Ever since the 2008 Obama campaign it’s been a sine qua non of English speaking politicians that parties and individuals must have excellent social media skills. Go canvassing, run a street stall, kiss a baby but make sure you get the story on Twitter and the picture on Facebook. I hear plenty of rationalisations for this behaviour with my favourite being that it scares the Tories witless – we seem to have a low opinion of our opponents’ nerve and intelligence and a high opinion of just how newsworthy our stories are.
Which is not to say that I don’t think that social media has its role, but just as Facebook seems to have peaked already and lost some of its appeal, I suspect that Tweeting is going to calm down – after all admirer of Danny Blanchflower, the footballer as well as the economist, as I am I get fed up with his thoughts on sport, the weather and everything else tweeted 10 and 20 times a day.
Tweets seem to me to be superb campaigning and rallying cries designed for elections, announcements and dramatic events – not for everyday stuff like haircuts or canvassing. 99.9% of the tweets I have ever been responsible for announce that I have published another blog entry and that seems to me to be an ideal use.
But the Blog is, I think, of a different order. I am told, repeatedly that my blogs are too long, that people just won’t read them, that they are sometimes boring, but that isn’t the point. They are the modern version of the old essay, as written by essayists. Mine are for my benefit not primarily the readers. If you, dear reader, find one or two of them interesting then that’s great but primarily they provide a vehicle for my thoughts.
But whilst writing this, it occured to me that for a party politician this opens up a hatful of opportunities, and for parties a complex new problem.
For a century democratic politics has struggled with the problem of communicating with the electorate. This struggle has largely been “avoided” by the use of party labels. It has been impossible to speak to all the electorate, so we use short-hand. I am Labour, therefore, nice and caring. You are a Tory and, therefore, nasty but better at making decisions.
It is this facet that has led me to justify the party whip and party discipline. Indeed the most frequent use of the argument is in justifying party politics in local democracy. In local elections it is surprising to the professional politicians just how many voters think that there should not be any party politics at all.
And then along comes the blog. No longer is it possible for the party to control what the candidate says to the electorate; or really the whip to control the elected politiican and enforce the party line; or the Electoral Commissioner to monitor expenditure on elections.
Now I can publish my own maybe maverick views and get a level of support for them based purely and simply on my own persuasiveness and the extent of my readership; but so can all my councillor colleagues. What kind of challenge does this pose for party politics. That is, of course, difficult to say right now, but it is almost certainly going to be very profound.
In the States it appears as though the major parties virtually cease to exist for the four years between the national conventions with social media used by the leading candidates to grab funding and then encourage volunteer canvassers. The Tea Party appeared for a time to be the only active force between elections: a strange parallel with UKIP perhaps. Given the still falling membership of British political parties are we going to go the same way?
1. Have you noticed that the Grant Road exit from Clapham Junction station has been kept open until 1 a.m. It used to be closed at any time after 10 pm but I raised the matter in January at a Passengers’ Liaison Committee with the representatives of Network Rail and they announced at the Committee on the 8th April that they have decided to keep the gate opened in future. Big success for local lobbying power 1.
2. Meanwhile I hope to have persuaded the Council and Transport for London to install a temporary bus-stop opposite Battersea Park School. The main stop had been closed because of the development on the old Labour Exchange, meaning that there was a very long gap between the Latchmere Pub and Alexandra Road. I had complaints from a couple of pensioners and a temporary stop should be in place shortly. Thanks to local residents for raising the issue and big success for local lobbying power 2.
3. The main item of interest at the Planning Applications Committee on 11th April was, unusually, a Latchmere item – the expansion or otherwise of the Falcon Road Mosque. I have sent out quite a few emails on this matter to many of the local residents most concerned and so I won’t repeat them all here, but I will make a quick reference to the consultation.
I have been through all the consultation comments and categorised them as best I could – I took no notice of anonymous support or opposition. Of the 215 responses in favour of the application, 53 came from within Latchmere ward and another 98 came from other parts of the Borough. 65 came from outside the Borough. Most of these responses were simple statements of support for the mosque, with many mentioning lack of facilities.
Those opposing the plans numbered 106, of which 105 gave addresses in the Borough (the one outsider says he is a landlord of property very near to the mosque), 90 of whom were within Latchmere and the vast majority of these were from Little India, Fownes/Este Roads and the immediate area on the other side of Falcon Road. In the nature of “opposing”, these responses were much more detailed and largely centred on the traffic and parking implications of an expanded mosque. Many of these “opposition” responses said very positive things about having a mosque in the neighbourhood, with some clearly coming from “traditional” British style names expressing pride in being part of a mixed, multi-ethnic community with a mosque in it. The second largest voice of criticism, after the traffic, was aimed at what people thought of as over-development of the site. There was only one opponent, who got anywhere near to saying that the mosque shouldn’t even be there.
Clearly opinion was very divided but those living closest to the mosque were the least happy about the application and also felt more strongly about the application than those supporting it. Most encouragingly the debate was held in a very civilised fashion, which might not have been the case. In the event, the application was refused.
4. On 8th April Mrs. Thatcher died and divided the country in death as much as she had done in life. As it happens I was due to attend a meeting of the Labour Heritage Society on the Saturday the 13th, when the main presentation was about Mr. Clement Attlee, born in Putney as it happened and the Labour Prime minister, who ruled for the six years between Churchill’s great wartime administration and Churchill’s rather less successful second peacetime administration. It was difficult to come away from the presentation by Francis Beckett without believing that Attlee was by head and shoulders the greatest peacetime prime minister of the twentieth century.
Now I don’t expect to persuade my Tory colleagues of this argument and certainly not in this newsletter but if you would like to read my thoughts on Mrs. T then I have quite a long piece in my blog at http://tonybelton.wordpress.com/. Take a dip.
5. On Sunday, 14th April, I attended a fascinating meeting of the Church of St. Mary of Debre Tsion and of the Ethiopian Community in London. You may have seen the congregation, the ladies all dressed in white, in Queenstown Road of a Sunday morning – but not recently. They have been locked out of St. Philips Church, which the Ethiopian Orthodox bought off the Anglicans for, apparently, £2 million, by their own clergy. The meeting was conducted in the Ethiopian language of Amharic and with some translation I gathered it was a “constitutional coup” with the congregation turning out the clergy – not often that a councillor gets to see a peaceful revolution in the making!
6. On 16h April, I went to the Battersea Library to hear a presentation on the centenary of John Archer’s installation as the first black mayor of Battersea – strangely there had been a man of Indian descendant as Mayor of, of all places, little rural Thetford in Norfolk, otherwise Archer would have been the first in the UK. Archer was a Latchmere councillor and hence one of my predecessors. He lived in Brynmaer Road, then a much more down-market street, and ran a photographer’s shop in Battersea Park Road – have you seen the blue plaque? – look out for it. The presentation was given by Kwaku, an “history consultant” clearly intent on raising the black profile in British history.
7. The Harling Court Residents Association met on 17th April. Residents there expressed reasonable concerns about the development built alongside them on the old Travis Perkins site but one good thing has come from that development and that is the recent installation at Harling Court of security doors.
8. On the 23rd, 24th and 25th I had the Planning and Transport, Finance and Corporate Resources, and Housing Committees. That might sound dull to you but on the whole they were duller than even that sounds! So a quick mention of the interesting bits from Planning. Further analysis of the 2011 census shows:-
• that the Borough’s car population is in decline, with 54.7% of us owning one, as opposed to 59.3% in 2001 – there are of course more of us!
• Wandsworth has the highest proportion of people in the UK aged 30-44
• We have the second highest proportion of non-related households, that is flat sharers
• 53.3% of us claim to be white British, but we had some of the highest counts of non-British whites from Irish to Polish to Oz
• 35% of us were not born in the UK
• With 54% of us having degrees or higher we are the second highest qualified population in the UK or 3rd if you count the miniscule population of the City of London
9. The Finance and Corporate Resources Committee had no immediately gripping matters under consideration but marked the next stage in the Government’s attack on local government services with large scale programmes of privatisation and out-sourcing. I feel strongly about all this and will have to get round to doing a blog on it some time trying to articulate my discomfort with it all – but not now – too big a subject.
10. The Housing Committee continues to tighten up the rules governing the allocation of council housing but, whilst I don’t like the changes, I realise that I am probably in a minority of one on the issue and in any case the changes are fairly minimal.
11. On the 30th many councillors attended a teach-in about Children Looked After. This very important group is, I guess, almost unknown to most constituents. It is about the 200 children in Wandsworth, there are 65,000 in the country, taken into care and for whom councillors have a personal and collective responsibility as in loco parentis – or in translation “in the place of parents”. Ever since the dreadful case of Baby P, when you may remember a small boy died through hopeless parenting and inadequate social service support, the Government has made it clear that in principle councillors are in loco parentis. What a responsibility!
My Programme for May
1. There is a Planning Applications Committee on the 8th May.
2. I said last month that I was going to a guest lecture from the poet laureate at Roehampton University. I got the date wrong! It is on 1st May!
3. The second week of May is traditionally the high point of the Municipal Year. On the 13th there is a reception for the outgoing Mayor, on the 15th the Annual Council Meeting and on the 16th the installation of the new Mayor. I must confess that I rather enjoy the week even if not many of my colleagues do!
4. There doesn’t seem to be much else on but here is advance notice of a history walk that I am leading on 1st June at 2pm as part of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival. It costs £10 per head and I guarantee that I will teach you something about the neighbourhood that you don’t know. We start on the corner of Albert Bridge Road and Battersea Park Road right opposite the Latchmere pub. If you are thinking of coming then please email me – nice to know the numbers to expect.
Did you know?
Born in about 1990 (he is 23 now), Darius went to Joseph Tritton school, now the Chillington Drive estate off Wynter Street, and Christchurch. When he was a kid he spent all his time in the York Gardens Adventure Playground (demolished last year by the Council!) and in the community centre, climbing on the apparatus and playing football – but also messing about on an outdoor table tennis table and on another inside the community centre.
He tells me that he spent hours playing round table, table tennis – that is where any number of kids play at the same time but after each shot the player has to go round the table and wait his turn until his turn comes round to play the next shot and you drop out one at a time when you miss until there are only two players left. They then play for the winning point. I can tell you from my own experience (Yes, I remember playing it), it is all action packed, fast and furious fun.
Anyway Darius turns out to be the best at this game and one day, yes the fairy story, he is spotted by a coach. A year or so later having dropped the soccer and the sprinting, he was a full-time student at a Table Tennis academy in Nottingham – quite a plucky decision for a youngster that age to take – up sticks and leave mum and home to be a boarder at a sporting academy in a distant town.
And then Darius starts a whirlwind sporting career, which included going to a Eurokids competition in Terni, Italy, the Portuguese Youth Open at aged 13, becoming Britain’s No 1 Under 15, being in the Under 21s European Final at the age of 18, winning gold in both the singles and the doubles of the Youth Olympics in Sydney, and winning a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010.
Of course, the big target was the London, 2012 Olympics, for which he had become a mega-star of the hoardings being one of the faces used by Coke- Cola for advertising both the Games and Coke. But the Coke deal seems to have caused a bit of friction and as it turns out Darius did not make the final pick despite being in the squad.
Now, I sense Darius is at a turning point in his career. He is keen to help get kids off the street and round the tennis tables in York Gardens or the Katherine Low Settlement – he is very honest (and charming) about training and table tennis straightening him out after a couple of primary school suspensions but before he was too old and exposed to really going off the rails. He plays professionally in tournaments in Europe and is based in Vienna so as to be close to the big Euro action, which seems to be in Northern Italy, Munich and round and about. He wants (and needs?) sponsorship style deals but he also wants to train and concentrate on the Rio Olympics in 2016.
And Battersea and other things? his mum lives on the Dodd, and his gran (and for a while he) lived in Este Road until she died fairly recently at the age of 102. He has a girlfriend called Jordan, no not that one, and enjoys himself listening to 50 Cent – no I hadn’t heard of him either but he is a rapper called Curtis James Jackson III, better known as 50 Cent.
One or two Tory friends have asked me for my thoughts on Mrs Thatcher particularly in the context of me being Leader of the Opposition in Wandsworth, the proclaimed Jewel in the Crown, when she became PM and for most of her time in office. So you can blame this piece – which obviously concentrates on a Wandsworth perspective and not the national one being covered in a million other places – on them.
First here is a short story about the 1982 Borough Election. Although 1986 was statistically the closest Wandsworth Borough Election (Labour won more votes, by a couple of hundred or so, but the Tories squeaked in by 31 seats to 30) for me 1982 was the real turning point. A month before Election Day a Labour victory was a certainty. Mrs Thatcher was as unpopular across the country as was “Chopper” Chris Chope, the Tory Leader of Wandsworth. And then in classic manner her two most famous enemies – the trade unions and Argentinian General Galtieri – jumped in to rescue Wandsworth’s Tories.
Wandsworth Tories had been struggling with the unions over improving refuse collection, which was riven by cronyism and archaic working practises. But there was no real will on the unions’ part to negotiate and so the Tories decided in late March 1982 to gamble on the then innovative policy of putting it out to tender. It might now seem to be a “no brainer” but at the time it was a bold step to take.
My heart sank a few days later when two local union bosses came to see me to announce, with obvious delighted self-satisfaction, that they were calling a strike in time for the election. They were a little taken aback by my negative reaction but not sufficiently to change their minds.
Then on 2nd April Argentina invaded the Falklands; on 2nd May the Argentinian light cruiser Belgrano was sunk by the British Navy and on the 4th HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Exocet missile. On the 6th May Wandsworth went to the polls and although the Tories lost a couple of seats they were back in by 33 seats to 27 with 1 Lib/Dem. In five weeks Mrs. Thatcher’s political career was forged, and you could say mine destroyed, as any hope of Labour winning in Wandsworth had gone with the wind.
This story captures two features of Mrs Thatcher’s career. First, it has to be acknowledged, her boldness and second the luck she had with her enemies, whether Scargill and Foot or Galtieri – these two features were not lacking in Wandsworth either.
Wandsworth’s Tories were bold to take on the unions, who in their turn were crass in their failure to recognise the limits both of their power and of their support. The unions still flush with their “success” in the 1970s did not understand that the public were prepared not to have their bins collected for a week or so if the Council was able to tough things out and to win the conflict.
The Tories were also bold to take on the GLC and the ILEA, though whether for good or ill is of course another matter. Although it is a very different animal, there was no opposition to Tony Blair’s decision to restore some form of city-wide Assembly, now the Mayor and the GLA. No, lack of courage is not a criticism that I would ever have made against Wandsworth’s Tories in the 1980s.
The Labour Party (me?) also made our mistakes, most particularly about council house sales (RTB). Labour councillor Nigel Morgan and I argued that straight opposition to sales was never going to work. We foresaw the consequential modern disaster of the lack of social housing and, therefore, argued that capital receipts should be used to build replacements. But this was a sophisticated position, which got lost in the ferocious and noisy national battle over the issue. Ironically our position is now accepted even by the current Cameron Government – Nigel, if you ever read this, get in touch. We were right and everyone else wrong!
The impact of RTB in Wandsworth has been dramatic. I would argue that it is a major feature in pushing Wandsworth up the wealth leagues of London Boroughs to the considerable benefit of some of the population and at a far greater cost to many of the others. Wandsworth is now one of the most harshly divided of all Boroughs with levels of deprivation in a few areas alongside some of the richest parts of the country.
Populist but heartless, bold and assertive but bullying and overbearing, are descriptions that are almost inter-changeable for Thatcher and Chope and the Wandsworth Tories in the 1980s.
Much of the national coverage focusses on the apparently inevitable long-term impacts of Mrs T. How she put the Gr8 back into Britain – you know the argument. It is the Tory line in Wandsworth too. I guess they would say that it is commanding the narrative. Hence Wandsworth was, in their mythology, sinking in the mire of the winter of discontent until they arrived to rescue it and make it the “Brighter Borough”. Wandsworth even has, in its way, its own Ted Heath: he was Dennis Mallam, Tory Leader through the 1970s and then dropped as soon as decently possible just prior to the Thatcher victory of ’79. Poor old Dennis! He was really wet. He wanted to build more council houses than Labour had done!
Well you don’t have to be very much on the left to have a very different narrative. One that concentrates on community and abhors the individualised “Loadsamoney” culture that is so publicly associated with Thatcherism. And again this division between communal values and rampant individualism is mirrored in Wandsworth, perhaps especially in Battersea where everyone knows how different life is depending upon which side of the tracks you happen to be – the mainline from Waterloo to the south west. Is it a complete coincidence that one of the worst scenes of violence in the riots of August, 2011, the Clapham Junction riots, happened on the very border between great wealth and great poverty?
There are other interesting parallels between Wandsworth and the country, which reflect the impact of both Thatcher and the Wandsworth Tories. Mrs T brought in “Big Bang”, hence liberating the City to become the bloated, dangerously over-powerful driver of the British economy. And, funnily enough, one of the biggest residential concentrations of bankers in the country is right here in Wandsworth, attracted by the once cheap housing that used to be the homes of industrial workers and the low rates/Community Charge/Council Tax. For the wastelands of the industrial north read the very large but completely obliterated industrial area of Wandsworth’s riverside – all now given over to expensive and rather barren flats, many of which are owned or rented not by Londoners and are left empty for long periods of the week and of the year.
So my Tory friends, what in summary is my reaction to the news of her death? To the fact of death – nothing much – but to her heritage. In 1979 GB was the most egalitarian it has ever been and now 33 years later we are at levels of inequality not seen since 1913. In 1979 we had a trade union movement that was clearly out of control but now we have one so palpably weak it is becoming a danger the other way, with the Tory right arguing for yet more “business friendly” rules and leading moves not to a high wage, high skill economy but to a dog-eat-dog, low pay and low skills economy.
In 1979 you Tories feared that we were the sick man of Europe (which we never were, of course) and had lost the respect, which you think other countries should show us. In 2013 we are the tax haven of choice for everyone from Russian pluto/kleptocrats to foot-loose business money. And yet, the mood and moment of the 2012 Olympics, so different and so unThatcherite, has gone far to show that their is another way – success through harmony.
For sure it is a complex heritage and clearly you, Tory friends, do not understand why not everyone does not see it your way. But until you do you will not even see the terrible damage she did to many regions of the country and to many people in all the regions.
1. There was a Council meeting on Wednesday, 6th March. The headline debate was on the Council Tax but I guess that most will know that there has been a small increase, an increase which Labour opposed. I think more important was a further debate about the next round of cuts, which look like causing mayhem with Council services. I am sorry to say that in my view we, Wandsworth Labour councillors, have been a bit supine in accepting the pressures on the Council. We all know that national government holds all the cards and that a Labour Council would have to be cutting almost as savagely as the Tories, but I do think we should be making a noise about it all.
David Cameron and George Osborne have got the economy seriously wrong and everyone, except those blinded by Tory publicity, is beginning to realise it. Wandsworth Tories have little alternative but to support their government but Labour should be shouting from the rooftops that these cuts are damaging the country and destroying the economy both nationally and locally. The bedroom tax alone will take £3million a year out of the Wandsworth economy.
2. I went to the Big Local meeting at Providence House on the 7th and a couple of Battersea Park School governor meetings but on the whole I have had a fairly quiet month a little handicapped not only by the appalling weather but also by a bit of poor health, happily now on the mend.
3. There was not much to excite at the Planning Applications Committee on 12th March, although we did see the first reaction to the invasion of Boris Bike docking stations. An application for a docking station in Lavender Gardens was due to be considered but I put a spoke in the wheels and got the application deferred. We will see in April just what the Committee decide to do but public opposition is mounting.
I realise that some of my cycling friends will be a little peeved with me for this but I have no regrets. I think that TfL are going very much OTT (over the top) on Boris bikes. We will see whether I am right or not but a large bike docking station every 300 yards might well be appropriate for central London but it seems a bit much here in Wandsworth.
4. On 4th March there was a small celebration of Clapham Junction’s 150th birthday as a major station. I know some constituents were keen to be there. My real regrets are that I was not feeling well enough to get there!
5. On 25th March I went to a small “arts theatre” in Camden to see a play called,“The Briefcase”. Here is a picture of it, why? Because it is mine and was centre stage! The play was written by Timothy Turner, who is the son of my fellow Labour councillor, Billi Randall from Tooting. I won’t fill this newsletter with the details but you can see a review of the play in my blog at http://tonybelton.wordpress.com/.
6. I noticed one day in late March that the mock Tudor gatehouse to the Peabody Estate had disappeared, that is the one at the corner of Boutflower Road and Strath Terrace. The demolition of the Peabody Estate had begun. I decided to visit that afternoon and take some photographs of the old estate before it was just a fading memory. I know it was not much to write home about but it is amazing how quickly memories fade and so here is a quick selection of photographs of the Peabody.
Three views of the Peabody, including the Eckstein Road gatehouse
My Programme for April
1. There is a Planning Applications Committee on the 11th April, on the same day as the police Special Neighbourhood Team.
2. I am going to a guest lecture from the poet laureate at Roehampton University on the 12th.
3. On the 23rd I have the Strategic Planning and Transportation Committee followed on the 25th by the Housing Committee.
4. On the 30th all councillors are having a teach-in about Children Looked After. This very important session is, I guess, almost unknown to most constituents. It is about councillors personal and collective responsibility for children looked after by the Council. Ever since the dreadful case of Baby P, when you may remember a small boy died through hopeless parenting and inadequate social service support, the Government has made it clear that in principle councillors are in loco parentis, i.e. we are in the position of being parents and have their legal responsibilities. What a responsibility!
Do you know?
Senia Dedic? I first met Senia as Secretary of the Falcon Road estate residents association (FERA – the little known estate behind Falcon Road on the opposite side from Grant road). It was obvious that she was a special person with a very special history, so I decided to interview her for my newsletter.
Senia was born in Sarajevo, then in Sarajevo but now the capital of Bosnia. Do you recall the Yugoslav wars and the bombing of Sarajevo in the early 1990s? Well Senia was there. She tells me, “It was devastating to hear the Soviet built MIGs flying overhead. I remember being in a basement cellar hearing the bombs explode above us. In one night I counted 586, before I stopped counting. My fiancé (now husband) was in the newly formed Bosnian army and to my despair went to the front line.”
“Then water, electricity, telephone and food ran out. Bread queues were bombed and thousands of hungry people were killed every day. I spent 4 months in the local communal basement with my parents and our neighbours and Mum and Dad were begging me to leave the city and the bloodshed. I left the city on the last available bus to the Croatian border. From there I had to hitchhike to Zagreb and get the train to Zurich where my sister lived. After further adventures I decided to come to London and settle in Battersea. These 20 years here are the longest, most stable period of my life”.
Five generations of her family lived under five regimes in Sarajevo, from old empires, to the Soviet Block, to today. The family history is a microcosm of the turbulence and warfare that swept through the Balkans in the 20th century.
Here in Wandsworth, with her family pictured, Senia founded the Women of Wandsworth (WoW), and the Parents’ Forum, a drop-in centre where parents bring their issues and worries.
WoW also formed a voluntary community organisation called SpaceMax to tackle overcrowding in Wandsworth by helping people make shelves, fold down desks and beds, help with de-cluttering homes, making partition walls, etc.
WoW runs an intergenerational project and a Kids project, which organises educational and residential trips for urban children to a working farm in Devon.
Senia is a Governor at Christ Church School, a Katherine Low Settlement Trustee; and a member of Battersea Rotary Club. She started the PTA and was a founder of Positive Parent Action, representing the voice of parents with disabled children. (One of her own children is a patient in Great Ormond Street, where Senia is a Member of the Hospital Trust).
Appropriate, I think, that Senia was awarded the Mayor’s Team Award for her outstanding contribution to improving London and the quality of life for Londoners.
This House, written by James Graham and playing at the National, is a must for any lefty of a certain age. A saga of the Wilson/Callaghan governments of the 1970s it is set in the Commons, but almost exclusively in those unknown jungles, known as the whips’ offices. A mention of the dark arts of politics recalls the jocular asides of rugby front row forwards; like the prop forwards, the whips appear to have more in common with their opponents than their so-called allies; like the front rows, they maintain their own club and its rules against all-comers, particularly their subjects, the lobby fodder of the backbenches.
The play is beautifully and wittily staged with some lucky members of the audience seated on the green Commons benches as serried ranks of silent MPs during scenes in the Commons. But when the scene moves to the whips office, the benches swing round to create theatre in the round. The script is funny and clever with Hal Miller, MP for Bromsgrove and Redditch, complaining that in the home of the needle industry he could not find a haystack.
The script and the action is, as Americans might say, designed for the Beltway audience. Not quite simply for those immersed in the Westminster Bubble, since there would be many, living well outside London, who would enjoy the play. However, the author undeniably demands considerable knowledge of the political intricacies of the period.
Graham has immersed himself in the history of this incident-packed five years, starting in the late days of the Heath Government and finishing after Thatcher’s ’79 election victory. He has clearly done a lot of research with particular assistance from Joe Ashton, one of Labour’s whips. It is not surprising that some of Graham’s sources claimed that this particular Parliament was the most dramatic in their various long and eventful parliamentary careers.
One fascinating theme that emerges is the mutual respect that grows between the two rival Deputy Whips. On Labour’s side was Walter Harrison, MP for Wakefield, admirably played by Reece Dinsdale, and on the Tories side Bernard (Jack) Weatherill, MP for Croydon NE, impeccably suited and played by Charles Edwards. A minor running joke refers to Weatherill’s career in his family’s bespoke tailoring business. MPs from all sides comment on his smart appearance or make some reference to tailoring. One cheeky Labour Whip even requests his help to repair his own scruffy suit. To which Weatherill delivers a superb put-down: ‘I don’t deal in man-made fibres’.
But, joking aside, the class and political differences between the two parties are shown not to cloud the growing personal respect between the two Deputy Whips. The most dramaticmoment of the play indeed occurs between the two of them, alone in the Tory Whips office – near the end of the play. Harrison needs a controversial pairing of MPs, to save the Labour majority. Weatherill after due consideration accepts, offering to be the pair himself – knowing that it will make him hated by his own party. After a very long pause, Harrison declines the offer. Politics move on.
The Callaghan government fell to a vote of no-confidence in 1979. There were many reasons for its fall and this unrecorded and imagined scene may or may not have been critical. The play, however, highlights this moment of drama between the two Whips. Thus, ultimately, the playwright endorses the essential value of personal integrity, even amidst the storm of political battle.
The Thatcher victory arguably marked the beginning of the end of the post-war consensus about the welfare state. Now as this play is premiered in the third year of a Cameron Government we are seeing the end of not just that consensus but also the demolition of the tools of the state that made it possible – a professional civil service, a powerful and independent local government, professional and independent public servants in the health, education and judicial services.
Some of our contemporaries told us that they were in tears of laughter for most of the play and tears of regret for the last 20 minutes. The laughter was, of course, testament to the writing but the regret was about the loss of a romantic, idealised memory of our lost youth spent in a welfare state that gave us good health, a better education than any of our forefathers, jobs for life and good occupational pensions. But the tears were also for the tragedy, as it appeared, of Labour’s failure and of lost opportunity.
But for us, the emotion was more of sadness than anguish. The period, as Graham sees it, was rather too mundane to be tragic. The scale of Labour’s ambition and vision seemed limited to the maintenance of power not to the achievement of any great ends. Even the first steps towards national devolution were inspired by the necessity of maintaining a majority and not out of any real political commitment. This, of course, made it all the more appropriate that the whips’ office was right at the centre of the action and of this play.
Should others go to see this play? Yes, it’s part of everyone’s civic education. But be prepared to be indignant as well as amused – and who knows, you might be moved to join the battle for more meaningful politics and a revived, even if different, Welfare State.
I left out the Lib/Dems from my last blog re marginal constituencies – perhaps it’s because I come from Lib/Dem free Wandsworth but a reader pointed out that it has a potential impact on them too, so here is my analysis of top Lib/Dem marginals.
Of the top five marginal Lib/Dem:Labour seats three have majorities less than the number of households affected by the Bedroom Tax!
Norwich South; 310; 1973
Bradford East: 365: 1023:
Brent Central: 1345: 1057: majority greater
Burnley: 1818: 957: majority greater
Manchester, Withington: 1894: 2678
What I did not say yesterday was that in 17 of the 20 tightest Tory:Labour marginals the number of households affected, and I mean households and not voters, is greater than the Tory majority in 2010.
The data is by constituency:
Constituency: Majority: Households affected
1. North Warwickshire: 54: 766
2. Cambourne and Redruth: 66: 454
3. Thurrock: 92: 1140
4. Hendon: 106: 680
5. Oxford and West Abingdon: 176: 572
6. Cardiff North: 194: 1067
7. Sherwood: 214: 804
8. Stockton South: 332: 1431
9. Lancaster and Fleetwood: 333: 555:
10. Broxtowe: 389: 581
11. Truro and Redruth: 435: 500
12. Newton Abbot: 523: 326: majority greater
13. Amber Valley: 536: 559
14. Wolverhampton South West: 691: 1396
15. Waveney: 769: 788
16. Carlisle: 853: 1181
17. Morecombe and Lunesdale: 866: 700: majority greater
18. Weaver Vale: 991: 1397
19. Harrogate and Knaresborough: 1039: 684: majority greater
20. Lincoln: 1058: 1155
One has to ask: Did they know what they were doing when they introduced this abomination and of course the resounding answer is NO.
I am a “prop star”; well at least I own a prop star. All because fellow Labour councillor Billi Randall emailed her friends asking if anyone had a briefcase and I, being of an older generation, confessed that I had, which is why some weeks later I was seated in the front row of community arts theatre, Theatro Technis, watching this new play starring my briefcase.
Timothy, the author, is the 26 year old son of my Council colleague Billi and she was also there proud to see the launch of Tim’s play-writing career – and a very promising one it is too, at least judging by this opener.
A one hour duopoly, beautifully acted by Harry Lobek and Joel Samuels, the Briefcase is a philosophical discussion on the nature of decision making and indeed of discussion itself. Was the glass half full or half empty? Should the briefcase be opened or left shut; if opened it could reveal something that would make life better or worse? Was it worth the possible joy of one or the risk of the other?
As Turner explored one could see clear references to Stoppard, Beckett and Pinter not least the lack of action in this style of theatre and the difficulty of beginning and ending. Indeed in my view the ending was the weakest element of the play – it just stopped. But the format avoids the dramatist’s perpetual problem of how to get the actors on and off the stage – we all know that even the greatest once descended to “Exit followed by a bear” – since both actors were on at both beginning and end.
However, Turner very ingeniously reversed the roles of the two characters halfway through the play when the action man suddenly became the prevaricator and vice versa. This gave him all kind of licence to play with the arguments and characters. The conclusion? I think Turner believes the means is more important than the ends; or perhaps that self-discovery is more important than action. It would, though, also be perfectly possible to conclude that Turner is very critical of over-rationalisation and much in favour of getting on with life.
The play was witty, complex and sophisticated. It was also clever and polished and hugely enjoyable. Turner also directed the play and no small feat that. Billi tells me that he is planning other plays. I hope he manages it. This was a very, very promising opening.
Most of us are now well aware that the poorest in our community face a deluge of damaging benefit cuts on Monday, 1st April, including the vile Bedroom Tax. I will write another blog, another day about the vicious nature of this tax and just what it displays of Tory attitudes to council or social sector tenancies, but today I wanted to focus on the particular impact in Wandsworth.
The Guardian has just produced a very helpful map of where the impact is greatest and in its commentary says that the impact is counter-intuitive. I think that means that the journalist expected the hardest hit areas to be the great northern industrial cities. But in fact the worst hit single area of all is Wandsworth and the whole south east region including many of the most affluent parts are almost as hard hit. So whilst the “tax” for having one bedroom “too many” in Wandsworth is £912 per household per year, just down the road in Esther it is £851 and in Kensington it is £839.
This is because the tax is a function of the rent levels and with much lower rents in, say, Hull the impact on individual tenant households is rather less; actually it is £489 in Hull. But there are more than 2,000 households affected in each of the three Hull constituencies and only about 900 in each of the three Wandsworth ones.
Bizarrely this means that Wandsworth Tories have been aggressively promoting this vicious “tax”, which results in hitting their constituents harder than anywhere else in the country. It also means that they are supporting a policy, which is taking approximately £3.5 million out of the Borough’s economy. Knowing the area, as I do, this will cut living standards in Roehampton and Latchmere (the council flats on north-side of Clapham Junction station), where ironically the Council is now looking to invest £100 million precisely because of the under-privileged nature of the area.
Irony of ironies this is happening in the very same week as millionaires are getting £100,000 p.a. tax cuts and given that there are said to be 6,000 of them in the country, with Wandsworth’s share at least 35, what we see here is a Cameron/Osborne swap of money from the poor to the rich. And what do we know about the relative spending habits of rich and poor? Well for one the rich are more likely to spend some of their money in St. Tropez and Bermuda and much less likely to be spending it in the rundown shopping areas of Falcon Road and Danebury Avenue (the two main shopping streets in Latchmere and Roehampton).
I hate to think what Robin Hood would have made of it all but I can’t see how any Tory can be seriously surprised if we have many more civil disturbances – or at very least massive refusals to pay rent.
I want to tell a story about affordable housing Battersea style.
Sister’s Avenue is a road full of rather grand Victorian houses, including one Victorian block of Mansions, running from Lavender Hill through to Clapham Common. At some time during WWII a bomb clearly took out 20 or so houses on each side of the road at the Common end – plenty of evidence in Battersea at just how bad the Luftwaffe was at hitting Clapham Junction station.
In the 50s and 60s Battersea Borough Council built some pleasant and ordinary council houses, all gone right to buy, and a small 2 storey block of 6 flats. When Wandsworth Council (as it had now become) went Tory in 1978 they started an aggressive sales policy – by aggressive I mean that rather than just sell when a tenant expressed interest the Council ran sales fairs, gave prizes for landmark sales – the thousandth, etc. – and generally did their level best to stimulate sales.
79 Sister’s Avenue was the first of the block of flats to be sold in 1983 for £13,500. By January, 1989, all six flats had been sold at an average price of £17,950. Good luck you will say to then residents. Wandsworth had created 6 new affordable units for sale and resale – bully for Right-to-Buy and Tory policies.
By 2007 Robinwood Ltd, a property developer was sniffing around. The developer clearly saw an opportunity to increase the asset value. 2007 was a busy year and by the end of it all six flats were owned by Robinwood having bought them from the owners at an average price of £315,000 (NB for accuracy it should be noted that I do not know the price of one of the flats and so this is an average for 5 but there is no reason to think that the sixth would be substantially different).
Robinwood, or their agents, put in a planning application to build six large town houses. These six have just been completed and are on the market with Savills, the top people’s estate agency and the prices vary from £1.725 million to £1.925 million – checked out with Savills today, 13/3/13.
In 30 years we have gone from having 6 council owned flats, which by any standard would have been affordable at a rent of £20 per week (WBC average rent in 1983 was £20.12), to genuinely affordable private flats and now to luxury housing at nearly £2 million a shot.
The strange irony of this is that this tale works for both Tory and Labour Partys. For people of my persuasion it highlights the terrible divisions between the rich and the rest (the people living there were not the really poor) and what Tories have allowed to happen to the stock of affordable housing. It highlights the brutal callousness of Wandsworth Tories and displays why they are so contemptible in the eyes of many on the left.
For Tories it has helped to improve the Wandsworth environment ensuring that the rest of the housing in Sisters, and Battersea in general, continues on an upward curve; it has improved the housing stock; it has made Wandsworth a better place to live in. It highlights the head in the sand, conservative (small c) nature of Labour members.
Matching up these completely disparate views of life is the stuff of political controversy.