Blog written for Bristolo 247 – published Sept 2010
Its some time since I have had the inspiration to write a blog post, then I was hit by a thought wandering through our fair city. No Gromits or statues of any kind (well there is the stag beetle outside wildscreen with a condom on its horn, but lets ignore that for now). Last year the city was teaming with people clutching little maps indicating where the Aardman dogs could be found. Queues of people of all ages formed at the dogs waiting to have photos taken. This year zilcth. I realised its because no-one has thought of an idea to trump the Gromit. Ladies and Gentlemen I have. It is not too late to get this idea implemented for this summer.
We stand at the brink of greatness as our Mayor has been nominated to be the best mayor, not in the south west, not even in England or Europe but the best in the whole world. If they had mayors on other planets he could be the best in the solar system or even the galaxy. What Bristol needs is 60 or so statues of George with, wait for it, different designs of trousers. My namesake would do stripey ones, others could be variously multi-coloured and we could have an original just in red at Paddington Station.
How do I make this happen? Do I need to get up a petition or just find sponsors (Bristol Pounds only). At the end of the school holidays we could have an auction to raise money for charities employing or run by members the mayor’s family.
Recently a statistic caught my eye. This isn’t unusual because I spend a lot of time looking at research reports. This one really shocked me. It has had very little media attention.
I have often listened to public commentators, especially those on the BBC musing about the cuts in local government and how little of an effect they have had. The argument goes that bloated local government has just slimmed down and no-one has really been affected, the schools open, the bins are collected and little has changed. This supports a view that the Government is right to squeeze the public sector because it isn’t affecting anyone.
the truth is that it isn’t really affecting anyone who is in the social circle of public commentators, journalists and ‘opinion formers’. So now for the killer statistic. This is not from a think tank or a lobby group but from a government body set up to monitor trends in the health and social care sector. It is called the Health and Social Care Information Centre – you can check them out at this site http://www.hscic.gov.uk.
A report published on 10th July with the exciting title “Community Care Statistics, Social Services Activity:England 2012-13, Provisional Release” pulls together statistics on care provided by local authorities and this is the sentence which pulled me up:
“The total number of people receiving services in 2012-13 was 1.3m (down 9% from
2011-12 and down 25% from 2007-08).”
yes that’s down 25%, or in people 300,000. 300,000 people who needed care 5 years previously no longer need it now. Over this period the number of people over the age of 85 has been rising, we would expect not a drop in numbers but an increase.
The report explains that the reasons given are:
“Feedback from councils suggests that the fall this year is again due to a
number of reasons including an increase in the provision of reablement services
outside of a formal assessment process, raised eligibility criteria for services and
reduced funding/resources within Councils with Adult Social Services Responsibilities.”
So some may just be receiving services in a different way but I expect most are just told they no longer qualify.
Now these 300,000 are largely likely to be isolated vulnerable people who wouldn’t be likely to be found at middle class dinner parties talking about their plight. They are largely unseen, largely unheard, they are not organised, they don’t have political clout and slowly but surely they are being assessed out of services.
The truth is its easy to ignore those you never see or hear.
Just been clearing out some of my old paperwork when I came across this letter from December 1999. I can’t remember all the ins and outs (I think it relates to a column I wrote for the Evening Post that winter about Harbourside) but it certainly amused me given what has happened since.
I’ve been getting all nostalgic seeing a new wave of young people elected to the council. I was first elected on 5th May 1988 25 years ago aged 24 fresh back from university less than a year previously. I spent my time until the election started in April building up the membership on the estate. It rose from about 25 to 56 and we had a strong team which campaigned relentlessly. By Election Day we had knocked every door in the Hartcliffe end of the ward (over two thirds of the voters) calling back at least three times to try and speak to everyone. We spoke to 5121 people over the period With 3266 promising to vote for me. The final result was:
I felt a huge sense if mission, I was the first person living in the estate ever elected to represent it (I am still the only one who has), and was excited to be able to speak for my community. Thatcher was still Prime Minister and the poll tax followed shortly after. Being on the left I had a slightly romantic sense of our objectives having experienced clashes like the miners strike, Wapping and other less famous skirmishes. Politics was about a different world view not just about who could manage things better.
I was a councillor for 11 years (winning 4 elections). I dealt with many peoples personal tragedies and also collective concerns around the local provision of public services. I was lucky to work alongside two excellent ward colleagues, Ken Fyfe and Helen Holland. The greatest external focus on the estate was the 1992 riot. bristolwestpaul.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/white-riot/
I loved representing the area and it was a hard decision to quit. Most of the issues which faced the people were not local issues but the local consequences of national and international forces. The poverty of people on the estate could not be solved locally. This is why independents are a huge distraction. Tackling the underlying problems for many communities is about taking the local knowledge and fitting it into a bigger picture. Making local change means being able to act across a whole city country and globally. It is about making the links and building a movement for change. It is about political action through political parties (and other mechanisms too). It is also about political education of the local people, not competing over how many photos you can get on a leaflet standing next to dog poo or pot holes. It is with great sadness that I hear poor white working class people blaming their problems on poor working class black people rather than looking up at who is really benefiting from and perpetuating their poverty.
So I wish the new councillors well, I am partly envious and also hugely impressed with some of them I have met. They must not let the bureaucracy of the council wear them down or come to believe that they represent the council and not the people. In some ways I wish I was there with them but mainly I am thinking ‘where did those 25 years go’.
Labour has decided that councillors in Bristol should preserve democracy by ensuring that there is a constructive opposition on the council. The debate about that decision is raging in plenty of other places, I want to think about what constructive opposition might mean. Opposition is easy, highlighting the mayor’s mistakes (which there are bound to be, no-one is perfect), use the council structures to frustrate his plans (very difficult given the power’s of a mayor) and use any opportunity to criticise.
Being constructive is more difficult. But being constructive is what is required and needed by the City. Below are a few ideas but there are bound to be more:
Scrutiny and overview. The scrutiny committees have struggled to find a role. Labour could use them as they were intended to look in detail at key issues, to engage with experts and citizens (these overlap of course – seeks Venn diagram) to develop policies to propose to the Mayor and or develop feasible alternatives to his policies (even he admits he doesn’t have many beyond urban design where his views are pretty sound so there is plenty of scope to influence).
The full council meeting: This meeting is and always has been the worse of the council, its structure, indeed the layout of the room encourages bad behaviour. It is also the place where members of the media and even sometimes the public attend and is thought to typify the way the council works, whereas it is often a twisted parody of what people expect of politicians. Labour needs to avoid falling to the trap of this meeting, using it to showcase policy proposals rather than loutish tribalism.
Mayoral commissions: It seems likely the mayor will establish policy commissions. We should encourage Labour members and supporters with the necessary expertise to play a full role in this, they will be an excellent opportunity to promote progressive policies.
Outside the council Labour should not concentrate on leaflets attacking the Mayor. The – door knocking which is solely about identifying peoples’ traditional support has limited value. The work with the citizens of Bristol needs to be a discussion rather than an opinion poll. The work Marvin Rees started at the beginning of his campaign needs to be continued. Holding meetings open to the general public on issues of importance to seek solutions to the cities problems, having a real debate with local people. These could be in large groups in meeting rooms and halls or among a small group in someone’s living room.
Constructive opposition’s aim is not to disagree and resist but to persuade and influence. It is not about focussing on the here and now but also about preparing for the future.
The Labour Party in Bristol faces a dilemma. Should it join a cabinet formed by the newly elected Mayor George Ferguson. My good friend Darren Lewis has blogged passionately on the subject here:
Fundamentally he is right. A council with no opposition party is effectively a one party state, with deals stitched up in private and democracy relegated. Openness disappears as the parties on the council collude raising the old adage that it doesn’t matter who you vote for they are all the same.
You also have to ask the question is it honest of George to run a campaign which contained in large print on all his leaflets to vote for him as “the only candidate who can beat Labour” (he wasn’t the only candidate who made that claim) and then to invite Labour onto his cabinet. It must seem strange that his promise to beat Labour also meant promoting them.
Also why would Labour want to join on a cabinet with Tories and Lib Dems whose parties in Westminster are through a combination of legal changes, privatisation and funding cuts destroying local Bristol City Council. The latest information suggests £32m cuts next year. Projections by the Conservative led Local Government Association predicts that within a few years councils will only be able to afford to provide care and empty the bins. The Tories and Lib Dems are also breaking up the NHS, introducing massive cuts in benefits to the poorest and deconstructing the public sector.
These are compelling reasons for Labour to shun any cabinet posts.
On the other side the cheer leaders of George are filling twitter with claims of ‘sour grapes’ and ‘sulking’ for people like Darren who say we should nothing to do with George.
I would like to pose another question, one which also picks up on a theme in Darren’s blog. Labour and Marvin Rees did spend time opening conversations with experts both within the Labour Party and many outside. I wide range of issues were debated and filtered to find items which was developed into Marvin’s manifesto. The question is how does Labour use the council to further these ideas? Can they convince George to adopt the living wage or the building of new council housing? Can they put together a budget package which minimises the impact of the cuts on those in greatest need? In some ways it is the age old dilemma for socialists as to whether to work to make capitalism fairer or to stand outside and fight it until it collapses.
The question the Labour Party should prioritise when it meets this week is not ‘should we join the cabinet?’ but ‘how do we implement the measures we set out in our manifesto?’ In my opinion the answer to that can’t be, ‘Let’s wait three and a half years until we can fight the next mayoral election’.
If that that leads to a view that Labour should consider joining the cabinet there would have to be some very important preconditions. That membership of the cabinet does not require collective responsibility (surely an alien idea to an independent which has the hallmarks of party whips and discipline), that decisions must be made in the open and not behind the closed doors of the Mayor’s committee room and that ditching robust scrutiny is a condition of membership.
The cabinet as a group of people with executive power no longer exists, it is now little more than an advisory body to the Mayor. While the work of cabinet members may be important, meetings of the cabinet will be little more than for show. Many decisions of the council will still be made in its collection of committees.
There is no easy answer to this problem and I will play no part in it as I am working in London on the evening when this will be discussed (phew). However the debate needs to be framed around the needs of the people the Labour Party was created to represent, it needs to look forward to the coming years and not backward at the bitter and bitterly disappointing election campaign.