Thursday, 19 June 2014

Britain Can Do Better

Dear Ed

Here's a real life scenario for you.

Meg is 16, and in her last few weeks at a specialist school for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, having recently obtained AQA accreditations in English and Maths. In September, she will be embarking on a 3 year Life Skills course at a local (mainstream) 6th form college, during which time she should pick up English and Maths GCSE and hopefully a BTEC qualification which will give her the skills she needs to find employment (although with over 70% of adults with autism claiming out of work benefits, that's not looking promising). We're not sure yet whether this will be a L2 or L3 qualification - it depends how she progresses.

That, of course, is Plan A.

Plan A when she was 11 was that mainstream high school was absolutely the right place for her, and the expectation was that she would manage a clutch of GCSE passes. The last five years, though, have been fraught with difficulty. Adolescence for any teenager is difficult, and for an autistic teenager the travails of high school can be even worse. Suffice to say she couldn't cope and crashed out of school, fairly spectacularly, in Y9. Six months at home with me waiting for the right school place to become available did nothing for her attainment or her self esteem, and we have spent the last two years building that back up with the help of the brilliant staff at her current school. She now sees herself as a learner again, and has started to have confidence in her abilities.

College, of course, is a whole new experience, and if there's one thing guaranteed to spook her it's new experiences! What if she doesn't cope? What if funding cuts mean her course is altered or cut? What - and this is the crux of the matter - if she doesn't achieve the Level 3 standard which is your benchmark for denying JSA to young people?

There are thousands of young people with learning difficulties for whom L3 qualifications and training simply aren't attainable, and I see nothing in these proposals that acknowledges this. What is the plan for these young adults? 

Your whole policy on this seems to be predicated on the assumption that young people are inherently lazy and would rather sign on for JSA than continue learning/training. If that's the case, then why did tens of thousands of young people claim EMA and ALG (at a maximum of £30 a week) instead of simply claiming JSA? Doesn't that suggest that young people do value their education and improving their skills? Why not restore these grants, widen the types of learning that qualifies for assistance, and - crucially- have it administered through local authorities rather than paying tens of millions to the likes of Capita (which is what allowed the coalition to deem it 'unaffordable'). What a positive message to send out - "we will support you", rather than "we will penalise you."

I do have a vested interest here, quite apart from our family's personal circumstances. As a Labour activist, I will be spending large amounts of my free time trying to get a Labour government elected in 11 months' time. I'm just wondering how I'm going to sell this policy on the doorstep? I've been saying we need to target the youth vote in 2015, but why on earth should they vote for us on the basis of policies like this? Many of the people in our constituency know all about the social security system (probably more than some of the PLP!), and aren't fooled by the 'getting tough on welfare' rhetoric that might play well with the Daily Mail. "Getting tough" (or, more accurately, "grinding people down even more") doesn't engender the sense of hope which ordinary people really need after 5 years of the coalition's onslaught on them. 

I've tried to look beyond the headlines and the spin from the mainstream press, but I still get the sense that, at its heart, this policy is still based on the view that "everyone can achieve if only they try hard enough." They can't. For some, Level 3 simply isn't attainable, no matter how hard they try. And I see nothing that addresses this. 

A few weeks ago, I was invited to answer a Labour Party survey, in which I stated that I wanted the party to be "Compassionate". 

I also noted at the time that rights for disabled people didn't figure in your list of things Labour should be addressing in the future. 

I'm beginning to see why.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Labour on the Rampage (or maybe not...)

Yesterday, I noticed a tweet by our one remaining LibDem councillor in Levenshulme, trying to reinvigorate his "No More Takeaways" campaign. The article it linked to was pretty much a re-hash of a recent Manchester Evening News article, but this caught my eye:

“I was heavily involved in the first ever ‘Levenshulme Means Business’ Week aimed at promoting business in our area. Secretary of State for Business – Vince Cable MP even accepted my invitation to come and speak at an event – unfortunately ruined by Labour protestors including local Labour Councillors.”

Now, regular readers may remember that I blogged about this visit, and it occurred to me that Councillor Hennigan's version of events didn't quite accord with what I remembered of it. There was a small, if vocal, group of protestors outside the Hennigan-owned M19 Bar where the event was held - no more than one might expect a year into a deeply unpopular coalition government whose LibDem members had voted through savage cuts to local authorities which were having (and continue to have) a serious impact on local people.

There were very few "Labour protesters" there, and certainly no "local Labour councillors" that I recognised (it was 2011, when Leve still had 3 LibDem "local" - by their definition - councillors).

The event was briefly disrupted when a local man tried to gain access to the venue and a short scuffle ensued before things continued as normal. This was not a "Labour protestor", but a local resident who had recently been made redundant due to coalition cuts. 

So, Councillor Hennigan's assertion that the event was "ruined by Labour" is at best disingenuous and and at worst simply untrue.

To make sure I hadn't entirely dreamt the whole thing, I went back to the press reports at the time and looked at the photographs that were taken. I could only spot one Labour Party member that I knew. There were a few people who are - or may have been then - members of other left-wing parties or organisations, and some really dangerous radicals like mums trying to protect their Sure Start Centre!  It seems Councillor Hennigan, along with many UKIP politicians, cannot distinguish between "Labour Party" and "people who may hold left wing views."

This is, of course, just an attempt to smear Labour in the run-up to the election, but it seems pretty desperate. I'd be interested to hear from Councillor Hennigan which "local Labour councillors" were in attendance and what actions they took which "ruined" the event?

Monday, 28 April 2014

Things (including Food) Are Hotting Up...

It's election time again.

The emerging issue in Levenshulme appears to be that of takeaway food outlets. The incumbent councillor, James Henningan (LibDem), has launched a Facebook campaign, "Say No to Levenshulme's Takeaway Mile", asking people to sign a petition with the preamble:

"Stockport Road has changed beyond recognition and everytime one of our independent shops close - it seems to be replaced by another fast food outlet."

Now, it's a catchy petition title, and taps into local concerns about the main Stockport Road (A6), Levenshulme's "shop window" to the rest of the city (and the country - it's the main route out to Stockport and Cheshire, which is presumably why UKIP tried placing billboards on the southbound carriageway last year). His assertion is that we already have 'enough' takeaways (currently about 12% of the total commercial properties in the area).

Let's leave aside the negative tone of Councillor Hennigan's campaign - telling us what we don't want rather than asking us what we do (he's also a bit reluctant to engage with people who disagree with him on this), and the spin that the local Labour council is somehow encouraging takeaways to come to Levenshulme to bring its 'quota' of them up to the citywide limit of 20%, and consider whether the campaign has any real merit beyond it being something he can get in the papers with. He can't point to LibDem success in dissuading the Tories from the worst excesses of national policy, and the alleged economic recovery certainly isn't being felt this far north of Westminster....

Judging by the comments his campaign has attracted, it seems as if it's the general appearance of the area which people feels lets us down, rather than the alleged preponderance of hot food outlets. Now, I'm a naturally curious person and have lived in Leve for over 25 years. I know that a number of independent shops have closed in that time, and we no longer have, for example, the shoe shop, Poysers motor shop, Grace Fabrics (?) curtain and haberdashery, and at least two greengrocers and three more butchers that were here when I moved in. Not to mention the pubs that have closed - The Railway, The Pack Horse, The Church Inn, all of which are either empty or gone completely.

But in a previous life I analysed statistical data for a living, and every "fact" I see on a topic like this makes me say, "Ah, but...." and go looking for an explanation, confirmation or refutation.

With this in mind, I spent a happy evening last weekend doing a virtual trawl of the A6 on Google maps, making a note of each of the premises in the ward. I even included a small section on the east side that falls within our neighbouring ward (itself a bone of contention - why is half of Levenshulme in Gorton South ward? Ask the Electoral Commission!). I wanted to see if we really are overrun with takeaways (especially, the 'chicken shops' which seem to get cited on local discussion threads). 

As a result of this, I found that we currently have, as Councillor Hennigan suggests, about 12% takeaways (this goes up slightly to around 14% if you include those in the Gorton South ward).

In today's Manchester Evening News is an article on the subject which states that Takeaway Owners Back Crusade to Tackle Levenhulme's Fast Food Mile in James Hennigan states that "it's getting to the stage where there are just too many." and that "many have their shutters down during the day, hampering efforts to revitalise the high street."

In support of his case, two local takeaway owners are quoted. One says that he is "now struggling as rival outfits have begun to pop up at an alarming pace" and another that "It has been over the last two years. Before that everything was running right, but everybody is just surviving now."

This piqued my interest even more. The Google images I had scoured were all taken in 2012.  Maybe things had really changed over the last two years. So I decided to walk the whole of the A6 from one ward boundary to the other. I deliberately excluded premises away from the A6 - after all, it's a positive thing if residential areas are served by local takeaways rather than everyone having to pile on to the A6 for them, and because it was the impact on the A6 'high street' that I wanted to assess (not least because referring to a 'Takeaway Mile' suggests the long - nearly 2 miles - main route from border to border).

I found some interesting things:

There have been some changes of business, but in the main fast food outlets aren't chief among them. Most new businesses since 2012 have been health and beauty or solicitors/accountants. Some food outlets have changed hands but have remained selling the same or similar products. Several of the takeaways from 2012 have now ceased to be fast food outlets.

A major fast food restaurant right in the centre of the high street  had its shutters open at mid-day today, whereas many of the hairdressers and barbers did not (it being Monday, a traditional day off for them), and including one of the takeaways mentioned in the article.

Notably, we only have three national chain takeaways - McDonalds and KFC at the southern end of the ward, and the ubiquitous Subway. Many of the other takeaways and restaurants are independently-run family businesses providing livelihoods for local families, which is somewhat different to Councillor Hennigan's assertion that they "bring nothing to the area."

So whether we have "too many" takeaways already, or whether we can't/shouldn't absorb any more,  it's clearly not the case that there has been a massive expansion over the last two years. I would argue that if we want a more varied high street, we have to be positive about the businesses that are already there and actively encourage others to join them, which is undermined by headlines about "crusades" to deter certain businesses - if I were a potential investor in the area, I would think twice if I thought I would get a hostile reception. Levenshulme is by no means unique in having a 'challenged' high street - it happens all over the country, but the problem goes far wider than any one kind of business, and the solutions are more complex. Whatever commercial pressures local businesses are subject to, competition from an increasing number of rivals wouldn't appear to be the whole story.

And while I hear some of you saying "Well, she would say that. Just another Labour activist toe-ing the party line and point-scoring at election time" this is not one of my political blog posts. I am quite capable of holding opinions of my own and - occasionally - disagreeing with the Labour Party! I would be interested to hear a a detailed explanation of the rationale behind the 20% takeaway limit; how it was arrived at and the reasoning behind it. Then I can decide how many is "too many" without reference to Councillor Hennigan.


Monday, 21 April 2014

A Modern Nation

I've been watching with some alarm at the pernicious fundamentalism creeping into public life in this country. The increasingly hardline pronouncements from former moderates, the assertion that we should all share certain values and follow a religious philosophy which discriminates against sections of society, the demonising of dissenting voices, the promotion of a 'state' based on religion. No, I really don't like David Cameron's new-found 'evangelical' brand of Christianity.

Let's  put aside for a minute that new-found piety, along with patriotism, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. We know that this is vote-seeking, UKIP-neutralising hypocrisy. Let's just consider what (if he was genuine, which he isn't), Cameron thinks our nation should look like in the 21st century.

So what does Christianity "bring to Britain"?

"All over the UK, every day, there are countless acts of kindness carried out by those who believe in and follow Christ"

None of these acts, it has to be said, from the current government, whose most notable self-declared Christian (IDS) has been responsible for driving the sick and disabled to suicide (still a sin in the Catholic church to which he belongs).

"The heart of Christianity is to ‘love thy neighbour’ and millions do really live that out."

Although a fair number of Cameron's party voted against equal marriage and support 'Christians' who refuse to allow gay couples to stay in their bed and breakfast establishments, portraying them as "persecuted."

"And we saw that same spirit during the terrible storms that struck Britain earlier this year. From Somerset to Surrey, from Oxford to Devon, churches became refuges, offering shelter and food, congregations raised funds and rallied together, parish priests even canoed through their villages to rescue residents. They proved, yet again, that people’s faith motivates them to do good deeds."

And common humanity and decency motivated people with no faith to do the same!

The fundamental problem with ascribing all good deeds to faith is that it simply ignores the fact that all over the country people of no faith live their lives according to decent principles and strive to make life better for their fellow citizens. He does concedes that "many non believers have a moral code" (big of him!), but clearly considers this inferior to one underpinned by Christianity. He states that "some atheists and agnostics [do] not understand that faith could be a 'guide or helpful prod in the right direction' towards morality." Aside from this being patronising tosh, he doesn't for a moment seem to consider that it's not a lack of understanding but a lack of demonstrable evidence that faith necessarily leads to morality that makes atheists and agnostics doubtful of its worth.

We should, apparently, be "more confident about our status as a Christian country." Except that we aren't a Christian country in the way that we were up until the 20th century - today we should aspire to  be a modern, multi-ethnic, culturally-diverse country where people of all faiths and none are treated with equal respect and tolerance, and we have a way to go on that one.

I'll happily declare myself as an atheist who has been advocating the separation of church and state for as long as I can remember. I don't "have a problem" with faith (although I do have one with organised religion as a tool of social control), but it is a very personal thing and should not be entwined with the offices of state. Equally, I'm not in favour of the kind of rigorous legislative secularism which is found in France, for example. Just as intolerant in its own way.

I have many friends who are people of faith for whom I have great respect and admiration, but I don't feel the lack of such faith in my life, and the true people of faith respect that about me (even if they don't understand it). Equally, there are some atheists that I find very tiresome; Richard Dawkins has become a parody of himself, knee-jerk reactions replacing reasoned thought. And being an atheist doesn't excuse Ricky Gervais being a spiteful bully.

Significantly, though, it is not people of faith but politicians who think that religion should play a part in politics. I have always been deeply suspicious of politicians who feel the need to tell you how much their faith informs what they do (especially as it so often involves some very nasty stuff!), and I'm very much in the Alastair Campbell camp on the matter of whether we should "do God" in politics. Whatever your personal faith, you do not have the right to impose it on others. 

Cameron is right in one respect, though. Christians are now a minority. Yesterday's news carried a piece about garden centres being prohibited from opening on Easter Sunday. This, according to the garden centre managers, means a loss of income (very much part of the Easter message!). No consideration of allowing shop staff a rare day with their families to celebrate the Christian church's most important day, just loss of profit. The customers who were vox-popped all seemed to think that Easter is about the ability to buy bedding plants! 

What Christians in this country aren't, though, is a "persecuted minority". Refusing to comply with your employer's dress code and being disciplined for it is not persecution. Being prevented from exhibiting bigotry in contravention of the law of the land is not persecution. I'm staggered by quite how little respect this attitude affords Christians in parts of the world where they are still murdered on the basis of their faith. 

I am quite happy to live my life without a god, but happy for others to do otherwise if they wish. It should, though, be a very personal matter, and the state should not be co-opting religion. When I am afforded the same respect and tolerance for my lack of faith that I afford others I shall be more than happy, but we are a long, long way from that in modern Britain. So, Mr Cameron, enough with your false piety and 'morality'. I don't like your 'faith' any more than I like your politics (and the same goes for Blue Labour!).

In the words of Dave Allen:

"Goodnight, and may your god go with you."

Friday, 28 March 2014

Community, Dissent and Cupcakes

I wasn't going to post this blog, but it's becoming increasingly obvious that keeping my thoughts to myself isn't the way to do things these days. I dislike being talked about (indirectly) on social media, by people who don't know me or anything about my political philosophy, without a proper right to reply (short of getting involved in one of the very ugly pile-ins that happen on Facebook or Twitter. There appears to be a lot of misinformation out there and the loudest voices aren't always accurate or representative, so this is my take on what's going on locally.

It's odd how 'community' is defined.

When you grow up in the largely monocultural provinces, inner city suburbs can be a breath of fresh air. Ours certainly was. Constantly heralded as the next  up and coming neighborhood over the course of the twenty plus years we've lived here, it never quite did 'up-come' and as a consequence retained the slightly bohemian quality which drew us here as students in the late '80s.

The area has seen a lot of initiatives to reinvigorate it recently, but that's not to say that it's not still without its problems (the highest incidence of obesity in the under 5's in the country, for example). It's a very mixed area in terms of demographics, socio-economic groups and ethnicity. The locals, possibly understandably, are a little wary of incomers (I've been described as a Guardian-reading Southerner by someone who probably wasn't born when I moved here!), but thankfully we don't have some of the ethnic tensions experienced elsewhere. In fact, we were recently highlighted as an area that had coped pretty well with its influx of Roma families.  It's not, though, an affluent area. 

A few weeks ago I came across a typically splenetic piece in The Guardian by Ian Martin, in which he addressed the issue of gentrification. He was pretty strident, as ever (he's one of the writers for The Thick of It and Veep, neither of which are known for sparing feelings), but it did strike a chord. 'Urban Vibrancy' can sometimes be a little on the exclusive side and, yes, established communities can get supplanted. I retweeted the piece and commented (to Ian) that I recognised some of what he'd said and referred, lightheartedly I thought, to a 'Cupcake Tendency.'

(It's just me, but I don't find the whole cupcakes/Cath Kidston/GBBO scene my kind of thing, but others enjoy them so hey, I'm fine with that). 

Later that day, I noticed a tweet to our local Labour Party branch Twitter account, stating that the tweeter had always thought the party was supportive of local initiatives and was upset that our branch chair (me) and vice chair (a friend) had been posting "nasty tweets" about a local venture. I was a little perplexed, as I hadn't voiced any opinion on said venture. As it didn't specify how I was supposed to have been nasty, I was at a bit of a loss, and then I remembered that Ian Martin's original tweet. Checking back on the Guardian website and Twitter, it appears he hit a nerve, and a number of related groups in the country piled in to 'correct' him. Now it made more sense.

Now my Twitter rule is "Never Knowingly Offend", so I was concerned a) that I had offended and b) that my role within a political party was being conflated with my views as an individual. A subsequent tweet (not addressed to me) described me as a 'friendly neighbourhood troll', which now appears to mean 'anyone who holds a contrary view.' I've not sought to engage with the tweeter (pretty much the modus operandi for trolls), so the extent of my 'trolling' seems to be tweeting/retweeting something that a third party (who doesn't follow me and who I don't follow) doesn't like. (My friend had simply seen the piece and retweeted it without comment, which doesn't seem especially nasty).

For the record, the local party does support local initiatives from all sections of the community. One can support local initiatives, though, without necessarily wanting to take part in them. I fully support women's participation in sport, for example, while struggling to comprehend how anyone over the age of 16 has any desire to play netball! That's just my personal taste (borne of a school PE career which has left deep scars) and I wouldn't want to stop anyone else playing.

It's perfectly possible as a party official to admire and support the drive and determination that has converted a disused church into a thriving community venture while personally still having concerns about the lack of secular community space in the area. Equally, while we welcome all the new local initiatives, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't consider the views of those who can't or don't want to access them. There are many people in the area for whom a community market isn't a priority when they're struggling to pay their rent and utility bills. That's not to say that it shouldn't be there; it's very successful and brings welcome 'inward investment' to the area. It's simply that one person (or group)'s ideal community may not suit everybody. And as long as people recognise that, we can all rub along together quite happily.

Much as Manchester's corporate drive to become a world class city has lost us some of what made the city unique, so a little of the old Leve will undoubtedly disappear. Some of it won't be mourned, but I hope it never becomes just Hoxton on the A6. It's beginning to appear,though, that one is not allowed to express a view that contravenes the view that 'everything is lovely in Levenshulme'.  It seems very odd that people who extol the virtues of the Leve 'community' seem averse to any alternative views of how that community should develop, and see perfectly innocuous comments as criticism. 

I'm far from being the only person locally who's felt the wrath of 'the community'. Facebook groups dealing with local issues have become so poisonous that some people have abandoned them altogether; alternative groups have been set up, others have had changes of Admins (not always for the better), people have found themselves repeatedly, inexplicably blocked from groups; others have been found 'guilty' by kangaroo courts. One of Leve's strengths is also one of its weaknesses. There is a small band of 'spoilers' locally, members of minor parties who like nothing better than dividing the community, especially if they can undermine local politicians (Labour and Lib Dem) at the same time. So what should be proper grass roots community campaigns get hijacked. I've spoken to a number of people who happily marched to save the baths/library, but who dropped out of campaigns as they felt there was too much point-scoring and bog-standard (in every sense of the term!) nastiness going on.

In the interests of full disclosure, I'm going to mention here that I am one of the Admins of the Levenshulme Labour Party Facebook page [BOGEYPERSON ALERT!!]. There has been an ongoing discussion on there over the past week which has led to criticism of the local Labour Party on other groups and pages, with accusations of censorship and arrogance. For the record, there was a comment on there which, with the benefit of hindsight, we agreed wasn't entirely appropriate. It was discussed between all four Page Admins and it was agreed that it should be withdrawn. An apology, and an offer to meet and discuss in person with the recipient of the comment, was issued. 

Now, I make no apology for being a Labour Party member and activist. Should that mean I'm barred from having personal opinions on local matters? No. (I disagree with some national Labour policy, too). As I mentioned earlier, I never set out to cause offence, and am willing to apologise if I do. That goes for my personal social media accounts and when I'm representing the Labour Party. The anonymity of being a Page Admin, though, has meant that I've had to see myself smeared by people who've never met me and know nothing of my politics, without being able to respond. "Disgusting", "troll", "moron" are just some of the choice descriptions I've seen of myself online, but I've not risen to the bait because I didn't want to do anything to bring the Labour Party into disrepute.

Do I care about my community? Yes. All parts of it.

Do I dislike the 'new' Leve? No, it's just not all to my taste.

Do I wish our local councillors could do more to help local residents? Yes, but given coalition cuts, the help they can give is under severe pressure.

Is the Labour Party perfect? No, far from it, but it's still the only hope of stopping the vindictiveness of the Tories and the duplicity of the LibDems.

I like to think that the hard work I've put in to the LLP page has raised the profile of the party locally, and shared information and articles on local and national matters that will inform people. If anything I've done has genuinely brought Levenshulme Labour into disrepute, I will happily step down. Then, perhaps, I can have my opinions back.