Category Archives: Domestic Politics

Labour’s 100% in North Yorkshire

Until October last year the bulk of my political activism was in Harrogate and North Yorkshire. A huge swath of blue, with a few spots of yellow.

But Harrogate and North Yorkshire have not always been so fruitless for Labour. True, Harrogate Borough has not seen a Labour councillor since the excellent Andy Wright lost his Knaresborough seat in 2002. Also true is that at the last County elections four years ago the Labour delegation to County Hall was reduced to just one solitary councillor in Selby, Brian Marshall.

North   Yorkshire County Council Composition 1997-2009
2009 2005 2001 1997
Conservative 48 42 41 40
LibDem 11 16 17 19
Independent 11 7 4 4
Labour 1 7 12 11
Liberal 1 0 0 0
Sources:   BBC News (2009) and North Yorkshire LibDems (2001).

However, in no small part due to the resilliance of the County Party (or Local Government Committee, or Local Campiagn Forum as we are now required to call it!) organised by the fantastic Roy Hutchings, this year the ONLY party to be fielding candidates in ALL 72 seats being contested for North Yorkshire County Council is the Labour Party.

In true-blue North Yorkshire, Labour are standing in 72 out of 72 seats. The Tories have managed 71, the Greens a respectable (for their size) 25 along with the usual 30 or so Independents. But, the other story in North Yorkshire must be the collapse of the opposition. The LibDems have managed to find candidates in less than half the seats, just 35 out of 72. Even UKIP can find 46 candidates.

Fellow activists will know what the majority of voters will never know – the reality of fielding candidates in majority Tory or LibDem areas. First, finding members to put their name forward can be difficult. But the hardest job, especially in a rural authority like North Yorkshire is collecting the nomination signatures. Having done this almost single-handily in Harrogate Borough for a couple of years in the past; I congratulate all involved in North Yorkshire. It is the sign of a party on the rise and enthused when you can relax on nominations day knowing that every vacancy has been filled. Conversely, parties that fail in this are sending a message out that they are deflated, disillusioned and are lacking in members and organisational structure. I have long championed the need for Labour to field a candidate in every vacancy and at every election, and I am delighted that we have done it this year.

North Yorkshire is often written off for Labour, but there are pockets of strong support, not least in Scarborough and Selby but also Knaresborough and even some wards in Harrogate. Thirsk has also returned a Labour county councillor within the last 12 years. It is worth noting too that both the 1993 and 1997 elections saw the Tories in a minority administration and a sizeable contingent of Labour councillors. With the LibDems in apparent meltdown in the County, by standing a candidate for every vacancy Labour are sending a clear message to the voters of North Yorkshire: you can vote Labour here, Labour can win here, Labour are the only serious alternative to this government of Tories and LibDems.

For the Tories in North Yorkshire, 2013 should produce few shocks. They will retain control of the Council. UKIP may perform well in some divisions, but are unlikely to unseat many (if any) Tories. Labour are in a strong position to take back seats in Scarborough and Selby that were lost in 2009, and perhaps a few others lost since 2001. The big losers will be the LibDems. Despite their national poll ratings, they should be looking to hold onto their seats in North Yorkshire. They face a huge challenge in Harrogate, where they won Oatlands division against the odds in 2009 and also in Knaresborough where a strong Labour challenge could oust the remaining LibDem in that market town. LibDems ought to wake up on 3rd May with their status as the second largest party at County Hall – if they don’t then these elections will have been the biggest disaster in their history within North Yorkshire.

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In poor taste? But BBC is wrong not to play ‘ding-dong’ this Sunday

The controller of BBC Radio 1 has announced that the chart show this Sunday will not play the ‘Ding Dong’ song which will feature in the charts following a campaign by some opponents of Mrs Thatcher. Instead the news that the song has made it into the chart will be relayed in a ‘news item’ and a five-second snippet will be played.

Earlier in the week I made my thoughts clear on the idea that Mrs Thatcher’s death should be celebrated (http://wp.me/p3mDwK-1r), but the decision not to play this song is wrong. Whilst it may be in bad taste and offensive to her family, the reality is that the BBC would have simply been doing its job by playing the song. That the BBC have decided not to play the song has made this a political decision. Those on the right who often argue about a BBC bias must also accept that the BBC ought to play the song. The BBC have made a political decision to support those who do not like the fact that thousands of copies of the song have been sold, as to acknowledge this would be to acknowledge that millions in this country will be far from shedding a tear at the passing of the woman who decimated their communities.

Ironically, of course, what could be a better ‘tribute’ to the free-market so beloved by Mrs Thatcher and her disciples than for them to go out and buy thousands of copies of an alternative song and knock ‘Ding-dong’ out of the charts?

Thatcher – One thing to thank her for

I was in two minds whether to contribute to the expected rush of articles and blogs on the death of Mrs Thatcher. I have certainly resisted the temptation of instant tweets or Facebook posts. However, a tweet from Ian Lavery MP (Wansbeck) persuaded me that we should all record our experiences and thoughts about this woman. He ‘tweeted’ that it would be “cowardly” not to comment.

I grew up in the 1980s with parents who were far from political at the start of the decade, but who ended the decade as two of the most active members of the local Labour Party – candidates at every local election, branch and GC officers, conference delegates and so on. It was in this environment of the late 1980s, on a council estate in Tory Harrogate, surrounded by boxes of Labour Links, crumpled rosettes, ‘knocking up’ pads and canvass cards that my own interest in politics and specifically socialism developed. Once of my earliest Labour Party memories is of my sister and I hand-writing thousands of envelopes for the free mailing in the 1987 general election. I was only 6!

It pains me to say it but Mrs Thatcher did have one positive effect on my family and I – she politicised my parents (both of whom used that political passion to read, study, return to college and qualify as teachers), which was instrumental in making my own politics what it is today.

History has a habit of ignoring the facts, as I can see from my Twitter feed or Facebook timeline. I will not be celebrating the death of Mrs Thatcher, not because I look back with rose-tinted glasses like so many do, but because of what she made me. She made me compassionate about fellow humans, something that she was not. Going with my parents on protests and rallies in the late 1980s, seeing the effect the Poll Tax or rising rents and fuel bills had on my family convinced me that this Thatcherism as it was being named did not work. Even at that early age I could see that this wasn’t fair. Watching news reports about the homeless, visiting London in 1988 and seeing (for the first time) rough-sleepers, watching the unending greed in the City, reading about good communities in the north being decimated in the name of Thatcherism; all these things made me realise that what should shape politics is compassion. The reverse of Thatcherism – that there are enough resources in this world for all of us to have a decent standard of living.

Watching John Gummer pay tribute just now on BBC News; he stated that “even more people would have been worse off” if it wasn’t for Thatcherism – thereby accepting that Thatcherism did make SOME people worse off (presumably the millions and their families who lost their jobs in our industries). How can it be that this goes unchallenged? Thatcher taught me that any ideology that makes SOME people worse off is wrong – instead we need an ideology that gives EVERYONE a decent home, a decent job, a decent education and decent protections.

So tonight, I am not celebrating. I have never celebrated the death of anyone, in fact I feel distinctly uncomfortable when the world celebrates the death of ‘terrorists’ or ‘brutal dictators’. Instead, I shall remember the harsh reality of the 1980s and today – the facts of Mrs Thatcher’s legacy; huge inequality. I will be hoping, more than I have hoped for anything, that the true legacy of Mrs Thatcher can be a Labour government in 2015 which is proud of ideology (just as she was), but an ideology that is built on compassion and socialism. As a compassionate human being I have never celebrated the death of anyone no matter how lacking in compassion they were in life.

Shouting down Labour MPs will not stop the Bedroom Tax

Yesterday I joined hundreds of others at the Bedroom Tax protest in Newcastle, at what I was hoping would be a broad based coalition of people who oppose this vicious tax and that could send a message to Westminster (to all political parties) whilst also engage with members of the public who may not be aware of what is being done in their name.

I was delighted that two good Labour MPs, Chi Onwurah (Newcastle Central) and Ian Mearns (Gateshead) would be speaking from the platform, along with speakers from a cross-section of socialist groups, tenants groups and people directly affected by the Bedroom Tax.

Sadly, the protest was spoiled for me by two or three vocal anti-Labour campaigners who tried to drown out Chi Onwurah and Ian Mearns and demand that Labour be excluded from the rally.

Those who know me and know my politics, will know that I am a passionate defender of the Labour Party and what we should stand for but at the same time I have been a harsh critic of the direction we have taken in recent years. Indeed I have some sympathy for the frustrations of comrades on the left who despair at the failure of the Labour leadership to come out emphatically and commit to repeal the Bedroom Tax if we form the government after 2015.

However, attacking good socialists like Chi Onwurah and Ian Mearns is not going to help bring down this government. Ian in particular is a champion of the Left within the party. If we had more Labour MPs like Chi and Ian, and other like Grahame Morris, Ian Lavery, Jon Trickett etc, then I am sure a commitment to repeal the Bedroom Tax would have already been made.

Further, there was a much bigger concern yesterday. As anyone who has knocked on doors, spoken to friends and neighbours about the Tax, or discussed it at the local pub or club will know – many people are either not aware or are ignorant of the sheer viciousness and unfairness of the Tax. Events like yesterday in Newcastle are a great way to raise awareness and educate Having speakers shouted at just puts off a lot of people who might otherwise be ‘non-political’.

I acknowledge that there is a need for the Labour leadership to come out tougher on the Bedroom Tax and on social security generally and I accept the argument for councils to pledge not to evict tenants caught in the Tory trap. Shouting demands to good MPs who oppose the Tax will not achieve anything, except to alienate some and divide the left.

Events like yesterday should be open to all who oppose the Bedroom Tax and want to see it repealed. Of course there will be people like me who want to see councils go further in protecting tenants in the face of Tory attacks. There will also be those who want a campaign of non-payment. Whatever our responses to the Tax, we should celebrate that Labour MPs want to nail their colours to the mast and publicly state their opposition to it.

Of course it would help if the Labour Party leadership recognised the inconsistencies of campaigning against the Tax now, but being reluctant to pledge to repeal it. But, the place to make that argument is within the Labour Party – join, get involved and make sure your MP is demanding Labour repeal the Tax.

Zero-hours Britain: A return to the nineteenth century

Labour Exchange QueueWhen my partner and I moved to Newcastle upon Tyne last year, one of the first attractions we visited was the excellent Discovery Museum. We were particularly interested in an exhibition which charted the social history of Tyneside. One display stood out; that which described the effect of the 1920s and 1930s recession on families who were reliant on the docks for work. The panel described how hundreds of men, desperate for work, would queue up at the dock gates from the early hours until the dock supervisor decided how many labourers he needed that day. The remainder were sent home with no work for that day.

Having being sheltered by the relative security and stability of working in a unionised workplace for 13 years, where changes to terms and conditions were generally negotiated and I always knew from one month to the next what my pay would be, I encountered ‘zero-hours’ contracts for the first time last year. I had taken redundancy and enrolled on a full-time degree course as a mature student.

The first eye-opener for us was when we started to look for work for my partner, who had a long employment history with an exclusive independent hotel. I had naively thought that similar jobs would always be available. I could not have been more wrong. Several applications and interviews, which were attended at great expense, passed. Finally my partner found what appeared to be the perfect job; Housekeeper for a national hotel chain. The advert offered full-time hours and we thought working for a national chain would provide security and better conditions than working for a smaller, independent hotel. A national chain may even recognise a Trade Union!

A few days after my partner started her new job when she brought home her employment contract. She was concerned as the opening paragraph informed her that she was employed as “an occasional worker”, despite the position being clearly advertised as full-time and being told at both interviews (both of which included a return train journey of 200 miles) that she would be working 35 hours a week. We were both incredibly distressed. My partner had only joined me in Newcastle on the basis that she had secured full-time hours, and now we were left with no way of knowing how much she would earn from one month to the next. It soon became only too clear what the reality of ‘zero-hours’ meant. Far from being an option to assist workers who need flexible hours, or to cover genuinely ‘occasional’ workers, these contracts were applied to all hotel staff.

With my student loan and my partner working for the minimum wage, we had a very tight budget to stick to. However this was planned based on her having 35 hours’ work, anything less would have a serious impact on our monthly budget. After the first two weeks it became clear that we had no ability whatsoever to budget. Some weeks my partner was given four days’ work, other weeks just two days. On one Saturday she arrived at work (after a journey involving two buses and lasting about forty-five minutes) to be told they had no work for her that day, and none for the following week. Even if we could speculate as to what her income would be it was pointless trying to access tax credits as she is only 24 and is considered too young to receive support from the state.

A further, and often ignored, problem of zero-hours was that her shifts were not planned until the Friday before the week started on Monday, presumably as the hotel wanted to confirm exact guest numbers before rostering staff. This meant we were also unable to plan spending anytime together, we could not plan to visit friends and family in our home town as we never knew from one week to the next which days my partner would be working. Essentially she was totally beholden to her employer. What could she do? In my previous workplace the Trade Union would have taken up the case and almost certainly would have secured permanent rights for her and the other staff, particularly as the job advert had explicitly stated the post was full-time. However with no Trade Union to speak on her behalf she would have been a lone voice, coupled with having no employment rights for the first two years would probably have been sacked.

How have we allowed this to happen in the twenty-first century? Wasn’t this exactly the conditions in the nineteenth century that led Liberal pioneers to push for reform of the relationship between employer and worker and later the birth of the Labour Party to achieve parliamentary representation for the very same people who today are being exploited by zero-hours contracts? We hear much from all three political parties about the need ‘for work to pay’, yet hundreds of thousands of workers are being exploited in this way. Unable to budget, unable to forecast, unable to plan family and social time off work, and unable to complain or speak out for genuine fear of being sacked with no right to seek redress at an Employment Tribunal. Those who can, will rely on the state to top-up their incomes, but for most state assistance will be out of reach. Yet at the same time governments can report lower unemployment and higher employment, while ignoring the plight of these zero-hour workers who are fast becoming akin to the Victorian underclass.

Labour MPs are rightly starting to speak out about zero-hours contracts, but Trade Unions and Labour must come together to ensure that a future Labour government commits to outlaw them except in very specific, short term cases (such as bank nursing, or supply teachers, where the worker has made a conscious decision to work on an ad-hoc basis). Labour made great inroads into the scandal of agency workers being used as de-facto full-time workers so that employers could circumvent employment rights, and Labour must do the same with zero-hours contracts.