Sunday 29 September 2019

Conference, "Common Sense", and a return to Broken Barnet

I didn't go to Conference last year. Not altogether a bad thing: rather like Glastonbury, having a year off gives the opportunity of a time of peace, and calm, and a chance for the grass to go back/arguments to die down ... or so one might hope ...

As it was in Brighton, this time, it seemed like a good idea to attend. A few days at the seaside: a non-naughty, non-weekend in Brighton, full of factionalism, argument, and over heated debate - what's not to like? Better than staying in Broken Barnet, with the familiar factionalism, argument and heated debate of one's own household.

Booking so late meant difficulty in finding a hotel room for three nights, so it meant another stay, for the first night, in nearby Lewes: avoiding the haunted hotel rumoured to be owned by a local 'businessman' of interesting character, which local cab drivers will tell you all about, at some length: (all the way to Brighton, if you don't change the subject). First cab driver was easily distracted with his own Lewes tales, however: explaining how he takes the mickey out of  American visitors about Lewes's most famous son, Tom Paine, radical thinker, father of revolutions - of their revolution. 

It was Tom Paine, of course, who wrote, in his pamphlet 'Common Sense':

Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions ...

Not hard to find any contemporary examples of such men, and women, and such insolence, is it? And not hard to wish for another revolution, in order to remove them.

The Tom Paine Printing Press, Lewes

Two right wing extremist attacks took part in Lewes the other night, by 'pro Brexit' thugs: a brick thrown through the front door of an anti Brexit campaigner, Jim Cornelius, with the word 'traitor' written on it - and, around the same time, in another part of the town, vile antisemitic graffiti aimed at 'whores and traitors' daubed on the front fence of another resident. This can only be directly the consequence of the forces unleashed by the Tory leader the day before, in his shameless, smiling and deliberate repetition of the term 'Surrender Act', and his deeply offensive, pejorative dismissal of the fears of female MPs over the incitement it represents to those minded to follow the violence that led to the murder of Jo Cox.

Arriving at the Conference centre in Brighton, greeting the sight of our perennial favourite Labour Party metaphor, the ruined West pier stranded out among the crashing waves - arson, claimed the cab driver, hinting at dark financial motives, midnight torchings and speedboats heading off across a moonlit sea - the last day of summer gave a misleadingly sunny background to the usual frantic leafleting and drifts of stop me and take one campaigners lining the path to the turnstiles. 

A bunch of Remain protestors in their EU/Brit fusion themed cloaks and hats stood together clutching their flags, possibly slightly disappointed by the lack of disagreement from any bunch of Leavers. Protest without someone to shout at is always disheartening.

In the hall, Diane Abbott had just started speaking, slowly - very, very slowly, and very, very carefully, as if worried she would accidentally say the wrong thing. Constant hate channelled at women like her in public life takes its effect: for the first black woman MP, pioneering a path now followed by so many other strong women in Parliament, respect is due, but rarely given. "Haters gonna hate ...", she remarked, ruefully, with a slow shrug, with a hat tip to that other great radical political thinker, Taylor Swift.

Women were the focus of the debate that followed later in the afternoon: a motion from the women's conference about the rights - or rather lack of rights - of migrant women was deeply upsetting, and perfectly illustrated not only the execrable impact of the 'Hostile Environment', but also the utter lack of humanity at the heart of Tory Britain, demonising the most vulnerable residents, withholding access to basic rights of healthcare, or access to legal protection as victims of domestic violence or trafficking.

Militant Brexiteers and xenophobes fondly imagine hordes of migrants flocking here to take advantage of our NHS. The truth is, we heard, that migrant women who give birth are being handed hospital bills of £7,000: bills too for those who suffer the trauma of miscarriage. This means many women are avoiding medical care when giving birth, with all the risks and distress that creates.

Women like this who have been the victims of domestic violence have been handed bills for the treatment of their injuries. They are often denied access to justice, because of lack of legal aid, or fear of being exposed without proper documentation should they go to the police. Trafficked women forced into sex work often face the choice of continuing to be exploited and abused, or returned to the country where they were first enslaved. 

One brave woman spoke to Conference about her own experience of escaping years of violence: of having watched another Conference from her kitchen table and thinking it was nothing to do with her, to becoming strong enough to address this Conference from the stage. The power of politics - radical politics - to change lives for the better is sometimes too easily dismissed. For some women, taking the first step to freedom may only come from such a route - and may inspire others to do the same.

Two other women speakers gave a frightening insight into the progress, or rather lack of progress, over the last twenty years in terms of provision for abused women. Both speakers had worked in domestic violence support in Tower Hamlets more than twenty years ago: and both said that the situation had not improved at all. In some ways, for some women, it has become worse.

Listening to all these testimonies, many of them harrowing, one after another, was a sharp  lesson in reality, and a useful reminder of the founding principles of the Labour movement, as relevant today as it was a century ago, with still the driving need of a party that stands up for the disadvantaged, those in poverty, distress, and want. 

This point was driven home again at a fringe meeting later that evening organised by Unite: the problems of social inequality, created entirely by year upon year of Tory policies of 'austerity', are greater than ever. 

As we heard from speakers like Diane Abbott, and the Mayor of Newham, austerity might be over as a useful term for Conservative propaganda: but a huge section of society is still caught fast in the consequences of these merciless creations: Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit, sanctions, humiliating assessments, inexplicable decisions to withhold support from terminally ill people, or with life long conditions: a war on the poor and disabled. 

Leaving Lewes the next day meant another cab driver, this time not a Tom Paine enthusiast, but a man whose family has lived in Brighton for many generations: the 3x great grandson of Martha Gunn, the famous 'dipper' who had attended the bathing machines that first made Brighton a fashionable place for aristocratic visitors in Georgian times. Stuck in traffic jams, we inched along the narrow roads of Brighton, most of them lined with Georgian houses in a state of raffish decay, many unoccupied, even in the midst of the area closest to the seafront. We sat outside the old Hippodrome, covered in the Brighton vernacular style of graffiti, too clever by half, school of Banksy, without the skill of Banksy. Saw the Beatles there, said Mr Gunn. And the Stones. We stared up at the derelict building. Someone had left a couple of canvasses propped up against the entrance, untouched. Art for arts sake: unwanted.

Tom Paine, in 'Common Sense', had attacked the King, George III, whom he saw as a tyrant, 'the Royal Brute', in league with Parliament, intent on depriving the nation - and its American colony - of their rights. The law, he said should be King.

Curious to think that we are now in the hands still of another Hanoverian  - Boris Johnson, direct descendent of George's father - intent on defying Parliament itself, for the same purpose.

Martha Gunn supposedly 'dipped' the baby son of George III, later to become the Prince Regent, and then George IV, in the chilly saltwater at Brighthelmstone, and thereby turned the quiet seaside village into a metropolitan retreat: London by the sea, centred around the oriental fantasy Pavilion, now visibly crumbling, in a suitably Brighton shabby genteel way, mistaken from time to time, by intellectually challenged EDL supporters, for a mosque. 

Fashions and prosperity come and go: Queen Victoria hated the Pavilion and the town fell into a slow decline; by the twentieth century it was a seedy place, famous for furtive assignations, and the production of evidence for divorce, conveniently witnessed by accommodating hotel staff. 

Brighton today, as well as accommodating a large student population, and the influx of an array of hipster faux bohemians, now depends on a different sort of visitor, and the annual return of Conferences. Still plenty of furtive assignations (if you are lucky), betrayals (if you are not), and deceit, but largely - although not entirely - political in nature.

Last time I was in Brighton for Conference, two years ago, the number of homeless people living on the streets around the seafront was horrifying: nothing has changed for the better, other than some of the luckier ones now have pop up tents to shelter them at night. 

The weather on Monday changed dramatically for the worse, as if in synchronisation with the political mood; the sky darkening, the sea increasingly rough and crashing hard onto the pebbled beach. Gusts of wind blew along the front, rapidly building in strength. 

Outside the secure zone, another homeless man sat uncovered, stoned, completely still in the driving rain, staring unblinkingly across the pavement. Conference goers rushed passed him, unnoticing.

In the hall, John Mc Donnell was giving his Shadow Chancellor speech. 

Here at least, was some hope of something better: to aspire not just to survive, but to live a 'rich and full life'. 

He wanted to end the 'modern evil of in work poverty', to build a million new affordable homes; to see freedom from drudgery, workers having a stake in the future of their employment, to work to live, not live to work.

A reduction in the hours of the working week, a ban on zero hours contracts, the provision of public services free at the point of use, free personal care: and all funded by a fairer tax system.

This is what people want, what they want to hear: it is not an unattainable fantasy, but a necessity for any society intending to meet the needs of - well - the many, not the few. Anathema, of course, to the Tories now wrecking the foundations that lie beneath every public institution that supports the things we once took for granted, created in the post war reforms of a Labour government. 

Later that day I slipped into a fringe meeting organised by Finchley's own Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League, on the issues facing women in the justice system. A well meaning senior police officer talked about the idea of supporting female offenders - or, as he put it, women who presented non typical behaviour - rather than banging them up in jail for short sentences, traumatising their children, and breaking up their families. 

'Non typical behaviour' by Prime Ministers and their supporters in Parliament is perfectly acceptable, of course: defying the law is your prerogative, when in a place of power. 

If you are a woman struggling to survive, battling all the challenges of social exclusion, and make the mistake of committing petty crime, however, you must be be punished, and put in prison.

Again we heard about the impact of domestic violence - criminal assault - on women at risk of offending. An astonishing number of women in prison have at some time experienced a brain injury as a result of such violence: estimated to be two thirds of all female prisoners. These are traumatised women, whose imprisonment will achieve nothing, except further damage to their families. 

Universal credit, and all the other punishments created by the new age Poor Law, the policy of 'austerity', are forcing women into crime - 'untypical behaviour', call it what you like, the outcome is the same. Sex work, addiction, poverty: where is the way out, when the support that should be there is cut by government? When women are too scared to speak out, or ask for help?

I asked the police chief about the claims made the day before about migrant women, trafficked women, too frightened to go to the police when exploited or assaulted, in case of the police informing the government about their status, leading to their deportation. I didn't receive any clear response, other than that he hoped that didn't happen.

Off to the Irish Labour party reception then. This was not as easy as it might have been, despite being only a short distance away from my hotel. As soon as you stepped into the street, a gale force wind swept over the sea and along the front: it almost impossible to walk into, once in, sucked into a vacuum, and spat out, with difficulty, and if you managed to escape, into hotel foyers hosting a myriad fringe events.

As usual the analysis of the speakers from Ireland was pithy, apt and to the point. This may not have entirely been the main attraction of the evening, however, due to the generous supply of a free bar at the back of the room. 

Childs Hill councillor, and councillor for Co Cricklewood, Anne Clarke

Among the speakers was the TUC's Frances O'Grady, who spoke of the pride those of us who come from migrant Irish families have in our roots. Here we are, so many generations later, having to defend the rights of newer migrants, in our turn.

Frances O'Grady, and in the foreground, a feast of Taytos

The next morning, while wandering in to the Conference centre, news of the Supreme Court decision had just emerged. The stunning outcome, unanimous as it was, had news teams and reporters rushing about, grabbing anyone who looked vaguely like an MP, or with an opinion, and interviewing them. 

Hilary Benn was mobbed: a crowd formed around the live news screen. 

As I entered the hall, Corbyn was angrily informing members of what had just happened: the government found to have acted unlawfully in shutting down Parliament, purely for its own political purposes. It was one of those moments you know you will never forget, although - you can hardly believe it is happening.

Unexpectedly at a loose end, and the Conference agenda all in disarray, the best option was to return to the hall, and bag a seat before the newly re-arranged Leader's speech. 

We listened to more motions, and more speakers: for example, a strikingly beautiful woman from Western Sahara, dressed in red hijab, spoke eloquently of the strife in her country: a crisis I had no knowledge of, but learned a lot about from her impassioned speech. 

Another speaker reminded us all of the emergency in Kashmir. 

A woman with a three year old child with a chronic, life long health condition spoke about her appalling experience of eviction and eventual placement in private housing fifty miles away from her support network: a former council house, of course, for which the rent represented two thirds of their income.

It was then time for the Leader's speech. He had clearly re-written it in the light of the Supreme Court decision. The PM, he said, as a giant moth flew on a kamikaze mission, straight into the lights above the stage, with his government of the entitled, had acted illegally: but he had failed. 

The democracy that Boris Johnson describes as a “rigmarole” will not be stifled and the people will have their say.

Corbyn then outlined an alternative route for the nation, addressing not just Brexit, but the issues that some of us seem to have forgotten about - that are keeping so many people in this country in the hellish trap set for them by Cameron, May and Johnson, as the gap between those with means and those without gapes ever larger and larger.

Proposals then on giving workers a stake in their own futures; a ban on zero hours contracts, a shorter working week, bringing back public services under the control of those who use them: 

we'll bring rail, mail, water and the national grid into public ownership so the essential services that we all rely on are run by and for the public not for profit.

He announced plans for a new publicly owned generic drugs manufacturer to supply cheaper medicines to the NHS, free prescriptions, free personal care, free childcare, a new Sure Start system - no more student loan fees. 

All of this to be paid for by a fairer tax system, taking the greatest burden from where it is now, balanced on the backs of the lowest paid, and forcing the top 5% and corporate tax dodgers to pay their share.

These are the changes that people so desperately need, and the truth is that only Labour is offering this as a manifesto, as well as choice on Brexit to voters. 

Later that night, at the reception given annually by the Labour Friends of Israel, the manifesto, and all the policies outlined in the speech faded away. The feeling of anger, and distress, over the failure of the party properly to acknowledge the fears of the Jewish community were palpable. There were no obvious answers. It was a depressing evening. 

Since Conference ended, further plans, much welcomed, were announced to abolish the much feared tool of state punishment, Universal Credit, directed at the most vulnerable members of our society, with its careful, detailed construct of moral judgement, and a regime of humiliation, meant to starve and humiliate its recipients into a state of abject obedience.

Which brings us neatly to a return to Broken Barnet, of course, and the state of flux in our current local political parties, poised as we are on the brink of a general election.

Over the summer break there have been no meetings, so no chance to test the new gagging laws voted in by our shameless Tory councillors, so frightened of challenge and scrutiny from their own electors that they have resorted to effectively preventing them from taking any significant part in the decision making process. No more questions - other than two token ones in total, no matter how many residents submit them, no matter how complex and serious the issue, no right to speak to your elected representatives. 

The signs of the same disease that has eaten its way through the Tory party in Parliament are erupting now in our local Tory Council, here in the rotten borough of Broken Barnet: if you don't like what people say - shut them up. The reaction, in short, of every partner in an abusive relationship: first coercive control: the removal, by stealth, of choice, and then, wham: the hand over the mouth.

At the moment, on stage in the theatre of the absurd at the heart of the political scene in Broken Barnet, there is currently a frenetic game of musical chairs, in which members of all parties are swopping places, or standing down, and frankly, it is quite hard to keep up with it all.

On the 20th of this month,Tory councillor Gabriel Rozenberg resigned from the Conservative party, and joined the Libdems: as a fervent opponent of Brexit, and appalled by Boris Johnson's attempt to prorogue Parliament, he could take no more, and bailed out of the party to which he had belonged for twenty years. 

He remains a councillor for Hampstead Garden Suburb: whether or not the Suburbanistas will return him to his seat at the next local elections remains to be seen. 

Rumour has it, from various sources, that certain other Barnet Tory members are now urgently 'considering their position'. The split in the group over Brexit, Capita, the gagging of residents, and other major disagreements, is taking its toll. Unity under the new right wing Leader is breaking down. There may be (more) trouble ahead ... no: Mrs Angry predicts: there will be trouble ahead. 

Trouble too for Labour.

Sara Conway, Labour's candidate for the constituency of Finchley and Golders Green, stood down, citing personal and family reasons, and amid controversy over an interview in Jewish News. She remains a Labour councillor: but we still have no idea who the new candidate will be. This appears to be a decision in the hands of the NEC: but no one seems to know for sure.

A startling announcement next from the Libdems:

Former Libdem parliamentary candidate for Hendon,  Alasdair Hill, who stood in two elections against Tory MP Offord, announced that he has left the Libdems. 

He could no longer remain in a party whose Brexit position is now one of Revoke, and has other differences with current Libdem policies. Alasdair is a really decent guy, very bright and politically astute - and will be a serious loss for local Libdems.

And then: as expected, the local Libdem candidate in Finchley and Golders Green has been shoved aside, and we are told that Luciana Berger, ex Labour, ex Independent Group, who joined the Libdems three weeks ago, is standing in her place. 

After the abuse and lack of support shown to her by the Labour party over the antisemitism issue, one can hardly blame her for wanting to leave: but to end up as a Libdem is a curious choice, in the light of her former views on the party.

The decision to stand Luciana in this constituency runs the risk of opening up the most painful and distressing conflict here, unfortunately. One hopes those who encouraged her to stand know exactly what they are doing. Or, perhaps, you might argue, it is offering a positive alternative choice. You would hope, then, that the election period will be conducted with respect, and an absence of aggressive tactics.

Having just been the target of smear attempts and attacks by one or two local Libdems on twitter - usually the tactic of local Tories - frankly I now despair of anything but the worst sort of campaigning from them, if this is an indication of things to come. 

It seems any Labour member is now fair game: simply for being a Labour member. 

The slur that all members are by default now all antisemites is vile, and indefensible. Abusing in this way the vast majority of members who are decent people, committed to Labour values, working hard to speak out, and fight for those suffering antisemitism, is utterly wrong. For Labour councillors and candidates who happen to be Jewish, such treatment is even more to be deplored, especially in the current climate. 

Luciana will undoubtedly gain votes from disaffected Labour voters, especially, and understandably, within the Jewish community - and from those who want a Revoke solution to the Brexit crisis. For the many voters who might have doubts about the wisdom of an outright Revoke policy, or still harbour fury over the student loan U turn, and indeed the years of a Libdem party supporting the punitive austerity policies of the Tories, support might still remain out of the questions.

The Libdems will also, of course, take votes from the incumbent MP Freer, who is already in a perilous situation: a Brexit backing Tory in a Remain voting constituency, and one who, by an unfortunate sequence of events, is a junior whip central to the imposition of party discipline demanded by the government led by world class fool Boris Johnson. 

Many moderate Tory voters are already horrified by the spectacle of a Conservative PM attempting to defy the law, defy Parliamentary convention, and shut down the central function of our democratic process, simply out of party political expediency. Many moderate Tory voters in Finchley and Golders Green will simply not understand why their MP continues to support Johnson, and his behaviour, not least the expulsion of the 21 MPs, including such stalwarts as Ken Clarke, and Nicholas Soames. 

The outcome of all this, I would therefore predict - will be impossible to call. Splitting the opposition vote might well seem likely to return Freer, with a narrow margin: but then - he already had a narrow margin. His electoral support will be now be further damaged  by his loyalty to Brexit, and to Johnson; his low profile locally, and his close relationship with the hopelessly incompetent local Tory council, will not help at all. 

Tory voters are now furious with the debacle over local issues like waste collection, litter in the streets, pot holes, rampant development - including a block of flats in his local park - facilitated by a privatised easycouncil planning service, which depends for its income from fee based activities that have disadvantaged the ordinary resident in favour of developers, large and small.

And then we have the forgotten voters, who never vote Tory, and would never see any point in voting Libdem: those living in disadvantaged circumstances, with the worst healthcare, the worst schools, support services cut, GPs overstretched, waiting lists for hospital appointment, or mental health support so long they have to hide them in a (privatised) system of re-referral. Families dependent on our local food banks, families whose children go to school hungry: which party gives them a hope of something better? 

The young men sleeping in the shop doorways of Finchley, begging at the tube station, or sleeping in the bushes in the park: who will offer them hope of something better? The Tories, still so proud of their Universal Credit? The Libdems, who were complicit in voting through this iniquitous policy, and Bedroom Tax?

As many of the debates at Conference so painfully and acutely reminded us, the continuing deployment of austerity measures, and the newest rolling out of the  'Hostile Environment' bears most heavily down on women, the elderly, the disabled, minorities - and most of all, children.

When the Labour party fails swiftly and fully to deal with complaints of antisemitism, when it fails to give a clear lead on Brexit - when it indulges in factionalism, accusations, counter accusations, the price of disunity is paid by those least able to afford it. 

But whatever the failings in leadership, the underlying truth remains: only Labour's manifesto and policies can offer hope to those whose lives depend on support, on care, on better access to education, medicine, jobs - and justice. 

Returning a Tory government led by Johnson returns the reality not just of a leader prepared to align itself with the most right wing agenda we have ever seen in government in modern times, but one flirting with the base tactics of populism, fake news, and blatant lies, a new political philosophy sanctioned by Trump, Bannon, and in tune with the rising tide of alt right lunacy, and dangerous nationalism in Europe. 

We all have reason to fear a future ordained by Johnson and his backers: it is unthinkable. And the way forward is unclear. 

Government, according to Tom Paine, is a necessary evil: and - as we know only too well - politics present always only a choice of evils, or as he put it, in 'Common Sense', our duty is, 'out of two evils to choose the least'. Each of us must make their own choice now, but our duty demands that we do what is best not just for ourselves - but for those least able to face the worst consequences of our decision. 

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