Wednesday, 5 March 2014

I was dreadfully sorry to hear the news regarding Jamie Chowdhary.

A Conservative, then Independent councillor, I worked with him when we were on Reading Council together. He was a very well liked and effective member of the Police Authority, a community leader and successful businessman. He was also a friend in difficult times.

In what were often heated debates at the Council, Jamie retained his poise and dignity, and sought always to bring common sense and wisdom.

I will always remember his kindness, his charm and his determination. He will be missed.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Farewell to arms.

I have spent every available hour this week campaigning against the biennial DSEi arms fairs, whose 2013 event just finished in London. 1400 exhibitors, 30,000 attendees, including military delegations and arms companies, trading in weapons and military equipment.

One of the questions I was asked was, "if the enemy was in Calais, would you still be against the arms trade then?"

This is not a theoretical question. Within the living memory of local people, an invading enemy was indeed in Calais. At least one of the campaigners has physical scars from the bombing in East London, where the arms fairs take place, to prove it.

Yet the truth is that today it is British submarines floating off the coast of other countries, with American-made cruise missiles pointed at their capitals; it is the British army flying French/Israeli-made drones in other nations' skies. It is also British-made weapons and surveillance equipment, paid for with oil money and base-leasing deals, that kills and imprisons democratic activists in places like Bahrain. It is British-developed teargas fired at Turkish and Brazilian protesters. The explosives and gases used on people, are tested on animals in British laboratories.

The most terrifying aspect of the whole business is that not only is the British Government quietly complicit in arms deals: it actually promotes them. Hundreds of people work facilitating arms sales in the UKTI DSO part of Vince Cable's BIS government department. 

Leaders of countries like Bahrain have been invited to London, and their arms buyers, along with those from places like Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan have been attending the arms fair at the invitation of the UK Government. David Cameron has repeatedly travelled to developing countries, arms company bosses in tow, seeking to impoverish these countries twice over: once when they buy the bombs, the second time when they drop them. It is as if, not content with intensifying the current Middle Eastern war, (Syria's Russian arms dealer was here too), he wants to start the next one.

The argument is, "if we didn't do it, other people would" and "it creates jobs". Well, these arguments could be applied to the narcotics business and the human trafficking business. We don't promote these because they are prejudicial to the general good. Are British jobs really worth being the fourth largest exporter in a business that kills at least 300,000 people a year, and critically injures many times that? This, when the same skills are in short supply in the renewable energy business? As vehicles made in Britain were used to crush human rights protesters in Bahrain, was it really worth the money we made from selling them? If nothing else, it makes anything our diplomats say on human rights anywhere frankly risible.

Those objecting to the arms fair this week have been arrested by the dozens, many held overnight in Police cells; dragged or carried bodily off public transport or prevented from travelling; harassed, followed, profiled. To protect our trade in weapons, the oppression that we are exporting was here at home. Pictures of it have been beamed into homes in China and Iran as an example of the perfidy of the West. Yet even some Police have quietly said, "it's my job to arrest you, but you're not wrong". They understand that the guns and grenades used on the streets don't come from Mars: they come from arms companies.

The enemy of our freedoms is not in China, Iran or even Calais. It is much, much closer to home. It is here, with us. We should end it. 

Stop the trade in arms. Stop the arms fair.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Stop the arms fair, stop the war

I like a good embassy demonstration. I must have protested half a dozen in my time, for various causes. 

But in the end, an embassy is a building far away from the capital of the nation it represents, where real power lies. Still, when one is trying to change the policy of another nation state, an embassy protest is what there is. Usually.

Regarding a US-led war on Syria, though, some key decision makers will be coming to London in a few days time. Not members of the US Congress, whose vote will decide whether the US goes to war - though they might be in town. But the top executives of the big US arms companies.

If the US launches an attack on Syria, it will be from ships made by Northrop Grumman, firing Tomahawk cruise missiles made by General Dynamics steered by Lockheed Martin control systems.

As this article by Allison Kilkenny makes clear, these companies and others like them carry huge weight with Congress, funding many election campaigns. War for them is a chance to make money and shine their reputations. They will be doubtless lobbying hard.

Their execs will be in London for the DSEi arms fair, one of the worlds biggest gatherings of makers of bombs, missiles, warships and drones. Coincidentally, Assad's arms dealer, Rosoboronexport, who supply 78 percent of his weapons will also be there: it is the need to continue Rosoboron's exports that has left Russia so intransigent at the UN.

If you are in the UK, and want to influence whether the US goes to war, for one week only you will be able to reach out and touch the key people. 

The groups in the Stop the Arms Fair coalition are organising a week of protests against DSEi, from occupations and die ins through to "meet and greet" actions. They have a track record of taking successful direct action and getting up close and personal with arms company execs. 

There is a mass action planned by Occupy London at the site of the arms fair on September 8th. September 8th is also when Occupy Wall Street plans to go back to Zucotti Park in New York to say no to any attack on Syria. The U.S. Congress reconvenes September 9th.

This is a unique chance for you to tell the real decision makers what you think. Stop the arms fair, and you may just stop a war.

You should be there.

Monday, 1 July 2013

What Just Happened: Reading Council runs out of money

Local government is a pressured business, financially. Although the gross revenue/spend of a local authority can be very big (here in Reading it is around a billion pounds a year), much of that is earmarked (they call it, "passported") directly to schools and big road projects.  So the spend councillors control is much smaller (say £120m in a year), and of that, much (about half) goes on social care, services for the neediest in society, the vulnerable elderly and young people in care.

Here in Reading, part of that money is spent on the Arthur Clark care home in Caversham, a valued local facility with elderly residents, who rely on the home and the community built around it. The home will need refurbishment soon, requiring a million or so pounds to do. Tonight, the Labour-run Council decided to close it.

It was, by all accounts (and according to the video recording, which will soon be available...), a tempestuous meeting. Residents who had presented a 3500 name petition at a meeting last week were there again and were angry. Labour's Caversham councillors and their MP candidate found reasons to be somewhere else. So it was left to the hapless Labour committee members to nod through the closure. It went so well that it is reported the Police needed to be called.

To quote Don Corleone from the Godfather, "how did things ever get so far?"

It goes back to the elections of 2011 and 2012, when Labour wanted to take back control of the Council. Promising to "stand up for local people" they reversed some unpopular measures from the previous Conservative/Lib Dem administration, and gave Council officers back their travel perks (got to keep the unions on side, if you are Labour). These decisions seemed pain free, but in fact combined with a couple of do-nothing, get-elected budgets built up a big hole in the Councils finances. That hole is now being filled. As for standing up, well, it seems to be more rolling over and playing dead.

The signs were there at the end of last year. Labour decided to start taxing the poorest residents by not covering the full cost of Council Tax relief (benefit), leaving people with no money to find hundreds of pounds per household per year. Now they are closing care homes without much consultation and little notice. 

They will say, "ah but the other guys did the same". Not so: back then, the Council merged two undercapacity homes, moving the affected residents to much better facilities, with many of the same staff, and it got the money from Government for extra care housing, which it then started building. There was full consultation, cross party support, and unlike today, councillors met residents in good time and went on the media to explain what was happening. Not the pie in the sky "best endeavours" stuff evidenced today.

What comes next? Well, if it reflects the pattern of London Labour authorities, youth provision, libraries, day centres are all under threat. Dogs bark, cats miaow, Labour Councils run out of money, and when they do they punish the people they think will vote for them anyway and blame everyone but themselves for it.

It doesn't have to be this way. Make sure you use the services you value. Write to the Council when they are threatened. Get engaged with residents groups fighting the closures, and if there isn't one, set one up! Some groups in London have even taken direct action, occupying closing facilities and running them themselves. 

When you get the chance, use your vote thoughtfully. It really is possible to make the economy stronger while also working for a fairer society, but it does rely on giving local people a say and choosing the right priorities. When the time comes, choose wisely.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

On waging peace.

"Peace is the only battle worth waging" (Camus)

It can be very easy to lose perspective when violent events take place on our streets. The mix of striking visual images, rolling media coverage and harsh commentary in the newspapers or online can spark strong emotions.

We do not in fact know the full details of what took place in Woolwich, and we fill that gap with our worst fears. This can be exploited, by politicians looking to bolster their popularity or further their agendas, by newspapers looking to make money, by disempowered individuals looking to draw support for terrible causes.

So how should we respond?

If the feelings caused are strong, why not let them drive positive action? If the events inspire worries about hostility between communities, why not get involved in local inter-faith groups? If street violence is a worry, why not get involved with the groups trying to combat knife crime and gun crime on our streets? If you feel strongly about the armed forces, why not get involved with BLESMA, or St Dunstan's?

You may see links between this action and the wider problem of global violence. It might inspire you to campaign against war, against the arms trade. You may see parallels between this, and the cruelty inflicted on victims of domestic violence, or the victims of animal agriculture, even violence inflicted on the Earth itself.

You might even be inspired to join a political party. In which case, I am sure they could use the help.

Or you may choose not to campaign on anything at all. Simple politeness, kindness to our neighbours, gently challenging negative words about groups perceived as different, these spread peace very effectively.

We need to be as determined to wage peace as others are to spread violence. Our response should be driven by compassion for the victims of violence and their families. Peace begins with us.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Sic Transit

"Power resides where men believe it resides. It's a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow." - Varis, from George RR Martin's Game of Thrones.

Reflecting on the passing of Margaret Thatcher, it is interesting how much emotion and comment it has generated.

She is credited with "saving" the nation, transforming it, helping to win the Cold War, and breaking break union power. She is cursed for destroying entire industries, shattering communities, and breaking union power. She left office twenty plus years ago, and has not spoken in public for half a dozen years, yet the hold she has on our imagination - on my imagination - seems very strong.

For my part, I would say the country she claimed to want - with a smaller state, opportunities for everyone who works hard and plays by the rules, and a modernised economy - does not exist. Public spending and, arguably, the reach of the state and the power of vested interests is as great as it ever was. Social mobility is lower than it was: the idea of a grammar- or comprehensive- school educated man or woman reaching Downing Street again seems as far away as ever. The much vaunted replacement of heavy industries and mining with high tech manufacturing, services and banking sectors has not been successful. Starting a small business remains much harder than it should be, both for financial and regulatory reasons, and because profitable markets are hard to find.

The reasons for her failures were in part the nature of the time. The country was fighting big wars - at home with the IRA, and abroad in the Cold War. These were ferocious, expensive, dirty wars whose costs we are still counting. The sales of public assets and North Sea oil revenues were needed to fund these conflicts, as well as to pay for keeping the lid on very serious social dislocation. This dislocation has been covered over, but has not gone away: witness high levels of unemployment and disability in some regions, and the 2011 rioting. The lies told during the Thatcher era continued to feed into the New Labour period, and beyond it: that the public sector was inefficient and bad (except the foreign affairs and war-fighting bit of it, it seems), that private economy was an unalloyed good, that war as an instrument of foreign policy led to success.

And here we are. A still broken financial system. Public spending still out of control, new laws coming to create secret courts, warrantless email and phone monitoring. An underperforming economy  (though doing very well in some places). A decade of expensive foreign wars. A Government and an Opposition seemingly out of touch with the everyday reality of the rest of us, that seem determined to replicate the failures of the Thatcher and Major eras, as well as those of the "new" Labour government that followed.

It's a time for ideas which have been so far on the margins. It's a time when we genuinely need to address the structural problems of our economy and use the borrowing power of the Government to do it, knowing that as an enterprising, smart nation we can surely pay this back with interest. Transport, communications, energy all need economic investment. Restructuring the finance system needs to be completed in a way that serves the wider economy. Support for new, efficient service and manufacturing businesses needs to be upped. The good news is that we know, as a nation, how to do this.

Yet improving economic performance will not be enough: prosperity without social justice or which pollutes the environment is not prosperity worth having. It is surely time for the deep thinking that exists in the peace movement, in the equalities movements, in the environmental and animal ethics movements, to find its way closer to the mainstream. We need to question our investments in arms, in oil, in casino banking, in animal agriculture, and find other ways of earning our living. 

More than twenty years after she left office, it is time to move out of the shadow of Margaret Thatcher.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Freedom, dignity and well being

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” ― Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like many in the Party, I watched the Channel 4 item, "Lib Dems: allegations of sexual impropriety" with dismay.

We live in a society where sexual harassment of women is endemic. One of the strategies that those responsible for such outrages and their allies use is to attempt to discredit their accusers, while at the same time encouraging others to say nothing, and thereby defend themselves with silence. There is always "a big mission to be accomplished", or "important work to be done". 

At such times, I believe it is important to speak up for those who are taking a stand for justice.

I do not know what happened: I was not there, I did not see it for myself. But I do know some of the women involved, I believe they are people of high integrity and I believe their allegations need to be taken very seriously indeed. They are current and former activists and employees of the Party, our friends, and in any event, have the right to be properly heard.

Liberal Democrats promise to champion "the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full."  

Not just for our own workers, but for everyone.

If we are to deliver on the promise of our own constitution, and remake our country, we need a swift and speedy resolution to this affair.

For my part, I will be in Eastleigh much of the coming week, campaigning for our excellent candidate Mike Thornton. The people of Eastleigh need someone who will work hard for local people, and we all need another voice in Parliament who will champion the rights of everyone to freedom, dignity and well-being.