“Are essential services at breaking point?” asks the Southend Echo

echo services at breaking point

If they aren’t, then they are getting far too close for comfort, or safety...

Neither Southend, Essex, nor Britain can take another five years of ideological Tory cuts and mismanagement. Use your vote on May 7th. Kick Cameron and his incompetent mob out.

5 Reasons the Wokingham Bin Debacle isn’t Labour’s Fault

It seems hard to place the blame for the mess WBC have made of the new bin scheme at anyone's door by the Tory council leaders.

I’m a great fan of the letters page of the Wokingham Times. It is one of the few places that the opinions of the general public of Wokingham can be found pretty much uncensored. This week, a letter from a Mr Patrick Smith caught my eye. It was a response to my own letter about the ongoing bin collection mess, and he had a somewhat different idea of who was to blame:

…what did make me laugh was reading the letter from Mr S Dent of the Twyford & District Labour Party criticising the Conservative-led borough council regarding the waste collection farce (The Wokingham Times, Wednesday, March 28).

The reason that councils all over the UK are struggling with finance and so need to raise more funds is because the Labour Government left this once great country with billions of pounds of debt.

So Mr Dent, perhaps you should stop trying to score silly little political points against the Conservatives.

So here it is. My response, and explanation of blame for this mess cannot be left at the door of the Labour Party.

  1. Labour are not in power in Wokingham. I don’t believe they ever have been. Maybe someone knows otherwise and can correct me, but certainly they have not during my lifetime. I cannot even find the last time that Labour even had a councillor in Wokingham, and that informational warehouse Wikipedia has the council exclusively blue and yellow as far back as 1999, and under Conservative control since 1997.
  2. The deficit only exists because of the neccessity of dealing with the economic crisis. Mr Smith’s argument seems to be that Labour caused the deficit, the deficit is why there’s no money, which is why we’re facing the new bin scheme. Even following his logic, he ignores why the deficit is there in the first place. When the banks went into crisis in 2008, a £500bn bailout package was necessary to save the economy. At the same time, the tax take plummeted, resulting in an increasing gap between spending and income. I’m not going to say Labour got everything right (we didn’t), but the deficit was a product of necessity, not as the Tories claim due to Labour profligacy.
  3. The scheme is (ostensibly) not about money, but about recycling. Despite Mr Smith’s accusation that the deficit (and need to cut it) is to blame, the claim from the council has consistently been that we’re doing this to increase recycling, not save money on collection. From the very start, I’ve said that they are going about this the wrong way, limiting landfill whilst not notably expanding recycling provision. I have argued for a massive expansion in the range of materials recyclable, and changes to make it easier for residents to recycle.
  4. The Tory-led coalition has chosen to front-load cuts to local government. Given that Labour are in power neither in local nor national government, Mr Smith should take a look at how Eric Pickles and chums are dealing with local government budgets. The cuts to budgets have been “front-loaded”, meaning that the majority of cuts had to be made at the beginning of the 5 year electoral cycle. If Mr Smith still believes the changes to bin collection are down to money, then maybe this political decision is where he should be looking to.
  5. The local Labour party have been trying to sort out this mess. Since the genesis of this scheme I have been arguing that it wouldn’t work. I (and many others) have pointed out many of the problems that have come to beset it, and have been trying to pressure the Conservatives to address them (to no avail). When it all went Pete Tong, the Tories went into hiding, whilst Labour and other opposition parties were arguing for solutions.

I don’t believe I have been making “silly little political points” against the Conservatives. As Mr Smith himself admits, the scheme is a farce. It is, I am afraid, a farce entirely of the Conservatives’ own making. It is real, it is happening, and it is affecting residents. Whilst the points I have been raising are undoubtedly “political”, the feedback I have had from most residents is that they neither “silly” nor “little”- and all the Conservatives have done in response has been run and hide.

The Cult of Council Tax

Here, on Thursday 23rd February, Wokingham Borough Council will vote on the budget for the next year, with embarrassingly little scrutiny or debate

So, a week from the debate where it will be doubtless rubber-stamped with as little debate as possible, Wokingham Borough Council have released their budget for 2012/2013. Make no mistake, this is only because the law forces them to- if they could, the first any of us would see of it would be when it was debated on the floor of the chamber.

I haven’t had a chance to properly scrutinise it- and likely as not I won’t until it’s already been passed- but if you want to have a look, feel free to. The budget itself can be found here (with thanks to RobDennis), and if you see something you don’t like, feel free to tell your (likely-as-not Conservative) councillor(s). You might also want to ask them why only a week has been allowed for resident scrutiny, and the publication of the budget timed so as that by the time the paper version of The Wokingham Times can report on it, it will only be the day before the debate. Just an idea.

So far, the biggest headline has been the frozen council tax- made possible by the grant from central government for that purpose. A cynic might suggest that this is hiding something more unsavoury in the budget. One suspects, however, that Wokingham would have kept it frozen regardless of the grant, given that they have previously frozen it and the glee with which they’re cutting and selling off services.

This is a recurring theme of Conservatives in local government: council tax must be cut or frozen at all costs. And really, only a fool could believe it can be done without cost. There are doubtless efficiency savings that can be made in areas, but on the whole local taxation goes to pay for local services. If the amount of money that local government receives is cut (and a freeze is a cut in real terms, as inflation means a sum one year is not worth the same as the next) then it has less to spend on service provision.

And there are problems too with central government’s scheme to provide grants for councils to freeze council tax. Foremost is that the money is only guaranteed for this year. It’s very unlikely that, with economic and deficit reduction policies failing, the Tory-led coalition will be able to repeat this populist handout. Hence councils who take the money this year to freeze their tax will next year be faced with an increased gap- and have to raise it by twice as much to make up the gap. That council tax freeze will look really good this time next year when residents are facing a huge hike.

Wokingham residents are already seeing hints of things to come as far as that is concerned. Social care and library services being sold off. Charges introduced for different kinds of waste collection. That will only get worse as money gets tighter. What’s more important, shaving a few pounds off your council tax bill, or keeping services flowing and available to all? I suppose that’s the dividing line between parties.

I also find it ironic that this doesn’t actually mean that council tax bills won’t go up. Local authorities make up only a part of the sum, parish council precepts and other charges making up the rest. And, as you might guess, parish councils don’t get a lovely big government grant to make up their losses.

The Conservatives like to paint this as black and white. To them, cutting/freezing council tax is good, and raising it is bad. But local government is there for something, to provide essential services to residents. If funding is cut to the bone then services will suffer, that’s the simple truth that Eric Pickles and David Lee alike seem not to grasp. I’m not advocating council tax rises; I’m simply calling for a more reasoned look at what the money pays for, and what the consequences of a cut could be.

Non-political Politics

Scenes like these, which have marred the cities of England the past few days, are disgraceful. But as well as stopping these riots, we need to find out why they have happened, if we are to prevent them from happening again

Last November, I took part in a mass-march in London, organised by the NUS, against the Tory-led coalition government’s plans to treble tuition fees. I left before they turned into the violent disorder which came to define them, but when the rage of thousands of students crashed like a wave against Millbank (containing Conservative Party HQ), it was clearly politically driven.

Over the last few days, I’ve been watching violent riots and looting, which started in North London and spread across the country. It started because the police communicated poorly after a man was shot and killed in Tottenham, and stemmed from a general deep mistrust of the police in the area. Very quickly it moved beyond that, and young people across London and other cities were rioting, looting and destroying things. And yet, the government’s line is that this isn’t political.

Now, I don’t follow that. I absolutely deplore the destruction that has been rolling across English cities, and if any of them try it here they’ll have to go through me (and, I suspect, a fair number of other Wargrave residents). But calling it “criminality pure and simple”, whilst not being inaccurate, seems to miss the point.

What these young people are doing is criminal, and should be punished, but simply saying that and ignoring any deeper causes seems at best foolish, and at worst catastrophic. Simply put, if the reasons why this has happened aren’t explored and dealt with, then it will just happen again, and in a year or maybe two the shops of London, Manchester, Birmingham and more will be aflame again.

I don’t know the answers to this. However, I have my suspicions. These riots have started, and progressed, in particularly poor areas. Branding the people who live there as “chavs” and “scum” is simplistic. They’re still people, and people who for the most part have had to live all their lives in extreme poverty, and in a materialistic society which prizes products above people. It seems clear to me that when their frustration boils over, it would take the form of such looting as we’ve been seeing.

The fact is that most of these people feel that the world, and specifically the government, don’t care about them. This is underlined by a cabinet full of millionaires, and a Prime Minister whose primary source of irritation at yesterday’s press conference seemed to be that he’d had to cut his holiday short to run the country he is paradoxically leader of. I know that I take very badly to lectures about poverty from people who have never so much as seen it. I can only imagine how angry it makes people who live in that poverty.

I agree that these riots need to stop. They are hurting a lot of people, and are an exercise in selfishness. I’m uneasy about water cannons, rubber bullets and martial law, but a police surge in London seemed to do the trick last night. But what must not happen is for this to be allowed to be labelled “non-political” and left at that.

Politics is not something that happens once every four/five years. Just because the rioters aren’t carrying placards doesn’t mean that this has nothing to do with politics. Politics includes most things in life, and the fact that these people have very little, and what they do have is being slowly taken away through government cuts and disinterest, whilst not even beginning to justify their actions, goes some way to explain the feeling behind them.

What needs to happen is an honest, open debate about why this has happened. And government refusal to engage, as hinted by Cameron’s speech, and more explicitly shown by Michael Gove trying to shout down Harriet Harman making that point on last night’s Newsnight, shows the kind of “brush it under the carpet” philosophy which could tear British society apart before this parliament is finished.


No Win, No fee, No Access

The cuts to legal aid, and proposed restrictions on No Win No Fee represent an assault on democracy, and a real threat to justice in the United Kingdom

I’m currently deep in the studies for my final year exams, so I had decided I wasn’t going to blog until those were done. But life is unpredictable, and occasionally something will come along that outrages me so much that I have to rant about it, just so I don’t have a coronary.

Some background first. I’m a third year law student (studying at the University of Sussex, if you really want to know). I’m also a left winger, a Labour Party member, and a keen believer in equality and justice (of the social and legal variety). And I have a keen interest in politics, hence why I was watching the Budget on Wednesday afternoon.

And it was there that I heard George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in a government increasingly dedicated to social and economic vandalism, announce that No Win No Fee cases were to be restricted, as part of a “growth” strategy to free small businesses from, I’m guessing, frivolous cases. This is part of a larger assault on the rights of employees, but that’s not where I’m coming from with this.

I’m not an ardent supporter of No Win No Fee (otherwise known as Conditional Fee), because it does have the potential to encourage both ambulance chasing on the part of law firms, and frivolous cases by claimants. However, the background and context of Conditional Fees should be considered.

They were introduced in 1990, in the Courts and Legal Services Act, as a part of the reduction in the scope of legal aid. The idea was that instead of the state paying large sums in legal aid, lawyers could be allowed to charge no fee to their client, except upon victory. Not a particularly positive move in my view, but you can see where it was coming from.

The current proposal to restrict Conditional Fees comes in a climate of heavy cuts. The Legal Aid bill has not escaped this. Legal Aid is being removed for matters of family law, clinical negligence, education, employment, immigration, benefits, debt and housing. Which is a fairly sweeping attack on the civil law.

The cynics amongst you may notice that certain of these areas are subject to cuts and “reform” in themselves, and that the cuts to legal aid in these areas will reduce the number of challenges the government will face on those matters. Whether or not you want to think that is deliberate is up to you, but it certainly seems suspicious to me.

But the really chilling aspect of this is just how many people will now be unable to access the courts in search of justice. One of the key principles of a free and democratic society is that the courts should be open to all, and that justice should be for everyone. Or at least, that’s what I believe is essential in a free and democratic society. Apparently the government disagrees. Restricting Conditional Fees is one thing, but when it excludes thousands of people from pursuing just cases simply because they don’t have the money, it becomes a disgrace and a repression of justice.

Please note, when I say “poor”, I don’t in fact mean poor. Lawyers are expensive. Very expensive. Whatever you think of that is irrelevant, because it’s how the situation stands. Only the richest can afford to pay lawyers to fight their case in the courts- anyone on middle, low or no incomes will not be able to afford it.

This will, no doubt, be lost in a squall of other arguments. The rest of the budget was far from exclusively good news, and I expect that arguing over tax cuts, cuts to inheritance tax, and economic growth will take precedence, but this is essentially important. The whole concept of the rule of law requires that unlawful behaviour and unjust acts can be challenged in the courts. These measures threaten that ability, and represent a chilling, terrifying assault on justice and democracy. This needs to be seen for what it really is.

Return of the Nasty Party

Lord Young: showing us that beneath the mask of so-called "compassionate conservatism", the nasty party is alive and well.

Since he became Tory leader, David Cameron has been insistent that the Conservatives aren’t the same “nasty party” that were decisively voted out of power in 1997. Since he took power, he’s maintained the facade of compassionate Conservatism, even as he and his government have been instigating cuts which target the poorest sectors of society. Now, hardly any of us were fooled, but they went to great pains to keep it up. Until today, when the mask slipped off completely for a telling moment.

Lord Young’s comments in the Daily Telegraph have been front page news, so most people probably already know what he said, but for those who don’t here is the key part:

“For the vast majority of people in the country today, they have never had it so good ever since this recession – this so-called recession – started…”

He was referring to low interest rates, and arguing that they had benefited those with mortgages. This is, of course, completely ignoring the vast numbers who lost their jobs in the recession, and whose homes were repossessed, not to mention those millions who will suffer greatly as a result of his government’s cuts.

Lord Young has resigned over his comments, but the damage is already done really. It shows the attitude of a Conservative party, and a coalition government, that frankly doesn’t care about the people who it is going to be hurting. All that nonsense about all in it together is clearly rubbish. For the frontbench of millionaires in the cabinet, life is as good as ever, so who cares about the rest, right?

Cameron was fairly quick to denounce Young’s comments, and the enterprise advisor has spent much of the morning cap in hand, apologetic, and looking thoroughly ashamed of himself as the Tory PR chiefs clearly instructed him to. But given the seriousness of this gaffe, and especially considering how emphatically Cameron distanced himself from the comments, why did it take Young until the afternoon to resign?

Cameron clearly wanted him to stay on, despite the offensiveness of his views, and wasn’t going to sack a leading Tory peer. Young only resigned because of overwhelming pressure brought upon him by the media, the opposition parties, and the people of this country. When Cameron heard of the comments, he should have immediately sacked Young. The fact that he did not seems to speak volumes about his own views on the matter, and consequently of his party’s views.

The catchphrase “all in this together” has been ringing hollow since the government first started spouting it, but now it seems like the cat is out of the bag. The Tories haven’t changed a bit. They’re a political group out for themselves, and their only guiding principle is self-interest. Never mind “all in this together”; as we always knew it was, the true Tory catchphrase seems to be “we’re set; screw the rest of you”.

The Elephant in the Room

At the start of this academic year, I bought myself a clock radio, so I could wake up to the radio rather than whatever annoying noise my phone conjures up. Now, in Brighton I can’t get Absolute Radio. I personally cannot stand Chris Evans. So with Absolute and Radio 2 ruled out, I plumped for Radio 4. I quite like the Today programme, and John Humphrys’ voice isn’t an unpleasant thing to wake up to. (Quiet!)

This might seem an odd way to begin a blog entry, but it leads into something more substantial now. This morning I was half awake, listening to a bit about how dire Ireland’s economic state is at the moment, and how it looks like the EU is going to have to bail them out.

I wanted to use a picture of an elephant painted with the Irish flag, on fire, but unfortunately my lack of photoshop skills and the internet's lack of imagination has meant that I can only go with this particularly idiotic picture of Osborne.

Now, I might have missed a bit, as I was still waking up, but nowhere did I hear any parallels drawn between the Irish situation and our own. They suffered in the recession. So did we. They gained a large deficit as a result of bailing themselves out of the recession. So did we. They ended up with a Coalition. So did we. They set out on a program of radical cuts. We have just begun a near identical program.

And here’s the problem. Before the election, back when he was Shadow Chancellor, rather than axe-wielder-in-chief, George Osborne wrote an article in the Times newspaper about Ireland. You can read the article for yourself, but it contains the key quote.

I’m not an Osborne fan. I think he’s a moron, and I wouldn’t trust him with my pocket change, let alone the Treasury. But still, I’d have a lot more respect for him if he could let go of his damned cutcutcut obsession and looked at the bloody facts. It’s particularly galling when he himself laid out the sensible advice back in 2006.

“[Ireland] have much to teach us, if only we are willing to learn.”

And right you were, George. They taught us that sudden, drastic cuts when the economy is still unstable are a bad idea, and can result in a plunge back into recession. Not the lesson that he imagined they would teach us, granted, but important nonetheless. And yet despite eschewing the benefits of paying attention to Ireland and learning from their blunders, he seems not to be willing to learn himself.

It’s not surprising, of course. The Coalition government have set out on a program of economically-destructive cuts, and damn it they’re going to carry it out. That’s ideology. That’s politics. Any climbdown now would be tantamount to the lumbering mutant creature shooting itself in the face. But why are the rest of us not shouting louder about this?

Alan Johnson pointed out Osborne’s raging hypocrisy re: banking regulation, back when the CSR was delivered. But no one is waving Ireland around as an example of him ignoring the red lights and warning signs. Is there some reason for this? Is Ireland a no-go area for some reason?

Whatever, some brave MP (from either side of the House) needs to table a question to ask Osborne- or that Tory-apologist Danny Alexander- to explain why they are now ignoring the Irish lessons which they were so adamant we should learn from.

This Day…We March!

Marching for the rights of future students

Tomorrow, we march on the capital.

Tomorrow, thousands of angry students will descend on Parliament to protest the crippling cuts and fee rises proposed by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government. Thousands of voices will be heard crying out for our politicians to hear our voices and listen to them. And for the Lib Dems especially, to remember what they promised in the election.

I will be there. So will over three hundred students from the University of Sussex. I have no idea how many people will be there from other universities, but I know this is going to be something spectacular.

I’d like to point out something in particular: we are not doing this for us. The tuition fee rise will not affect present students. The cuts to the Higher Education budget will, for some of us. But not for me, and not for thousands of other final year students who will be there. We are not marching for ourselves. We’re marching for the generations of students who will bear the brunt of this.

The rises are not progressive. They will dissuade the very poorest members of society from going to university, and transform Higher Education into something reserved for a rich elite. And the massive cuts to the Higher Education budget will decimate universities, resulting in students paying massively more for massively less.

This is why I’m going to London tomorrow. This is why thousands of others are doing the same. This is why I’m asking you to come.

Whether you’re a student or not doesn’t matter. You could be someone who will be applying to university in the next couple of years. You could be the parent of someone who will be applying. Or you could just care about the state of education in this country. Whoever you are, come along and show your support. If you’re interested, take a look at the NUS website for details, and get involved.

Thank you

Despicable Him


"I'm havin' a bad bad day/If you take it personal that's okay/Watch, this is so fun to see/Huh, despicable me"

No, this doesn’t have anything to do with the film Despicable Me, good as it was. This is about George Osborne and his Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).


I know it’s over a day late, but to be honest I was so shocked and disgusted with Osborne’s announcements yesterday that I didn’t know what to say. I’d been expecting it to be bad but… I somehow failed to appreciate how awful it would be when it actually came around. Now, I could go on and on about the various people who will be horribly affected about this, but frankly you already know.

No, what I’m going to do is a lay person’s assessment of the economic madness this constitutes.

Now, the financial crisis was caused by the banks, behaving irresponsibly and taking outrageous risks. They did this because they were greedy bastards. They were able to do this because of poor regulation, which I accept was Labour’s bad. However, as Alan Johnson pointed out yesterday, Osborne himself was arguing for less regulation leading up to the crisis. So it’s fallacy to believe the Tories would have done anything different.

But it was Labour’s mistake. Their only real mistake in all of it, in my opinion. When the crisis hit, Brown and Darling responded immediately by nationalising the banks and pouring money into the economy. It worked. The recession ended, and we started the slow road to recovery.

Unfortunately, it left us with a deficit. A rather large deficit. But the decision at the time was that a deficit was better than a collapsed economy. Personally, I still agree with this. But anyway, along came the election and the Tories painted a picture of imminent financial disaster, making (false) analogies with Greece, and saying that everything needed to be cut immediately to plug the deficit as quickly as possible.

Now, the majority of people didn’t agree with this, but the Tories ended up in government and pursuing their cut-cut-cut agenda anyway (thanks to a spectacular U-turn by the Lib Dems). Which brings us to the CSR. The cuts are just as massive as we were promised, but somehow they come along with the promise that they will save the economy. To my mind, this doesn’t stand up.

The prediction is that this will result in half a million jobs being lost. Half a million. Given that the recovery has been faltering over the summer, this doesn’t seem smart. These people are going to have to be paid redundancy packages. Then a lot of them will end up on job-seekers allowance, unable to find jobs that don’t exist in the private sector. And those who are lucky enough to find jobs will be further inconvenienced by the hike in rail fares, making commuting all the more difficult.

This, it seems to me, is not going to help an already fragile economy. Especially when you look at the Republic of Ireland, who Osborne used as an example of how it should be done. They had a coalition government. They launched a similar program of massive cuts. They slipped back into a second recession. Funny how the coalition aren’t shouting about Ireland any more.

But aside from this gambling, this risk taking, this economic idiocy, there was something that disgusted me more yesterday. If you watch the footage back, Osborne is loving every minute of this announcement. Never mind that these cuts will cost at least 500,000 jobs. Never mind that they will cause misery for millions more. Never mind that they risk destroying the economy. He was enjoying it.

And so were the rest of the government benches. Why? Because these cuts are nothing to do with necessity. This is what Tories have longed to do, ever since Thatcher cut public services in the 80s. Even if there was no deficit, they would still want to cut back the state, this just gives them the opportunity. And the fact is that these measures will hit the poor hardest. The news is filled with economic analyses that show this. And meanwhile, the bankers, the tax dodgers and all of Osborne’s chums get off scott free.

That’s Tory fairness for you.

The Red Dawn

Ed Miliband, 20th Leader of the Labour Party

Okay, that sounded more revolutionarily socialist than I’d intended, but let’s run with it…

Yesterday, the result of the long, hard campaign for the new Labour leader was revealed, and Edward Samuel Miliband was elected as the new party leader. The moment itself was something of a shock, as indicated by the surprised gasp that went around the conference when it became apparent that firm favourite David Miliband had been beaten by his younger brother.

Now, those of you who follow this blog will know that Mr Miliband was not my first choice. But that doesn’t matter. One of the many positives about this leadership campaign has been the quality of all the candidates. There were none of them that I would not have been happy with at the head of the party.

But now the contest is done, and we have our new leader. The attention must turn to the rest of the conference, and to fighting the cuts that will decimate our unsteady economy. There’s still a way to go before Labour is in full opposition mode, after the Shadow Cabinet has been elected, and appointed by Ed.

What needs to happen now is a mass mobilisation of the public, against what is to come. Ed needs to work with all sectors of society, to place Labour at the forefront of the wave of public outcry which will be rising up once Coaliton cuts set in. The biggest danger he faces, and all of Labour faces, is internal division.

The last 13 years in the Labour Party were hampered by the Blair-Brown divide. What we cannot have now is that same divide manifesting through Miliband E and Miliband D camps. So far there has been no hint of that, with David’s congratulations to Ed feeling genuine and loving, if understandably a little put out.

The other danger is listening to the right-wing media. Already accusations are being made that he is a creature of the unions. It’s true, that the union vote was what put him over the top. But that doesn’t mean he’s a slave to them, or that there is something amiss about his election. Labour is the party of the people, it’s connection to the unions is long and esteemed. The union role in the leadership election reflects their contribution to the party, and ties the party to its political beneficiaries: the working people of the United Kingdom.

The Tory-skewed media is naturally going to try and bring Ed down over this. The party cannot listen to it. The only way we are going to be able to fight the Tories and the Lib Dems is if we are united. We did great things in the 13 years of Labour government, and now the average person of this country needs us to fight these disastrous cuts with everything we have. In government we could afford to have internal divisions, even if they handicapped us. In opposition, we don’t have that luxury.

So I’m adding my voice to those greater than myself, to all those in the party. We’ve gone through this election to find our new leader. We have found him. Now we need to unite behind him, and move onto the real fight. We need to present a single, strong and united front, against an already-fracturing Coalition government.

This is where we begin our fightback. This is where we make our future.