Saturday, 30 October 2010

Students learn French

I always find discussing politics with students inspiring, and recently I have been lucky enough to speak with three different age groups.

Last Saturday I addressed university students at the fantastic Progressive Student conference in London.

Big ideas were prevalent, from tackling climate change to building international solidarity with struggles from Palestine to Venezuela.

There was real concern about the impact on students of the coalition government’s austerity drive, and a real determination to resist it.

My advice to the students was, 'learn French'! The militancy, confidence and sense of solidarity of French students are an inspiration to all, young and old, for the battles ahead.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Toxic brew

The rise of the Tea Party is now generating considerable publicity this side of the Atlantic as well. The best analysis I have read so far is this from George Monbiot. It is a fascinating expose of how people who 'think they are fighting elite power are been organised by the very interests they believe they are confronting'.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Italian Taliban

For those chasing the Taliban, check out southern Italy. According to this report from the Guardian the Mayor of one small Italian town wants to introduce fines on women wearing miniskirts and showing too much cleavage. He intends to empower police officers to make 'snap decisions' on what is 'modest dress'. Talk about giving authorisation for sexual harassment. You can imagine the joy pervy Italian cops will have with this one. It is no surprise that the Mayor is a supporter of Silvio Berlusconi, a shining example to all of us for the way he has raised standards in public life. My message to the Mayor is this; whether the hijab or miniskirt, it's a woman's right to choose.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Victory for no to spy camera campaign!

Yesterday I attended the West Midlands Police Authority meeting to discuss Project Champion. The Authority has the remit to oversee West Midlands Police in the interests of the public.

After months of campaigning, common sense has finally won the day.

Senior West Midland Police Officers recommended to the meeting that all of the spy cameras be removed in the interests of rebuilding trust with the community.

This is a landmark victory for civil liberties. Congratulations to everybody involved in the campaign and especially to Sparkbrook residents.

The relationships between local councillors, residents, mosques, churches and community organisations, built up over the many years of campaigning, was the anvil on which this ill-conceived plan was broken.

On behalf of the Respect councillors I would like to thank them all for their support throughout.

No thanks however is due to the Police Authority who have illustrated throughout that they are simply unfit for purpose.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Batman Muslim sidekicks

With so much negative coverage of Muslims in the media, it felt good to read this story of 'Islamic superheroes teaming up with American comic-book icons to save the world' and break down some post 9/11 barriers along the way. A good news Muslim media story shocker! Check it out.

Friday, 22 October 2010

VIVA PALESTINA CONVOY BREAKS SIEGE AND ENTERS GAZA!

The Viva Palestina convoy of almost 150 vehicles, 370 people from 30 different countries and $5 million of aid has entered Gaza.

Amidst scenes of jubilation from thousands of Palestinians there to greet the convoy, Kevin Ovenden, the convoy director, expressed his joy at being in Gaza once again. "We have driven more than 3,000 miles to bring this essential aid and to break this illegal siege of Gaza. We have been joined by supporters from Morocco and Algeria and from the Gulf States and Jordan, to make this the biggest convoy ever to break the siege of Gaza. We are absolutely overjoyed to be here and to bring with us the soil from the graves of those who were massacred on the Mavi Marmara which will be used to plant trees as a memorial to their sacrifice."

Thursday, 21 October 2010

One in 10 Midlands jobs under threat - and the Tories cheer

According to the Birmingham Mail today, “1 in 10 jobs may go in the West Midlands as a result of the biggest spending cuts in Britain since the Second World War”.

And when Tory Chancellor George Osborne stood up in parliament and announced this attack on jobs, public services and the welfare state, his MPs cheered every cut. That is how much they understand what the real impact of this is going to be for individuals, families and entire communities.

The price for the financial crisis is going to be paid by people who had nothing to do with causing it. The bankers will keep their bonuses. The shareholders will keep their profits. And the 23 millionaires in the Tory-Lib Dem cabinet will not have to worry about their jobs, how to pay the bills, or where their pension is going to come from.

On top of that there is no evidence that this bonfire of public service jobs will actually work. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winner in economics, says it is no more than a gamble:

“Britain is embarking on a highly risky experiment.... If Britain were wealthier, or if the prospects of success were greater, it might be a risk worth taking. But it is a gamble with almost no potential upside. Austerity is a gamble which Britain can ill afford.”

His conclusion is simple: “Austerity converts downturns into recessions, recessions into depressions.”

An alternative exists – based on investment not cuts – and the more this is understood, the better we will be able to resist the Coalition government’s plan to destroy our welfare state.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Birmingham Protest Against Government Spending Cuts

Wed 20th Oct 5 - 6.45pm
Government Office for the West Midlands
5 St Philip’s Place (by Cathedral Gardens) Colmore Row

Organised by Birmingham People’s Charter with the support of
Birmingham Trades Union Council, Save Our Services, and others.

www.thepeoplescharter.org

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

West Midlands Police face court over spy cameras

Project Champion, the network of spy cameras encircling Muslim communities in Birmingham, has severely undermined confidence in the police. I have consistently argued that to rebuild trust these spy cameras must be removed.

Despite the devastating criticisms of the police in the report they commissioned into this project, the suspicion remains that they have not given up on Project Champion. The cameras are covered up, but are still standing.

Now the human rights organisation, Liberty, is taking the police to court. As their legal officer, Corinna Ferguson says, “It is baffling that West Midlands Police are still trying to salvage this unlawful discriminatory scheme.”

Liberty has told the police that unless they make a commitment within the next 14 days to dismantle the cameras they will be taking a case to the High Court.

I do hope that the police respond to this positively. This issue is not going to go away. The longer they delay, the harder it will become to rebuild trust.

If there is one lesson the West Midlands Police need to learn it is that when you are in a hole you should stop digging.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Military spending protected in Tory cuts

The BBC has reported that the Defence budget will only be cut by 8% in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review, compared to cuts of not less than 25% for other departments. Read more here.

An age of austerity

I have got an article in the excellent new Autumn 2010 edition of Respect Quarterly - the members' magazine of the Respect Party. My article is available online and the other articles are soon to follow. Look out for them.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Kicking away the ladder of opportunity


Last week, Lord Browne published his review of student funding. True to form, the Liberal Democrats promptly dumped their promise to oppose increases in tuition fees.

As Fiona Edwards, secretary of the Free Education Campaign, explains in an article published in Saturday’s Morning Star:

"Politicians who benefited from a free university education are now planning to kick away the ladder of opportunity for generations to come... The plans represent a double assault on students - tuition fees are set to more than double to £7,000 per year and commercial interest rates will be introduced on student loans."

These plans are not only unfair to students from less well-off backgrounds; they are also damaging to the future of our economy; and Fiona’s article sets out how investment in education is the “key to economic revival”.

Opposition to this attack on higher education is growing. And I am glad to see that support for the Liberal Democrats is falling the more they betray their promises. The latest poll from YouGov puts them on 11% - down from the 23% who voted for them in the general election. They are the weak point of this rotten coalition, and Liberal Democrat MPs need to be held accountable for the promises they made. 

There will be more discussion of this at the Progressive Students conference, taking place this Saturday, October 23, at Birkbeck College, London. Speakers include Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott, Kate Hudson, Billy Hayes and myself. For further details visit www.progressivestudents.co.uk

Friday, 15 October 2010

25 years of fighting global poverty

I really like the outdoor exhibitions organised by Wecommunic8 that regularly adorn our city centre.

One of their latest marks the 25th anniversary of Care International UK, the humanitarian organisation that fights global poverty. The photos are fantastic, literally bursting with colour and humanity. You can see them as you exit Central Library towards Broad Street.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The axe is about to fall on Birmingham's jobs and services

Anyone working for Birmingham City Council now knows that mass job cuts are a grim reality.

Yesterday, Stephen Hughes – Birmingham’s Chief Executive - emailed all staff with the announcement that everyone will have the “opportunity” to take voluntary redundancy. It cannot possibly end there. There can’t be many people who are going to willingly give up a job in the current climate. Sackings are inevitable, and on a large scale.

In his email, Stephen Hughes says, “Over the next three to four years we estimate that we will need to reduce our spending by £330 million – around a third of what we currently spend.” Yes, you have read it right. One third of all council spending is going to be axed.

The cost to the city in economic activity will be enormous. The council is probably the biggest buyer of services in Birmingham. A cut of one-third in its spending is going to have a major knock-on effect on shops, contractors, and suppliers. Many thousands of people are at risk, directly and indirectly.

The Chief Executive ends his email by pledging his “...determination to continue to provide the best possible service to Birmingham’s citizens during these challenging times.” It is a hollow promise.

With cuts on this scale, most services will be reduced, charges will be raised, and many valuable services will simply be scrapped.

Care workers, home helps, street cleaners, social workers and housing officers are going to lose their jobs. Super-rich bankers have their jobs saved by the taxpayer, and still find time to reward themselves with billions in bonuses. This is what Cameron and Clegg mean by ‘fairness’.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Fib Dems and tuition fees

Remember Lib Dem promises at the election to abolish tuition fees? Well, they lied. Instead, tuition fees could rise to as much as £12,000 per year!! One consequence will be to burden the vast majority of students with levels of debt they will carry well into their working lives.

There is speculation about a Lib Dem revolt. I really hope so. But I am not holding my breath. Both nationally and locally the Lib Dems have shown themselves to be a pretty slavish bunch when it comes to their Tory masters. For some, even hanging on to the coat tails of power corrupts.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Save the NHS

Until now, no party could realistically hope to be the government unless it declared that the “NHS is safe in our hands”.  In his attempt to re-brand the Tories, David Cameron went so far as claiming that they were the “party of the NHS”.

But now the Tories are in power, the mask has slipped. Their plans for NHS reform – which weren’t mentioned in their manifesto – threaten the very existence of the NHS as a free public service.  As an investigation in the magazine Red Pepper shows: “In place of a public service we will have a profit-driven healthcare market.”

Red Pepper sets out how powerful business interests have lobbied for years to get access to the huge NHS budget. New Labour tried to bring the market into the health system, and only partly succeeded. But now there is a government that is determined to change the face of the NHS once and for all.

Already, cuts of up to £20 billion are being made in the NHS. And these cuts are going to have a devastating effect. Hospitals around the country are cutting back on essential operations – cataracts and hip replacements for example.

This is just the beginning. If the NHS becomes a marketplace for private companies to trade, then many more people will be told it just isn’t ‘cost-effective’ to treat them.

As the Red Pepper article concludes: “..the injustice that will flow from the loss of the NHS will be massive. It will change the face of English society more profoundly than the poll tax. And it will be for all practicable purposes irreversible – unless we stop it now, all of us resisting in whatever way we can.”

Monday, 11 October 2010

Blaming asylum seekers will not tackle housing crisis

Earlier this year, the Red Cross described the way our immigration system treated those whose claims for asylum have been denied as 'shameful'. Birmingham City Council has now added to this catalogue of shame by its decision to cancel a contract with the UK Border Agency to house 190 asylum seekers.

“Asylum seekers last in the housing queue” said the Daily Mail as John Lines, the Cabinet Member for Housing, secured the headlines he wanted. But asylum seekers were never in the front of any queue, and are among the most desperate and destitute people in our society.

Birmingham has more than 65,000 council homes and only a tiny handful of these were used for the contract with the Border Agency. It is not true that asylum seekers ‘jump the queue’, and it is not true that Birmingham’s growing housing crisis is caused by asylum seekers.

The council's decision smacks of a political stunt. As the recession bites, we can expect a lot more of this kind of unscrupulous 'blame the victim' politics from the Tories and Lib Dems. We got a taster at the Tory conference with its creeping Victorian values of the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. 

Thousands of people are having their homes repossessed as jobs are lost. What would make a difference to the homeless figures is if banks, bailed out by public money, were unable to turf families onto the streets if they couldn’t keep up mortgage payments. But politicians would rather play ‘blame the foreigner’ than ‘blame the banker’. 

What would make a difference to the housing crisis would be a government programme of house building, putting people back to work and boosting the economy. But with unemployment set to rise dramatically, and people losing their homes as a result, we can expect politicians to point the figure at anybody but themselves. 

Birmingham’s announcement will achieve next to nothing. With 30,000 people on the waiting lists, and thousands more set to will join them as public spending cuts bite, it is a drop in the ocean. What it will do is fan the flames of intolerance, bigotry and racism.  

Denying housing to a handful of desperate and destitute families is morally wrong. Birmingham claims to be a ‘global city with a local heart'. All this decision does is to make our city appear provincial, mean and heartless. 

There are different ways we can respond to this recession. One response, with a long and ugly pedigree, is to scapegoat the vulnerable, the weak, and those unable to defend themselves. The other is to challenge the economic madness of slashing public spending in the middle of a recession, and to challenge the political logic which says that ordinary people losing their jobs and homes is a price worth paying for the criminal recklessness of a rich elite in the financial sector.

Friday, 8 October 2010

In it together?

David Cameron says it is time to pull together to help reduce the national debt.

OK then. How about this idea? A one-off tax of just 20% on the richest 10% would practically clear the national debt at a stroke. And without having to slash public services and throw people on the dole.

Seems fair to me. The total wealth of the top 1,000 increased by a third in the last year. The top 200 people alone on the rich list were worth a collective £228.8 billion and the richest 10% are worth over £4,000 billion!

Think the Tories will go for it? Not in a million years. When Cameron talks about spreading the pain, it is not the rich he has in mind who will be doing the suffering.

(Watch Respect's Ken Loach make the same case for taxing the rich on Newsnight from earlier in the week).

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Project Champion - public anger intensifies

Public anger about Project Champion is not going away. Residents attending Sparkbrook Ward Committee earlier in the week were indignant about the deceit involved in the scheme.

Many had attended meetings where they were told again and again by reps from Safer Birmingham Partnership and the Police that the primary focus of the cameras would be crime reduction.

As the Police's own report into Project Champion highlights, this was a fiction. Not surprisingly, people who were lied to are angry about that fact.

The meeting passed a motion calling for disciplinary action to be taken against those responsible for the deceit and reiterating the community's desire for the complete removal of the spy cameras. Campaigners are planning to intensify pressure with new protests. More details later.

Project Champion has massively damaged public trust in the West Midlands Police Authority. If they are serious about wanting to rebuilt it, we need to see action, not just words.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

World Day for Decent Work

Across the world this Thursday, 7 October, will be marked by Trade Unions as 'World Day for Decent Work'.

The campaign's core message for an economics that puts people first couldn't be more timely with the Con-Dem government onslaught on jobs and working conditions.

In any global race to the bottom in labour standards, then Bangladesh is where the finishing line is.

Thankfully, a national campaign for the country’s three million garment workers has been able to lift the minimum wage from a medieval £15 per month, up to £27 per month.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Sparkbrook Ward Committee tonight

The Sparkbrook ward committee meets tonight and, if you live in the area, it is your chance to have your say. Your Respect councillors will be there, and tonight’s agenda includes Project Champion, the Working Neighbourhoods Fund, changes to refuse and recycling collections, and more.

I hope to see you there.

Sparkbrook Ward Committee
Tuesday 5 October
6.30 pm
Clifton Junior School, St Pauls Road, Balsall Heath, B12 8LY.

Child benefit cut, bankers bonuses rise

Two weeks ago, the Liberal Democrat conference voted to “Safeguard universal child benefit in conjunction with progressive taxation in order to provide a reliable source of income protection throughout childhood.”

But, as we all know by now, the Lib Dems are only useful for keeping Tories in power, and this week the Tory conference was told that child benefit would be withdrawn for any family where a parent was paying higher rate tax.

The Tory plans are full of holes. A single parent earning £44,000 will lose child benefit, but a couple earning £43,000 each will keep it. More than a million families will lose out.

But there is a bigger principle at stake. By focussing on the issue of child benefit being paid to better-off families, the Tories are looking for an easy target. It seems illogical to pay benefits to some people who clearly don’t need it. The evidence shows, however, that universal benefits are extremely successful, and child benefit is one of the most successful of all.

As Kate Green, Director of the Child Poverty Action Group, said last year: “Simple, straightforward and easy to claim, child benefit reaches more children living in low-income families than any of the complex means-tested benefits or tax credits intended for them. With a take-up rate of 98%, it provides financial security in households that are struggling to keep afloat.”

Monday, 4 October 2010

Large protest at Tory conference

Despite appalling weather thousands of people attended yesterday's Right to Work march in Birmingham. It was a good demo, and marks what I hope is the first step of a national fightback against the new age of austerity being unleashed upon us.

You can read the Mail's report here. Mark Serwokta, General Secretary of the PCS union, and myself were interviewed at the demo by the BBC's The Politics Show. You can watch it here. Our segment is about 46 minutes into the programme. It will be online for another 6 days only. Finally, you can catch my speech here.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Getting some perspective

A defensive David Cameron is busy trying to downplay the impact of the cuts by saying we need to put them into 'perspective'. Yes we should. As this excellent article by John Lancaster points out, 'the £82b worth of cuts that George Osbourne is going to announce in 2 weeks time are unprecedented. No government has ever achieved anything like that reduction in public spending. To put it in perspective, since 1950 there have been only two periods during which public spending was cut for two years in a row. The coalition is proposing to cut it for six consecutive years. Their cuts will exceed anything Margaret Thatcher did.'

Indeed. And she oversaw the return of mass unemployment, greater inequality, increased social tension, and riots on our streets. The new Thatcherites want to achieve what the old ones could not quite manage; a permanent reduction in the size of the state and an end to extensive public services. If they get away with it Britain will be a more divided, a more unequal, and a more unfair society for generations to come.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Demonstrate at Tory Party Conference

Right to Work has called a national demonstration outside the Tory Party  annual conference for tomorrow,  3 October. David Cameron's party are meeting here in Birmingham.

The march will assemble at 12 noon on Lionel Street, B3 1AG and after a rally, will set off at 1pm. Hope to see you there!

Friday, 1 October 2010

The Project Champion fairytale

All of my day yesterday was taken up with reaction to the police report into Project Champion. The findings are absolutely damning.

The police argued, and still do, that a key purpose of the spy cameras was to reduce general crime and anti-social behaviour in the areas concerned. But minutes of police meetings reveal that senior officers had to “formulate a narrative to support Project Champion” and that “ACCs Patani and Hyde stated that they wanted a storyline on which to hang the project”.

This ‘story’ of crime reduction was always a fairytale.

The report says there was never any plan to deliver these benefits, and no infrastructure or staff available to view any CCTV footage. The crime reduction benefits being marketed to justify the project were simply never going to be delivered.

On top of this, the report clearly shows that consultation with the community and elected councillors was at best a charade, in which the real purposes of the project were hidden.  In the words of the report, “There is no indication that the consultation process had any impact on the objectives or the structure of the project...the consultation can be summed up as too little too late”.

Even the anti-terrorist aspect of the project comes in for strong criticism. The report says that the entire plan “...should have been challenged by strong ethical and strategic leadership right from the start and questions should have been asked [by the police themselves] about its proportionality, legitimacy, authority, necessity, and the ethical values inherent in the proposed course of action”.


There is a wealth of legislation and detailed guidance on many aspects of policing and surveillance. The report finds that the police paid virtually no attention to complying with the law or acting within the framework of the regulations that govern them.

It is a truly shocking catalogue of failure.

The project was badly conceived, badly managed, sold to the public on false pretences, and covered up by a completely inadequate consultation process.

What is most worrying about all of this is the doubt it casts on the trustworthiness of the police. If they were prepared to behave in this way in setting up this project, how much could we trust them with the information they gathered? Trust is at the heart of effective policing, and (as the report itself underlines) it is especially important to counter terrorism.

This trust has to be restored. But it is very difficult to see how that can be done without making individual officers accountable for their role in this fiasco.

It is equally difficult to see how trust can be restored if the suspicion is that the police are just waiting for the heat to die down before proceeding with the project. It is not enough for the cameras to be bagged; they need to be removed.

If trust is to be rebuilt, we need action not words.