A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, the Labour Party and Hackney - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Debating with whom?

The links page on kamikaze tendency website 2020 Vision shows an interesting sense of what other organisations this elite group of "progressives" consider worthy of engaging in debate.

Top of the list is Tory think-tank Policy Exchange, intellectual home of the Cameroons.

Bottom of the list is the think tank set up in memory of Labour's last leader, The Smith Institute.

We can draw our own conclusions about their regard for Labour's intellectual and ideological heritage.

Don't do it David

I will definitely not vote for David Miliband if he stands for Leader and I really hope he doesn't run.

I - perhaps naively - thought we had moved on from all the Brown vs. Blair nonsense.

I think it is extremely unhelpful to have it all reopened.

The good old days pt 3

The book I've been reading about Labour in the '50s (see previous posts) had a happy ending.

Nye Bevan patched up his differences with the new leader Gaitskell and served him loyally in the Shadow Cabinet.

He went on to alienate his "Bevanite" left supporters by arguing for the H-bomb, abandoning his commitment to nationalisation, and denouncing Tribune's tactics.

Who can imagine any of the current "I've suddenly discovered I was on the left all along" deputy leadership candidates letting down their ardent young radical supporters in such a way?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Stop talking in code

Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke have been talking in code - organising meetings for MPs to trigger an "an open participatory debate."

I think this means they want to run a candidate against Brown for leader.

If that's the case they should say so, not dress it up as guff about "debates".

If it was either of them running, they would get a derisory vote.

If it is really about policies they should be explicit and say what they want to change.

What kind of participatory debate only involves MPs?

Unlike them I don't speak in code. An "ultra-Blairite" candidature from Clarke or Milburn would not just be doomed, it would be a total strategic disaster for the right of the Party - driving Brown into the arms of the soft left, dividing natural political allies who agree on the substantive issues, and putting its supporters into the political wilderness.

There is a serious election and debate going on about Deputy Leader. There are serious external elections coming up in May. Why are these senior figures game playing like this? What do they hope to achieve?

Akehurst on Tour Part 3

Just got back from Camden Town Hall where I debated Trident replacement vs. CND at the GC AGM of Holborn & St Pancras CLP, my old stamping ground in the '90s when I was Frank Dobson's Agent.

Unlike Compass' one-sided non- debate tonight on Trident, Holborn & St Pancras CLP held a real debate with contributions from the floor making intelligent, well-informed points on both sides.

They also took a vote - which I'm sorry to say my side of the argument lost 32-10 - though that was 10 more votes than I had predicted... Most of the 10 on my side seemed to be younger members.

The CLP seemed in good health - as the voting figures show there were 42 delegates there - representing nearly 900 members with over 130 in one ward - and lots of new people who hadn't been around a decade ago when I was last there.

Compass' idea of debate

Neal Lawson's fan club Compass have an interesting idea of what constitutes debate.

Tonight they have a "debate" (their description) at the Commons on Trident replacement.

The speakers are:

Charles Clarke MP - sceptical about replacement
Jon Trickett MP - anti-replacement
The Rt Rev Dr Thomas Butler, The Bishop of Southwark - anti-replacement but more famous for his enjoyment of Irish embassy receptions
Bianca Jagger - not previously known as an expert on nuclear weapons but presumably anti
Gemma Tumelty, (President of the NUS) - ditto
Kate Hudson of CND - anti
John Sauven, the Executive Director of Greenpeace UK - anti

Very balanced!

As Des Browne and his ministerial team at MoD have been very happy to engage in debates on this - I saw Browne speak at the balanced 2 speakers per side debate that Progress held - why isn't there a single pro-replacement speaker on the platform?

Are Compass scared that their arguments might not stand up to public scrutiny and real debate?

Is their own stitched-up non-debate an example of the kind of pluralistic, democratic Labour Party they want to bring about?

Monday, February 26, 2007

More from the good old days

The next chapter in "The Road to Brighton Pier" takes us to the Labour Party Conference debate in the aftermath of the 1955 election defeat.

Harold Wilson moves a report on organisation which says the CLPs are not up to scratch when it comes to campaigning and the central party machine was "a penny-farthing in the jet age".

Bevan lays into this report by his former ally denouncing it as organisational response to a political problem. Labour lost, he says, because it was not socialist enough to inspire its activists and core vote.

Now where have I heard that before?

All this was conducted in a secret "closed" session to bypass a party rulebook ban on personal attacks on other members.

Except the conference organisers being part of the "penny-farthing" machine they neglected to notice the hall was not soundproof so all the journalists turfed out of the hall listened to the "private" session and transcribed it word for word whilst huddled round the ventilation ducts and open windows.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

In the good old days

As reported earlier this week, I'm ploughing my way through some second-hand Labour history books.

First up is "The Road to Brighton Pier" by Leslie Hunter.

This everyday story of sectarian folk knifing each other in the back makes any tensions in the current cabinet look exceptionally tame.

Synopsis so far - I've only got to 1955:

Everyone hates Nye. Except his fan club (Harold, Barbara, Footy et al) who adore him.

And except the ordinary members of the Labour Party. Who adore him but have no say in the party because the unions hold over 90% of the votes and hate the left.

The TGWU, NUM and GMWU have over 1/3 of the total vote at conference, and are run by ferocious disciplinarian commie-baiters who think nothing of shouting "shut 'yer gob" at Walter Wolfgang style hecklers and openly advocate the expulsion of Bevan and up to 1/4 of the PLP for breaking the whip (the Chief Whip at one point suspends 57 MPs from the PLP) - once - on German rearmament. They think this will help win the 1955 General Election. They also propose - over drinks in a hotel at the Margate conference - abolition of the 7 constituency seats on the NEC so that the whole thing is elected by them.

The left, led by Cripps, tries to oust Attlee as leader in 1947 but screws it up.

Rightwing PPSs try to do the same thing a year later but also screw it up.

Attlee hangs on as leader for 2 decades just to spite Herbert Morrison by not retiring until Herbert is old and past it.

Attlee stops Nye getting expelled despite Nye's serial disloyalty to him.

The right hold every key cabinet/shadow cabinet position after 1950 but can't get it together to oust Attlee because they hate each other so much. Bevin hates Morrison. And vice versa. Everyone hates Dalton.

The CLPs take out their frustration at only having 10% of the votes on policy and no say at all over leader (elected only by MPs) by voting Morrison, Dalton and Shinwell, heroes of the '45 government, off the NEC.

Next chapter ... they are all surprised to lose another General Election ...

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Hazel campaign launches

Unfortunately I wasn't able to make it to Hazel Blears' Deputy Leadership campaign launch in Salford today due to childcare commitments.

I'm on her website as an endorser though - along with MPs Kali Mountford, Steve Pound, Eric Joyce, Dari Taylor, Andy Burnham, Caroline Flint, Rosemary McKenna and Kitty Ussher.

The site is here: http://www.hazelblears.com/

Also declaring their support for Hazel today was NEC Member Peter Wheeler on his blog here.

To quote (and agree with) Peter:

"For me there is no decision to make. Hazel has my full support. She is a breath of fresh air, positive, dynamic, modern in outlook and rooted in the Labour community she was born in. Hazel will be a real asset as the Deputy Leader."

Friday, February 23, 2007

Oops there goes another one

And then there were 18. The incredible shrinking Socialist Campaign Group of MPs. C'mon Diane you must be getting bored with the Commons when you could be doing telly the whole time... (hat tip: The Daily)

Election time

Last night's Hackney N & Stoke Newington Constituency Labour Party AGM, held at the Halkevi Turkish & Kurdish Community Centre was enlivened by a contested election featuring the author of this blog.

For some unfathomable reason the Hard Left broke off from moaning about Michael Meacher to run a candidate against me for the glamorous and highly sought-after position of Vice-Chair (Membership), a post I've held for six years.

I gather this has something to do with the internal dynamics of Leabridge Branch Labour Party, where the traditionally dominant Labour Left Briefing faction is being outflanked to the left (!) by new folks who I think may be connected to the AWL. Even more to branch commissar Graham Bash's chagrin the traditionally dominant West Ham fans in the branch are slowly being outnumbered by Leyton Orient entryists.

Anyway, I won by 24 votes to 7, so the comrades retired, hurt.

Even better than the result was that Diane Abbott MP as a non-delegate had to count the ballot papers.

Swings and roundabouts

A day of very mixed emotions for me - at last with Hazel Blears' entry into the race there is someone worth enthusiastically supporting for for Deputy Leader but on the very same day Morrissey disappoints us all by pulling out of Eurovision. I suppose a Salford double win was too much to hope for.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Hackney goes up a grade

Today's CPA (Comprehensive Performance Assessment) ranking of local authorities has my own council, Hackney, listed as "a Council that is improving well and demonstrating a 2 star overall performance."

This may not sound like big news, but only 4 or 5 years ago Hackney was a zero star authority, the worst performing in the country.

The Audit Commission now says:

"Hackney has established arrangements to support continued improvement and in some areas is among the fastest improving councils in the country. More than three-quarters of performance indicators show improvement, but in a number of areas overall outcomes remain low in comparison to other local authorities, for example, the length of stay in bed and breakfast accommodation. The Council has made good progress against its key priority areas. It has improved its services, including the cleanliness of streets. Hackney scored well in the 2006 review of services for children and young people and has provided effective community leadership which has increased civic pride in Hackney. Resident satisfaction and education performance are improving. The Council is making effective contributions to wider community outcomes, for example increasing recycling performance. The Service First programme is improving access to services. Hackney can now continue to improve the way it works and the services it provides. It has increased its capacity to improve and there are no significant weaknesses in corporate governance. There are grounds for confidence that improvement will continue."

Back in 2000 - the last year of Hackney being a hung council before Labour took control - it was rated "Poor Service - Uncertain prospects for improvement" and the Commission was saying:

"Hackney is not a well run council and has not been for too long. There are some good services in Hackney and there are many staff who are working hard and doing a good job. The council has pioneered some excellent initiatives. However, Hackney’s weaknesses are fundamental and considerably outweigh its strengths:
  • The council has very serious financial problems and has not yet got these under control. It cannot meet its anticipated financial commitments without significant expenditure reductions. These problems are so serious as to threaten the council’s ability to function satisfactorily. The Council faces a deficit of up to £40m in 2000/1 if urgent action is not taken. Resolving financial difficulties has not been given sufficient priority. In the past the council has been poorly served by the financial information and advice it has received from its officers.
  • There has not been clear political leadership and it remains too difficult to identify how decisions are made and how to challenge them. Councillors in all parties lack the information and advice they need to make well-founded judgements on how well the council does its job; how much it should spend; what level of taxes and charges are right; what changes will make the most difference and what type of partner or employer it wishes to be.
  • The council does not have a strong team of top managers to play a key part in leading it out of trouble. It has recently appointed a new Managing Director and Director of Social Services which is a start. The other top posts covering education, environment, housing, finance and other services are vacant or soon will be. New recruits are being sought. Interim managers have been recruited to cover some essential posts. Nevertheless, the lack of a full team of talented experienced and committed top managers remains a major gap. The financial management function is particularly under strength and this is a vital area given the problems facing the council.
  • Some essential services are failing the council’s citizens. 17,000 housing benefit claims are awaiting assessment. Tenants face eviction and social landlords face financial losses. A by-product of this failure is that the deficit in the council tax collection fund will increase in 2000/1 and the council faces a cash shortfall. The waste collection and street cleansing services are not meeting even basic standards though they are among the most expensive in the country. While improvements have been made the council’s care for children at risk remains below required standards. Hackney is among the highest spenders in local government but many services remain below acceptable standards.
  • There is a culture of depressed cynicism amongst many of the council’s management. Years of structural change and uncoordinated innovation have undermined staff energy and enthusiasm and created suspicion about necessary change. Sound financial management and some basic services have suffered as a result. One of the borough’s strengths – its racial and cultural diversity – has been turned into a problem as the Council has failed to learn better ways of tackling racism and discrimination and become mired in the fall out from high profile disputes and past mistakes."

Will the real left candidate please stand up?

Meacher vs. McDonnell. Like two bald men fighting over a comb.

I am increasingly of the view that all mainstream opinion in the party should rally in behind Brown.

Let's have a clear left-right choice - whichever of those 2 jokers can muster 44 nominations vs. Gordon - and settle the argument about whether the party goes forward and builds on the successful strategy of the last ten years or back into the wilderness.

EXCLUSIVE: Flint to manage Blears campaign

As speculation mounts that Hazel Blears is about to announce she is joining the Labour Deputy Leadership race I have it on good authority that her Campaign Manager will be Public Health Minister Caroline Flint MP.

Having one of Labour's acknowledged ministerial rising stars - in fact someone who had themselves been speculated about by an anonymous MP on politicalbetting.com as a potential DL contender - running Hazel's campaign sends some very good messages about the strength of her bid.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Polls

I gather from www.politicalbetting.com that Tuesday's ICM poll makes grim reading.

For solace, read about our colleagues in the Aussie Labor Party having a 5% poll lead (rising to 8% on the preferred vote) and their leader Kevin Rudd having a record-breaking 68% approval rating.

Don't all emigrate at once.

New on my bookshelf

I've just gone on a Labour history second hand book spree and bought:

The Road to Brighton Pier - Leslie Hunter (1959) - the story of "how the Labour Party almost destroyed itself in the turbulent years between the resignation of Nye Bevan from the Cabinet in 1951 and his miraculous escape from expulsion in 1955".

The Labour Party Conference - Lewis Minkin (1978) - explores who wielded the block vote in the '70s.

In My Way - George Brown (1970) - the "fighting memoirs" of Wilson's deputy.

The House the Left Built - Michael Hatfield (1978) - how the Labour Party ended up in 1974 with its "most left-wing programme in thirty years".

Has anyone out there read any of these and if so, any recommendations on which one to start first?

Stars in their eyes

I wasn't needing convincing abour replacing Trident, but if I was then CND's enlistment of some of the blandest names in British music probably would have convinced me.

Thom Yorke, Damon Albarn, Razorlight, Snow Patrol, Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, Super Furry Animals and Supergrass all say "ban the bomb".

Who needs the bomb any way, we could deter our enemies by threatening to bombard them with Snow Patrol at full volume on a perpetual loop.

And what a clinching argument: the chiefs of staff say we need a strategic deterrent, but Razorlight say we don't. Give me strength.

I wouldn't trust Razorlight's judgement on choosing a breakfast cereal let alone whether to invest in a new generation of nuclear weapons.

Royal Navy vs Belgian Navy

I was sympathetic to Admiral Sir Jonathon Band's appeal for extra cash for the Royal Navy if it is to be expected to fulfill the busy role the Government wants it to - and before anyone asks, no my work doesn't involve advising any shipbuilding companies.


However, the Admiral's suggestion that the RN risked turning into a force on the scale of the Belgian Navy was just a tad hyperbolic, as the numbers show:


Current RN fleet:


3 aircraft carriers
3 amphibious assult ships
8 destroyers
17 frigates
4 SSBN Trident-carrying submarines
9 SSN attack submarines
1 Antarctic Patrol ship
5 patrol vessels
5 survey vessels
15 minehunters


Current Belgian Navy fleet:

2 frigates
6 minehunters

er... that's it unless you count tugs, a yacht and this mighty vessel which used to patrol the Rhine and now does "public relations missions":



So we have some distance to go before catching up with Belgium.

Cruddas on social housing

There's a report in of all places the Mail on Sunday about Jon Cruddas' concerns about social housing.

Assuming they've reported what he said accurately he's right that there is a lack of social housing being built in London at the moment. But:

- he's wrong to say this is "a generic political problem" wider than London and the South East - in fact the problem in some cities is over-supply of cheap housing, leading to empty tinned-up houses on fairly new estates which then slide into decay - this is why some northern councils are actively seeking to get tenants from Hackney and other inner London boroughs to transfer and live in bigger homes outside London

- it definitely isn't a problem as he is quoted as saying that "access to housing is becoming racialised because of a lack of supply." I'm surprised he would repeat this dangerous myth being put about by the far right. The truth is that most of the ethnic minority residents arriving on council estates in Jon's borough of Barking & Dagengham are not impoverished asylum seekers getting housed by the council because they are in housing need - they are people with jobs (often if they are Asian or West African highly qualified with degrees) who are moving out of the inner city and buying properties as home-owners from 1st generation white right-to-buyers who are moving on out to dearer places like Canvey Island or Billericay. These people aren't reducing the social housing stock in London if they are buying homes that already were owner-occupied - they are freeing up the social housing they have vacated further into the city. The problem is a cultural one - some white people in outer London need to get their heads round the fact that there are black and other ethnic minority people who have better paid jobs than they do and hence can buy houses in the suburbs.

Glissement Peter Hain style

"Glissement" is a French political term meaning "sliding". It was used to describe the process whereby the entry of the PCF (Communist Party) onto the scene in the 1920s caused the parties to the right of it - the then SFIO (Socialists), Left Radicals and Radicals to "slide" leftwards.

Something similar seems to be happening in the Labour Deputy Leadership election as soft left candidates like Peter Hain realise Jon Cruddas has stolen much of their thunder and are scrambling to look more left - which necessarily needs to be confined to pronouncements on internal party matters if you are for the moment bound by Cabinet collective responsibility on wider policy questions.

Hain's latest wheeze, according to Barckley Sumner in Tribune and Labour Home is to suggest considering the idea that OMOV ballots for Trade Union General Secretaries should be replaced by workplace balloting.

I think he has lost the plot. This is extremely regressive and anti-democratic - a recipe for a return to the bad-old days when union machines of both right and left could deliver internal elections through jiggery-pokery in a small number of large workplaces. It would make the public extremely suspicious about the internal democracy of the unions at a time when to justify the union link and union funding of the Party the governance arrangements involved need to be transparent.

And it seems to indicate a view of trade unionism that is rooted in a world of mass-unionised major industrial workplaces which is shrinking - what about all the union members in workplaces where it is difficult to organise, or in the kind of small workplaces that are increasingly the norm - surely there should be a level playing field so that in the TGWU for example 5,000 TGWU members at a car factory don't find it easier to vote in union elections than 5,000 TGWU members scattered about in smaller workplaces that the union is trying to break into?

I think Tom Watson is thinking along similar lines on this to me:
http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/?p=966#comments

5 down, 19 to go

Socialist Campaign Group member Alan Simpson MP has announced his retirement at the next election - the fifth member of a group already down to only 24 MPs to do so.

With the weak record of Hard Left MPs in ensuring they are succeeded by their ideological allies when they retire - largely because the grassroots of the Party are no longer inspired by shouty sloganeers - is the continued survival of this current in the Party as an organised faction in the PLP sustainable?

Hopefully not.

No10 petition

Those of us who think disincentivising car use is a good thing and might actually help ensure our children inherit an environment worth living in can also now do some petition signing on the no10 website like the car lobby have been. The link is here: http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/TRACK-CARS/

Friday, February 16, 2007

In praise of Hattersley

I never thought I'd write the words "in praise of Roy Hattersley" but I thought compared to his rather negative journalistic pieces in the Guardian he was brilliant on Question Time last night. I didn't agree with everything he said but the contrast between his intelligent and humane approach to the issues compared with fellow panelists Norman Tebbit and Richard Littlejohn was a timely reminder of the real dividing lines in politics.

It made me think what a better country this would be now, and how many people would have been saved the misery of poverty and unemployment in the '80s, if we had had Healey, then Hattersley, then John Smith as our prime ministers rather than Thatcher and Major.

And I agreed with him on the nuclear power consultation issue - he said words to the effect that Governments should run for election on a clear policy platform, do what was in their manifesto, and then if people don't like it they can vote them out - you can't expect to consult and get a consensus on controversial issues.

Vote Hazel

I hope this is true ... and at last we have someone running for Deputy Leader telling it like it is about the future direction of the Labour Party ""She will say that the party risks losing at the next election if it makes “the mistake of a lurch to the Left . . . The idea that we win a fourth term by distancing ourselves from that leadership or by dismissing our own successes is dangerously misguided” " rather than joining in a dutch auction of naff faux leftism.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Compass vs Brown

Gordon Brown has very publicly backed the replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent.

The policy is being steered by Defence Secretary Des Browne, one of his allies.

Compass today launched a "Rethink Trident" campaign attacking the Government's policy. The signatories to this show that they have enlisted as allies hard left MPs like Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Respect's George Galloway, and Lib Dems like Ming Campbell and Shirley Williams (ironically someone who helped split the Labour Party because she opposed unilateralism ... hey there's consistency for you!).

Hopefully once he is PM Brown will remember the position taken by Compass on a policy he has given his personal backing to, and their penchant for alliances of convenience with Labour's most destructive internal oppoositionalists and our external enemies (including the SNP who are trying to exploit the Trident issue to beat Labour in the Scottish Parliamentary elections in May).

Neal Lawson and Compass have always tried to trade on alleged links to Brown. I always thought they were exaggerated and that Brown's own politics are on the right of the party. Now they are openly at war with him on one of the central policies that defines whether you are remotely serious about having an electable Labour Party or not. They don't just want to turn the clock back to before 1994, they want to unpick a policy settlement that was arrived at as long ago as 1988.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Reaching the audiences that matter most

If I was advising a Deputy Leadership contender I would be telling them to remember not just to get coverage in the publications read by Labour activists: the Guardian, the Indie, the Observer, New Statesman, Tribune, the Mirror, but also those read by rank-and-file trade union members - other tabloid papers, trade press for particular jobs that are heavily unionised, in-house union journals etc.

Hilary Benn is interviewed today in that well-known organ of the British centre-left, the Financial Times. Which must be read by at least a dozen people with votes in the deputy leadership election.

Travel expenses

As MPs' travel expenses have now been publicly declared, I am happy to reveal that the travel expenses I have claimed from the London Borough of Hackney in the 5 years I have been a councillor total nil pounds nil pence.

The political kiss of death

The moment when you realise that support for your leadership ambitions may be a little premature and confined to the outer fringes of the the PLP is when you get endorsed by Frank Field. Still it could have been worse, Alan Milburn hasn't declared who he's backing yet.

Mass membership here again?

Things seem to be getting exciting in the Labour Party's affiliated Black Socialist Society. So exciting that the competing factions in the BSS are by themselves reversing the 10 year trend of declining Labour Party membership.

The Party rules say that the BSS gets its own member of Labour's NEC if it gets big enough:

"The NEC shall comprise:

... one member elected by the Labour Party Black Socialist Society at its conference as laid down in the rules of the socialist society. This member to be elected once the individual membership of the socialist society has reached 2,500 and at least one third of eligible trade unions have also affiliated to the socialist society."

According to the 1990 trust website - http://www.blink.org.uk/ - "Black Socialist Society (BSS) elections are believed to be causing party workers headaches after Labour were sent sack-loads of membership forms with dubious signatures. Three thousand five hundred membership forms were returned in just two weeks." The site alleges former minister Keith Vaz has ambitions to be the BSS rep on the NEC.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ruth Kelly on Social Housing

I saw Ruth Kelly speak on housing policy at the Fabians today.

Some good thinking - as well as proposing getting people on the home ownership ladder with the option of owning 10% of their council or housing association home (and reinvesting the proceeds in new stock) - because research shows more than 50% of tenants aspire to own their home but most can't afford full ownership or current shared-ownership schemes - she said in answer to questions “yes we need to build more social homes … more council homes, more housing association homes.” She suggested there was funding to come for building social housing in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review.

I hope this happens sooner rather than later - there is a huge shortage of social (and intermediate affordable) housing across inner London and most of my caseload as a ward councillor is overcrowded families in small flats who desperately need a new larger home.

For the commenters on previous posts claiming not to be able to tell the difference between Labour and the Tories, do they think Tory shadow ministers care about social housing tenants or would be in favour of building more social housing? I have personal experience of Tory politicians saying they don't want social housing included in new developments because they "don't want more of those kind of people in their constituency". Would the Tories have invested billions in the Decent Homes programme like we have so that every council tenant will get a minimum standard of warmth and weatherproofing and a modern kitchen and bathroom? I doubt it.

I'll let this one write itself

As the comments sections below are taking on a life of their own, I'll let Owen et al write this one themselves.

Tony Blair has been a good Labour Prime Minister. Discuss.

Over to you to fight it out amongst yourselves:

Monday, February 12, 2007

Use class craziness

Sometimes the law is an ass.

Like when planning law classifies a betting shop as the identical “use class” to a bank – so Corals, the new leaseholders of the historic 19th century Old Town Hall in Hackney's Narrow Way (last used as an HSBC bank) do not even need to apply to planning for a change of use, and there is no scope legally for the Council to stop this usage, despite the fact that there is a massive oversupply of betting shops in central Hackney (an area with a huge amount of poverty and deprivation), and it runs totally counter to our efforts to regenerate the area.

The A2 use class covers “Financial and Professional Services" defined as "Banks, building societies, estate and employment agencies, professional and financial services, betting offices”.

If someone tries to convert a shop (use class A1) or restaurant (use class A3) into a betting shop (or indeed a bank) they have to ask for change of use permission from the planners - but not to convert a bank to a betting shop or vice versa (which is probably why Corals bought this particular property).

So I'm currently having to write back to numerous constituents who want me to stop this telling them that because some genius at DCLG thinks betting is the same "use class" as saving, there's nothing I can do to stop it.

Footnote: Our elected Mayor tells me Hackney Council tried to buy the building when the bank shut, so that it could be used to help the regeneration of central Hackney, but the freeholders refused to sell it to the council.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Hangover cures

There's nothing like waking up to an opinion poll showing Labour up and the Tories down and most of the papers starting to pick away at the story of exactly what David Cameron's lifestyle was like before he became an MP to put a spring back in your step. Maybe next they could look at what his politics were before he became leader too - which is of rather more importance.

Place-shaping comes to Mare Street

Yesterday was Labour's Local Government Forum. The financial plight of the Party means this has somewhat downsized from the Spring Conferences of yesteryear.

Actually it has completely downsized and conveniently (for me, not for any delegates from outside Hackney trying to penetrate north London's only tube-free borough) was held at Hackney Town Hall, rather than the Gateshead Sage Centre or the Blackpool Winter Gardens.

The assembled massed ranks of Labour's municipal praetorian guard got to hear from Hilary Benn (very impressively without notes), and attend worthy seminars about such concepts as "place-shaping" (local government jargon for making somewhere nice to live).

LGA Labour Group Leader Sir Jeremy Beecham cheered up everyone there from Hackney by saying we were now "a leading Labour local authority".

I met fellow Labour blogger Antonia Bance who made a spirited case for unitary status for Oxford City Council in one of the seminars.

The day was enlivened by a mini-demo on the Town Hall steps by the Hackney Stop the War Coalition, who may have been a bit misguided about where power lies in the Labour Party (clue: a small group of councillors having earnest debates about place-shaping are unlikely to be able to stop a war, however much they might want to).

A pleasant if rather anoraky day was rounded off by dinner at The Empress of India an excellent new restaurant near Victoria Park. A restaurant in Hackney that serves foie gras and lobster thermidor. There's place-shaping for you.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Council by-elections

Good result in Croydon last night in a council by-election - showing that in a borough with a history of good grassroots campaigning Labour has bounced back from losing the council in May:

Bensham Manor Ward
Labour 1683 (61.6%) (+13.6% )
Con 617 (22.6%) (-6.4%)
Green 240 (8.8%) (-6.3%)
Lib Dem 126 (4.6%)
UKIP 40 (1.5%) (-6.4%)
OMRLP 15 (0.5%)
People's Choice 9 (0.3%)

Swing of exactly 10% from Con to Lab.

And another Labour hold in Bede Ward, Nuneaton, which had been thought to be under threat from the Tories, who it had been a straight fight with in 2006:

Labour 658 (37.6%) (-17.3%)
BNP 546 (31.2%)
Con 301 (17.2%) (-27.9%)
LibDem 119 (6.8%)
Eng Dem 75 (4.3%)
Save NHS 43 (2.5%)
UKIP 8 (0.5%)

Recruiting councillors

Ruth Kelly has announced she is looking at giving ward councillors a £10k budget "to spend on their local area as part of a drive to improve the quality and diversity of councillors".

A worthy objective, but I'm not convinced a nugatory budget like that will impact on councillor recruitment. And what happens where the BNP have councillors? Are they really going to each be given £10k to spend on "local projects" without full council approval?

There are some more fundamental issues that need to be looked at to recruit a more diverse range of councillors:

- Recognition that most councillors are elected on party political tickets so actually this is as much a problem for the political parties as the DCLG. If local political parties aren't themselves representative of the wider communities they are part of, then your pool of potential councillors won't be representative. Labour is already insisting 1 candidate in every Labour-held 3 member ward has to be a woman - will the other parties follow? Is best practice being disseminated from authorities like Lambeth and Hackney where the ethnic diversity of the Labour Groups has been dramatically improved by proactive recruitment of BME candidates? If the shrinkage in political party membership can be reversed then inevitably there will be more young members available to run as council candidates.
- Scrap the ridiculous concept of "daytime authorities". In London almost all council meetings are in the evenings, after work. In most county councils and metropolitan authorities they meet during the day. Hence no one with a private sector employer can realistically manage to be a councillor, and the profile of the councillors is dominated by the retired, the self-employed, the unemployed and people with public sector employers who will give them time off for public duties.
- Revise the "Widdecombe" rules which restrict which local government employees can be councillors/political activists. We don't want a return to the days when in theory the leader of a district council could be chief exec of the relevant county council and there is an obvious conflict between being a member and employee of the same authority. But currently the rules cut in at too low a level and exclude a whole bunch of people who actually understand and care about local government from playing a voluntary role in civic life outside work. If you are a middle-ranking council officer in say, Camden, but live in Islington, surely you should be encouraged to be an Islington councillor in your spare time, not banned from doing it?
- Unfortunately the only real driver that has made it easier in recent years to recruit council candidates is that the "pay" - or rather allowances - are now at a sensible level. This is not because councillors are venal - it's because they - particularly the younger people who are currently "missing" from most local authorities - have mortgages to pay the same as anyone else and if you want to be a Cabinet/Executive member you need to either stop doing your day job or go part time, and even if you are a backbencher and only doing evening meetings then you are likely to forego some promotion opportunities by being the person in the office that always leaves dead on 5.30 to go to a committee meeting. The DCLG shouldn't shy away from measuring the direct correlation between councillor recruitment/retention and allowance levels.

You know you are a bit over-involved in the Labour Party when...

Your child's bedtime is timed so they are asleep before the start of the CLP Executive meeting in your front room ... and after the meeting your partner says how good it is that your new home is "ideal as an election day committee room - just the right space for a pasting table for the Reading pads for each polling district".

Thursday, February 08, 2007

What is it about the Tories and public transport?

One of the weirder things about being a councillor is seeing the anger of Tory councillors whenever anything negative is said about car-use or anything positive about other modes of transport.

"Dave" Cameron may cycle to work (with a car behind carrying his briefcase) but his footsoldiers (or rather car-mounted-soldiers) in my borough vote against controlled parking and campaign against speed limits outside local schools, and one of them goes into a rage everytime we do anything to encourage cycling (I gather this is because "they get in the way of cars").

It seems that the Tory group on the GLA suffer from the same affliction.

You or I might think Ken's London-wide free bus and tram travel for all under 18s in full-time education was a no-brainer - reducing the number of cars doing the school run and giving mobility to young people.

But the GLA Tories want to scrap it.

The TUC in London has called for a lobby of Assembly Members at City Hall, 9.00-10.15am, 14 February, when the London Assembly will be holding its 'final budget meeting'. Unions in London will urge parent's groups, children's charities and anti-poverty groups to join the lobby, which will ask all Assembly Members to defend the existing fares concession to London's under 18s who are in full-time education.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Lords Reform (again)

A commenter on the post below wants to know what I think about the House of Lords Reform proposals.

I did post about this a week ago, but just to make it extra clear I'll repeat myself.

I don't believe that any one who has not been elected by the people should be involved in passing the laws we live under.

So I am in favour of a 100% elected Upper House, starting now.

No ifs, no buts.

No "phasing out" of hereditaries or life peers.

No Bishops or other faith group reps.

No appointed "experts".

No prime ministerial patronage.

If "experts", bishops, retired or defeated politicians, independents or whatever else want to get involved in passing laws they can stand for election.

It's known as "democracy" - rule by the people.

It's the "democratic" bit of the phrase "the Labour Party is a democratic socialist party" in the new Clause IV of the party constitution.

I haven't got a clue how anyone can justify any other method of picking members of a legislature.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

God bless the British public

Because after weeks of everything that could be being chucked at Labour, today's Populus poll in the Times shows Labour up 1% from early January to 33%, the Tories down 3% to 36% and the Lib Dems up 1% to 19%.

For those of you who can't be bothered to stick this into the various election prediction sites, this would give Labour 305 seats, the Tories 273 and the LDs 40.

With Brown as leader the gap narrows further to 34% vs 35% - which would give Labour 323 seats and the Tories 253.

Perhaps the public are making their judgement based on the economic performance of the government, and its policies for the things that affect their lives, rather than short-term headlines.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Basic sociology and demographics for the Labour left

Some of the responses I get to my critique of Cruddas' strategic vision (at least he has one, as opposed to the Hard Left whose strategy is "stop the world I want to get off") indicate a worrying ignorance of some basic facts:

1) Embourgeoisement and de-industrialisation. Britain has been getting more middle class for over 50 years. That's one of the reasons why the underlying trend in the Labour vote (ignoring the short term self-inflicted losses of the early '80s and a temporary upward blip in 1966) was down from the early '50s right through to 1997. The industrial working class is shrinking. Trade union membership is half what it was in 1979 because so many people no longer work in unionised industries. Most people are generally more prosperous - objectively - than their parents and grandparents - and a very large percentage of the population live lifestyles in terms of consumption that would have been the preserve of an elite few in the 1950s. Right-to-buy means far more people are home-owners. The language of appeals to the "Labour core vote" says nothing to them about their lives.

2) An ageing population - because the birth rate has gone down and people live longer. And older people are generally less radical than younger ones, and more concerned with their personal and financial security.

3) Population movement on a huge scale - from "Labour" cities and industrial areas to "Tory" suburbs and rural areas, and from the "Labour" North and West to the "Tory" South and East. This would not matter a jot in a PR electoral system, but under FPTP with regular boundary changes to ensure constituencies are of roughly equal size, it means there are fewer and fewer safe Labour seats and the territory Labour needs to form a majority is more and more "middle class".

So the "back to the core vote" strategy isn't a strategy. It's a political suicide note.

What would happen in a hung parliament?

Mike Smithson of Politicalbetting.com has asked, from a Lib Dem perspective, what would the Lib Dems do in a hung parliament?

I can only speak from a Labour perspective. My instinct is that if we were the largest party but had no majority, we would try to struggle on as a minority government, and dare the other parties to risk irritating the electorate by triggering a second election with a confidence vote.

If we are not the largest party it will be game over anyway.

I cannot visualise circumstances where Brown (or his sucessor?) would consider a coalition with the Lib Dems because to do so would cause so much anger in the PLP and wider party - one of the things that unites almost all Labour MPs and activists is hatred for the Lib Dems, largely brought on themselves by the opportunist way they campaign at a local level.

The tiny number of enthusiasts for Lib/Labery who advocated it in the run-up to 1997 may have had influence then but won't under the more tribal Brown - and after ten years of the Lib Dems undermining a Labour government.

I assume the Tories don't trust them any more than we do.

So really the question is not so much what would the Lib Dems do in a hung parliament? as "would the Lib Dems vote down a minority government formed by the largest party, or would they not risk a second election?"

The Benn Dynasty

Tony Benn said at the weekend:

"If it turns out that the Labour Party have a coronation, I mean we might as well have a heredity leader of the Labour Party."

Perhaps it was a little unwise for him to draw attention to the hereditary principle in Labour politics given the Mr Benn's paternal grandad was a Liberal MP, his maternal grandad was also an MP, his dad was a Liberal MP (for the same seat as the grandfather!) then later a Labour Minister, and his son is also an MP, Cabinet Minister, and candidate for the same post - Deputy Leader - that Mr Benn senior ran for.

Unsolicited CVs

Charles Clarke has offered his services as Prime Minister, saying this in today's Guardian:

"Asked if he might stand against the chancellor himself, he replied: "I don't think events have made that a very possible set of circumstances, but I do not rule it out.""

I hate to break it to Charles but there are not really hordes of Labour Party members clamouring for his handling of the Home Office to be replicated at No10.

Don't call us, Charles, we'll call you.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Reasons not to diss swing voters No1

Reasons not to diss swing voters No1:

If your parliamentary seat has had its boundaries changed and name changed to Dagenham & Rainham, lost three council estate wards to Barking and picked up three wards from Hornchurch where the Tories are competitive or ahead, perhaps it hasn't been wise to have devoted so much energy to telling the Labour Party to pay less heed to the concerns of the kind of swing voters who pick between Labour and the Tories.

My partner happened to be the Labour full-time Agent for Hornchurch in 2005. She describes one of the new wards moved into Dagenham & Rainham - Rainham & Wennington as "semi-rural, with wall-to-wall owner-occupied bungalows and villas and a very elderly population". Just the kind of people who will respond to a more radical Labour Party. Not.

London Tory activist Sean Fear claims that "Dagenham & Rainham provides an outside chance of a Conservative gain".

Maybe the seat's MP's misguided strategy would do for him as well as his colleagues in the seats that make up Labour's majority, if we were foolish enough to adopt it.

Tories reach Foot's success level (notionally)

The Rallings & Thrasher notional election results have now been published.

These are the "official numbers" that the BBC will quote in their coverage of the next election - they take the 2005 election results and transpose them onto the new boundaries that the next General Election will be fought on.

They provide a timely reminder of just what a mountain the Tories have to climb, for they show the Tories notionally hold just 210 seats - exactly 1 more, after 10 years in opposition, than Labour under Michael Foot won in the wipeout year of 1983 - after which it took Labour another 3 General Elections and 3 leaders to regain power.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Akehurst on tour part 2

Last night saw me go to Greenwich & Woolwich CLP to debate Trident replacement against Kate Hudson, national Chair of CND.

As the CLP Chair will be reading this, I'll take the opportunity to thank them for being a polite and very well-informed audience. There were a lot of very experienced activists in the room who could cite memories not just of the '80s (when both the then Greenwich & Woolwich constituencies fell to the SDP) but of the start of CND in the '50s. In the audience was David Gardner, the man whose number crunching in Walworth Road helped Labour come out of the early '90s parliamentary boundary review some 20 seats better off than was expected.

As with my debate on the same subject with Walter Wolfgang at Harrow West, no vote was taken, but I think the majority in the room took the opposite view to me.

What did come across was that there are a lot of people out there in the party with intelligent contributions to make to policy debate and a lack of opportunities to contribute - NEC and NPF please note and start thinking about how to involve CLPs more in policy-making.

It was one of those good debates where you come away with respect for the integrity and thoughtfulness of the position taken by your opponent - and as Kate Hudson is a Hackney resident I got a lift back north of the river (on condition that I agreed not to talk about Trident all the way home).

Historical footnote: Greenwich & Woolwich was the first CLP in the Labour Party to have a ward structure (to fight the 1906 election) and the first to have individual members as opposed to just union, ILP and Fabian affiliated branches - so you could say it is the birthplace of the current organisational model of the Labour Party.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Council Tax freeze for Hackney

Full Council last night saw the Mayor announce Labour's budget plans for Hackney Council.
For the first time in memory we were able to do this far enough in advance to enable the Overview & Scrutiny Board to scrutinise the proposals before they are voted on at the budget-setting council.
In complete contrast to Hackney as a hung council in the late '90s, when budget night looked like this:

and involved riot police, huge cuts and often council tax increases at the same time, in year 5 of a Labour administration we are able to propose that:
  • Hackney’s part of the council tax is being frozen for the second year in a row - with a 0% rise for 2007/8.

  • Rising collection rates and efficiency savings at the Town Hall mean we are able to put more money into key services without putting up council tax.

  • It will be the fifth year that there are NO cuts in services in Hackney’s budget

  • There will be boosts for key services including:

    KIDS SWIM FREE: An extra £295K to fund free access to all residents under 18 to swimming lessons during school holidays – starting this Easter.
    BETTER CUSTOMER SERVICE: An extra £80K to extend the opening hours of the Hackney Service Centre from 8am-6pm Monday-Friday to 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday AND Saturday morning. More translating services for customers without English as a first language.
    STREET WARDENS: Investment to secure the future for Hackney’s Street Wardens to help make our borough cleaner and safer.
    MORE RECYCLING: An extra £250K to roll out compulsory recycling across the borough including for plastics and to introduce blue bins for kitchen waste to all kerbside collections. MORE TREES: An extra 500 trees on Hackney’s street this year alone – reducing our carbon footprint and making Hackney greener.
    GREENER HACKNEY: An extra £1.3m to improve Hackney’s parks and green spaces

    In addition, Hackney’s schools are getting an extra £11 million to continue the improvements in education in Hackney that have seen GCSE results improve from 32% in 2002 to 51% today.

So the Town Hall square on Budget night 2007 should look more like this:

Don't be silly Mr Cruddas

Jon Cruddas has got himself some headlines by calling for all the other Deputy Leadership contenders to resign from government but also made himself look daft.

The resignation of half a dozen senior ministers would totally destabilise the Government. It would suggest to the electorate that we think an internal party debate about an internal party election is more important than getting on with running government departments.

His blanket accusation that the people he is standing against have all spent "10 years of doing the nodding-dog routine" is insulting - he's worked in government, he understands how collective responsibility works and that you have the arguments behind closed doors.

The BBC mentions that Cruddas "is thought to have strong support among trade unionists". I think the truth may emerge that yes he does have strong support among a small layer of senior union full-timers, but when the actual union members get to vote, I doubt many of them will have a clue who he is - today's headline-grabbing throw-away comment is part of his strategy for addressing that - but publicity for its own sake can expose lack of thought-through content.

 
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