Saturday, 16 November 2013

Lobby of John Hemming's Surgery

John Hemming is the LibDem MP for Birmingham Yardley; like most of his tribe, he voted in favour of keeping the Bedroom Tax in place. Two of the LibDems voted against, and I feel it's worth perusing the rest a bit to see if we can peel any more off. Many of them seem to be political prostitutes whoo'll throw their every principle and promise overboard for the chance of a ministerial salary, but you never know. So a bunch of us turned out this morning to picket his regular surgery, in a converted shop used by the Yardley LibDems.

Before long, a man who turned out to be Councillor Neil Eustace, of Yardley North Ward. He was quite aggressive, threatened to have us all arrested, called us 'rentamob',and told us to 'grow up' and 'get a job'. He's got a conviction for thumping his girlfriend, but he didn't have the guts to go too far with several of us there. He photographed us - you can see from the above how many of us there were at the time, but according to him we were causing an obstruction. He went back inside, and before long the police showed up.

Here he is, aggressive body language and all, after they arrived. They were very supportive, and said straight out that they could see it was a peaceful protest, and we were exercising our democratic rights. They went in and recovered a poster we'd put on the door. Eustace had removed it and taken it inside, and we wanted our property back. Eustace didn't look too pleased that I presumed to photograph him!

Today's Rob Punton's fiftieth birthday. 

My policy with police is to be nice, try to keep them on our side, but never tell them anything. They're police, after all.

Eventually Hemming himself came out, after the surgery finished. He was quite happy to pontificate at us, but didn't like us answering back at all, and very soon disappeared without being able to answer a single one of our points. He tihnks people can pay the Bedroom Tax by letting their spare rooms, for instance. He's let property, but then he's a millionaire with spare houses. I told him that I tried letting a room once, and it was a disaster; it's a bit different when you're sharing a flat with someone. He changed the subject at once.

I had another argument with Eustace before we left; he doesn't seem ti understand that other people besides himself have democratic rights. By that time we were all well cold, and went off to the MacDonalds opposite for coffee before we went home.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Bedroom Tax meeting in Parliament

I feel a bit guilty about not writing this before - it's been two days - but I've had a persistent attack of migraine which makes it hard to keep going, It hasn't gone away yet, but I'll try.

It was a 6am start and a very long day. When we got there, security was over the top. My coat was searched repeatedly by a very puzzled woman who couldn't make out the picture on the scanner. Eventually I realised that it was the contents of an old envelope which was worrying her; it contained a couple of keys which I've just had cut for the church. They didn't fit too well - the place I normally use wasn't open - and so I'd stuck a needle file in the envelope as well, intending to have a go at them next time I pass the church. They took the file off me, and I forgot to go back for it. No matter; I meant to get anothe set from Poundland anyway. Inside, police were wandering about with sub-machine guns, which is hardly calculated to make anyone feel safe. Obviously, they do need security, but I think we're far too accepting about the security state. It's long gone time to roll some of it back!

Inside, it's a rather intimidating maze. A guide took us through to a dark-panelled committee room, with paintings glowering down at us from the walls. It reminded me of the library at school, whch gave me the creeps last time I was in the place. Inside were about seventy campaigners, some of whom i knew already. Most of the people organising the campaign were there, plus several MP's. There was Rachel Reeves, the shadow DWP Minister, Stephen Timms, the shadow Employment minister, Jack Dromey from Erdington, Ian Lavery, from Wansbeck, Kate Green, Shadow Minister for disabled people, and Wayne Davd, PPS to David Milliband.

They started out telling us all about what they'd promised to do, not just about the bedroom tax, which they say they'll repeal straight after the election, but other hot issues as well. I think they expected a bunch of polite people who were just going to listen repspectfully, and they didn't seem to know how to handle what happened next. People exploded. They were shouted at and howled down repeatedly, and lectured about how we'll vote for them - as most of us would love to do - if they keep their promises this time. By the end of it they were almost pleading with us; they really will keep their promises, they said. After 'New Labour', I'll believe it when I see it.

They've been promising to repeal the Bedroom Tax for some time, and I don't doubt they'll do it. It's unworkable, can't save money, and people are left with nowhere to move to. When specific questions are asked, people don't support it. The Tories have misrepresented a  recent poll as indicating support, but if you go right through and look at every question, a different picture appears. Opinions are split, and if people have nowhere to move to, the common situation, support disappears. There's a good summary here, with a link to the survey at the bottom. Opinions seem to be shifting on benefits, with the percentage thinking they're 'too high' shrinking steadily. We'll win on the Bedroom Tax, and we need to keep going on the rest of it.

The PLP could do better, though, by putting some pressure on Labour councils to commit themselves to no eviction policies, It's a difficult mess, but there are far too many of them which, like Birmingham, seem to see themselves as managers rather than representatives. When governments bring in policies like this, they don't look for ways to fight back and support the people who elect them.

Apart from repealing the Bedroom Tax again, they promised to build social housing. That was one of the points that concerned me; they've promised 200 000 houses a year, but if it's for private sale, it'll leave a much of the problem untouched. We need council housing, in huge quantities, to replace what's been sold off, and we need to ensure that people have decent quality accommodation with security of tenure. They're going to bring the benefits bill down by raising wages to the living wage - I doubt whether the proposed voluntary scheme will really solve that one - and by bringing down rents, not by hammering claimants. They're going to bring in controls on private lets, and get rid of the Work Capability Assessment which is causing so much trouble for sick and disabled people. We didn't pin them down on some details; they were asked about sanctions, but didn't answer.

Rachel Reeves was very keen to have us believe that the Observer misrepresented her recently with its headline that she was going to be tougher than the Tories on benefits, but she stood by what she actually said there. I read it again when I got home, and some of what she says is equivocal, to say the least. The article's here, if you want to have a look.  If they really do what they've said, it'll go some way to solving the problems, but there's work to be done still.

After the meeting, I spoke at a lobby going on outside. Shortly after I did so, a policeman rushed up and told us all to move, without offering any explanation. We didn't do so till we'd checked that there really was a bomb scare, and saw MP's evacuating the building. Apparently they thought they'd spotted a grenade in someone's bag in security. As if! I don't know why it sometimes fails to occur to policemen that they'd get a lot more willing cooperation by being a bit less arrogant, and offering a little explanation on these occasions.

There were numerous speakers; I got a word in myself, and I was very impressed with Melvin Bragg, who took the trouble to come over, and spoke well in our support.

Overall, it was well worth going, even at the cost of a two-day headache. I don't get those very often, and it's a clear warning sign that I pushed myself too far. They're talking to us now; we;ve come some distance from the day when they bolted Birmingham  Council House door against us. I've long felt there was potential to push Labour to the left, and if we keep having meetings like this, I think it'll happen. To some extent anyway. They must be aware that on some issues, like nationalisation the electorate is already to the left of them.

Right now, we have a political vacuum on the left. Either Labour can fill it - or some of it, anyway - or whatever Left Unity develops into can do so, or we're leaving ourselves wide open to some sort of updated national socialism. The gap won't be there for long, so we have to keep pushing. In its attempt to turn some of Thatcher's craziest dreams into reality, the government has over-reached itself so badly that there's every chance of a backlash changing the entire political consensus. Their attitude is so crass it would be laughable if it wasn't affecting real people. This article gives a good insight into the effect they're having on so many of us.

How far Labour can be pushed is open to question, but we have to try. It's likely to take a decade at least before we can mount a real electoral challenge, if we get that far at all. Anything could happen in the meantime. Of course, we still have the old structural problem. The Labour Party was always, at least until Blair took over, able to attract a section of the Left. I used to be in it myself. This left us divided and powerless. Labour's move to the right might have created an opportunity for the Left, but the old Left parties were unable to take advantage of it, and if Labour's capable of moving, a moot point in itself, we may have left it too late. However, there's no way to know.Let's keep on talking to the MP's, assuming they're willing, and see where we end up.

EDIT: UNITE have now put up this short video of the day. I can't get it to appear on the page properly, so a link is the best I can manage.