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The ‘Co-operative council’ – a ‘radical’ experiment with local governance?

27 Nov

As Lambeth council leader Steve Reed seeks election as MP in the Croydon North by-election it seems like a good time to take a look at his flagship project on which he has launched his rise to national politics. Lambeth council declared itself a “Co-operative Council” back in 2010 claiming to revolutionise the way in which public services are delivered. This new model of governance would, they claimed, empower communities by allowing them to make decisions about the way in which their services are run.

This rhetoric of shifting power to the people has proven popular amongst local councillors, with over 20 Labour councils piloting approaches in co-operative public services through the “Co-operative Councils Network” founded by Steve Reed. Other fans include the Guardian’s Zoe Williams who has written about the “constructive changes” by Lambeth and other councils as “heartening”. Steve Reed has even declared in a New Statesman article that his project “offers a model that can be extended right across public services nationally.”

But before the “co-operative council” attempts to go national, it is important to look at what it has actually done here in Lambeth – behind all the rhetoric, what do residents make of the “co-operative council”?

One o’clock clubs were declared by Lambeth council to be an “early adopter” of the “co-operative model” in 2011. The councils’ plan was for the one o’clock clubs to be run by “new co-operative entities” by April 2012. However, there were not adequate external bids for all the one o’clock clubs and so they remain council run for the time being. This process of transferring the management of one o’clock clubs has come under significant criticism from users of the service who highlight the undemocratic nature of the process and their concerns for the future of the service under this new model.

Fenton Forsyth brought his children to the one o’clock clubs 25 years ago and now his youngest son, who is three years old, attends their local one o’clock club. He has seen the service over the last 25 years. It is precisely this wealth of understanding and experience that Lambeth council claim that the “co-operative council” will draw from, yet Forsyth described how he has been left “disillusioned” by the whole process. “There’s a feeling of helplessness amongst people that it’s not done properly, they don’t have their say, people are anxious about what’s been done and how it’s done.” Forsyth describes how at a meeting arranged by the council the decision that the one o’clock clubs would be outsourced had already been made, “it wasn’t about the council there justifying why they’re getting rid of the service, it was more about who was going to win the bid. I missed it when Lambeth said, “look we’re sorry”, people didn’t have a chance to ask questions – so there was no accountability.”

After hearing bids from organisations looking to run the service, the attendees were given one vote. When Forsyth asked if he could have a ballot paper for his wife who was at work, he was told that only the people at the meeting could vote. He explained to me that this was “snap shot democracy” where only people at that specific moment could have a say, when it should involve the whole community. “When I started protesting at the level of democracy, they just didn’t have an answer.” Forsyth added that only 30% of votes went to the users, with the rest going to the council, so that whatever they voted for, it could be overridden by the council.

In the end Effra Nursery School won the bid for his local one o’clock club. Their plans include getting rid of a soft padded play area for children with special needs and bringing in a cafe. Forsyth expressed his worries at this shift from a universal service to a service that is actually more like a business which may exclude certain groups, “it’s more of a middle class, it will be a trendy coffee shop and that’s going to obviously stop a lot of people from coming in, the people that come there can’t afford to buy them, so you’ll have a group of people coming there, it won’t be just people with children and you can chill out, it’s a business.”

I visited my local one o’clock club and spoke with a group of women there about the service. They spoke with great passion about the importance of the one o’clock clubs in their lives. They described how the one o’clocks clubs were vital to creating a community; that through them they had made lifelong friends and had got to know their neighbours. They are “a way that you do actually, cohesively, join your community. Promoting community, strengthening communities is what one o’clock clubs is about,” one of the women explained. They also spoke of the well being that these places brought to them and their children. One woman cited a recent report which showed an increase in domestic violence because of the wet summer meaning people were couped up indoors to illustrate the important role of one o’clocks clubs.

Yet despite all their knowledge and commitment to the one o’clock clubs, Lambeth council, even in its co-operative phase, has not taken on board what they have to say. Speaking of the recent meetings where users could hear about the bids being made for the one o’clock clubs, one woman said, “we just listened to them tell us what they would do. We don’t feel that they do listen to us, because we live near Ruskin park, but they just shut it down, they didn’t listen to us at all, we weren’t given any notice, we were just told it’s going to shut in one week. It’s because they can’t quantify the value and the impact it’s having on the children, if they were to come and see the children interacting with each other, playing, exploring, discovering, and the opportunities that they have that they don’t get in your home – it’s because they don’t value that…” Instead, the women told me, the one o’clock club is now being rented out as offices.

The women’s sense of ownership, community, and empowerment that they feel for their one o’clock clubs shows up the “co-operative council” as being utterly redundant. The council are enforcing their “co-operative” model onto a community that already exemplifies many of the characteristics that the “co-operative council” claim to promote. And it is their model that is threatening the community of the one o’clock clubs as they are closed down or become like a business, as Forsyth described.

Lambeth libraries were another service that the council decided to restructure along their “co-operative” principles. A libraries consultation was set up earlier in the year encouraging residents to “have your say”. Councillor Florence Nosegbe described the model that is now being put in place: “every individual library has been allocated a budget and how that budget will be spent will be decided by local residents, friends of libraries groups and the ward councillors. It’s about being quite bold to say that if you value that library and if you think these are the things that should be in that library we’re going to give you that flexibility to go ahead and spend that. So we’re in the stage where we’re co-designing and co-agreeing the budget with the libraries at the moment.” But as with the one o’clock clubs, users felt frustrated and ignored by Lambeth council’s process and the outcome.

Lisa Sheldon is a student who grew up using Lambeth libraries. “We didn’t have much money and so the library was a really important resource. I did the summer reading trails as a child and used the computers and books for my homework.” She took part in the consultation process but said she has little faith that Lambeth took her views into account. “The documents we were supposed to fill out were huge. It took me 2 hours to plough through it and even then, it was clear from the wording of the questions that the council had already made up their mind as to what would happen with our libraries.” She explains that when the results of the consultation were announced they revealed that the majority of people did not want or were undecided about the “co-operative library” proposals, but the council ignored this and went ahead anyway. “When Lambeth talk about shifting power to local people, it is obviously disingenuous – handing people reduced library budgets and making them decide between books and staff is not empowering. The area has high levels of impoverishment – to tell people to enforce their own cuts on their library service is unforgivable. The council have been failing to invest in libraries and other services for years and now austerity and the co-op council are just yet more excuses to run our services down.”

As with the one o’clock clubs, Lambeth council’s imposition of “co-operation” fails to see the co-operation and community that is already there. As Sheldon explains, “the consultation spoke of creating ‘community hubs’ in libraries, but as anyone who has visited a Lambeth library knows, these places already serve the function of a community hub where all members of the community visit to access the great range of services provided. The staff play a particularly important role in this community, helping library users with their queries and comments despite often being very understaffed. I don’t understand how they can become much more co-operative than they already are, unless the council are proposing getting rid of mangers and creating a fairer pay system, which I somehow doubt.” As she points out to me, Lambeth council are completely re-defining the concept of co-operatives, for their plans are so far away from the true meaning and practice of the word – “they are bringing the term into disrepute!” she exclaims.

Lambeth council’s recent policies on “short-life” housing in the borough also shows its failure to understand co-operative values. Last July, the Cabinet made the decision to sell off “short life” properties, which had been people’s homes in some cases for up to 40 years. Many of these properties are run in housing co-operatives so the “co-operative council” is currently selling off housing co-operatives and breaking up long established communities. This will have the effect of of exacerbating the London housing crisis as yet more public housing is lost to the private sector and the occupants need to be rehoused. Private Eye has also shown that Lambeth council has spent at least £175,000 on bills for legal firm Devonshire.

Julian Hall, who has lived in his house for ten years, and has elderly neighbours who have lived there for 40 years, describes how the reality of Lambeth’s “co-operative council” has “fallen way short…These housing co-operatives have been here for 40 years now and that’s as old, well almost as old, as some of the councillors who are making these decisions that don’t really have a good grasp of the issue really historically.” He explains how Lambeth council have failed to engage with the residents despite their “co-operative” claims, “it’s frustrating, I find the situation we’re in a little bit surreal because on a personal level the attachment I’ve made to my house and my community, I find it hard to get my head around it, but I have been campaigning since February, linking up with other co-ops. I just find it frustrating that it’s taken so long and been so hard to get people around the table to engage in a co-operative solution given the rhetoric, it’s dismay I suppose.”

The housing co-operatives have grouped together into a “Super Co-op” in order to oppose the council’s sell-off of public housing and to propose a truly co-operative solution under the name of Lambeth United Housing Co-op. They have gained the support of Lambeth MP Kate Hoey and even some of Lambeth Council’s own “Co-operative council commissioners”, one of whom has stated, “I think it is important that they understand how to deal with legitimate challenges such as the ones you have raised. If they do not understand how to do this, there will be no hope for the development of a Cooperative Council.” Another commissioner said, “Next time I see Steve, I am going to encourage him to get a grip on matters before the project loses its credibility.”

But has this project ever had any credibility? Steve Reed’s “co-operative council” has failed to live up to its rhetoric of shifting power to communities. From the council’s actions one wonders whether this was ever really their intention or whether they were simply seduced by their own rhetoric. As users of libraries and one o’clock clubs and housing co-operative members explained, their experience has seen the council reject their input and continue with a top-down power structure, closing down or selling off public resources in the name of empowerment. Cllr Nosegbe’s comment is revealing, “the key driving force behind that [the co-operative council] is to get more local people involved in the vision that we as councillors are making.” The vision is very much of the councillors’ making with local people’s participation limited to flawed consultations. As Sheldon summed it up, “The only co-operation going on here is with the national government’s cuts.”

Councillor Steve Reed and Councillor Lib Peck did not respond to my telephone calls, emails, or tweets – raising concerns about their understanding of accountability by their unwillingness to discuss their project.

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Behind the Rent Strike – Nick Broomfield (1974)

2 May

I saw this wonderful film the other day as part of the Bread and Roses film festival – Nick Broomfield was there to answer questions afterwards so we learnt a little more about the making of the film. I enjoyed the film so much I wanted to write a short piece to encourage others to watch it. 

The film opens with a middle aged woman putting Nick Broomfield firmly in his place. As a middle class film-maker he can never understand the lives of the working class and will never produce films that will reflect their realities. Ethel was certainly right to bring this young arrogant film maker down to earth, and his inclusion of scenes like this perhaps reflect his willingness to acknowledge and interrogate these limitations, of both himself and his medium. Yet, despite his privileged position, Broomfield’s documentary of life in Kirkby, Liverpool during the rent strike of 1972/3 does succeed in vividly portraying the difficulties and determination of the community.

There are many wonderful scenes which subtly, and sometimes a lot more explicitly with Ethel, get to the root causes of the issues faced by community. Broomfield takes his camera into the local school, where the emphasis on discipline acts as a cover for the real issues of poverty and unemployment. As Ethel notes, when the school send in the careers advisor, they might as well send along someone from the dole office as well. He also films in the local Birdseye chicken factory where an incredible scene of lines of women dismembering chickens was filmed with Broomfield being pushed on one of the factories trolleys around the room. Broomfield and the trolley pusher had failed to communicate beforehand when his assistant would stop pushing the trolley, and so they ended up doing the entire length of the factory.

Broomfield described in a Q&A how the women were the ones who were more active in the day to day organising of the strike, although in the meetings it was the men who tended to dominate. He conveys this well in the film through his interviews with Ethel and another woman whose thoughtful observations and reflections on the strike very much show that they were at the forefront and how significantly the struggle impacted on their lives. Broomfield lamented slightly that he hadn’t filmed more of the daily conversations held by the women – with a set amount of film that he could use, he saved it for the set pieces such as the strike meetings. He states that he would make a ‘less direct film now’.

Despite what it could have been had more film been available, Behind the Rent Strike is a beautiful and important film. Although exactly 40 years ago, the words of the residents of Tower Hill Estate strongly resonate today. They faced increasing rents for their poor housing conditions whilst their wages stagnated. The situation was intolerable. As one resident described, ‘the law doesn’t work for us, we have to take it into our own hands’.

Adventures at A4e

13 Apr

Adventures at A4e

‘Izzy, nothing is impossible…’ he tells me reassuringly, he starts to read one of the many motivational quotations that are stuck all over the walls and on the desk around which the group is seated. I stare back at him blankly, horrified. Then the man next to me starts reading out loud the Oprah Winfrey that is in front of him.

This was one of many surreal moments of an A4e training course ‘finding and getting a job’ that I was coerced into attending by my job centre advisor. She had told me that it would help me with my CV, however, it seemed that the trainer of the course had much grander ideas – he was determined to change my ‘being’ which was apparently what is preventing me from getting a job – rather than, say, an economy that is heading back into recession and a saturated job market. And so, for two days I sat with ten other unemployed people being told that we needed to ‘talk, breath, eat, shit belief in yourself’ and being compared to iPhones. The experience was like being in some sort of strange comedy sketch that just went on and on and at times bordered on feeling like a cult. Even the toilet signs were plain weird – the sign for disabled has a man with a broken leg that appears to be bandaged up with toilet roll.

Barbara Ehrenreich charts the rise of positive thinking in the US in her book Smile and Die – it seems that this is yet another US import, like workfare, that is being used to punish the poor. Does the government honestly think that sending unemployed people to these courses, where we are bombarded with pseudo psychology about positive thinking, will actually make any difference at all to unemployment? I would argue that they are actively harmful to unemployed people who spend the time being blamed for the situation that we find ourselves in and being offered ‘solutions’ that will make no difference whatsoever, and may even reduce one’s job prospects – for example we were told ‘no need to be nice and fluffy about it, tell them straight up. ‘I am the one you’re looking for.’ Like the Matrix – ‘I am the one’ – it was only when he believed he was the one that he became the one’. As well as being at best a waste of our time and at worst mentally distressing and incredibly manipulative, is this really good use of tax payers’ money who are paying A4e for this nonsense?

The entire course was simply one long motivational talk with very little actual real content. (Of course, even if it had been a course that was well structured with decent advice, this will make no difference when the problem is lack of jobs). The main point which was hammered home time and again was that if we believed we could get a job, then it would happen. It was simply our mindset that was the barrier and he seemed intent on us all having mini epiphanies there and then.

James had found himself unemployed for the first time in his life at the age of 60. He had worked in retail but despite his experience he could not find work now because of his age. The employers only want young people. His agent had confirmed to him that it was his age that meant he wasn’t getting past an interview and had suggested to him that he start lying about his age. But our trainer did not accept that it was age discrimination and a saturated job market that were the issues here, rather it was the barrier that James had created in his mind about his age. ‘We are a product…if we’re not talking and bigging up that product, then we can’t expect anyone to buy that product.’ ‘Age is not a barrier, the only barrier is here [pointing to his head] we create it’. He kept on ‘working’ on James as he said it ‘takes a bit of breaking down’ to create an ‘opening’.

I was getting really frustrated by this point with this focus on the individual so I said that it wasn’t James that was the problem, it was age discrimination, and that there was very little he could do about it, that it was an issue that we needed to address as a society. That young black men have an unemployment rate that is 50% so the issues here were discrimination and that however positively they thought, this would not change the reality. That we need to look at the bigger picture and not focus on the individual. He laughed at my idea that we should deal with this issue as a society and then he turned it all back onto me – ‘you’ve got all these hooks on you…it’s your way of being…you need to shift the way you look at it. You’ve got all this anger and frustration and that’s stopping you from getting a job. It comes across in your CV’. I’d just like to point out that he has never seen my CV. He later told me, in a personality assessment that he did for all of us at the end, that he liked my fire and passion and that he wanted to help me channel my fire so that it could shine brightly.

His attempts to modify our individual ‘beings’ in order for us to ‘create’ jobs through our new attitudes bordered on ludicrous at times. He picked up a pen and asked ‘what is this?’ ‘a pen’ I responded rather stonily. He then went around the class – whilst a couple of others stated that it was a pen, others caught on that maybe it wasn’t a pen… ‘it’s a tool’, ‘a writing implement’. He put us out of our misery ‘it’s a long piece of plastic with a small bit of plastic on top, and when you open it up, it’s a pen’. I honestly missed the point of this. He then stated a little later – ‘a pen is a pen, a cup is a cup’ much to my confusion and bemusement.

In an attempt to show us how it’s really done, he told us of his own experience getting his job at A4e. ‘When they said, ‘why do you want to work here?’ I said [pause for dramatic effect] Because I believe in human beings’’ There was genuinely a hushed silence. That explains why I don’t have a job yet, because at my last interview I told them I believed in unicorns. And he continued, ‘because I am part of the human race’. The man next to me was so impressed – ‘you out-foxed them there’.

Whilst at times, there were very funny moments, which I was able to tweet about which helped pass the time, the seriousness of what we were sitting through was brought home to me when he told us of another course that he had just started running called ‘Launch Pad’ for single parents, mostly mothers. The course involves 4 weeks in the classroom, 4 weeks in the workplace. In his first group of 7 – all of them got a job apparently. In the second group of 7 he said that they all went onto work placements. I am greatly concerned that the work placements sound like workfare. And I am horrified at the idea of this man ‘training’ single parents for 4 weeks. My mother was a single parent when she brought me up – she received pitiful benefits for the incredible amount of work that looking after me involved. She suffered from severe depression as well. The idea that she would be told the mantra of choice and responsibility and forced into work terrifies me.

Disabled people too may be forced onto these training courses. Will they be told that their disability is in their head and can be overcome by changing their attitude?

I spent two days being told to sell myself like an iPhone. I tried to point out that however many apps I had, or however many megapixels the inbuilt camera had, the market wasn’t interested. Instead of blaming the individual we must look at the wider picture at the structural causes that have caused unemployment, and act collectively to bring about real change. These programmes are incredibly manipulative and judgemental and a distraction from the real problems. They could cause real harm to vulnerable people. The trainer told me that anger was not productive, but we have every right to be furious at our treatment by this government and A4e.

 

 

 

Thanks to everyone on Twitter who gave me messages of support – it made the whole experience so much more bearable. I would really encourage others who find themselves sent on one of these courses to tweet and write about their experiences so that we can challenge this crap together.

I took notes so that job seekers could perhaps skip the course and get the main points here – maybe the government could just give us the money that would have been spent on the course.

‘I call it – what we know what we know (sic) – we’re just taught what we know’. To try and explain this a little more, basically, we are told these things, such as you’re too old, and then we believe them and don’t challenge them and that explains our position in life, rather than there being any systemic inequalities…I think that’s what he was saying.

‘but if you believe in yourself and believe in what you have to offer…then you create it’

‘you have to change the programme a bit…the way we talk about the product is the way we should be talking about ourselves…there’s nothing broken, there’s nothing to fix’.

Responding to my pleas to look at the reality of the situation using job statistics – ‘all those things in the way – they’re real, if we’re going out there to get a job, then we need to be the best…you have to think the best’.

His impersonation of an unemployed person’s day ‘You wake up, maybe a bit late, you have some breakfast, a cigarette, by the time you get round to job searching, it’s 11 o’clock, you do half an hour, then you think, oooh, I’ll make lunch and do it in the afternoon.’

‘one of our biggest enemies is ourselves’

To one member of the class ‘stop wasting your life…for you its responsibility…you’re lacking responsibility. Your life right now is a choice. You choose it to be that way, you can make it another way.’

‘how we use our words, how we language it, really matters’.

‘Each of you are professionals in your own domain. If you speak of yourself as a professional, your attitude changes…why not be a professional all of the time –it resonates…’

‘body language is real – it’s part of communication – it’s key’

‘The whole game is a conversation, [say to an employer] ‘this is who I am…If you want to be with the best, I’m the best’

how many of you guys look at a woman and think ‘ooooohhhh’ and then when they open their mouths and speak to you, you’re completely put off’.

On your CV ‘instead of writing excellent communication skills, write ability to communicate at all levels’.

‘you are the product – you either believe it or you don’t’.

Don’t use boxes on your CV ‘If I took you and put you in a box, what am I doing to you, how will you feel in the box?…They have their judgements – if you start to put boxes on it shows we’re restricted, we’re not explosive and out there’.

‘It’s like a date, you go out, you flirt…either you want to continue it or not. Your cover letter and CV is like your first date. You don’t tell them everything on a first date’.

And, finally, in our ‘Stay Positive During Your Job Search’ leaflet it informs us that whilst it is ‘unrealistic to think you will be 100% positive each moment of the day’ you should only allow yourself ‘thirty minutes, one day a week, to lament your situation and then get back to the search’.

 

 

Central London shut down of workfare stores

4 Mar

Running is one of my worst things. But yesterday afternoon I found myself running up and down Oxford Street with one hundred other workfare protesters. We’d gathered in Central London to take action against high street stores profiting from forced unpaid labour for benefits. After two weeks of online and street protest, this Saturday was our National Day of Action Against Workfare with actions happening all over the country.

We weren’t convinced by the government’s ‘concessions’ this week – and were also clear that this was not the end of workfare as there were four other workfare schemes that had been overlooked by the media. We wanted to remind people of these and to show the high street stores that our campaign had not ended with the weak government response. If they continued to participate in workfare schemes, we would be outside and inside their stores raising this issue until they stopped.

We met outside BHS which had since pulled out of workfare schemes, reflecting the impact of the last two weeks of public pressure. From here we would head to our secret location. In the quickest example of consensus decision making ever we decided there and then that we would shut down a workfare store and set off following two Boycott Workfare flags that were held above the crowds. In a wonderful police radio conversation reported by @thinktyler one was heard saying ‘they don’t seem to have a leader’.

We passed Topshop which was heavily guarded by gigantic security guards – they’d clearly got this action confused with UK Uncut. We left them be and headed further on. Our group surged along the streets with the police jogging to keep up to form a moving kettle around us. We ran around them trying to get in front of them so that we’d be able to enter the high street store to fully shut it down. But they seemed to have done some research because when we approached Pizza Hut, two police officers had managed to get in front of us and block the doors.

Pizza Hut was our first target because it is part of the Work Programme – the government’s much lauded workfare scheme that is costing billions of pounds of tax payers money but will do absolutely nothing to alter the unemplopyment figures and is basically about bullying unemployed people and pushing them onto workfare. The Work Programme gives billions of pounds to companies such as A4e who are being investigated for fraud and G4S which was involved in the murder of Jimmy Mubenga.

We stood outside Pizza Hut and unfurled our huge banner declaring ‘If you exploit us – we will shut you down’. From here it was put to the group whether we deemed the Work Experience scheme to be workfare still, in the light to the government’s ‘concessions’. Considering the direct and indirect sanctions that are still in place in the Work Experience scheme there was immediate agreement that companies involved in Work Experience were still fair game. We passed out maps of the area which had helpfully marked all these companies and encouraged people to decide where we wanted to go next. The flags were raised and we were off. The police joining in too trying to get to the stores before us but not knowing which one it would be. Everywhere we looked seemed to be a company involved in workfare.

All of a sudden I was in McDonalds – looking behind me I could see police blocking the doors and pushing protesters away, in front of me were surprised looking customers and staff. I explained we were there because of workfare that was forcing people to work unpaid and was undermining people’s jobs before being bundled out by the police. It was a shame that the encounter in McDonalds was so short as we were unable to have meaningful discussions about why we were there and to hand out leaflets.

Another splinter group had managed to get into Pizza Hut but were quickly removed. The action was so fast paced and fluid. It was very effective as we were able to target stores and get into them to effectively shut them down. Perhaps it sounds a little silly – dodging the police, getting into stores, getting chucked out. But I genuinely believe that this sort of direct action is one of few effective actions that we can take. Ideally we would stay in one store and shut it down for a couple of hours, using it to hold discussions on workfare. But the police were under strict orders to not let this happen – and also we wouldn’t want all the other workfare stores to get let off.

We were off again – this time rushing along the back streets of Oxford Street. People had got into the Holiday Inn, which is involved in the Work Programme, and also, one woman informed us, used to employ illegal immigrants for very very low wages, before this new flow of free labour from the Job Centre. The police removed the protesters and lined the steps of the Holiday Inn looking like a rather strange football team photo.

Our tour came to an end here as we were exhausted from all the running. But we reminded the Holiday Inn that we would be back until workfare was scrapped. Workfare is a punitive policy which exacerbates issues of unemployment and poverty – there is strong public feeling against it and yet the government are still trying to roll it out. However, yesterday, actions took place all over the country against workfare. And will continue to do so until it is ended with living wages and welfare rights secured for all.

Be sure to check out other reports, tweets etc. from other actions across the country. The media have done an appalling job on reporting workfare (just watch Jeremy Paxman’s inept chairing of a workfare debate on Newsnight) and particularly the National Day of Action. It’s up to us to report the news ourselves.

A Simple Act…

15 Feb

Lambeth council have taken away free bus passes for the mentally ill. To them this may seem like a simple act to help make the cuts forced on them by national government. But this seemingly simple act reveals the callous and bullying approach that Lambeth council have taken in implementing these unnecessary and unjust cuts. They are choosing what they see to be an easy target to make pay for the cuts; for this isn’t the first attack on the mentally ill in Lambeth – the council have already closed down a centre providing vital services for the mentally ill.

The cuts to those suffering from mental illness are sickening acts and if we do not stand up against these, I strongly fear for what sort of society we have become – that we would deny something as small as a bus pass to the most vulnerable people, for whom this provides a lifeline. Lambeth council see this as a small cut, they do not see the tremendous pain that it will cause to those who depend on it as people’s homes become their prisons.

Lambeth council attempt to justify their abhorrent actions by claiming that their provision of free bus passes will remain one of the most generous of the London boroughs – but this simply reflects the high level of people suffering from mental health issues in the borough and actually supports the argument that we need to be doing more to address mental health in the borough rather than less. Lambeth’s high rates of people suffering from mental ill health, which is 12 times the national average, will no doubt increase as the cuts plunge more people into poverty and desperation. We should be investing money into running more mental health services for the entire community to promote mental well being and to support those dealing with mental illnesses.

But instead Lambeth council have chosen what they see to be the easy route – picking on a group who may find it more difficult to organise and speak out. They don’t appear to have predicted that this small act would enrage the rest of the community who refuse to be a part of a society which targets the most vulnerable with such bullying behaviour.

For me, the withdrawal of the bus pass has brought home to me the horrific realities of these cuts – both national and local – and the sinister ways in which they are falling on the most vulnerable.  I am disgusted by those who claim to represent us and urge everyone to resist these in the myriad ways that have and are being demonstrated. Following UK Uncut and Occupy London’s tactics, a particular emphasis on civil disobedience is necessary, as it seems now that only by taking direct action will we stop the cuts and ensure the simple and dignified act of providing bus passes for those who need them.

Join Lambeth Save Our Services demonstration outside Lambeth Town Hall on February 29th and keep in contact for further actions.

Stopping the Welfare Reform Bill

28 Jan

DPAC and UK Uncut protesters block busy West End road in action against the Welfare Reform Bill

Disabled People Against Cuts with the support of UK Uncut had called for this afternoon to be one of direct action against the welfare reform bill – an incredibly punitive bill which seeks to make the poorest and most vulnerable members of society pay for a crisis which they had no role in. Whenever I think about this bill, I am always absolutely horrified by it – that a government could ever seriously think that this is an acceptable thing to do – to actively cause harm to the people in our society who deserve additional support. I am baffled sometimes why the whole of the country is not out in the streets protesting against what the government are doing. Whilst the Lords are kicking up a fuss against the bill which is warmly welcomed- it is important that the rest of us take to the streets to show our opposition. The consequences of this bill are so serious that direct action is absolutely necessary.

We were to meet at Holborn Station at 11.30am to travel to a secret location. We piled into the tube station and emerged at Oxford Circus to join a group of protesters who had chained their wheelchairs together to form a road block across the top of Regent Street. This was a truly incredible act of direct action. As DPAC and UK Uncut noted, today the invisible would become unmissable as they confronted, and befriended, thousands of west end shoppers and brought the busy traffic to a halt. Hundreds of people moved in behind the road block and took over the street for the afternoon to come together in solidarity against the government’s welfare reform bill – demanding that this bill be stopped. Seeing these people chained together in a determination to have their voices heard was inspiring – I’m a complete wimp of an activist and it was incredibly poignant to see people show such courage. But, as a woman points out in John Domokos’ wonderful video of the day (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/video/2012/jan/28/welfare-reforms-protest-oxford-circus ), it was also sad and shameful that they had to take to the streets in the first place.

There was a brilliant atmosphere on our people-filled road – a samba band played, people danced, people chanted, people talked together. Whilst the atmosphere was upbeat and determined, the space was full of lots emotions – for some, this was their first protest and so understandably it was quite a scary experience for them. In John’s video, one woman described how she had had to prepare all week in order to come to the action. To be amongst such determined and friendly people was a wonderful experience – even the police seemed won over – we overheard them saying ‘let’s just leave them’. (Although later on they did attempt to move our group on – they spoke through a megaphone, which as one protester pointed out made them sound like a duck, furthermore, as another protester pointed out, they did not communicate the message in sign language.) A community megaphone was passed around and one man started chanting ‘we’re all together’ – it was incredibly moving because this was exactly what our action was showing. In the middle of a space dedicated to pointless consumption, we were demonstrating the other values which we hold in society – caring, friendship, and community – these are our tools that we will use to stop the cuts.

This incredible direct action is a strong message to the government that we will not accept their welfare reform bill – they cannot ignore us. And if they do, well, we’ll be out on the streets again, and with growing numbers.

Liam Byrne and Punishing the Poor

24 Jan

Here are some notes about Liam Byrne’s speech last night at the LSE – I’m afraid I didn’t take the best notes as I was sitting there getting angry so it was hard to focus, but I will listen again to a recording of the lecture, which they put up on the LSE website, and fill in the gaps.

I just arrived home after attending Liam Byrne’s lecture on the welfare state – I’d been very interested in what he has to say on this issue after reading his appalling comments in the Guardian about the ‘something for nothing culture’ – a ‘culture’ that if he knew anything about poor people he would realise didn’t actually exist, firstly as everyone does contribute in some way to society, and secondly because it seems rather generous to refer to our present benefits system as ‘something’ – the reality of living on JSA is more like nothing. I was all primed to heckle and to challenge him on his and his party’s demonising of the unemployed which for me is a very personal issue. My mum brought me up as a single parent mother and felt the stigma of being ‘unemployed’ despite her more than full time job brining up an incredibly stubborn and difficult child. I am now on JSA after completing my master’s degree. I checked my email when I got indoors after Byrne’s stylistically engaging talk – of which the actual content was quite disagreeable – and saw an email from a job I had applied to. I’d actually received an email – this was really promising. I started to get really excited. If I’ve got this job, I’d better get some new blouses for working in the office – I actually pictured myself in my new blouses in my new office doing the interesting research that this job involved, no more Job Centre visits where you are treated with suspicion and punished for not finding a job that doesn’t exist. I opened the email and it was a rejection. It’s my first rejection as usually you don’t hear back at all from the place which you have spent so much of your time and energy writing to. I actually felt distraught this time. It is now becoming incredibly demoralising to make applications in which I do put a great deal of effort and enthusiasm and to receive a rejection. And to know I’ll have to return to the Job Centre which is a depressing thought. I’m sick of the joke of ‘job seekers allowance’ – being forced to job search in such a climate as this one. I almost want to refuse to job search until there are actually any decent jobs out there.

So what did Liam Byrne have to say about all this and the welfare state? As I said above, he was quite a stylistically pleasing speaker – he had a certain rhythm to his talk, but it was a little hard to focus as I was sitting there trying to get over the rage I felt at his comments on ‘something for nothing’ and trying to move beyond this rage to form a coherent comment and question for him afterwards about workfare, the current discourse/demonisation around the unemployed, and the framing of the current welfare debate in which both parties are attacking an ‘undeserving poor’. In his discussion of Beveridge’s eponymous report he actually referenced the Levellers – which I’m sure they would not be all too pleased about from my understanding (which to be fair is little) of the Levellers. He also emphasised ‘rights and responsibilities’ for a welfare state today. This is another way of him phrasing his idea of ‘something for something’. It does sound harmless enough and so it was a little hard to heckle him – he didn’t say anything that sounded too outrageous, but that’s politics I guess – disguising agendas through the clever use of language? Beneath his language there is a punitive agenda towards what they perceive to be the non-working poor. Whilst he did highlight the failures of the Tory government’s Work Programme, this again was perhaps more politics – having a go at the government in power rather than a genuine belief that the Work Programme is morally wrong, as well as economically – I can imagine him rolling out the exact same Work Programme if he were in power. Indeed, he spoke of the need to ‘enforce’ the responsibility to work and when asked to elaborate on what ‘enforcements’ he envisaged, I actually missed them, or perhaps he avoided the question (I’ll listen to the recording of the lecture and get back to you). He did say that he wanted to move the framing of welfare away from the neocon style of the Tories and to one which supported people to fulfil their potential, but surely this is undermined by his emphasis on enforcement. In a rather confusing moment he declared – ‘we sold all our council housing and we forgot to build any more’. I hope this was a weird joke, but I’m not sure. He seemed to be saying this seriously…surely it was tongue in cheek though? ‘We forgot to build anymore’………? Seriously…..how do you just forgot to BUILD HOUSES? Well actually even this PATHETIC excuse is a lie, if you read Anna Minton’s fabulous book Ground Control, the reality is a lot more sinister. Rather than merely ‘forgetting’ to build houses, the government engaged in a process whereby market forces were encouraged to enter the housing market and public money was given to private companies who knocked down perfectly good housing to build swish new apartments. His emphasis on ‘rights and responsibilities’/ending something for nothing, without any comprehension of what the reality of being poor is like, is also challenged by the magnificent film War Horse, to throw some popular culture into this discussion. Sometimes the individual cannot be held ‘responsible’ for their actions which are beyond their control. In the film, the father’s addiction to alcohol is kindly explained by his loving wife as a result of the horrors and pain he experienced in the Boer War. We watch the family’s turnip crop get destroyed by bad weather. Marginalised people cannot always take responsibility – it is often beyond their control and it is wrong and demonising to suggest that they should take responsibility.

OK, I’ll be kind to him – he did emphasise the need to create jobs – but said nothing on what kind of jobs these would be. Frankly, I don’t want his capitalist-soul-destroying jobs anyway.

There were some good questions by the audience – A disability rights activist questioned how they would support those who were unable to commit to work in the sense of which he spoke. One woman highlighted the privatization of the health service and how multi-national corporations are failing to pay the living wage. Another man spoke of the need to stop pitching the working poor against the unemployed. I was unimpressed by his responses to the most sensible comments of the evening. I am utterly disenchanted by all politicians and sick of being punished for not being in work.