Tuesday, 17 December 2013

New Group Inspires Us to Fight On

Last week saw one of the most spectacular events ever to take place in Isleworth, certainly within my living memory. An idea which had taken shape amongst a group of local people – initially, it would seem, young mothers focused around a popular local street-corner café – bloomed into a massive public display of initiative and community spirit under the banner of Inspiring Isleworth of a kind which I and my colleagues in the Independent Community Group always knew lay latent within the soul of our village. A Christmas Market, stalls, an ice rink, children's rides, a land train and much more besides turned a cold December day into a wonderful celebration of unity and togetherness. By all accounts police estimates placed the total number of people in attendance at a staggering 2,500.

The ICG as an organisation played no part in this superbly successful day, although many of our members were involved, either in a personal capacity or, in some cases, as representatives of other organisations which were involved. Had we been asked we would, of course, have been happy to have played our part, although I doubt there would have been much we could have added that the organisers did not already have firmly in hand. It was enough for us to marvel at the achievements of others, who did Isleworth so proud.

In saying all this I am not oblivious to the fact that, for a very small number of people, the object of the whole exercise appeared to be to use the event to try to raise the profile of and to promote one of the Isleworth Labour ward councillors, whose name was surreptitiously added to the event’s promotional posters against the will of many of its participants and bandied around Facebook and in letters to local newspapers. I am aware also that this councillor, to her credit, certainly did contribute a great deal to the event, if not to the extent that her small but apparently well-disciplined group of supporters would like us to believe.

But notwithstanding these strictly limited attempts to politicise and otherwise distract the occasion from its primary function, nothing must be allowed to detract from the magnitude of last week’s success. In the struggles that lie ahead for us as a community, anything which brings people out into the streets in such a spirit of harmony and mutual endeavour is something to be nurtured, and I dearly hope that this celebration will be repeated in future years.

Of course, once the party is over and the inevitable debris is cleared away, the questions which taxed us as a community before the event remain to be answered. The ongoing farce of the London Borough of Hounslow’s increasingly desperate – and, it would appear, unsuccessful – attempts to give away our Public Hall is still in full flow. The fear of library closures and “disposal” of our community buildings still returns with the approach of every new budget meeting. Traffic engineers still wreak havoc on our highways and our residents’ and tenants’ groups remain under sustained attack. The threat of aesthetically poor and unsustainable development still looms large over Brentford like a great dark cloud. Mogden still smells.

The challenge for us as community activists is to ensure that projects such as Inspiring Isleworth not only continue to be successful, but also that they serve as a compliment to our less pretty but frankly more essential campaigning work rather than being allowed, as some of our political leaders would prefer, to become a distraction from the everyday problems that affect us as a community, and a panem et circenses replacement for the struggles in which we are engaged.

After all a celebration, even a superbly crafted one of the kind we saw last week, becomes singularly redundant when there is nothing left to celebrate.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Complete Control

The late Celtic football manager Jock Stein was reportedly once asked whether, faced with the opportunity to sign either a Catholic player or a Protestant player who were of exactly equal talent and were both available for the same price, which would he sign?

He replied that he would sign the Protestant.

His reasoning was simple. If he signed the Catholic then the Protestant would probably sign for Rangers. But if he signed the Protestant then Rangers would not want the Catholic, so he could have him too.

I once heard an allegation, completely unproven but from a source that I consider honest and who would know, that in the dim and distant past a local developer offered a substantial pecuniary inducement to councillors on the London Borough of Hounslow in return for planning consent for a major project. What is interesting however is that the inducement was allegedly offered not only to members of the ruling Labour Group, but also to members of the opposition Conservative Group. He was unable to say whether or not the offer was taken up and I cannot vouch for the veracity or otherwise of the story, but if it were true it would make good sense. Grease the palms of the ruling group and the opposition will scream, no matter how small their number. Include them in the deal and there is nobody left to protest.

In business success is about more than just having a good product to sell. If somebody else is selling an equally good product then that guy will be taking a share of the market that could otherwise be yours. You can of course improve the quality of your product, but then so can your competitors. You can cut the price, but your competitors can cut their prices too. But what if you get the opportunity to buy your competitors’ businesses? You can carry on using their brand names, does it really matter if you now own the brand?

To prevent this kind of thing from happening the then government in 1949 set up the Monopolies Commission, now known as the Competition Commission. But of course there is only one of them!

In the world of politics the West is run in practice by a financial elite rather than by sovereign governments or heads of state. Its model is capitalism and its instinct is to grow. It knows no national boundaries, and precious few ethical ones either. Whether it is selling long-range bombers or air-raid shelters, fast food or drugs to combat obesity, the name of the game is to make a fast buck. If there was a financial benefit to be had for Coca Cola to set up a drinks stall at an anti-globalisation protest rally they would do it with neither a pang of conscience nor a hint of irony.

International capitalists control the news media which reports to us on the big political issues of the day. We have seen at election after election how the press can make or break a politician, or a political party, more or less at will. It is completely within their power to talk down good news, talk up bad news, destroy the reputation of one individual or promote another. We have seen time and again how all the major parties court the press, especially in the run-up to an election, because they understand its power. The “free press” is free only to those rich and powerful enough to own it.

So on what basis, and for what reason, will media barons woo politicians, and political parties? Why, for instance, did Rupert Murdoch court New Labour? Was there some deep-felt, fundamental change involved in his political conviction (which he later reversed)? Or did he just recognise a winner when he saw one?

The answer of course is that the relationship between the media barons and politicians is a symbiotic one. Just as political parties need the co-operation of the media to show them in a favourable light before the voters, so the press bosses seek the favour of whichever government is in office, or is about to assume office – for reasons too obvious to be worth stating here.

This doesn’t only apply to capitalists in the media, of course. The list of business luminaries who threw their lot in with Tony Blair and New Labour in preference to their traditional friends in the Tory Party is impressive and the reasons are simple and twofold – first they wanted the favour of the incoming government at a time when the Tories looked destined to be washed up for a generation, and second it was not good for their respective brands to be associated in the public mind with losers.

The powerful financial interests that control the West wield clout not because of their support for the parties of government but due to their willingness and ability to offer support, at whatever level is deemed to be appropriate at the time, to the parties of opposition. Nobody, surely, can seriously believe that when one government leaves office and another steps forward the giant corporations and press magnates and oil barons lose all their power over nations just because their party of preference has lost its majority?

Incredibly some do. I despair of otherwise intelligent people who, whilst recognising the power that big business interests clearly wield over the current government, pine for the election of Labour who, they honestly believe, will (this time) put the interests of the workers and the unemployed, the dispossessed and the underprivileged to the fore and fight the good fight in the cause of fairness of justice.

As for the Labour Party itself, it has played its part well. It denounces Tory attacks on benefit claimants whilst muttering quietly that it doesn’t actually intend to do anything to reverse them. Its members pass resolutions to renationalise the Royal Mail which it publicises loudly before its leaders quietly drop them. In fact beyond a pledge to increase the minimum wage by some negligible amount there is nothing at all of substance for the bosses who currently pull the strings of the Conservative Party to worry about.

What irritates and annoys me most of all is that those hundreds and thousands of basically good people throughout the world of social media who faithfully publicise and expose every Tory sleight of hand and every Labour condemnation thereof are destined, in the event of a Labour government after 2015, either to sit in embarrassed silence for five years or to switch hats and try to defend the kind of shocking abuses of which they are rightly so critical now.

It has long been my belief that the explosive growth of Internet technology and social media, and of the awareness that it generates, must inevitably do for the rotten two-party charade that is our party politics. But I fear we still have a while to wait before that finally happens.

Excellence is Not Always Popular

When one looks back at the 20th century there are two governments which, for me, stand out above all the others.

The first was the wartime National Government of Winston Churchill. When it comes to achievements, winning a war in the face of what at first had seemed to be insurmountable odds certainly ranks up there amongst the best of them. Whatever his shortcomings were, and they were many, they are rightly considered inconsequential and even remembered with some affection as a result of what he pulled off as a wartime leader.

When Britain went to the polls in 1945 then, after the war had been won, one could have been forgiven for thinking he would be a shoe-in. Not only was he not a shoe-in, but he was kicked out of office as Labour under Clement Attlee romped home with a large majority.

The Attlee government was the other great government. Just as Churchill had delivered in wartime, so Attlee led a revolution in peacetime the likes of which has not been seen by any living person before or since. The introduction of the National Health Service, the creation of the welfare state, the National Insurance Act, meaningful powers of requisition for local authorities - Attlee enshrined in law the notion that we as a society have a collective responsibility towards those who through no fault of their own may have fallen upon difficult times. True it may be that the mindset created by the crisis of war allowed for radical measures in peace which may otherwise have been unthinkable, but the fact remains that Attlee's government not only achieved more than any other peacetime government of the 20th century, but arguably more than the rest of them put together.

There is one other thing that the war leader Churchill and the post-hostilities Prime Minister Attlee had in common. Both of them were booted out in short order once their fine achievements had been delivered. Yes I know that Attlee won the general election of 1950 - just - but he was a dead man walking and Churchill was restored to office in 1951 to lead one of the most unnoted and unspectacular governments of anybody's time, into and some would say well beyond his dotage.

Although the significance and scale is immensely different, there may be a message here for us locally. If the opportunity ever arises again for us to deliver significant change to the way local affairs are managed we should do so with regard to the result of the previous election, much more than to that of the next one.

Deja Vu as Labour's Attempt to Bully Tenants Backfires

Former councillor Paul Fisher
 with Linford Christie on Ivybridge
Back in the mid-1980s the Labour Party in what was then Isleworth South ward launched a sustained offensive to take control of the New Ivybridge Tenants’ Association (NITA). In line with its general policy towards residents’ associations at the time it sought to achieve this by ensuring that whichever members it had in the catchment area were active on the association, and these would then be sustained and promoted at every opportunity by the ward councillors, who would use any influence at their disposal to have them elevated to the most senior Committee posts.

On Ivybridge the Labour offensive was helped along by the fact that one of the people who had been elected to serve on the fledgling Committee was a member of the fascist National Front. Alan Minehan was himself an inoffensive and mild-mannered man, a fact conceded even by his critics, but nevertheless he was a member of an avowedly racist party serving on a tenants’ association on a multi-cultural estate. There were quite valid concerns about the message that his presence on the Committee would send out to estate residents.

Not that I accepted them as valid at the time. For in 1987, when it all began, I was still the NF organiser in the area. Taking its cue from Labour the local NF had also developed a strategy of attempting to infiltrate residents’ groups, and it was not unreasonably assumed that his presence on the NITA Committee had been part and parcel of that strategy.

As it happens though the assumption was incorrect. The first I knew of Alan Minehan’s involvement with the association was after he had been elected to the post. I distinctly recall my sense of surprise when he strolled into the Victoria Tavern in Isleworth that very evening, after the meeting, and told me all about it. He said they had asked him to be Treasurer - I advised him against it, counselling that the man holding the purse strings would be the easiest person for an adversary to set up once his presence on the Committee had become known to the local political establishment. But I told him also that he should hold firm and resist any attempts by anyone to boot him off on the grounds of his politics.

Sure enough, a storm blew up and the appointment made the headlines of the local newspapers. The councillors objected to his appointment and a number of his fellow Committee officials, most but not all of them Labour members, called upon him to stand down. Acting on my advice, he stayed put.

Looking at those events in retrospect I see them now in a very different light. Were a similar thing to occur today I would oppose the presence of a member of a racist political party at the top table of a local residents’ group with every fibre of my being.

However none of this detracts from the fact that Labour’s motivation in opposing Minehan, as both he and I suspected at the time, was primarily a cynical and self-serving one. This was borne out by subsequent events. Just as I had predicted, once he had been removed from the Committee a similar purge was conducted against other non-Labour members, none of whom had anything to do with the NF or held racist views of any kind. And the defection of one of the "approved" group's number to the cause of the purged residents confirmed the accuracy of our suspicions for once and for all.

In those days, as now, there were divisions within the ranks of the Labour Party locally. When a Feltham councillor by the name of David Archer, now sadly deceased, wrote to a local newspaper urging Alan Minehan to leave and denounce the National Front as a resolution to the estate’s sorry predicament I wrote back to attack him for his comments. It is only now that I understand his motive for making the suggestion, far from being hostile, was to offer us a way out of the impasse that had been created which would have well and truly scotched his party colleagues’ plans for the association. Through my own limitless arrogance and stupidity, a golden opportunity fell to waste.

Now let us fast forward 26 and a bit years, and to an incident which has truly demonstrated not only the paucity of Labour’s claim to have been acting out of the loftiest principle back in 1987, but that they have learned absolutely nothing from the emergence of the ICG and its not inconsiderable success, notwithstanding our election defeat in 2010, during the long intervening period.

A couple of months ago former ICG councillor and leading local activist Paul Fisher was co-opted to the Committee of the United Residents’ Association of Ivybridge (URA), the successor organisation to NITA. Unlike Alan Minehan, no claim of racism or fascism could conceivably be laid at Paul’s door. Nevertheless, prior to the URA’s last meeting its officers had been contacted by the local Labour group demanding that it reverses its decision to co-opt Paul.

Apparently Labour in Isleworth still operates under the peculiar misapprehension that it can decide who may or may not serve on the management committee of a local residents’ association. However, unlike in 1987 the association today is truly independent. Even the one high-profile member that Labour has on the Committee, who had been pressured by his party to lead the charge against Paul, told them to do one, and Paul’s continued presence on the Committee was reconfirmed by a unanimous show of hands.

Anybody who doubts that, even if the wake of 2010, the goalposts have moved significantly in the community’s favour in its dealings with the dictators should consider the experience of Paul and the URA and reflect upon it.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Fundamentalism and the New Atheism - a Marriage Made in Heaven

Although I am a Christian I have no problem whatsoever with atheists. Why should I have? In any tolerant society people are free to believe, or not believe, whatever they choose.

One cannot impose religious belief down the barrel of a gun. Neither can one do so by mocking and denigrating the sincerely-held opinions of those who believe differently. At best, all one can do is to argue one’s case and hope to plant a seed from which something in time will grow.

Atheists are just as capable of thinking good thoughts, and of doing good deeds, as people of faith. Indeed some atheists would argue that they are more capable of so doing because they do not require the promise of posthumous reward in order to do the right thing by their fellow human beings. Such an argument misunderstands some of the basic tenets of Christian belief, but if I may I shall bank that one for another day.

What I do find depressing is what appears to me to have been the recent emergence of a New Atheism, defined not so much by the fact that the practitioner does not believe in God as by the insistence that I mustn’t either. Without any hint of irony the New Atheist lambasts Christianity, along with other faiths, with charges of intolerance and bigotry.

Despite the apparent lack of a belief in God, the New Atheist seems to spend the largest part of his or her waking time thinking, speaking and writing of nothing else. Indeed it is both to their shame and to mine that God seems to feature more in the thoughts of New Atheists than at times He does in mine.

Now although I call myself a Christian there is a type of Christian that I don’t care very much for. We’ve all met them – the pious belief that they know something you don’t, the unwavering confidence they have in the rightness of their own lifestyle and in the error, by implication, of everybody else’s. Their propensity to view their own take on the meaning of life as though it were The Undeniable Truth and the lack of provision that follows from such a mindset for opinions others may have which may digress, even in some minor fleeting detail, from their own.

Consider the approach to the debate adopted by the New Atheist and tell me how it differs, in any significant way, from that of the closed-mind Christian fundamentalist, or indeed the fundamentalist of any religion. The arrogant smugness and inanely-grinning, head-wobbling, self-satisfied superiority of Those Who Know What’s Best For Us mirrors so perfectly the tiresome, unrelenting persistence of the fundamentalist in pursuing the belief system that he or she knows is the one and only true belief system, which casts the lie upon all others.

To paraphrase a poster much seen on the buses and the London Underground – some people are Christians, get over it. And for those who profess to be guided by the Bible, don’t be so impertinent as to assume that your interpretation of its teachings is any more valid than mine, or your understanding of them any greater.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Isleworth Girl Jo Raises £430 for Macmillan Cancer Support

Activism is at its finest when it is performed for the benefit of others and not in the cause of self-promotion.  This morning a local girl and good friend, Joanna Manwaring (pictured right), organised a superbly successful local event at the Isleworth Working Men's Club in support of Macmillan Cancer Support's "World's Biggest Coffee Morning", a spectacular nationwide fundraising initiative in aid of the popular cancer support charity.

Macmillan Cancer Support provides practical, medical and financial support and pushes for better care for cancer sufferers.  Nurses help patients through their treatment whilst volunteers give a hand with some of the everyday tasks which so many of us take for granted but which for those suffering the ravages of cancer can be so stressful and difficult.

When I walked into the hall at the IWMC I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many people had turned up to offer their support to this project.  Every table was taken, and locals enjoyed a chat over a cup of coffee and a bite to eat whilst volunteers sold raffle tickets for prizes which had been donated by local individuals and small businesses.

A food stall was well laden with a great variety of offerings that members of the community had prepared and donated, from tasty jam scones (diabetes be damned, they were lovely) to onion bhajis and some truly succulent mini samosas which I was just too polite to eat in the quantities that I would truly have liked, donation notwithstanding.

When the raffle was called out I had a dread feeling that I was soon to become the proud owner of my very own eyebrow threading kit but luckily that was not to be, although neither did I win the Swedish massage (not sure how that would have gone down at home anyway), the meal voucher or the microwave oven - nor indeed anything at all.  It happens, to paraphrase Forrest Gump.

Aside from the charitable side of the event, it was great to reconnect with several people whom I used to see far more frequently when I was a more regular user of the IWMC.  I had a number of interesting conversations in which all the old issues and concerns, as well as a few new ones, were discussed and pondered upon.

Our community is a lot richer for people like Jo, her partner Kevin and her helpers who gave up their time to make today's coffee morning a great success.  A total of £430 was made for Macmillan Cancer Support, and a great community event was enjoyed by a whole lot of people, brought together in support of a worthwhile cause.  Let's hope this catches on.

Isleworth Public Hall - Hounslow Council Feels the Pressure

The London Borough of Hounslow has made its first concession, albeit superficial, in the face of unexpected levels of pressure from the community over its plans to farm out Isleworth Public Hall to a commercial bidder.

Its deadline for submissions of management proposals, originally set at October 4th, has been extended to October 14th, and various questions from residents have been responded to (I hesitate to say answered) following criticisms that the original invitation for bids from LBH was too obviously geared towards commercial organisations in preference to community groups.

In a hilarious e-mail response to a local community activist one Isleworth ward councillor wrote (or more precisely cut-and-pasted): "The exercise is open to, and invites proposals from, all interested parties, particularly those from the local community. The process of the offer and application form is not presented in the usual procurement style or with the same complexities, but has been tailored as far as possible to make it simpler and accessible to wider groups and interests"

This "particular" interest in "proposals from the local community" is clearly demonstrated in the procurement document, which lists the following criteria:

Schedule 1 COMMERCIAL QUESTIONNAIRE (criteria pass/fail)

INFORMATION ON YOUR ORGANISATION 
  1. Business Name 
  2. Registered or trading name. 
  3. Type of organisation (e.g. private limited organisation, partnership, sole trader) 
  4. Registered address
Nobody who is active in the Isleworth community is under any illusions at all about the direction of the Council's plans for Isleworth Public Hall, but we will continue to resist this assault on our community by every means possible.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Confused.com

I've not long returned from a meeting of the Isleworth Public Hall Users' Group and it appears the London Borough of Hounslow is determined to wash its hands of the property - a day after Labour councillors in Isleworth circulated a leaflet claiming to have "saved" it.

I know these politicians are supposed to be clever, but just how is it possible for the same people to sell off a facility and to save it from being sold off all at the same time?

Monday, 9 September 2013

On Turkeys and Tents

Just as I predicted, it would appear the Lead Member and his administration at LBH have instigated a coup against the leadership of the Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations (HFTRA). When the next meeting takes place they will be replaced with a compliant leadership comprised exclusively of turkeys eagerly looking forward to the coming of the Christmas season, and HFTRA will be safely back where it was when I was Lead Member - in the pockets of the local Labour Party. However with the current HFTRA leadership having vacated the tent, I do hope the Lead Member and his new "tenant leaders" have remembered to pack their umbrella.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Honest Politics and the Common Good

If we have lost trust in our politicians and political parties, how are we going to govern ourselves? What might reform and rejuvenate our politics?

Recently I went to a talk in London by veteran American campaigner Jim Wallis, and I think his proposal of a return to the old concept of ‘the Common Good’ could be the fifth thread of possibility for a faster revival of Independents in local and national politics.

Independents are able to speak out, but have often not been listened to because people do not know what they believe or what they stand for. Independents are not a political party, they do not have policies.

But over the last few years, as the Independent Network has discussed and experimented, four threads of possibility have emerged:

Honest Politics – we have set the Bell Principles as the standard by which we believe Independents should act in local and national politics.

It’s the Person not the Party – we encourage candidates to promote their campaign by getting prominent local people to endorse them, write about them, commend them: in this way, rather than the Independent Candidate asking to be believed and trusted on their own assessment of their own competence, the Candidate is calling on independent evidence from known trusted sources.

Improve the Election Process – Political Parties have the benefit of members who can deliver leaflets, so the election process is weighted against the small parties and Independents. Very often people will vote by post without seeing many of the candidate manifestos. Independents can set better standards by setting up a website and posting up all the candidates’ manifestos, by working with other candidates to share deliveries, by persuading more voters to vote by post only after looking at all the candidates, and to campaign for manifestos to be included with postal voting forms.

The Party Party – a Political Party is also a social network, where people enjoy working together on a shared interest. Many enjoy talking about politics, but do not like the idea of commitment to any one political party. ‘Politics for All’ meetings are a way of inviting anybody (including members of all the political parties) to a social event that will include wide ranging debates on local and national issues. Through such meetings, people with an interest but no commitment can find out how to get involved.

None of these four threads address the issue: but what do Independents stand for or believe?

Perhaps Wallis’ revisiting of the Common Good as a rallying point for political activism is a possible fifth thread that would make up a platform for Independents under the banner of Honest Politics and the Common Good. Wallis does not advocate utilitarianism, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, as Bentham put it. The Common Good has to take into account individual rights and the rights of minorities, so for an Independent Politician there will need to be constant listening and negotiation.

The Independent politician will need to be a leader and an advocate, a person willing and able to argue the case for a minority against vested interests and big business, a person able to persuade and inspire. Politics is not a clean game. It is messy and by its very nature requires compromise and fudge. Maintaining personal integrity is a major challenge for an Independent politician, and so having an over-arching vision of the Common Good will help set a framework and a compass when in situations with conflicting demands.

So how do these Five Threads of Possibility sound to you?

• Honest PoliticsPerson not Party • Improve the Election Process • Politics for all, we know how to Party • Our Policy is the Common Good of our nation and community

All of this works best at a local level – Parish, Town and District Council. When it gets to County, National and European levels, there is a need for political parties that are shorthand for a specific type of policies. However, as coalition becomes more likely, the Independent or group of Independents all focused on the over-arching Common Good can have great influence, out of all proportion to their numbers.


Reproduced with acknowledgements to Independent Network

Thursday, 5 September 2013

On Honour - With a Little Knowledge, Trust and Respect

I was fascinated to read the story about Captain Robert Campbell, a World War One British Army officer who was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Magdeburg.

Whilst he was in captivity he received the sad news that his mother back home was dying of cancer. Desperate to be at her side for her final hours, Captain Campbell wrote a personal appeal to the Kaiser asking that he be allowed to go home. His request was granted - on the condition that he returned once his business back in England was done.

Having spent a week with his mother in Gravesend before she sadly passed away, Captain Campbell dutifully returned to Germany to hand himself over once again to his captors. As soon as he was safely under lock and key he set about trying to escape once more, as indeed is the patriotic duty of any prisoner of war.

What strikes one immediately is the incredible sense of honour that led Captain Campbell to keep to his word. He could quite easily have reneged on his promise. This was war, after all. However he had given his word to the Kaiser and he felt bound to stick to it.

It wasn't only about honouring a promise, of course. What Captain Campbell knew was that if he had broken his word, the next British prisoner who had found himself in a similar position would not have been granted the same favour. Having experienced the sense of helplessness and despair that came with the news that his mother was ill when he was locked away as a captive in a foreign land, he could not bear the thought of putting somebody else through that same heartbreak. By sticking to his word, just possibly if the situation were to arise again somebody else might be granted the same favour.

I could not help when reading this story but to compare the supremely noble and selfless actions of Captain Campbell with the perennially unscrupulous and self-serving ways of the modern politician. When the then Deputy Leader of the Hounslow Labour Group, Councillor Ruth Cadbury, told a Borough Council meeting back in 2007 that lying to electors in the course of trying to win their votes was perfectly acceptable and simply "politics", it would not have occurred to her that anybody listening to her words would have felt unable to trust the word of any member of her Group again.

Ruth now, of course, has her eyes on a bigger prize - the Labour nomination for the Brentford & Isleworth constituency at the General Election which is likely to take place in 2015. Yesterday one of our members received through the post her "election address". Entitled "Ruth2Win", Ruth describes herself as the candidate who is "Well Known, Well Trusted, Well Respected", and appeals to fellow Labour members to support her on the basis of her not unimpressive track record in representing her party in the area since the early 1980s.

Although I have a lot of time for her as an individual and recognise and respect her commitment to the cause of her Party, if she was selected as a parliamentary candidate I would not feel able to vote for Ruth on account of her attitude towards political campaigning. I am one of those sad people who thinks there is still a need for honesty and integrity in our politics.

Nevertheless it is nice to see more openness and less secrecy in the candidate selection process, to the point where even spectators such as myself feel moved to take an interest. May the best man (or woman) win.

Friday, 9 August 2013

New HFTRA Website Explains Current Crisis

A new website launched by the Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations (HFTRA) gives an essential insight into the crisis in its current relationship with the London Borough of Hounslow, which has led to its funding being withdrawn and a refusal by the Council's Lead Member to meet to discuss the implications for the borough's 16,000 local authority tenancies and 8,000 leaseholds and for community involvement in Hounslow.

I will have more to say on this important issue very soon, but in the meantime please do visit the new site at www.hftra2013.org.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Time for Union Bosses to Get Real

I haven't had much that is positive to say about Labour recently. In Ed Miliband's quarrel with Len McCluskey over candidate selection in Falkirk my instinct is to side with the latter - up to a point. What really is such a big deal about a party with socialist roots fielding a working class candidate selected primarily by working class party members? And why is the presence of a significant working class element in any constituency party automatically considered to be cause for suspicion?

And yet when the Labour leader talks of changing the rules of the relationship with the unions by asking union members who support Labour to opt in rather than expecting those who don't to opt out he is speaking so much good sense.

Perhaps as somebody who is both a trade unionist and a community activist I am biased on this question. But why is it that I am expected to pay a levy towards a party that hates me for what I am and what I do when outside work, just because I happen to be a member of a union when in wage-slave mode? We work for so many hours a day, and do other things with the remainder of our time. Are we all to be classified merely by what we do whilst selling our labour?

The time when I had a duty to support the Labour Party solely by virtue of my being an unskilled worker is very long past. I respect the right of union leaders to support the Labour Party if they so wish, but they have no right to impose their views on me.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

HFTRA's Response to Hounslow Council's £12,000+ Propaganda Mailout

As I explained in my previous article Hounslow Labour's All-Out Assault on Community the London Borough of Hounslow has withheld funding from the Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations (HFTRA), effectively preventing it from operating.

In the meantime the Lead Member for Housing and Lots of Other Things spared no (public) expense in circulating his version of events to the borough's 24,000 tenants and leaseholders by means of an unnecessarily expensive postal mailout.

Obviously without the benefit of funding HFTRA does not have the means to respond in kind. However I have reproduced below its reply to the Lead Member's allegations, send to elected members and various news media:



Dear Councillor,

Subject: Hounslow Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Association Partnership with London Borough of Hounslow Council

We are writing to you all to appraise you of our serious concerns at decisions that have been made by LBH to withhold grant aid and service support to HFTRA. The rationale and grounds for such decision we are not party too. We are aware of our need to both revisit and develop policies for HFTRA and we are dealing with such matters with the assistance of NFTRA, Community Matters, Council for Voluntary Action, external community development and legal advisers offering pro bono services.

In order to move forward we seek your support to maintain the” status quo” of our organisation in continued grant aid and service support partnership with LBH. This will ensure stability of your primary networking community sector organisation whilst meaningful discussions between LBH and HFTRA take place.

1. HFTRA has had discussions with Cllr Curran in regards to his concerns with our weakness in Financial Management recording. At no time has the London Borough of Hounslow expressed concern of any impropriety. We have agreed the need to have a clear Financial Management Policy and to move from traditional and outmoded Book-keeping to computer programmes appropriate and simple to operate, designed for small lay managed organisations. We looked at the Sage package, but we considered the less onerous package of “Quickbooks” to be best suited.

2. We seek to appraise you of what we understand are issues that it is suggested are included in a decision to withhold grant aid and services. There has never been an opportunity to jointly look at, and address such issues. It seems that LBH require us to become a registered charity particularly so that we are in a better position to bring in grant aid from grant giving charity trusts.

2.1 We were told that a grant would be dependent on our becoming a registered charity.

2.2 We are, as many thousands of local groups, a “voluntary not for profit organisation” but are open to consideration of becoming a charity. However HFTRA is concerned that this could lead to a permanent withdrawal of grant funding by LBH in the future.

2.3 We do consider it to be both wrong and misguided for a local authority to force any organisation to become a registered charity, such major change in structure, management and status bringing with it many onerous duties on lay volunteer trustee managers in the community.

2.4 HFTRA would seek specialist advice from professionals who are knowledgeable on the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a registered charity. They would be very aware of the Charities Act of the 1990’s and the Charities Act 2006. They would know that the simplicity requirements of becoming a registered charity have radically changed.

2.5 As to increasing our ability to bringing in grants because of charity status, everyone needs to be mindful of the financial impact on all sectors of our economy in the devastating Banking and Financial Services led recession. In reports from the Charity Commission the following analysis identifies a general lack of understanding of the impact on charities and charity trust grants:

2.5.1 There has been a major downturn in the annual £2billion in grant trust made by some 7,500 Grant Making Charity Trusts in England and Wales.

2.5.2 Charity Commission surveys show that 59% of charities report having been affected by serious drops in income from absence and growing competition for Charity Trust Grant aid.

2.5.3 It is evidenced that small Community sector lay volunteer managed Charities most often do not have either the resources or skills of the highly sophisticated and complex requirements in applying for grant aid. Grants available are now most often small and certainly not available for core expenditure requirements.

2.5.4 There are grants available to “not for profit organisations” and HFTRA seek the assistance in continued identification of such resources and training support in progressing such applications.

3. It seems that the fact HFTRA is not a registered charity is not in line with a requirement that any grant aid would be contingent on HFTRA becoming a charity. We know nothing of such a LBH policy.

4. It seems to be suggested that as an organisation we have no right to allow other organisations to use the Alf Chandler Centre. Surely, as a community development networking organisation, support to other local primarily voluntary managed community sector is our duty and entirely supportive of respective government policies and LBH Council. We have often been congratulated by LBH for our work.

5. It seems to be suggested that we are in breach of LBH requirements for use of the premises. We would argue that at best we have a common law unwritten Occupation License thus we do not understand how we can be in breach of an unwritten article nor do we understand why after all of our years of service provision as a networking organisation this matter should be raised in this way.

6. It seems to be suggested that our constitution makes no provision for the management of community premises. We are advised that whilst the constitution currently does not have a written objective on Community Premises Management, silence on the matter does not inhibit us legally nor constitutionally from managing community premises.

7. Whilst HFTRA has no formal lease on The Alf Chandler Centre nor a written “Occupation License” nor a written “Community premises Management Agreement” HFTRA management are concerned that this organisation has recently been treated as if invisible and certainly with disrespect. We were not informed or consulted with in regard to the visit to the site from LBH surveyors, you must understand that this has caused some concern, being left outside agendas for the possible re-development of the premises.

HFTRA is aware of the need to return to and develop its “Mission Statement”, Governing Instrument, Policies, management and Training. What we do not understand is why LBH has stepped outside a consultative and partnership approach and decided to remove grant aid and service support to what has been a good partner and previously well respected for its work.

We are sorry for the length of this communication but felt it essential to draw many issues directly to the attention of our Councillors. HFTRA is a strategic “cog” in community development and networking with community sector organisations rather than individual members of the public, the latter being the responsibility of all respective organisations we serve in the network.

We ask all Councillors to consider the matters we have drawn to your attention individually. Whilst HFTRA attempt to achieve wider financial support in advancement of “sustainability”, the removal of the core grant by LBH will herald the demise of the organisation and its services. We ask you to support our request for the “status Quo” in LBH Grant Aid and support services, and a return to a consultative process between partners.

Yours sincerely,

David Cox

HFTRA Chair

Hounslow Labour's All-Out Assault on Community

"In for a penny, in for a pound," goes the old saying. The concept is that if one has decided to commit to a particular outcome in any given situation then one should focus entirely and unrelentingly upon that outcome and not dither along the way.

Hounslow's ruling Labour Group would appear to be embracing this concept with gusto as we approach the local elections of 2014. Not unreasonably confident of a rout in its traditional quarrel with the Tories, Labour has quite clearly decided that the time is right to try to face down what it considers to be its real enemies - the organised community and residents' groups around the borough amongst which the Independent Community Group (ICG) almost certainly enjoys pride of place at the very summit of the hate list.

I have related elsewhere how Hounslow Council's Planning Committee, now safely returned in one piece to the Stone Age under the stewardship of Councillor Ruth Cadbury, eagerly endorsed the decision of the former Lead Member (Councillor Ruth Cadbury) to reject a series of amendments to the statutory Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) which had been drawn up by residents under the auspices of the expanding Group of 15+ and which would have given the SCI real meaning. The amendments had previously been adopted by the Planning Committee when it operated under the leadership of the unusually forward-thinking Labour councillor Theo Dennison.

Following on from this decision we have news that the current Lead Member for Planning, Regeneration, Housing, Celebrity Come Dancing and Virtually Everything Else is seeking to put an end to all formal contact between officers of the Council and G15+ and to replace it with a "forum", chaired by and with terms of reference drawn up by the local authority as opposed to the residents themselves as is presently the case. In other words a classic manifestation of the old "control or destroy" approach that has informed local Labour's relationship with community groups for at least a quarter of a century.

Meanwhile here in Isleworth the message we in the ICG are picking up amounts, essentially, to the old football supporters' invocation to "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough". In particular the threat to Isleworth Public Hall has begun once again to loom large, with sham consultations announced to coincide with the busy holiday period and timed to conclude after a decision has already been taken.

Council turns its guns on tenants

One area in which the gauntlet really has been thrown down is in respect of the 24,000 rented and leasehold properties which are owned by the local authority and managed by Hounslow Homes. Here the various resident groups come together under the umbrella of the Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations (HFTRA), which has historically received and is entitled to expect funding from within the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) - the account to which rents and leaseholder charges are paid.

It was recently announced by the seemingly all-powerful Lead Member that funding to HFTRA had been withdrawn under what would appear, at least from the outside, to be highly dubious circumstances. A proposed meeting between HFTRA and the Lead Member to discuss the matter was cancelled by the latter as a punishment for HFTRA having the audacity to speak to the local press, although this publicity-shyness did not prevent the Lead Member from exploiting his advantage of office by widely circulating a £12,000+ propaganda mailout attacking HFTRA at the expense of the very tenants it represents.

Battle lines

Shocked and angered though we as a community may be we should at least be grateful that this most authoritarian of Labour administrations is setting out its stall in a more or less honest fashion, leaving absolutely no room for doubt as to where it stands on the question of community empowerment and in so doing clearly defining the battle lines for the forthcoming local elections in those areas in which the community is sufficiently well-organised to be able to make a challenge.

Activists should not fear a "trap" as such, this is simply about Labour trying to deal with its potentially more dangerous enemies in the organised community at a time when its conventional adversaries are at their weakest.

From their perspective it makes sense, but that does not mean it is a challenge we should walk away from. A handful of community, other independent and small party councillors, even operating in opposition to a large Labour majority administration, would set us up nicely for the much more favourable situation that 2018 is likely to present.

Friday, 19 July 2013

A Welcome Break in Ardgour

Not for the first time I found myself with a mountain to climb last week. This time however it was the highest mountain in the United Kingdom, having inexplicably allowed myself to be talked into a trip to Ben Nevis, which Caroline has always wanted to climb in celebration of a certain special birthday.

Thankfully at the time of said birthday, in early April, I wasn't able to get the time off work. This was particularly fortunate as the weather at that time was horrendous even in London, and I did not relish the prospect of trying to ascend Ben Nevis in snow and sub-zero temperatures.

Not that there was much danger of that happening this time around. Having heeded advice to go equipped with several layers of clothing and sundry waterproofs I ended up making the ascent shirtless, in what transpired to be 30-degree heat even at the top of the mountain.

It could have been different though. Having woken up at about 8.00 on an otherwise glorious Tuesday morning we were astounded to look out of the window only to see a heavy mist obscuring our view of more or less everything. Apparently this is quite normal in this part of the world, but had it lingered for half an hour longer than it did we would have been compelled to call off our mission.

As it happens I was surprised to make it to the summit. Although as a family we are quite good at planning events in the abstract, in practice we tend to leave everything to the last minute and travel unprepared. Even on this occasion we left half our water supplies back at the room and forgot to make good the deficit when we arrived at the store which is so conveniently located at the foot of the mountain.

But we did it, somehow, and I owe a big thank you to Caroline for persisting with this mad idea in the face of several unsuccessful attempts by myself to discourage it.

The climb itself occupied only one of four wonderful days in the Highlands. Having flown into Inverness on the first day we took a look around the city before heading off in our hired car to Ardgour (pronounced Ar-gower), which we reached with the aid of a car ferry some eight miles south of Fort William.

We stayed throughout at a marvellous little place called the Inn at Ardgour. I had feared that both the Inn and Ardgour itself would be too remote and unadventurous for our 16-year-old twins, but they loved it every bit as much as we did.

We were very fortunate to have had the weather we did, and I can imagine that Ardgour and indeed much of the region would be somewhat bleak when it is cold, and wet, and covered in snow. One minor disappointment was that I had been looking forward to undertaking my own personal "pub crawl" between the Inn and the Corran Inn, on the opposite side of the ferry crossing, but as fate had it the latter was closed for refurbishment.

All the same I would recommend the Inn at Ardgour to anybody for a nice break away from it all. The food is excellent, the bedrooms are clean and spacious and the hosts (English as it happens) are friendly and welcoming. The location is very much "away from it all", with scenery that is in places quite breathtaking. During our stay we took a pleasant boat cruise on Loch Linnhe, though I suspect the seals and porpoises which adorn their advertising material are as conspicuous by their absence as their monster.

And now, once more, into the breach.

The Summit of the Ben
Joe, Caz and Rosie at the Summit
Leaving Ardgour

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Bringing Out Faith in Humankind

In the short month that has passed since I posted up the article Why Does Labour Want the ICG to Contest the 2014 Local Elections? the organisation has probably received more attention and enquiries than it had done for the previous twelve months.

Reporters have asked to meet us with press photographers in tow, new residents' groups and old ones have been linking up with us, borough-wide bodies representing various interest groups have been keen to establish common ground, and other independents and small parties have looked to discuss strategic alliances or even just to ask for advice.

Of course we are only too aware that, should we decide to run for office again in 2014, no number of alliances or private discussions will benefit us if we don't do the hard but really vital work on the doorsteps. But the volume of telephone calls and e-mails certainly puts paid to any ideas anyone may have had that the ICG is a spent force that can safely be discounted at the ballot box.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Why Does Labour Want the ICG to Contest the 2014 Local Elections?

It might seem an odd proposition on the surface of it. After all, in every local election since 1998 in Isleworth, and since 2002 in Syon, the Independent Community Group (ICG) has been Labour’s closest competitor, either winning the seats or running Labour a close second. Both wards being safely Labour in terms of the conventional Labour-Tory dichotomy, the logic of the situation might suggest that we are an opponent they could do without.

But logic in politics can be more convoluted than it is in other areas of life and sometimes, like in the Guinness advert, things aren’t always as they seem.

I have never considered myself to be naïve, but in respect of the 2010 local elections I made two simplistic assumptions – one just prior to the contest and one immediately after – the clumsiness of which taught me that my talents for reading and interpreting political events are nowhere close to being as flawless as I had hitherto liked to believe.

The first, which I have already documented elsewhere, was my costly miscalculation that the Conservatives, having been our partners in what to begin with at least had been an easy coalition, would see the benefit in not stepping on our toes in our two target wards (which from their own perspective were unwinnable). Whilst we all naturally understood their preference for an all-out Conservative administration we figured they would view the continuation of the coalition as a next-best option should they fail to achieve that.

What actually happened was that the Conservatives were so convinced they were on the cusp of an historic all-out victory that they consciously sought to oust the community councillors in Isleworth and Syon and to replace them with Labour ones, figuring that by so doing they would be creating for themselves a softer opposition for the four years of overall Conservative control that were to follow. This didn’t necessitate any kind of formal alliance with Labour. The coincidence of a natural convergence of interests was quite enough to do the trick.

The second miscalculation came in the immediate aftermath of our election defeat. Mindful of the fact that the ICG had commanded the votes of some 4000 people over three wards even in defeat, and aware that a new wave of Labour councillors in Isleworth would be looking to make their own mark, in their own style, on the communities they had been entrusted to serve, I simply assumed that they would be keen to engage with those thousands of people who had supported and voted for us, and that an opportunity had arisen, albeit in circumstances that we would have preferred not to have existed, for some kind of reappraisal of the relationship between Labour and the local community movement.

This assumption was made especially in consideration of the fact that our defeat and their victory made it reasonable for Labour to expect that they would be “in charge” as it were. Exhausted and drained after four years of very hard work, punching above our weight as the minority group in a coalition administration, and still if I am honest reeling from the demoralising effects of the Conservative betrayal, I do not believe the ICG’s price would have been a high one. Speaking strictly for myself, at that time I would have settled for more or less any arrangement that would have allowed me to walk away from the whole thing with my honour intact.

So I’ll admit it shocked me a tad to discover that Labour had other ideas. “Why should they (the new councillors) want to work with you?” they asked us on a local online forum, and to emphasise the point they hand-delivered a limited number of uniquely unpleasant leaflets to local residents containing little other than personal attacks on myself and other ICG personnel.

In the meantime we came under attack from a former Labour councillor who had clearly assumed, for reasons which were not explained, that the ICG would simply disappear following our defeat, and who seemed to take offence from the fact that members of a community group should continue to attend meetings and events in the community!

This, it would appear, was to be the basis of Labour’s continued problem with the situation as it had turned out, and the reason why our assumption – my assumption – that the party would want to reach an accommodation with our supporters turned out to be unsound. To put it quite simply and bluntly, they didn’t want any organised community activity on “their” patch. Fortified, no doubt, by tales of how things were in the good old days, they wanted complete control of our community life and expected it as the spoils of their victory. Such an outcome, of course, would have required the ICG to have vanished completely from the face of the Earth.

This then explains the spluttering anger of the former councillor as it eventually dawned on her that, election victory notwithstanding, things would never be permitted to revert to how they had been in her day, with every single “community” initiative having to be either dominated, or smothered, by members of her party. The new councillors, by contrast, were going to have to operate within a liberated environment.

It would seem to me that such is Labour’s determination to wield absolute power over our community that it is prepared to take the risk of losing the seats it gained in 2010 rather than continue to suffer the indignity of having to treat with civic leaders and free residents’ groups on anything approaching equal terms. The assumption being made now, just as it was in 2010, is that if the ICG fights the next election and loses we will all just mysteriously go away.

I have not mentioned outside influences, as I have in other articles, and there is a reason for this. Although in spite of Labour’s smirking protestations they certainly do exist, they could surely not be decisive in determining Labour’s local strategy without a good deal of willingness on the part of the local party.

I believe that if the ICG contests the local elections next year it will have a very good chance of recapturing the seats it lost. But if it doesn’t, let me be clear – we will be in the exact same situation that we are today. The ICG is here to stay, and those who care for the dignity and the well-being of our community will never roll over and die.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Here We Go Again!

At its most recent meeting the managing Committee of the Independent Community Group (ICG) expressed its great concern that the Group of 15 residents' associations, of which the ICG is a member, would appear to be being given the run-around by the Labour administration at the London Borough of Hounslow in connection with its contribution to the forthcoming and long-awaited Statement of Community Involvement (SCI).

A number of amendments submitted by residents to the original draft SCI were formally adopted by the Planning Committee under the chair of Councillor Theo Dennison back in December 2012. At the time we were advised that the proposed amendments, now with the Planning Committee's official endorsement, would be taken to Cabinet and thereafter to Borough Council in January. January became March and now, as we approach the latter half of April 2013, residents have been advised in a one-liner from Lead Member Ruth Cadbury that the proposed report has been pulled from agenda of the April Cabinet meeting too (with characteristic chutzpah Councillor Cadbury tried to sell this as some kind of good news story for the community on the grounds that "we have more time"!).

Attempts to seek clarification of the position from Councillor Cadbury have, at the time of writing, proved unsuccessful.

The ICG has never been convinced that the Cabinet would be happy to accept the community's lead on this process and it is our view that the process is being dragged out with a view to losing it in the confusion that invariably accompanies the approach of the local elections. Whether this exercise in obfuscation is being led by officers or by the political management of the present administration is really of little import. Both parties have an interest in fending off the residents.

As an activist residents' movement the ICG is committed to the process of empowering our community and we intend to increase the pressure on this administration to adopt an SCI in which G15's expressed concerns retain pride of place. Whether we do this as an active participant in next year's local elections or as a pressure group taking advantage of that event remains to be decided, but either way the present administration needs to understand that this is an issue that is not just going to conveniently disappear from the local agenda.

Friday, 12 April 2013

John Murphy

It was with deep regret that I learned of the passing of former Feltham councillor John Murphy, who sadly lost his battle with cancer on Tuesday morning.

A one-time Labour Party member, John was elected to the London Borough of Hounslow at the local elections of 1998 as the sole Liberal Democrat member for Feltham South. He and his fellow Lib Dems refused to join in with the shrill cackle of indignation which followed my election as a community councillor the same year and we became friends, often enjoying a beer at a local venue in the company of his wife Pat and, sometimes, my own wife Caroline. From very early on it was clear that he was uncomfortable as a party politician and we often discussed the logistics of him becoming an independent without me really believing that he would ever actually go for it.

And then, one day, he did just that. Elected members arriving at a Borough Council meeting one evening were each greeted by a printed statement from John and myself announcing the formation of a new independent political group - the first in the history of the borough. Truth be told it created a slightly uneasy atmosphere for a while between myself and the Lib Dems, with whom I had got on well, but it was John's decision alone and of course I was pleased to have him as a comrade.

In 2002 John, Pat and another candidate contested the local elections on behalf of their newly-created West Hanworth Independent Group (the WHIGs) but were unsuccessful. But they continued to support us in the ICG in our work and were almost ever-presents at our regular pre-election Friday night drinks in Isleworth, Brentford and Hounslow. Even after illness had compelled John to renounce the demon liquor he, along with Pat, would still make the journey over and take part in the deep converations that abounded in every corner, satisfied (apparently) by his J2O.

John's specialist subject was undoubtedly health, and he could talk interestingly for hours about the pros and cons of our local health provision. He was also involved in some interesting issues around his parish, which made for more than a few amusing conversations.

John was an eccentric in the best tradition - persistent when he had a point to make, always humorous, deeply dedicated, sometimes awkward. He was one of those characters who loom large in their surrounds and who change the dynamic of any meeting they attend just by being present. Already his commitment, character and campaigning skills have been acknowledged by former councillors from across the spectrum. He would have been pleased by that.

My condolences go out to Pat and to all his family, friends and loved ones.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

What Could "Left Unity" Mean for the Community Movement?

The other day I happened upon a new Facebook page and website for a group calling itself Left Unity. I was drawn to it because it spoke boldly of its desire to form a new political party of the left, severing for once and for all the irrational political umbilical chord that for so long has joined the British so-called “left” – reformist and so-called “revolutionary” - to the party that is called Labour.

It is by no means the first time such an idea has been mooted, of course. The recent history of our national politics has been littered with left groups which have half-heartedly gone it alone, with varying degrees of unsuccess. The problem has always been the same – the separation from Labour has been from the head but never from the heart, and as such any manifestations of independent activity have invariably been a cry for help rather than a serious and sustained effort to create a lasting left alternative both to the unashamed reaction of the Conservatives and to the capitalist establishment’s safety valve that is the Labour Party.

Left Unity has, from first impressions at least, the outward appearance of being something different. Mobilised around an appeal by television and film director Ken Loach for a new party of the left, it would appear already to have gained some considerable momentum, with a network of local and regional groups to which new names seem to be being added by the day. By any measure, and certainly by any comparison with earlier attempts to achieve the same end, this is pretty big stuff.

Personally I find myself wishing the new initiative every success, but from a safe distance. Although I reject the logic of capitalism and stand four-square with the forces of labour (small “l”) in its various battles I do not consider myself as being especially of the “left”. It’s not that I dislike what it stands for, I just seem instinctively to dislike the people it attracts.

In large part this could be a simple consequence of the treatment that I have personally received at the hands of much of it. A former extreme rightist who rejected unequivocally all things racist and fascist some two decades ago, I still have doors slammed in my face by local so-called “lefties” who seem to share an almost pathological dedication to the cause of keeping alive my 1980s incarnation as an NF rabble-rouser, for reasons which only a qualified shrink would venture to probe. Whilst this causes me no loss of sleep whatsoever it does make for an interesting psychological and sociological study of the mentality of those concerned.

There have, of course, been others formerly of the extreme right who have seen the light and whose bona fides have been accepted by the generally left-dominated anti-fascist movement. So why am I regarded differently?

The only possible, logical answer is that despite my unqualified rejection of racism and fascism I remained a fierce critic of the political establishment, and of Labour in particular (for the simple reason that Labour was the party in power in my own neighbourhood, to which I effectively retreated). There is absolutely nothing else that differentiates me from other former fascists who have gone on to be actively involved in the anti-fascist movement.

So in other words the “anti-establishment” left rejected me because I rejected the establishment! C’est la vie.

This enforced separation between myself and the local representatives of this peculiar tendency in British politics led me to the view, which I have held for so many years, that the “left” in this country is utterly incapable of disengaging itself in its own mindset from the Labour Party – a party which for the most part accepts the Tory austerity agenda, enthusiastically supports capitalist wars, competes with the parties of the right in a perpetual willy-waving contest over who can strike the most macho postures on immigration, and voted down proposals to diminish the power of the House of Lords.

But there is another reason why I do not feel I belong to the “left” and that is its obsession with economic issues seemingly to the exclusion of all else. Yes we should resist attacks on benefits, low wages, diminution of employment rights, privatisation, the dismantling by stealth of the NHS and all the rest of it, but the empowerment of people travels hand-in-hand with the disempowerment of capitalism and that is something that the “left” just never seems to show an interest in. Taking power out of the hands of the bosses and placing it into the hands of bureaucrats and political apparatchiks does not a revolution make.

Yet on the other hand there is something irresistible about the rapid progress of the Left Unity initiative. In this mass communications age it is just about possible to create a really viable alternative without having access to millions of pounds and the Murdochs. What is really needed to make it happen is a vacuum, and the vacuum that exists on the left of British politics with the betrayal by Labour is immense.

What we could feasibly see within the space of a few years is a complete readjustment of the political dynamic, with the right broadly aligned to UKIP and the left organised around something like Left Unity. Whilst I have no brief for UKIP I admit nevertheless to some excitement about the prospect of the old establishment losing its grip in such a way.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Grove Park CPZ Debate - the Anguish of a Disenfranchised Community

It seems our Isleworth ward councillor Ed Mayne continues to be the cause of much angst over in Chiswick, London W4.

Proposals to introduce a Controlled Parking Zone (CPZ) in two streets close to the grounds of Chiswick House are being resisted by a clear majority of residents living in the Grove Park area. Although the Zone is to be limited in its scope those living in surrounding streets fear, with good reason, that the parking thereby displaced into their own neighbourhood will lead in the course of time to calls for it to be extended. This is, after all, what almost invariably happens with Controlled Parking Zones, and it is how schemes which may be cost-neutral to begin with morph into substantial money-spinners for the local authority.

Economically and politically, Chiswick is the ideal milch cow for the London Borough of Hounslow. As well as generally being the borough's most affluent area, it dutifully returns Conservative councillors at every local election, an outcome routinely expected by the Tories and accepted by Labour. For the powers that be there is no point in trying to alter the electoral status quo, and Labour tends to work around Chiswick rather than spending any time trying to make serious inroads into its politics.

On the issue of the CPZ, as one would expect the Tories would appear to be moderately supportive of the larger number whilst remaining mindful that many of those residents of the two streets who are in favour of the proposals are Conservative voters too. Any suggestion that the protest should be escalated has been met with nervous disinterest. Where they have been relatively vocal is in criticising the undemocratic and authoritarian methods by which the Labour Council would seem to be steamrollering the proposals through.

This whole continuing episode is probably the best example we have seen so far of how the disasterous electoral strategy pursued by the Tories at the local elections of 2010, which led to Labour regaining control of the borough, has impacted upon their own constituents. The people of Chiswick are now completely powerless and their councillors can only squeal impotently from the sidelines as the Labour machine tramples all over them and laughs in its wake.

Of course the Tories remain in denial about the role they played in bringing about this sorry state of affairs. Sometimes they even have the nerve to offer tactical advice, delivered one presumes with a straight face, to the campaigning residents. They are helped, one must record, by a profoundly unrevolutionary spirit which self-evidently prevails amongst the citizenry of Chiswick, which is a real shame as potentially they are in many respects better organised and better equipped for really effective community action than residents anywhere else in the borough, with a hugely vibrant local internet community and many active residents' groups.

It remains to be seen whether Chiswick residents will develop their own innovative strategies for resisting the relentless encroachments of the local authority or whether they will continue to place their faith in the self-neutered politicians whose vociferous fence-sitting can surely not remain unchallenged and unquestioned indefinitely by this vigilant but sometimes irritatingly genteel community?

More on this anon.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Chiswick Woman (86) Gets Court Summons for £80 Council Tax

A Chiswick resident who tried to pay an outstanding £80 on his 86-year old mother’s Council tax to cancel a threatened court summons has spoken of his frustration with council bureaucracy.

Andy Pease fell foul of data protection rules when Hounslow Council staff refused to give details as he was not the holder of the account, despite the fact that his mother could not answer for herself. She is blind, and suffers from dementia and arthritis.

The Council has said unless they have permission for others to act on their behalf, legally they can only deal with the account holder. They were willing to discuss the situation with Mr. Pease if he got back in contact, they said and were awaiting further information on the case.

Andy Pease said his mother lives alone in a bungalow provided by Hounslow Council, and he pays all her bills by direct debit from his own account, including her rent.

Last week she received a letter from Hounslow Council informing her Hounslow had applied to Feltham magistrates court for a summons for non payment of council tax.

"This is the first I knew of any outstanding council tax, as far as I was aware Hounslow took any money owing out of my bank account," said Mr. Pease, who then phoned the Council.

"The woman that answered the phone refused to give me any details as I was not the account holder, even though the money came out of my bank account. She insisted on speaking to my mother, who because of her dementia could not answer the security question.

"I explained the situation again and was finally told that my mother’s benefits cover almost all of her council tax apart from £80 per year which my mother should pay. She could not tell me why they had not taken the money out of my account along with the rent. She informed me that the outstanding council tax was £80, but because they had now taken out a summons, the cost would be £283.

"I was told that if I paid the outstanding amount, the summons would be cancelled. I said that I would pay this amount over the phone by credit card. I was then told the lady I was speaking to could not take payment so she said she would put me through to the cashiers, which she did.

"The number she put me through to was an automated line which would not let me proceed until I entered the account number which we did not have.

"I could not go back so I had to hang up. As I had spent 40 minutes on the phone already, I did not have time to call back again.

"I called Hounslow again this morning, and had to go through the whole story all over again. Again I was told I could not pay, because of data protection I asked to speak to a manager. This of course was not possible, but I was told a manager would call me back (they didn't ) so I am now waiting for the court date to be sent."

He said he felt he had "bent over backwards" to pay the money and was prepared to turn up in court and tell his story to highlight the behaviour of the Council.

Hounslow Council have issued the following statement on the matter; “It can be difficult for families trying to help their loved ones in these matters, as legally we are only allowed to deal with the account holder unless, we receive certain information permitting others to act on their behalf. This is an understandable measure to make sure vulnerable residents aren’t open to abuse.

"If Mr Pease provides this information, we would be able to discuss the account with him, as we already do in many other similar cases. We are still awaiting the details we need, but we will contact Mr Pease as soon as possible to arrange for them to be provided.

"In this particular case, no direct debit has ever been set up for the council tax bill, so we had no choice but to deal with the situation as we would with any unpaid bill, including a reminder letter being sent warning that a summons may be issued."

Reproduced with acknowledgements to ChiswickW4.com.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Brentford Town Centre - Calling for a Human Scale and Beautiful Regeneration

Petition Background (Preamble):

Five years ago the Brentford community came together with our award-winning vision for the future of our town centre. In 2010 Brentford High Street Steering Group co-commissioned with Ballymore developers a study by The Prince’s Foundation, to ensure a design brief of which future generations would be proud.

The town centre planning application submitted by Ballymore Properties in September 2012 does not deliver the world-class scheme Brentford’s historic town centre should be. Ballymore has submitted a plan for eighteen 6-11 storey high blocks with 929 flats on the south side of Brentford High Street.

Local residents have described the plan as: “aggressive, overbearing and underwhelming.” The high rise, bland buildings are totally inappropriate in Brentford – a town centre with Roman, Saxon and medieval archaeology and once home to Pocahontas.

In 2000 English Heritage recommended the site should be designated a Conservation Area.

As home today to respected innovative global companies GlaxoSmithKline and Brompton bicycles, employing hundreds of local people, Brentford High Street deserves an outstanding regeneration scheme.

THE PETITION:

We, the undersigned, call on Ballymore to work further with the local community to:

1) Reduce the massing (929 flats) and height (up to 11 storeys) of the development; and

2) Develop the architectural aesthetic to include traditional styles, as well as the restoration of old buildings and modernism currently included in the development.

The scheme must be in line with the Brentford Area Action Plan (local planning policy) agreed in 2009.

Please click here to sign the petition.

Reproduced with acknowledgements to the Brentford High Street Steering Group.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

You're Never Too Old to Embrace labour (that’s "labour", not "Labour"!)

Possibly one reason why I’ve never really connected with industrial politics, nor looked at the world primarily from a labour versus capital perspective, is that I had never, prior to a year or so ago, been a "worker" in the classic sense of the word.

That is not the same thing as saying that I haven’t worked. Those who know me well enough to be familiar with my work rate and are honest would giggle at the frequent invocations that I receive from my politico critics to "get a job" (it is a perhaps worth reflecting upon the ease with which politicians who profess to speak for the disadvantaged seem in reality to regard unemployment as a question of personal choice, but I digress).

What I mean, rather, is that I had never previously worked in a unionised, shop floor environment. The airfreight export industry in which I began my working life is, or at least certainly was, a union-free zone. As an airport porter, and later as a manager at the same company, hire 'em and fire 'em was very much the name of the game, although that changed dramatically once myself and my late friend, comrade and colleague Lance Newbigging had finished with them (see Goodwill, Bad Faith and the Politics of Scapegoating for the full story). For many years in later life I devoted myself full-time to my duties as a councillor.

At the Royal Mail most employees, including myself, are members of the union, and there are naturally ongoing concerns about reorganisation, competition, working conditions, the trend toward part-time and fixed-term labour, and the looming spectre of privatisation. I’ll not go on to discuss how these topics play out at my own place of work as there will understandably be confidentiality issues and I don’t wish to blot my copybook, but that the matters referred to are areas of concern is pretty much public knowledge and obvious besides.

The value of having a strong trade union to speak for the worker at the pointed end cannot be overstated. Sometimes unions get a bad press, and possibly at times during the 1970s this was not without justification, but having worked with and without the benefit of a union I know which situation I would prefer to be in.

I see little connection these days between being a good trade unionist and offering political support to the Labour Party, and this seems to be a view shared by many and probably most of my colleagues on the shop floor. In this respect I would suggest that the union’s leaders lag considerably behind their own membership. Where the Royal Mail is concerned, of course, it was Labour’s Lord Mandelson who first mooted privatisation.

Although as a relatively new employee on a fixed-term contract it would be neither proper not advisable for me to want to play any more than a passive, supportive role within the union, I value my membership and pay my dues (sans political levy) with a happy heart.

Ahmadiyya Muslim Association – a Force for Good in our Community

Last week Caroline and I had the pleasure of attending a Peace Symposium hosted by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association at their prestigious Hanworth Park location.

In what felt like a throwback to our days as councillors we were honoured guests, attending alongside sundry elected members, the Leader of the Council, the Mayor and the borough’s two Members of Parliament, Seema Malhotra and Mary MacLeod.

The building is aesthetically substantial. Some would argue it is out of place in the residential, largely non-Muslim and almost exclusively non-Ahmadiyya Muslim community in which it is set. Planning permission was initially declined but was granted subsequently on appeal.

I can understand residents who instinctively react against the appearance of such an imposing entity in their midst. We humans take comfort from familiarity and often find ourselves feeling spooked by change, especially when it is sudden or on such a significant scale. People who resist such change are not all “racists” (although a proportion of them usually are) and it is unhelpful to dismiss them as such.

Nevertheless, the arrival of a devout community such as the Ahmadiyya seldom presents the difficulties that are anticipated. They are a moderate, peace-loving people whose desire is to be good neighbours and to enhance the spirit and ambience of the community in which they have settled, and certainly not to threaten it. They are, very much, a force for good.

I am reminded of a true story from some years back of a Hindu trust that was established on the very borders on a predominantly white neighbourhood which, rightly or wrongly, had a bit of a reputation for being – shall we say – a little unwelcoming of other cultures. There were objections, some of them quite strident, and when it was erected the Hindu users would have been forgiven for exercising some caution when attending their business at the building.

Then, one Sunday morning, something quite amazing happened. Young Hindu activists went out into the neighbourhood armed. Armed, that is, with litter pickers, bin sacks, brushes and anti-graffiti paint. The neighbourhood had been neglected by the council, and litter and debris was liberally strewn throughout the streets and green areas. Bemused white residents watched, bleary-eyed, from their bedroom windows as the young Hindus blitzed the place. By the time they had left it was spotless.

In one fell swoop a whole community’s fear and prejudice had been brushed aside, and the Hindus thereafter lived together in harmony with their initially reluctant neighbours.

I’m not suggesting, before anybody accuses me of such, that if minority communities wish to gain the acceptance of others they need to clean their streets. My essential point is that prejudice and suspicion can sometimes be better overcome by demonstration rather than by condemnation.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

LBH Twits Move to Silence their own Councillor

The London Borough of Hounslow has sent another shot across the bows of its outspoken Chair of Planning and community-friendly Syon councillor Theo Dennison by announcing a ban on members tweeting from Council meetings.

Councillor Dennison had recently introduced the simple but innovative concept of tweeting live from meetings of Borough Council to keep his readers and followers informed of what was going on, but it would appear this is too much to bear for the party he represents.

Meanwhile the Hounslow Conservatives have opened a Twitter account of their own at @LBHConservative to "hear from residents any ideas and/or suggestions they have for questions and motions".

Councillor Dennison is at @syonward.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Savings Without Cuts? Labour Keeps its Promise on Council Tax

Reducing the Council Tax in the London Borough of Hounslow was one of the five pledges the Labour Party made in its successful local election campaign in 2010.

After the way in which voters were conned by the "trick" pledge to introduce "100 new uniformed officers" onto the streets in "this area" (undefined) to cut crime, we could be forgiven for thinking a similar sleight of hand would be forthcoming in respect of the Council Tax pledge.

But, fair play to them, the Labour administration in Hounslow announced last week that it would be reducing the charge to residents by 0.5% - not a fortune, but it trumps the previous achievements of both their own party and of the Conservative/ICG coalition administration.

All the same one has to be careful about taking at face value the claim that this achievement will have been made without any cuts to frontline services. There is no rigid dictionary definition of a "frontline service", and it remains to be seen which service(s) not considered to be frontline will face the chop to accommodate this small saving to residents.

When the ICG was in office some of us were forever nervous about announcing Council Tax cuts or freezes before the books had been opened and the maths done. We were rightly fearful that once a commitment had been made to a figure it would be necessary for the sake of saving face to hit that target come what may. This, we believed, was putting the card before the horse.

But we supported the first three Conservative zero percent budgets of the 2006-2010 administration, some of us voting against the fourth only because our partners had somehow forgotten to consult us about its contents prior to it being brought to Borough Council. There were cuts, inevitably, but ones that were less severe in fact than many that had been imposed by Labour during its own prior term of office.

Not a lot of people know this, as Michael Caine might have said, but at one stage during the 2006-2010 administration there was a proposal by one prominent Conservative councillor to go for a reduction. After some discussion the ICG, and some Conservatives, rejected it. Interesting times.

It is good, of course, that people in the borough will henceforth be paying less Council Tax, but something will have to give as it invariably does. The administration claims it will not be libraires. Other community resources, worryingly, have not so far received a mention.

The ICG is determined that the infrastructure of our long-suffering communities will not be the sacrifice for a fiver-a-year, Tory-style gesture by the Labour regime at Lampton Road.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Statement of Community Involvement Delayed - is this Good News or Bad?

In my last update on the subject of the London Borough of Hounslow's Statement of Community Involvement I pointed out that the Cabinet, and thereafter Borough Council, was set to debate and hopefully adopt its own Statement (SCI) imminently.

I further pointed out that the powerful Group of 15 residents' alliance - in which the ICG plays a significant role - had drawn up a set of robust amendments which have all been endorsed in their entirety by the Planning Committee, and that these proposed amendments would be presented to the two meetings on that basis.

It would appear now that the Statement's appearance will be less imminent after all than first we had hoped. It would seem we are now looking at it being presented to Cabinet on March 12th.

Ordinarily it would have been our assumption, based on past experience, that the ruling administration simply didn't wish to discuss the Statement and its guiding principles and was stalling for time as a means of avoiding getting the amendements onto the statute book and rolled out into the public domain. However word has it (although admittedly from an eternal optimist) that the delay has been caused by the need to extensively revise the draft in the light of the community's concerns.

We have been around long enough, of course, not to accept such a plea at face value. Politicians generally speaking do not like community involvement unless it can be marshalled and corralled by themselves, whilst in this instance the initiative has clearly been taken by the community. But can they ignore such an irresistable and well-organised force as the Group of 15 in what is now only a little more than a year before next year's local elections?

Has the Lead Member delayed publication from a position of respect for the residents and their concerns? Or is the hold-up indicative of a leadership that is still wondering what the hell it is going to do to get itself out of this one?

We will know the answer to that question in March.