Real Left politics couldn’t be more personal
(Guest post: What follows is a reaction to Liberal Conspiracy’s Blog Nation conference and subsequent blogging from veteran Leftie and journalist Kate Belgrave)
Way back in 2006, when we all had jobs and Tony Blair was standing down as leader very slowly, I talked to two older guys (a couple of the people that Carmen D’Cruz referred to so charmingly as ‘lessers’ in a recent column) about the reasons why they’d had enough of the Labour party. The party had lost several hundred thousand members by that point and was kicking the bucket before our very eyes, just like the Lib Dems are now.
As longtime grassroots Labour members, the two men were concerned about a very specific sort of Labour treachery.
They said that the party was abandoning the working class, because it was playing fast and loose with public services (we were at a John McDonnell for Leader meeting talking about the privatising of public services and outsourcing of public sector jobs). One of the men gave his name as Bob Mitchell (not the well known one). Originally from Battersea, he’d left home at 14 and gone straight to work in a munitions factory. After that, in peacetime, his job had been installing telephones.
‘Everything Blair has handled has been bad,’ he said. ‘Schools, hospitals, power.’ He felt that the government had prioritised finance for the Iraq war over public services.
The other guy was Patrick Clifford from Queens Park. He’d been a welder for British Rail for 25 years. ‘I never wanted Blair. He’s worse that Thatcher.’ He was absolutely clear about the point of public services, and the agenda of anyone who trifled with them. ‘Everything that was for the working class has been taken away. Health, education, even water. Those things were for us.’
There was much dialogue at the Blog Nation conference about the role that personal accounts from so-called ‘lessers’ can play in the fight against public sector cuts. I propose that we start by using the ones above (and for more see below) to make a simple but signal point; that surely, surely, no leftie needs telling that our governments destroy public services to attack the working class.
Certainly that’s how the working class themselves perceive it. It follows that no socialist in his or her right mind (there are still a few) would so much as share a cab with a Lib Dem now, let alone poke around in that party’s Tory-driven budget for common political ground. The Lib-Dems in government are essentially propping up Tory cuts.
Enough of my small views: let’s get to the anecdotes that we want the political class to hear. Let’s hear from real, live people who have used and contributed to public services, and watched their lives go to pieces as the rules of provision have changed, often to squeeze a few pounds more out of welfare budgets, or to make way for private housing developments or for any number of a hundred other bad reasons.
There’s the Fremantle careworkers. Their salaries, terms and conditions were destroyed when Barnet council outsourced care services to the Fremantle trust. Fremantle’s hardline approach appeared to yield thin fiscal results. Budget problems continued and Fremantle’s partner, Catalyst housing, ended up in arbitration with the council over demands for millions of pounds in extra funds.
‘I said [to management] – how do you expect us to be able to cope [with these cuts]? What [management] said is that you have to do extra hours to make up your pay. But what about the quality of our life – our daily life?’ –Fremantle careworker Lango Gamanga, 2007.
‘As far as I’m concerned. I worked hard. I came here all those years ago and I worked hard and then I got more leave and more wages. I’m 48 now. I don’t want to go back to how I was when I was 30… we’re not asking for a pay rise or anything like that. We’re just asking for what we had.’ –Fremantle careworker Sandra Jones, 2007.
‘The whole notion of carework is being derailed. I wouldn’t recommend going into the care sector now. It’s not just the loss of terms and conditions. It’s the whole working ethos. It feels a bit like a warehouse.’ –Fremantle careworker and union convenor Carmel Reynolds, 2007.
The first picture in a photo-essay on this story can be found here; there’s a button underneath to scroll through the others.
Or there’s the Sheltered Housing tenants in Barnet. I interviewed a series of elderly such tenants who faced the loss of their onsite wardens when Barnet council (famed for their failed Icelandic investments to the tune of £27m) looked to recoup a comparatively small amount (£950,000, later reduced to £400,000) by eliminating the role of warden.
What follows are snippets of interviews with elderly sheltered housing tenants who faced the loss of their onsite wardens when Barnet council (famed for failed Iceland investments to the tune of £27m) looked to recoup a comparatively small amount (£950,000, later reduced to about £400,000) by eliminating the warden role.
‘The majority of people went into these flats on the condition that wardens were going to be provided. If it doesn’t happen, they have to find other arrangements. They feel so insecure… The £950,000 a year for residential wardens is peanuts to them [the council], absolute peanuts. They just spent £27m of taxpayers’ money in Iceland.’ –David Young, 78, Barnet sheltered housing resident.
‘[The warden] keeps an eye on me in case I get depressed, and when I was, he called the psychiatrist and he made sure that I was perfectly looked after. I’m not able to do anything else, because I’m not rich enough to go into a home. I’ll have to stay in the flat and make sure that nothing happens to me. I will be be terrified. I really will.’ –Shirley Shears, 66, a Barnet sheltered housing resident who has schizophrenia.
There’s the story of Helena Ishmail. Ishmail ran the much-utilised Somali support group ‘Horn of Africa’ until Hammersmith and Fulham council cut all funding to the group as part of a wider assault upon the voluntary sector.
‘I’ve been running this centre for 20 years in the borough, and dealing with the council, and they did not even tell me that they were thinking about taking all our funding. There was no time that they tried to talk to me while they must have been making that decision. They didn’t speak to us.’ (At a now-legendary April 2007 public meeting on voluntary sector cuts, the council’s cabinet ran out of the room when Ismail got up to ask council leader Stephen Greenhalgh why her organisation had been targeted).
Sophia El-Kaddah was a young women severely disabled with cerebral palsy was helped by the Hammersmith Law Centre when she took the Acton Housing Association to court over their failure to carry out agreed accessibility moderations on her flat. I did a number of interviews with people who used the Hammersmith Law Centre when the council cut the centre’s funding by 60% in 2007.
‘I signed a contract for my flat, but I couldn’t move in for eight months, because they wouldn’t carry out the adjustments. The occupational therapist [who assessed me before I moved in] said that I could move into this flat as long as the flat was adjusted for me. The Housing Association agreed to that. This flat was purposely built for a walking disabled person, so they needed to do a lot of extra work for me – things like lowering the toilet, and putting in the electric door-opener and hoists.
‘They did not do the works. I was still living with my Mum then, because I couldn’t move into my flat.’
Hazel Scully was a long-time Skelmersdale council tenant who was told in 2007 that her estate would be demolished as part of town-centre upgrade plans. She and other residents fought the proposal – their argument was that council tenants should not be shifted to less desirable parts of town to make way for private apartments for sale. Residents still don’t know if their estate will be demolished.
‘We don’t fit in. We don’t fit in with their vision of a new, updated Skem.’
How many more stories like these will be enough?