised” in such a way that your influence is removed. I had eight years of it before 2006, I’m not persuaded that I would want to put myself through it again.

And then of course there is the question of our relationship with other opposition parties and groups. When I was first elected as an independent in 1998 I rather enjoyed my status as a lone wolf, loathed equally by both the major parties which competed with one another to be seen as the ones who could shun me the most publicly. Politically it couldn’t have worked better if I had written the script myself – voters everywhere were able to contrast the essential sameness of both sides of the political establishment with the new, fresh and vibrant approach to local politics that the ICG represented.

Then of course came 2006, and the discovery when totting up the scores on the doors following the local election of that year that we were really not so bad after all. We entered into coalition eager to run our programme for community empowerment alongside the political programme of our Conservative partners, believing them to be at least neutral if not particularly sympathetic towards the things we wished to achieve.

Later of course we were to be disappointed, finding ourselves frustrated by chief officers while our partners either stood back and watched or actively collaborated with them behind the scenes (perm one from two), with both establishment parties meanwhile openly making common cause against us at Area Committee meetings. Then followed the debilitating news that our partners were hoping to divide the Community Group following the local elections of 2010 in the event of the numbers making it feasible to offer coalition terms only to certain of our councillors (variously considered – wrongly in my view - to be either mercenary, or easy to flatter or manipulate), and all remaining trust was lost.

Pincer movement

Ultimately we were to be fatally caught in a pincer movement between the two major parties at those elections and none of us were returned to office in any case.

In the unlikely event of any community councillors from Isleworth and Syon holding the balance of power again following the 2014 elections we would of course find ourselves in a wholly different position to that of 2006. In such circumstances we may be reduced to playing the role of an outspoken but very small opposition to an effective two party dictatorship, just as was the case in fact on the Isleworth & Brentford Area Committee between 2002 and 2005.

When one considers the complexity of the decisions that we will be faced with in the very near future it is hopefully easy to understand why I am relieved that these decisions will be for others to take. What the ICG should be doing right now is canvassing the views of the active community and finding out precisely what it is that they want us to do.

Lee Lynch

It was with sadness that I received news of the death of the singer Lee Lynch, who passed away on July 22nd.

There was a connection. My sister Ruth was formerly married to Lee’s son Phil, and it was through this link that I came to meet Lee and became familiar with his music. As well as being my brother-in-law, I always considered Phil a good friend and hopefully that remains the case. Back in 1993, when Phil was experiencing some personal difficulties, I spent a short time living with him at his flat in Feltham (and thereby probably made his difficulties worse, but I digress).

Lee Lynch was born in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, in 1937. Wikipedia describes him as “an Irish singer”. When I once described him thus Phil corrected me, insisting Lee was “a singer who is Irish”.

Phil was right. Despite having written and recorded several memorable Irish songs most of his work was actually mainstream, and he wrote many of his own numbers as well as performing several popular cover versions.

Lee’s first big performance was in 1960 at the Morecambe Winter Gardens, where he supported Emile Ford and The Checkmates, having been discovered shortly beforehand by Vince Hill. In 1963 he joined The Tropical Showband and two years later formed his own group, The Blue Angels, who released a cover of the Beatles song You Won’t See Me on Decca. In 1971 he joined The Royal Showband as lead singer.

Although on the few occasions when I saw him perform his gigs were very well-supported, I was nonetheless surprised when on a trip to Belgium in the early 1980s I spotted one of his records on the juke box at a bar that I happened to be visiting. I shouldn’t have been, he had actually represented Great Britain in a song contest in Belgium in 1969 with a song called Stay Awhile, which had topped the Belgian charts, and his popularity in that country as well as in many other parts of Europe had well survived the passing of time.

He represented Ireland in another contest, in Bulgaria, in 1973, with his own song The Love in My Woman’s Eyes.

In September 1974 he made the first of two appearances at the Royal Albert Hall. Following a period of serious illness he returned to the venue again in 1980. In the same year he was voted London’s favourite Irish vocalist. Between that time and 1982 he released what are probably his two best known Irish songs, Paddy’s on the Move Again and Famous Shamus. I remain astounded by the number of Irish people I meet all these years later who knew and still recall these songs – some can remember them verbatim.

Lee continued to write and record, and perform live, until open heart surgery compelled him to retire to the English countryside in 1994. His quality as a performer can be gauged by the calibre of the artists with whom he appeared – Tom Jones, Van Morrison and Jim Reeves, to name a few.

As well as Phil, Lee leaves a wife, Ruby, and daughter Debbie. He survived another daughter, Susan, who sadly passed away aged 17 in 1979.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Mo's Victory is a Victory for Us All

They painted this post box gold in Isleworthian Mo Farah's honour today.  See Walk Away for more thoughts on what this means for us as a community.

Lib Dems MUST Punish this Betrayal, for the Sake of Decency in Politics

If all the rumours are true, as all those we assume to be in the know would appear to accept they are, the Conservatives are about to stab their Liberal Democrat partners in the back and betray their promise, enshrined within the terms of the Coalition Agreement, to support reform of the House of Lords.

Forget all the dishonest spin and weasel words about the Agreement making no reference to specific detail that is contained in the proposals that are now being made. If Conservative backbench unease was about detail it would have been possible for the two parties of government to have amended the proposals between them in such a way as to address any legitimate concerns. The bottom line is that a substantial body of opinion within the parliamentary Conservative Party is wedded to the whole notion of inequality and privilege in politics as are, to their eternal disgrace, most of the so-called "progressives" of the Labour Party. Not for nothing did Labour's Peter Hain describe the current Lib Dem-inspired attempt to reform the second chamber as a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The argument that now is the "wrong time" due to there being "other priorities" is also a cop out. There will always be economic issues to address. There will never be a time when there will not be one national or international concern or another which can be given priority over constitutional reform if we look hard enough for an excuse to place the issue onto the back burner for another hundred years. The bottom line is that we cannot claim as a society to be committed to fairness and equality of opportunity for as long as our institutions themselves are based upon patronage and favour.

The stark fact of the matter is that the Conservatives, having wrested Lib Dem support for their unpopular and ideologically driven austerity programme, given in good faith, are now preparing to renege on their promise to their partners to honour their side of the bargain. It is a thing that the big parties do. As somebody who was Leader of a minority group at the London Borough of Hounslow in coalition with the Conservatives from 2006 to 2010 the pattern of behaviour is instantly familiar to me.

I have only bad news for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. The situation will get worse. As the next general election begins to approach their partners will figure that it will become increasingly difficult for them to cut and run. Throw a few spanners into the works, employ a few delaying tactics to stretch things out for a year or two, and suddenly it will have become nigh on impossible for the Lib Dems to abandon the coalition without being accused of extreme cynicism in the run-up to an election.

The fear of heavy electoral losses, itself a consequence of Lib Dem participation in the coalition, will also play heavily on the minds of the party's elected members when it comes to contemplating taking the very drastic step of forcing an early election by walking away from a one-sided coalition. Self-interest will almost inevitably win the day and so the coalition will limp on grumpily until 2015 at which time the Lib Dems will lose most of their seats, dispense with their leader and set about the long, painstaking but at some point probably successful task of placing some distance between themselves and this whole regrettable episode and eventually regaining lost ground.

What seems clear to me is that the big parties attract and encourage a mentality in which intrigue, behind-the-scenes plotting and betrayal are considered a necessary and inevitable feature of political discourse and one which some of those involved actually find quite exciting. Just behold for a moment the smug, fatuous grin on the face of the career politician on Question Time or Newsnight as he or she smarmily avoids answering a question and you will clearly see for yourself what I mean - these people actually believe that by the practice of spin and deceit they are in some way being clever rather than just deceitful.

In the course of its betrayal the senior partner will have powerful allies. In Hounslow it was senior officers of the Council, not necessarily supportive of the Conservatives but wedded to the old establishment practices to which they had become accustomed under Labour and fearful of the radical agenda promoted by the Community Group on the Council which I led. In the case of the government it will be the largely Conservative press, and we can be sure that between now and 2015 the Daily Mail and other such esteemed organs of the establishment will be drip-feeding us juicy titbits of information, and non-information, about the junior coalition partner for our edification.

Meanwhile another plank of the Coalition Agreement concerns proposed electoral boundary changes, due to be introduced before the next election, which will favour the Conservatives at the expense of the Lib Dems and the Labour Party. The rationale of the changes is that they will bring more integrity to the process of government by rectifying inequalities that have developed within the present alignment of constituency seats.

Through their betrayal over Lords reform the Conservatives will have demonstrated that they have no interest in bringing more integrity to government, nor in rectifying inequality. As such the Liberal Democrats will no longer have any moral obligation to support the proposed changes.

Furthermore, the Conservatives will already have set the precedent that coalition promises need not be honoured.

It is almost certainly too late for the Lib Dems to reverse the hemorrhaging of their own support that their participation in the coalition government has brought about. Nevertheless it is essential that that loss of support is not exacerbated by the complete loss of credibility that will ensue should they roll over and simply accept the bad faith shown to them by their untrustworthy partners.

In my view it is of critical importance that the Lib Dems punish the impending betrayal by withdrawing their support for boundary changes and making it crystal clear why they have done so. Their partners will whine like stuck pigs and no doubt some of them will genuinely be too stupid to understand why it has happened, in the same way as some of the Conservatives on Hounslow Council were shocked when we failed to support their 2010 budget following the Mogden debacle, when our partners refused to back us in our quarrel with chief officers over the nuisance caused to residents by a local sewage plant "managed" by Thames Water (which has donated money to the Conservative Party).

Not only will such a response be crucial if the Liberal Democrats are to maintain any dignity and self-respect at all, but I also truly believe that punishing underhandedness and betrayal will send precisely the right message to the spinners and backstabbers who seem to dominate modern party politics that their way doesn't actually pay.

In other words it will, in the long run, be beneficial not only to the Lib Dems but indeed to all those politicians, including those within the Conservative and Labour parties, of which I have no doubt there are many, who do actually appreciate the importance of good faith and integrity in our politics.