politics

The hidden hunger of Surrey’s expanding food bank service

At a showing of I Daniel Blake at the new Thames radical cinema which meets monthly at the Riverhouse Barn in Walton, I met Bronte Schiltz an active Labour Party member who informed the audience that she volunteers in a local food bank. If you have seen Ken Loach’s award winning film you will recall the powerful scene when the two central characters queue up to use a food bank and the young, single mother opens a tin of baked beans when no-one is looking and scoops them into her mouth to stave off her hunger.

In Surrey they don’t queue round the block to use the food bank so you could be forgiven for thinking this is just an inner-city problem or a regional issue. Here the poverty is largely hidden as the food bank will bag up the groceries for you and deliver them to your door. Bronte recalls the desperate thankfulness of those who are provided with three days emergency food. You can’t just walk in off the street and help yourself. You have to be referred by the job centre, the school, citizen advice bureau, local councillor or GP. One such person was an 80 year old grandfather who informed Bronte that he had a job interview coming up as he needed money to feed his grandchildren. He was hopeful that he wouldn’t need to return and as she went through to the other room to fill some bags with food she found it heart-rending that this proud man had been let down by our welfare system.

When Bronte isn’t helping out at the food bank or working as the publicity officer for Thames Radical Cinema she works as the English Intervention Tutor at Esher Church of England High School where 25% of the children live below the poverty line. She explained that the food bank is essential in the school holidays when the children are unable to access free school meals. She wants to know why Surrey, one of the richest boroughs in the country, has over 34 food banks in operation with more food packages provided every year. When the issue was raised at a local husting in the 2017 election Dominic Raab the MP for Esher and Walton was not in attendance and other audience members felt that the question of food banks was not ‘a local issue’.

They clearly had not read the Inequality in Elmbridge report which contained official figures showing that 2,300 children – 8.7% of those under 16 – in Elmbridge live in poverty (where household income is below 60% of national median earnings).

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In a Guardian article on the subject well-to-do Gareth relates the following experience after becoming “startled” by what happened in his local Tesco at 8pm; “I couldn’t believe what I saw. A large group of people were hovering around the vegetable section. A man came along and reduced all of the food. Then it was a free-for-all and I have never seen anything like it in my life. A cabbage which was probably £1.50 was reduced to 20p and it was a fight to get the food,” he recalls. “I guess these people live in Elmbridge, I don’t know.

Hidden, but growing, the need for food banks continues to rise across Surrey and Bronte confirmed that Surrey food banks gave out more than 14,000 three day food parcels in 2016/17, an increase of almost 20% on the previous year. This situation is likely to become much worse as Universal Credit is rolled out in the run up to Christmas. The Trussell Trust reports a steep rise in areas where Universal Credit has already been implemented and claimants are paid in arrears with six weeks or more delay for the first payment.

According to the Trussell Trust statement; “it’s no surprise that trying to live off so little for an entire month can lead to destitution and hunger. Most households had been unable to afford heating, toiletries or suitable shoes or clothes for the weather. 78% had skipped meals and gone without eating – sometimes for days at a time, often multiple times a year.

Once a household falls into debt it is near impossible to make ends meet and pay off what is owed. When you lose a short-term contract you go back to the start of the process.

In a recent vote, calling for a pause in the roll-out of Universal Credit, Conservative MP’s failed to show up to the House to either defend their policy or to vote. If you don’t turn up for your benefit appointments you get sanctioned and given another six week hold on payments. The Trussell Trust confirms that the three main reasons people use the food banks are benefit delays, low income and benefit changes.

Yet in the run up to the last election Dominic Raab stated on TV that “The typical user of a food bank is not someone that is languishing in poverty, it is someone who has a cash flow problem episodically”.

Bronte described this response as, “ignorant and callous to brush it off as minor or temporary.”  Mr Raab hasn’t written about the use of food banks for his constituency blog since February 2014 where he links to an article he wrote for the Telegraph.  Mr Raab was paid £220 for the article and registered it as 2.5 hours work. Earning £88 per hour in addition to his main salary it must be difficult for him to understand the need for food banks and in his search for a reason he blames global markets, trade barriers and the EU Common Agricultural Policy – everything in fact except government welfare reforms and puts the interfering Bishops in their place with the following statement taken from his article in the Telegraph; “But the bishops’ blunt claim that welfare reform accounts for more than half of those using food banks displays a reckless disregard for the facts, and wilful ignorance of the underlying causes.”

Maybe it is time that Mr Raab took another trip to the food bank in Cobham he opened in 2013 but has failed to attend since. Hugh Bryant, who runs the Cobham Food bank, said: “Although Mr Raab opened our food bank it’s a shame he hasn’t been in touch to check the figures.”

Ken Loach has questioned why the rich are incentivised with bonus packages and perks while the poor are driven by hunger and homelessness. Here’s another pesky member of the clergy, Giles Fraser, writing about his experience of answering his door to an increasing number of destitute parishioners. He argues that Universal Credit was designed to blame the poor for their poverty and force them to accept low pay, poor working conditions and zero hour contracts; “there are those who would characterise this as “workhousing” – that is, deliberately making life so intolerable for poor people that they are forced into doing absolutely anything to keep themselves off the streets“.

Universal Credit stems from pure ideology and has cost more than it has saved. As the millionaires of Westminster increase the levels of poverty across the country they are protected from the reality of life on the breadline with their entitlement to taxpayer perks and second incomes. When they fail to turn up to even defend their policy, just as they failed to turn up to defend their record in the last election it gives off a stench of arrogance. Low paid work with inconsistent hours does not ‘set you free’ in fact the very opposite, it traps you in a cycle of debt and despair as you make daily choices between paying the bills, heating the house or feeding your family; a shocking indictment in 21st Century Britain.

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How Slavery is still legal in the UK

The reality is slavery is still alive and well in this world, including the UK. Not only is this upsetting but also difficult to acknowledge; how can one of the world’s most economically and ethically developed nations still not only tolerate, but participate, in slavery without offending and outraging wider society? The answer is simple; informally.

Firstly, to understand this it is important to acknowledge different forms of slavery. Historically slaves have been regarded as legal property as opposed to individual humans. This was not only the case in the notorious slave trade from Africa to various plantations around the world, but also existed in a variety of other forms as well, such as in feudal Europe and the serf based economies of eastern-Europe, Russia and Asia. For those unfamiliar with these systems, although technically not property, the serfs or peasants essentially counted as a part of the property that they worked and had been dehumanised. These individuals had been forced to produce food on land they didn’t own in return for somewhere to live and a small amount of food for themselves producing massive profit for those higher up the social ladder.

‘What has this got to do with slavery in the modern day UK?’ you may ask. Well, picture an individual who works a 9-5 job for a wage. This person will be generating for their company or organisation more than their wage in goods or services providing profit for the employer. This is not intrinsically negative; however, what happens is this individual will then have to fund their transport and food to sustain a life in which they are able to work. This again is not completely unreasonable. But even reasonability has limits, in this case, excessive rent. An individual, particularly in Surrey, is lucky to find a 1-bed for less that about £650 monthly. If we subtract that from low-medium income, that presents a substantial chunk of their monthly pay; for cheap accommodation it could be up to a third of your wages. Now the necessities mentioned previously; food, travel and even utilities start to take their toll. This is essentially slavery; more akin to the aforementioned serfdom than the far more brutal slave trade beginning in the 17th century but slavery nonetheless. You are forced to work with so many constraints on your income that you are left with very little spare per month to enjoy the life your hard work genuinely warrants.

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I am a strong supporter of the state safety-net, our benefits system, helping those less fortunate than us. Equally, as a worker, I get frustrated with those who cheat the system. When you look at a system that will hand an individual enough money to escape this cycle of exploitation, a level of empathy can be established and you understand why people will be exploitative of this system. View the choice from their perspective; working a 9-5 job and having all your wages consumed by those seeking to exploit you for profit (landlords, utilities, food, travel), or you could not work, do what you want with your time, not be exploited and be in a similar financial situation. From a sensible perspective it stands to reason that people, especially those who would otherwise be on a low income, may wish to avoid work.

Now you see that a cycle is in place that will create a society of people who can afford to do little more than work, sleep and eat in which people are profiting from them from all angles, through food, utilities and work in a parasitic-like manner and those that leave attempt to leave this system end up demonized by society and ‘benefits-porn’ television shows such as ‘Jeremy Kyle’ and ‘Benefits Street’.  This effectively creates a scapegoat; the anger felt by the oppressed is angled and manipulated by television and newspapers towards those with the same frustrations as themselves. You look at these scenarios and ask you self; is this fair? What can be done to change this? With rent in Surrey and especially London rising year after year, social cleansing is evident. There are a number of ways to end this system of exploitative profiteering (all of them unappealing to the exploiters); impose a cap on rent per region, nationalise utilities and travel, increase wages. Now not only would this improve the scenario of millions of people oppressed through our current system by giving them ‘spare money’; through money comes choice, and therefore elements of freedom, and with people spending more of this ‘spare money’ they are improving not only their quality of life but they are also investing in to our economy.

Freedom as a word is different to freedom in practice. Right now you have the choice to varying degrees of how you are exploited. Having real and true choice costs money. Those crushed under exploiters are not free. They are slaves.

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How to close a much loved Post Office without a public backlash

If you live in East Molesey you may have noticed that the post office in Walton Road has suddenly closed. I was there shortly after the closure, browsing the newly refurbished display racks and witnessed a number of disappointed people being turned away.  It was a busy post office and one I had come to rely upon, so why the sudden closure?  Rumour has it that it was forced to close following an unfavourable audit. Certainly, the fact that the shop had recently undergone a style makeover would suggest that Meera was not intending to depart so quickly.  There seemed to be an expectation that a new postmaster would take over from the sign on the door, but there is no guarantee and the good folk of Molesey will have to travel to Hurst Park Tesco for the next nearest counter service.

Post Office Counters is the only part of the former General Post Office (GPO) not to be privatised in 2013. Royal Mail and Parcelforce, who together made a profit of £742m in 2016, were sold off at 330p per share rising to 455p the very next day. Effectively, a cash giveaway of £1 billion to the city.  The now private mail service pays out £220 m in dividends to shareholders per annum. Money which previously went to the treasury and could have been used to pay for teachers or nurses now goes into private hands. Post Office Counters was the poor relation left behind. Not making sufficient profit to be of interest to shareholders it has limped along shedding jobs and closing branches in a deliberate ‘slash and burn’ policy according to Dave Ward, General Secretary of CWU.

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The counter service was previously funded by the profits overall and the government knew before the sell-off it could not stand alone without subsidy. But when money is the only thing that matters the government is not minded to consider the cost to the community who have come to rely upon local services. The vast majority of Crown offices have already been closed or franchised; now appearing in a corner of WH Smith or a Costcutter store.  You may feel this is of little consequence provided it is still in your local neighbourhood but should something go wrong you will have no means of recourse against these ‘private’ enterprises who will hide all data behind a veil of ‘commercial confidence’.

Under the cloak of ‘austerity’ and let’s face it more people voted to continue austerity under the Conservatives than to end austerity by voting against them, we are seeing more and more public services placed into private hands. It’s what we voted for so we shouldn’t be surprised. But we’re always taken aback when it’s our personal service which gets the chop. In Surrey we elected eleven Conservative MPs each campaigning on an austerity agenda euphemistically referred to as ‘balancing the books’ yet despite this we expect our own services to go unchanged.

Many in Surrey are in favour of public services being run by private enterprise as they are able to inject funds and bring in efficiencies.  That may be true to some extent but the fundamental difference between public and private is that private work for profit and only for profit; the shareholder is king and unprofitable services are cut. We lose democratic control of our own public services and shareholders replace the public as the primary stakeholders. Public infrastructure and assets, built up over many years is being handed over to the already wealthy and worker’s rights are diminished in the process with many forced to become ‘self-employed’ contractors and join the gig economy, which is often how the private sector saves money.

As we ‘take back control’ on a national level we are losing control of the local services many of us rely on.  Franchised or contracted out to the highest bidder, ironically many of them foreign; public money is converted into private profit.   We go about our business largely oblivious to the fact that our public space, local schools, transport systems, water, electricity, refuse collection, tennis courts and post offices are being taken from the control of democratically elected local councillors and placed into the private marketplace.

In the fullness of time we may come to realise what we have lost under this government backed asset stripping, but the dye has been cast and the old adage, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ may well prove true.  So what is the easiest way to close a much-used local post office without a public backlash? I really shouldn’t be so cynical.

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Are Corbynistas Ready for a Corbyn Premiership?

Jeremy Corbyn is a politician in the ascendancy. Bolstered by a remarkable and unforeseen performance in last June’s General Election, the 68-year-old MP for Islington North sits unassailable in his position as leader of Labour Party and is poised to become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Only a year ago, none of this would have seemed plausible. Corbyn, beleaguered and under intense pressure from certain factions within his own party, was fighting to hold off a leadership challenge from Owen Smith, MP for Pontypridd. He would eventually sweep to a resounding victory, securing his position as leader for the second time in a year.

This second victory, by a bigger margin than the first, drove home the point that many within the party were refusing to accept – Corbyn was here to stay.

It’s been a curious thing, Corbyn’s rise to prominence. Rarely has a politician in this country been subjected to such intense scrutiny, often straying into outright opprobrium. As a counterweight to this, however, the veteran Socialist has engaged and mobilised people long since disillusioned with politics.

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Energised by Corbyn’s ideological commitment to traditional Labour values, the party’s membership has soared to levels not seen in decades. At the last election, this increased level of support enabled the resurgent party to acquire its biggest increase in the vote since just after the second World War, exceeding even the most optimistic pre-election predictions.

Thanks in part to the treatment of Corbyn by much of the press – most notably during the General Election, when some of the criticism was nothing short of vicious and hysterical – new party members and activists, fiercely loyal to their leader, have been at times unable to differentiate between baseless slander and reasoned, constructive criticism of their man.

As such, amongst some at least, an atmosphere of immunity has developed around Corbyn. Those keen to shield him from the torrents of abuse to which he has undoubtedly been the subject have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Their vision clouded by media hostility towards Labour’s leader, any criticism, no matter how well-meaning, has been repudiated in the strongest possible terms.

To illustrate this point, one needn’t look any further than when BBC presenter Emma Barnett was heckled on social media after an interview with Corbyn in which she reprimanded him for being unable to immediately provide costings for Labour’s free childcare plans.

Barnett was perhaps guilty of editorialising during the interview, but the abusive, expletive-laden responses by some were unjustifiable and deeply unhelpful for Corbyn, who has repeatedly sought to condemn such attacks. All such episodes serve to do is provide ammunition for those who seek to write off Corbyn’s entire support base as malevolent Trotskyists, risen from the ashes of Militant and intent on party hegemony.

Corbyn doesn’t need or even want any of this. He doesn’t wish to be exempt from criticism. He admitted to having not had the childcare costings to hand in his interview with Barnett, after stating that he would “not tolerate” abuse aimed at Barnett or any other journalist. He simply got caught out in an interview. It happens. Just look at Boris Johnson.

It would be hard to refute the fact that excitement about what Corbyn offers has contributed in part to the culture of no criticism that exists among some Corbynistas, but this enthusiasm need not be dimmed by constructive appraisals of Labour’s plans for government. Robust critiques of what the party intends to implement if in power will be essential if the optimism that currently abounds translates into a Corbyn premiership.

As far as criticism goes, Corbyn’s used to it. He’s been barracked in the Commons by both the opposition and his own side. He’s able to absorb it and never gets into the gutter with anyone. He enjoys talking to people about politics, not engaging in the kind of ad hominem attacks which are so often levelled at him. It’s in fact rather ironic that such an advocate of unity and mass participatory democracy should prove such a polarising figure.

Regardless, if we want to change the current climate in which Corbyn’s critics are loathe to say anything good about him, nor his supporters anything bad, we need to encourage a more balanced approach to critiquing his ideas and what he stands for.

If Corbyn becomes Prime Minister, he and his supporters will need to brace themselves for unprecedented hostility and a barrage of denunciation from the opposing side. It will be relentless, a great deal of it will be unfair and much of it will be brutal. Corbyn is going to be ready for it and he will need his supporters to be equally prepared.

Allowing Corbyn to be criticised does not amount to an ideological compromise, it’s merely part of living in a democratic country. Labour’s grassroots support has been instrumental in his meteoric rise and there is nobody that can refute that. As he gears up for power, he doesn’t need them to protect him from flak, he needs them to take their arguments to people around the country, be open to criticism and ready to respond respectfully and persuasively.

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Orwell, Freedom of Speech and the Meaning of Liberty

In these turbulent political times, what can we learn from the man widely regarded as one of the most important voices of his generation?

Politics feels particularly tribal these days with little room for balance or nuance around today’s main discussion topics. In Britain this polarisation has become glaringly apparent in the aftermath of the last year’s EU referendum and the recent general election.

In the United States, the political earthquake that was Donald Trump’s election to the White House, shortly followed by the “alternative facts” debacle, led to an increased interest in the work of George Orwell. We were living, it seemed, in a post-truth era and Orwell was the man who could offer the literary antidote.

After all, this most prescient of authors had written of this almost seventy years earlier in his dystopian classic 1984. Sales of this book, incidentally, soared in the wake of the alternative facts revelations.

It is tempting to theorise what Orwell would have made of the current political scene, but such an analysis would likely require more than one article.

There is, however, one area in which it is not hard to hypothesise about Orwell’s views and that is the current trend for No Platforming – that is, the banning of those with supposedly ‘unsayable’ views from expressing them in public.

Whilst this always dubious practice has historically been used to suppress those with violent, fascist tendencies, this is no longer always the case. Nowadays, it takes much less to get no platformed, as people like Julie Bindel, Peter Tatchell and even Richard Dawkins can attest. The no platforming of Tatchell, a prominent gay rights activist for many decades, is particularly absurd. An indication of the direction this policy has taken. People are now being made into pariahs for misjudged or ill-advised comments that fall foul of the prevailing liberal orthodoxy.

Another incident, not quite no platforming but along the same lines, came when Katie Hopkins, the notorious shock-jock, was subject to a mass walkout when speaking at Brunel University in 2015. It is necessary to insert a caveat here. Katie Hopkins’ ‘views’ are deeply unpleasant and purposely provocative. But then, isn’t this the point? Would it not be more effective to demonstrate these facts within a debate? Any competent debater could comfortably dismantle and discredit Hopkins’ arguments within a few minutes. No platforming such people validates their views in a way they do not deserve. It gives them the opportunity to accuse opponents of being afraid to debate them.

Take the example of former BNP leader Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time in 2009. Given a platform by the BBC, Griffin proceeded to deliver a flustered and unconvincing performance which prompted criticism from all sides, including his own supporters. Surely this proves that, rather than ignoring such individuals, giving them the opportunity to discredit themselves is preferable? After all, when you’ve just beaten yourself in a debate, who else can you blame?

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Freedom of speech is an essential part of any civilised democracy and no platforming in its current incarnation is becoming a threat to this. Britain’s universities shouldn’t be places where students are shielded from views which might upset them. Instead they should be places in which they are free to rebut, repudiate and counter their opponents. You cannot win a debate by muzzling your adversary.

All of this brings the conversation back to Orwell. What would he have made of the current state of debate in the UK? In attempting to answer this question, perhaps we should turn to one of his best-known utterances, namely: “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” The beauty of this quote is that it works both ways. People should have the right to tell us what we don’t want to hear, because their right to do so guarantees our right to do the same. This is the foundation of freedom of speech.

If we want to build and live in a fully inclusive society we must be willing to be exposed to views with which we disagree, sometimes even vehemently oppose. Provided people’s opinions do not incite hatred or violence then they must be guaranteed the right to express them. Failure to assure this right is not conducive to inclusive discourse and will inevitably foster resentment, tension and a generation of people who crumble when confronted with views which do not mirror their own: an echo chamber generation. To quote Orwell again: “threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”

As Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, one of the most divisive political figures in recent years, said during Labour’s recent general election campaign: “everybody we meet knows something we don’t and everybody can teach us something.” Politicians, journalists and everybody else should not be afraid to be proved wrong, to learn and to improve. Admitting we are mistaken is not a demonstration of weakness, but of strength. After all, failure to concede we have been proven wrong does not hide the fact that we have.

Orwell was a fierce opponent of totalitarianism in all its forms and it stands to reason that he would oppose any attempt to shut down debate. He believed in “the power of facing unpleasant facts.” In other words, he wasn’t inhibited by political tribalism and could see things for what they were. If something was wrong, he would say so, regardless of who was responsible. This was a man accustomed to overcoming ingrained prejudice, having spent much time ‘unlearning’ some of the views his upbringing had instilled in him in relation to, among other things, the working class.

We can take much from his example. As the United Kingdom faces up to the reality of Brexit, arguably its biggest challenge since the time of Orwell, a political climate which is as inclusive as possible can only be beneficial. Party rivalry will rightly always exist and we can’t all be friends, but the right to air these differences in a civilised and respectful way must be preserved.

It is interesting and rather apt that over the years both the right and left have made attempts to claim Orwell as one of their own. Regardless of where he would have sat on today’s political spectrum, we can all learn from his honesty and unflinching commitment to democracy and liberty.

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Democracy is not just dead, it was never alive

Imagine you are a vegetarian, and have a choice between a cheese burger and a steak; it will make little difference to you what to choose, you don’t agree with any so why bother? Then why is it acceptable in 2017 to have a democratic system based on a similar style voting system? We all know about the first past the post (FPTP) system; it gives constituents the choice between the two most popular parties in their constituency to represent them as their MP. However, this is not democracy. If you vote for something you don’t believe in just to stop something potentially worse you can hardly say that it is democratic. You are being held electorally for ransom.

Most people will have done the online tests that suggest who you should vote for based on policies alone. Many people will see high percentage of Green policies as something they agree with but despite this, no one ever votes Green. Why? Is this because no one trusts them? No. It is because the electorate know it won’t make a difference. Your choice is primarily Labour or Tory (with a few exceptions dependant on constituency). It is true that we no longer have this ‘Diet-Tory’-centrist-Blairite monstrosity that was Labour and we do now have a credible left wing alternative to the Tory right, so there is at least a difference between the two parties now. But that does not mean the system is now fair. In a democracy you should be able to vote for what you believe in and get that voice heard equivalent to the proportion of the public that agree with you. That’s just fair. That’s not being unreasonable. It is just being democratic.

Proportional representation (PR) is the best current way to solve this problem. A few examples; if Greens get 10% of the vote, they deserve 10% of the seats. If UKIP get 10% of the vote, they too deserve 10% of the seats. This is just what democracy is. One of the main arguments against PR is the increase in frequency of coalition governments. Yes, this is true; PR will likely damage the percentage of seats the two major parties hold. However, if you have a coalition of two parties that in total represented the largest proportion of seats, is that not better that having, for instance, the Tory party needing to bribe the northern Irish DUP with over £1billion to secure a larger amount of seats not even in proportion to the number of people who voted for them? We would not get situations like this with PR. If PR was in place for this most recent election Labour would have 40% of the vote to the Tories 42.5% enabling either side to form a coalition. But this would be a coalition based on the legitimate majority of our choice which would be a far stronger and in fact more stable coalition than whatever on earth is going on now.

It almost stands to reason that if you don’t feel represented you will lose interest in politics and voting altogether. When you get to the polling station on an election day you can either compromise your beliefs and tactically vote, vote for what you truly believe and affect nothing or just don’t vote. How are any of those options democratic?

The Tories would never relinquish a system that keeps them perpetually in power and I’m sure there are many in labour also against PR. It is the duty of anyone who genuinely aligns themselves with the minor parties or anyone who agrees in democracy to lobby for a change in the system. It does not matter if you are left, right or centre, you deserve to be represented in your own country. I urge you to write to your MP’s and begin the process of true change in this country, for a democratic Britain.

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Hillsborough – victims’ families have triumphed at last

Last week’s news that the Crown Prosecution Service was to bring criminal charges against six people in relation to the Hillsborough tragedy is vindication for a collection of families who refused to be cowed in their fight for justice.

A twenty-eight-year fight for justice is nearing its conclusion with the announcement that six people are to face criminal charges relating to the Hillsborough tragedy, which claimed the lives of 96 people, and its aftermath.

For the families and friends of those that died, this verdict will be bittersweet. As the old saying goes: justice delayed is justice denied, and this verdict has been nothing if not delayed.

Three decades of smears, lies and obfuscation have been swept away amidst thunderous vindication for a set of people who simply were not willing to lie down. Last week’s announcements have indeed been a long time coming, but this merely demonstrates the sheer indefatigability of the campaigners in their quest to overcome a thicket of resistance to justice.

The passage of time can sometimes dilute the magnitude of events; and momentum, followed by hope, can be lost. For the families of the dead, the past 28 years have been a battle against a series of challenges, each of which have required admirable force of will to overcome.

First came the aftermath of the tragedy and the repugnant allegations that the victims were somehow responsible for their own deaths. Just a day after Liverpool’s Sunday Echo referred to the events as “our day of tears”, The Sun newspaper, under its then editor Kelvin McKenzie, ran the infamous headline in which it alleged fans had stolen from the bodies of the dead and urinated on rescue workers. This came to represent one of the darkest days in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Margaret Thatcher’s then Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, when speaking in relation to the tragedy, was quoted as saying: “I know what I learned on the spot; that there would have been no Hillsborough if a mob, clearly tanked up, had not tried to force their way into the ground.”

Home Secretary Douglas Hurd would later tell the House of Commons that 19 police officers had been assaulted at Hillsborough. No evidence of this would ever be provided to the inquiry.

For families coming to terms with devastating and sudden loss, such smears against their loved ones served only to exacerbate their anguish. For its part, The Sun’s coverage of the story permanently decimated its circulation on Merseyside. To this day, the paper is reviled across the city.

Lord Justice Taylor’s initial inquiry into the disaster found the primary cause of the deaths to be a failure of police control, but the 1991 inquests delivered a verdict of accidental deaths, setting in motion a sequence of events that culminated in last week’s verdicts.

When MP Andy Burnham spoke at Anfield on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, emotions boiled over amongst a crowd of over 30,000. Burnham was heckled from the stands, not for anything he had done on a personal level, but for the government he represented.

The Liverpudlian, to his eternal credit, absorbed the crowd’s anger, later saying: “I’d been thinking in the run-up that, in some way, this could be fate. I was thinking, is there some way I can now open up Hillsborough again?”

Burnham also added: “If I wasn’t the minister, I’d have been one of those shouting at the minister.”

In a Cabinet meeting the very next day, Burnham told Prime Minister Gordon Brown that he wanted Hillsborough back on the agenda.

On an emotional day in April 2016, 27 years after the disaster, the Hillsborough inquests jury ruled that the 96 people who died as a result of the tragedy were unlawfully killed. It was vindication at last. The campaign of vilification against their loved ones had been defeated.

At the end of a two-year inquest, the verdict, which came after the jury were required to answer fourteen questions in relation to the day’s events, was met with jubilation outside the courtroom, with those in attendance crying, hugging and applauding the jury. In perhaps one of the most symbolic scenes in the fight for justice, the families gathered outside the courtroom for a rendition of Liverpool FC’s iconic anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone.

All of this brings us back to last week’s events, what they represent and what they tell us about the people who fought for so long to seem happen.

People like Anne Williams, who lost her son Kevin on that fateful day, tragically did not live to see justice delivered, but the tireless campaigning which saw her labelled ‘The Real Iron Lady’ is emblematic of a group of people who weren’t prepared to acquiesce to injustice.

It seems appropriate to end by once again quoting Bernard Ingham, who, when speaking with the Liverpool Echo in 2013, refused to apologise for saying that Liverpool should “shut up” about Hillsborough.

Clearly the former Press Secretary knew little about the city of which he spoke. The bereaved families never did “shut up” about Hillsborough and they make no apologies for it.

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What the deuce! Elmbridge residents call for fair play

There has been something of a hoo-ha brewing in Elmbridge recently. Residents have taken to social media to complain about changes to public services. Smelly bins left un-emptied, was the first issue galvanising the public into complaint. Particularly annoying as this occurred during the June heat wave. Residents took to twitter to berate local councillors.

Earlier this month, Amey, the Spanish owned refuse collectors started their new £100 million joint-waste contract in Elmbridge. Due to be rolled out later in Mole Valley, Surrey Heath and Woking, the residents were promised ‘an improved rubbish and recycling collection service.’ A major advantage of the switch was the proposed £2 million saving per annum and no doubt this would have been a factor in gaining the support of Surrey County Council as the waste disposal authority.

Unfortunately, a series of teething problems left food bins festering in the heat and whole cul-de-sacs abandoned due to the difficulty of negotiating the new vehicles between parked cars. Esher and Walton Conservatives were soon onto the scandal demanding that Elmbridge council ‘get a grip on the current appalling situation’ and laying the blame squarely upon the Lib Dem/Resident Association led council:

“Conservative group leader, Cllr Tim Oliver, is clear that the current service failings smacks of poor forward planning by Amey and a failure of the RA/LD Council to hold the contractor to account.”

But wait a minute, Surrey County Council, which is Tory led were in favour of the plan and at the time of the vote (December 2016) at least 21 of the 48 Councillors were Conservative. Cllr Tim Oliver in fact chaired the meeting with Amey and closed down some pretty relevant questions from other Councillors as you can see on this webcast.

A more recent hoo-ha has been caused by the lock-up of public tennis courts and the necessity for the public to pay a yearly subscription of £36 or a £5 one-off booking fee to play on courts which were previously free. This issue even got Judy Murray riled up as evidently this is Andy Murray’s home borough. £25,000 was pledged from the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) to help secure the sites and advertise the new charges. In good Surrey style there was soon a petition raised and a campaign organised to reverse the plan; a campaign apparently supported by Cllr Tim Oliver, Conservative group leader. Once again the accusing finger points firmly at the Lib Dem/Resident Association administration, totally ignoring the fact that the decision was passed unanimously by all 48 Elmbridge councillors, including Cllr Oliver.

tweet - ethical surrey - tennis

Note how Cllr Tim Oliver uses ‘they’ not ‘we’ in his campaign support letter;

“At a time when there has been huge disruption for many of us to the waste collection service over the past few weeks as a result of new contractors they appointed, I think conceding they were wrong to bring in charges would in some small way be a sign that they are actually listening.”

The next upset waiting in the wings is the proposed closure of recycling facilities across Surrey. In an effort to save another £2 million the council is proposing to close four recycling centres and to restrict access to the others to five days a week instead of seven. This will undoubtedly lead to bigger queues at those centres left open and restrictions for vans, trailers and pickups will encourage fly-tipping; a dreadful eye-sore in the leafy Surrey lanes and an expensive clear-up cost for the cash-strapped council.

Still at the ‘consultation’ stage this has yet to cause a major storm but the proposals have not been well received by the concerned citizens of Elmbridge.

So let’s start joining up the dots on these three unpopular changes to the delivery of public services. What they all have in common is the need to save money. Surrey County Council has seen cuts of £170 million from (Conservative) central funding since 2010 and with a further £100 million to save this year the cuts will continue to come until the money has been found.

This is the austerity agenda. The same agenda that 35,071 (43%) people voted for in June 2017 when they elected Dominic Raab to represent them. He has continually voted for cuts to local councils since 2010. Five more years of austerity was the Manifesto promise and heaped onto the seven previous years it will see virtually no group left untouched. Perhaps people thought it wouldn’t be their tennis courts closed or their bins left un-emptied. Perhaps the cuts would all fall elsewhere, after all there is no ‘magic money tree’ so it had to be done.

Unless you are the 26% who voted other than Conservative in 2017, then you are pretty much getting what you voted for. So that’s fair play then. Well, except of course some of the 35,071 won’t be experiencing the pain of the cuts, just the benefits of a low tax, low public service economy. They live in the gated estates in St. George’s Hill and Weybridge. They don’t worry about smelly bins; they pay someone else to do that. Neither do they queue at the recycling centre on a hot Sunday morning in a car packed to the rafters with rotting debris. They may have their own tennis court or at the very least membership of an exclusive club. Not to mention private health insurance and private education. The Conservative driven low tax economy puts money in their pocket with no down-side. These exclusive areas represent a solid voting block which will help to maintain Elmbridge as a safe Tory seat, but they can’t do it alone.

Perhaps things will change as the majority of us come to realise that for every £1 given back in tax breaks we have to find £10 to pay for the things which used to be free. Or go without or course, that’s what the poor people do. As the cuts continue to bite across Surrey Conservative voters may finally start to understand the socialist mantra – ‘for the many, not the few’.

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General Election 2017: how the young took back British Politics

The young people of Britain left their detractors bewildered on June 8th. Turning out on a scale not seen since 1992, they delivered a comprehensive repudiation of a political system that has marginalised them for too long.

It has been a seismic year in British politics. This time twelve months ago, Britain had just voted to leave the European Union after a bitterly contested, divisive and at times toxic referendum campaign. What followed was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable periods in British political history.

At the end of a political epoch which saw the resignation of David Cameron, Theresa May’s appointment as Prime Minister; Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader of the Labour Party; Donald Trump taking office and the United Kingdom triggering Article 50, Theresa May called a snap General Election.

It was an opportunistic and cynical move which came despite previous assurances to the contrary. Even against the backdrop of May’s repeated insistence that no General Election would be called until 2020, the sight of Labour floundering in the opinion polls combined with her own personal approval ratings proved too much to resist for May and her advisers, who went for the jugular.

Parliament found itself dissolved after two-thirds of the Commons voted in favour of a motion for an early General Election and Britain was once again going to the polls.

Theresa May banked on the opinion polls proving accurate. A landslide victory was to condemn Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to electoral oblivion whilst simultaneously handing her an overwhelming mandate to negotiate Brexit unopposed and unchecked. Complacency was rife and understandably so.

After all, many political commentators had already concluded that young people had no right to express their concerns over Brexit as they had supposedly not bothered to get out and vote, so why would it be any different this time?

Initial reports after polling day put the youth turnout at around 36%, leading to widespread attempts to bury young people’s Brexit concerns beneath accusations of political apathy. Later evidence compiled by the London School of Economics suggested youth turnout for the EU referendum was in fact around 64%, vastly higher than originally reported. Still, none of this mattered and would matter even less when Labour and their young supporters were reduced to political non-entities.

As the General Election got into full flow, the Conservatives were beset by calamity. Despite a highly personalised, almost presidential campaign, Theresa May was floundering. Stage-managed public appearances in sterile environments did little to undermine suspicion that the Prime Minister was unwilling to meet the public and unable to engage with voters on the ground.

By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn was undergoing quite the political revival. Since first being elected Labour leader in 2015, the 68-year-old had been portrayed by Conservative MPs, large sections of the British press and even his own back-benchers as nothing short of a political pariah.

However, since the General Election had been called, support for the Islington North MP had been gathering considerable momentum. His backing, particularly among the young, was soaring.

His principled, emotion-driven style of politics stood in direct contrast to Theresa May’s scripted, repetitive and rigid approach.

As Corbyn continued to address large crowds of young people, extraordinary levels of condescending rhetoric emerged from sections of the press and some political commentators.

It was all well and good Jeremy Corbyn speaking to and winning the support of all these young people, but young people didn’t matter. Sure, they’d cheer his name in the streets or in a football stadium, but if it rained on election day he couldn’t count on their vote. Such were the methods used to denigrate and dismiss swathes of young people casting off decades of political apathy to become engaged, energised and inspired by politics for the first time.

The same sneering attitudes were prevalent in dismissing as unreliable the various polls which had Labour closing the gap on the Tories with each passing day. Again, none of this would matter when the youth vote collapsed on polling day.

Eventually, the time for talking was over. Polling day arrived on June 8th and by the time night fell Theresa May’s majority was gone.

Labour’s surge was astonishing. Young voters across the country had mobilised, taken to the streets, knocked on doors and engaged with politics in a way not seen in decades. So much for apathy.

When Jeremy Corbyn addressed a Glastonbury crowd last Saturday as big as any seen in living memory, he stated that “the politics that got out of the box is not going back in that box.”

That is the challenge that lies ahead for young voters – to stay engaged, stay energised and make sure nobody speaks for them without their permission ever again.

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Voters unite: take action against the coalition of chaos

On June 8th something happened that few outside of the hopeful grassroots community could ever have expected. Jeremy Corbyn led the Labour party to an astonishing increase in parliamentary seats; destroying the majority previously held by the Conservative Party.

As a Labour supporter I personally welcome any result that reins in the power of Theresa May’s government. But whilst the hung parliament we’re left with does bring with it a small number of positives, it’s far from an ideal outcome.

On the plus side, without a majority May has already been forced to reconsider the manifesto she plans to submit for the Queen’s speech this week. Hard line policies on pensions and ridiculous notions such as repealing the fox hunting ban have been scrapped. This is wonderful news for those affected, and a clear victory for those of us who fought against such policies.

The snap election also delivered a result which has confirmed Jeremy Corbyn’s position as leader of a strong and stable opposition. The in-fighting which dominated the Labour Party last year is over; for the Tories such battles are only just beginning.

There is a negative side to all of this, of course. And not just for Conservative voters. In a desperate bid to keep hold of the keys to number 10, May has sought a deal with the most regressive party in UK politics; the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (DUP).

The DUP are a right wing party with intensely conservative and religious views. This party (who now potentially have control within the UK government) are passionately opposed to LGBT rights, are anti-abortion, largely deny climate change, and most worryingly of all, have strong support from (and reported links to) the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

A violent loyalist paramilitary group, the UDA is still active in Northern Ireland to this day. Just weeks ago, a man was shot dead in broad daylight, and in front of his three-year-old son, by a member of the group. During the troubles in Northern Ireland, the UDA were responsible for over 400 deaths, the vast majority of whom were civilians.

Much of the Conservative election campaign was built around the false notion that Corbyn is a terrorist sympathiser. Yet May has wasted no time in jumping into bed with a party strongly linked to terrorists still operating in Northern Ireland today. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has warned Theresa May that the deal she has sought risks jeopardising peace in Northern Ireland, and is a potential violation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Already we have seen signs of May making decisions to appease the DUP. In appointing her new cabinet she has given the role of Justice Secretary to David Lidington, who has consistently opposed LGBT rights; and the role of Environmental Secretary to Michael Gove, despite his previous poor record on environmental issues.

Despite who you may have voted for, a minority government propped up by a terrorist-backed, right wing section of the Northern Irish assembly is unacceptable. It is simply wrong that we should allow such regressive politicians to have any say in how our otherwise progressive society is run. If you voted Labour, this is not what you voted for. But just as importantly; if you voted Conservative, this is not what you voted for.

Millions of people across the country, myself included, live in Conservative areas which means we are represented in parliament by Conservative MPs. It is vital that we now contact them to make it known we do not give our support to a deal with the DUP, and that neither should they. The integrity of our country is far more important than whether a political party is able to cling onto power or not. We must call upon our MPs to say no to any deal with the DUP, even if it means relinquishing control of parliament, or calling another election. On this principal we should all be agreed, regardless of our political alignment.

This is something we must act on now. Anybody that lives within a Conservative constituency must contact their local MP today. Talks between the Tories and the DUP are ongoing, and the Queen’s speech, it seems, has been delayed. The minority government as it is being proposed has no credibility, and this is something that must be communicated to our representatives in Parliament before a vote of confidence is held.

This is a rare opportunity for all voters to stand together. It’s time to put our differences aside and unite in opposition to the DUP and the potential regressive lurch to the right that comes with them. It’s time to stand up for the values that so many have fought for, and to protect the rights of every British person.

Important links:

Here you will find a sample e-mail which can be copied, edited as desired, and sent to your local MP.

Here you can find out who your local MP is, and how to contact them.

Whilst this direct action should be the priority, it is also well worth signing this petition to the UK Government, which has already reached over 150,000 signatures (at the time of this being published).

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