Monday 13 June 2016

What is the "Hard Left" anyway?

What exactly is “The Hard Left?”
 By Bernadette Horton

On a daily basis right wing newspapers and media refer to Jeremy Corbyn as the “hard left Labour leader” the Shadow Minister for Trade Unions Ian Lavery as the “former hard left President of the NUM” and any MP that dares to voice his/her support for Corbyn is automatically branded “hard left supporting MP…” The list is never ending, the job done by right wing media to spray tag the Labour Party, any newspaper that isn't owned by Murdoch and anyone remotely involved in a trade union as “hard left” is a daily diatribe most of us have become accustomed to.

After the recent Welsh elections where I was campaigning for a Welsh Labour victory day in and day out, I often heard this term bandied about by activists. In banter I often heard “you lot on the hard left need to realise what it will take for Labour to win an election.”  But what exactly is the “hard left”? And does anyone consider themselves to warrant  the right wing media tag of being “hard left.”?

I'm a socialist. Full stop. Yet I've been branded everything from a Stalinist to a Trot, from a trade union firebrand, to a Bolshevik and yes the tiresome “hard left” logo too. Every time I tell a stranger or even another party member I write for the Morning Star I am instantly branded with their own personal version of exactly where I fit into the “hard left” genre.

I believe in all children being given equal access to schooling, apprenticeships and university, whatever their background and those from poorer families given help to achieve this. I believe in the right of everyone to have a decent, warm roof over their heads at a price they can afford to pay and that means the building of social housing. I believe railways should be publically owned as the public use them and are entitled to a seat when they have paid the fare; a fare that is realistic for the service and doesn't eat into their wages that makes going to work extremely difficult. I believe in compassion for the vulnerable. By this I mean dignity for disabled people and dignity for the carers who care for them. A state that directly helps promote quality of life for disabled people and supports disabled people to  work if possible; and if not possible,  supports their right to a life without worrying how they can feed themselves and their families, and whether they are able to heat their homes.

I also believe that if the employers cannot be bothered to pay a living wage, then they should be compelled by law to do so. A fair days pay for a fair days work has never been more needed in this country than it is now. All concept of fair pay, fair hours and fair conditions is being eroded and we need to stop this immediately. If a parent needs to stay at home and care for children they should be able to do so while their children are young without the necessity of having to have either one full time wage if  they are a single parent or  two full time wages as a couple, coming in or they will suffer. It's no coincidence my childhood in the 70s and 80s was idyllic with a father in work and a mother working part time with no debt worries. Having a parent around who wasn't stressed out from working long hours contributed to my own mental health well being. Just look at the chaos our children are surrounded by now as they are tested from the cradle, have soaring mental health problems and are often lucky to have quality time with their parents, for an hour or two a day.

I vehemently believe in an NHS that is free from privatisation and treats everyone free at the point of entry. We pay National Health Insurance so have paid through work for our NHS in our working lives. For those unable to work I am happy my family’s dues and those of people in work and the better off  go to looking after them too.It is a fundamental freedom in this country that if you get sick or have an accident you will treated by dedicated staff free of charge.

I believe in the right to join a trade union. For a trade union to protect your rights in the workplace and more recently in the community. To negotiate pay deals, to stamp out poor health and safety conditions, to stand up to bullying and harassment in the workplace, to blow the whistle on unscrupulous workplace practices and praise the employers who are giving their workers a good deal. Bringing the odious Mike Ashley of Sports Direct infamy before Parliament to account for his Victorian workplace practices, where staff live in fear, mostly on zero hours contracts and have 110 ambulance call outs at its warehouse HQ in a given year is because my trade union Unite, and particularly Unite Community have put up a relentless campaign to make the billionaire Ashley accountable.

I passionately believe in business and trade : vital for our economy. I love to support our small independent businesses on the high street; the ones who treat their employees fairly. I see the fantastic apprenticeships developing specialised skills at places like Airbus near me in North Wales and see the trade they do in Europe and the rest of the world, and know those highly skilled jobs are well paid ones too with pay deals negotiated by their union. Likewise the steel jobs in our steel industry that we are frantically trying to save currently. Local MPs and Ams and indeed my own union,have been campaigning vociferously to halt the closure of our steel plants. These are the lifeblood of skilled and decently paid jobs that we need to protect.

I stand up strongly for the right to protest and demonstrate against injustice. You will find me in pouring rain and recently hailstones fighting to protect our steel industry, our public services, our care homes and protesting against the total evil  of benefit sanctions.

According to the right wing press this then makes me a ringer for the “hard left” badge of shame.

All of  the above, in my own view,  point to my socialist beliefs. My Labour Party beliefs. It's not “hard left” or any other right wing media obsessional name, but purely socialist. The same type of beliefs held by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and countless other Labour MPs. And I am opposed to elitism, power held by the “top 1%” those with money being able to buy their way into private education and university, oligarchs buying up London housing, a Tory government hellbent on making the poor poorer and the disabled more vulnerable and frightened, constituency boundaries being redrawn to favour Tory candidates, trade union activities and funding being unduly scrutinised and almost outlawed and the fear of helping refugees and the ugly politics of UKIP stalking our land.

But that's why socialists are being branded as “hard left”. It's the establishment fear, their own right wing hysterical fear that sees them lashing out on TV and in print. The fear that socialism will show them up for all that they are; opposed to the rights and aspirations of working class people, opposed to care of the vulnerable, opposed to working class people having a good quality of life.

I'm a socialist.  If that makes me “hard left” then I'm proud of it.

Thursday 9 June 2016

Carers: Robbed of Choices, Careers and Cash

                              Carers: Robbed of Choices, Careers and Cash
                                             By Bernadette Horton

It's Carers Week. A chance for Carers Organisations to highlight once again the crippling impact caring has on individuals, the clamour to keep shouting at the government to do something to help carers  across a myriad of problems from basic recognition, to job choice, to the insult of the frozen £62.10pw. This is the pittance Carers receive in Carers Allowance from a cold,distinctly uncaring Tory government. A government that insists Carers provide 35 hours per week care for way below the minimum wage. Illegal elsewhere, but promoted by the Tories!

My own situation as a Carer highlights how circumstance can rob you overnight of the basic of rights, where giving birth to a disabled child can take you from full time work on decent pay, to the scandal that is Carers Allowance. When the youngest of my sons was born with autism in 1999, this was before we had decent child care arrangements under tax credits. But subsidised and free childcare mean absolutely nothing when your child is disabled. Why would a childminder who can take 6 able bodied children under their care currently, choose to have 1 disabled child who needs their constant attention? It simply isn't “good business” to them and who can blame them? I certainly don't! Governments on all sides of the political spectrum are very good at publically denouncing disability discrimination but are absolutely hopeless at putting into place schemes that allow Carers a choice of being able to even work part time. Getting a decent childminder/nursery that has expert knowledge on dealing with your child's particular disability is a complete nightmare for parents who are Carers. It's a choice currently we simply don't have.

In fact government legislation actually hampers Carers who would like to combine caring with a part time job! You can only work to a maximum income ceiling of £110pw before your entire Carers allowance is stopped. Some incentive! The laws currently, actively seek to punish Carers and trap us into a lifetime of poverty. Employment laws and employers aren't keen to employ Carers who may have to rush off in an emergency situation to the person they care for either.

The feeling I had when my son was diagnosed with autism wasn't just that of worrying what his life would be like. It then dawned on me, that to give this child every available chance in life, it would mean the almost slow death of mine. It would mean being robbed of job choice immediately, having only my husbands one wage coming in, and as he was my youngest child, less time to spend with my older children. At the beginning it felt like a curtain coming down on my life and involved endless days of  form filling, appointments with experts, fighting the education system and with my mouth  standing up constantly for my sons rights when I thought they were being eroded too. Endless, dreary, constant fighting against different sections of our health and education systems. It shouldn't be like this  and  as my son has grown up my thoughts are often with those who accept what the system gives you, as they are unable or less knowledgeable, or simply don't want to be worn down by constantly fighting the system.

Our Tory government has now frozen Carers Allowance until 2020 at £62.10pw for a compulsory 35 hour caring week. It equates to £1.77 roughly an hour. Taken away entirely if a Carer dares to earn £110.01. It actually makes you feel worthless. The unemployed get more at £73pw. So not only are Carers tucked away in their homes, unseen, unheard and virtually voiceless, the government makes us worthless too. It's a kick in the teeth and one that a future Labour government has a complete duty to change. I know it is a subject that both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell will be seeking to tackle in policy change for 2020 as both know the absolute disgrace the system is serving up to Carers currently. My hope actually lies in the Shadow DWP where both Owen Smith and the new MP, Nick Thomas-Symonds have a complete grasp of the Carers plight and will be wanting significant change to be made. There is also talk within Labour of a basic citizens income which would be music to the ears of Carers and actually lift many of us out of the poverty trap. We eagerly watch what John McDonnell has to say on the issue.

But going back to choices, it's not only the ability to work that is taken from Carers. Politicians forget the ability to get out of the house when you want to, do the shopping without thinking of the logistics for doing it, having a holiday; these are all things where Carers have no or little choice, With social services funding from Tory Westminster being slashed, respite care is being cut, which is a lifeline for drained, weary Carers. My very own Tory/Inde/Plaid dominated county council Denbighshire, decided to start charging  parents of disabled children £25 to actually access respite care. A despicable Tory led initiative that was  described to me as saying “Parents receive Disability Living Allowance for their disabled child, so they should use this for the charge.” All pushed through by local Tory councillors with no idea of the impact on families and no moral compass to understand this was yet another attack on disabled people and their families. If it doesn't touch their lives then it doesn't matter about the rest of us is their motto.

Governments of any political party have an enormous amount of work to do for Carers to even try to level the playing field slightly. Scotland should be congratulated it has raised Carers Allowance to the same rate as Jobseeker's Allowance: a good start is my view with more to be done. The social security system needs a complete rethink to address Carers and for Carers to be prioritised and not bottom of some special advisor focus group as we were in the 2015 General Election: not worthy of any showpiece political policy. I do think though that Jeremy Corbyn will have a bolder and more empathic approach. He understands Carers needs and will seek to entrust the Shadow DWP to come up with perhaps an holistic package of support for Carers, as he has the right people in position to have an emboldened view.

My hopes and the hopes of 11 million Carers and the  disabled people we care for rest with the Labour Party. Cameron and his henchmen at the DWP which have included one of the most hated politicians of our times Iain Duncan-Smith, and now his equally loathsome successor Stephen Crabbe have thrown Carers and the disabled to the wolves in what for many is a circle and lifetime in a poverty trap. We look to 2020 for urgent change and for a compassionate Labour government under Corbyn to make the changes Carers urgently need.

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Welsh Labour Conference Speech
February 2016
Ambition and Learning

Working class people both here in Wales and England have ambition, aspiration
and a burning desire to learn.
Aspiration should not and cannot be the preserve of the middle classes because
ordinary working class people do not have the money to pay for education.

It was Nelson Mandela who said ‘Education is the most powerful weapon
which you can use to change the world.’ So take note David Cameron and Andrew RT Davies – Mandela didn’t mention that access to education will
depend on an individual’s ability to pay!

My family is privileged, and I mean that -  Privileged to live, work and
be educated in Wales as opposed to England. My two younger sons aged nearly
18 and 17 are both products of a fantastic Welsh educational system. Both are in
6th form studying A levels and both receive Education Maintenance Allowance
at £30 per week to help them cope with the cost of books,
and essentials. If we were living in England they wouldn’t get EMA…the
Tories abolished it in 2010.

Hope, ambition and aspiration to achieve the desired A level results renewed again in my sons.

And once they go to university again, unlike England, where students pay up to
nine thousand pounds per year, my sons won’t have to pay more than £3800 in tuition fees
…thanks to Welsh Labour!

This week we visited Aberystwyth university, home to the fantastic National
Library – and I’d defy anyone not to be impressed with this place of learning!

I too have a burning ambition to learn.

I also have an ambition to gain political representation for those whose voices
aren’t heard by this Tory Westminster government;

the full time carers and the increasingly persecuted disabled.

This Tory government learnt their politics in the debating halls and playing
fields of Eton. I learnt mine through my union, Unite.
They have given me the skills and confidence to challenge the Tories.

I am passionate about Adult education
It should never be the Cinderella service in our education system.
Adults have aspirations too!

Knocking on doors, talking and listening to people
Getting our message across
Has never been more important.

I know we hear Labour has been in power for some timeBut its thanks to having a Welsh Labour government that we have
the successes we do! It’s time to go out on the doorsteps and passionately
spread the message of what we have done and what we intend to do for our kids and for our future –

Under Welsh Labour we have:

·        Flying Start in our disadvantaged areas from aged 2!

·        Free school breakfasts for many of our children.

·        Education Maintenance Allowance for our 6th formers

·        University Tuition fees capped.

·        Maintenance grants at university for poorer and disabled students

·        Record successes last year in our GCSE RESULTS

·        100,000 New apprenticeships announced for this year for ALL AGES!

·        And should you fall ill at any time Free Prescriptions.

Welsh Labour is ambitious for the Welsh people.
Ambition and Learning go hand in hand for ALL.
Let’s get that message out loud and proud to voters.
Together for Wales!

Thursday 6 August 2015

Tom Watson: A digital and Community Inspired Revolution

There has been plenty written about the Labour leadership campaign recently and rightly so, but what of the Deputy Leadership contenders? And what exactly is this role of Deputy within the Labour Party as we hear very little from them unless the leader is on holiday and the Deputy has to fill in. I went along recently to an event in N Wales that Tom Watson was speaking at, in his bid to become Deputy Leader.

Tom is MP for West Bromwich East and at 48 considers himself to be a "middle aged" veteran of  numerous election and general election campaigns. (Thanks Tom, you're a fortnight older than myself and I try not to think I am middle aged!) Tom has a completely engaging style of talking "with" not "at" an audience. He set out his vision as Deputy Leader in a business like fashion, firm yet humourous, direct yet intrinsically knowing what the burning issues are with the grassroots members. And that is where Tom began and ended the evening.. It's time to bring Labour back to communities, back to its grassroots members and activists, take the party out of London and on the road and listen to what community leaders are saying in the regions and connect Labour to the 21st century in a digital revolution.

Tom is the ultimate campaigner. He sees his role as Deputy Leader as a bridge between the Leader and the members, constantly listening and reporting back, so the Labour hierarchy stay in touch with the issues in the constituencies and wider electorate views.  Tom has huge campaign experience and is renowned for bringing Murdoch and the Sun before the courts in the phone hacking scandal that enraged us all. His vision of bringing Labour back to local communities is refreshing and judging by the audience on the night, much needed and a breath of fresh air as the party attempts to get away from being London centric.

He spoke with fervour about providing more training for local councillors and listening to them and community leaders so party policy can reflect what the people really want, instead of being set up by special advisors in London who are wholly focused on opinion polls (which got things so wrong in the recent General Election). He wants himself and a Labour shadow cabinet to spend one day a week on the road talking to local councillors, party members and Labour supporters who abandoned the party at the election. He recognises that different regions and indeed countries within the UK have different priorities. Here in Wales he would like to see Welsh specific literature on our policies and issues for example.

I questioned him on language and rhetoric. For me the Labour Party lost its way by talking like the Tories on issues like "welfare" and not social security. I felt MPs certainly didn't sound genuine when talking to people about issues and talked "at"us. What were Tom's views? Tom agreed wholeheartedly and told us that MPs used to have briefing sheets back in 2001 when he was elected, but increasingly instead of selecting issues to talk about, they started talking to people from the sheets in soundbites people couldn't understand. This needs to change he said. We need to talk to people and be genuine when engaging with them. He told us the whole language issue and way Labour speak about party policy must change to enable an election victory in 2020.

Excitingly, and due to Tom's incredible criss  crossing of the UK throughout the General Election, Tom is proposing a digital revolution at the heart of the party. On his travels he was asked by many activists time and again who were hiking up and down streets in pouring rain with soggy paper to input people's voting intentions on, why couldn't it be input online? Why can't polls be conducted online? Why can't we vote online? Young activists in particular simply can't understand in this day and age why everything has to be done manually and a lot of us older activists feel the same way too! Tom wants to arm us with technology on the doorstep to input data on tablets, phones etc and move the Labour Party into a digital revolution community based. This is going down very well with party members, wearied of everything taking a lot longer than it should in reality.

For me, Tom Watson's bursary scheme idea to enable ordinary working class people to stand for political representation is what makes him stand out from other candidates. His idea is to establish a financial bursary scheme for candidates who do not have the financial means it takes to stand for office. Currently candidates have to take months off work to campaign prior to an election with no guarantee of winning of course. Many working class candidates are losing their jobs and being left penniless to pursue political office.  He also recognises  that  ethnic minority and disabled candidates are woefully under represented at local and national level and wants to encourage and see more candidates who reflect the electorate and the regions they come from.Tom says it is time the party recognises this and acts. And he will.

One audience member asked Tom "Are you a socialist or a democratic socialist?"  Infamously during the 2015 campaign Ed Miliband was asked whether he was a socialist on live TV and replied he was a democratic socialist as that is what it says on the back of the party membership card. Tom looked at the person asking the question and said "I'm a socialist." The member then came back and asked Tom to elaborate on that. "Yes" he replied, "I'm a socialist." A big round of applause followed. Tom
obviously wants to hear that word used within the party and I suspect is as fed up as members are for previous apologies by Labour leaders for being socialists. With Tom as deputy leader I think being a socialist will once again be at the heart of the Labour Party.

I'll leave the last word to Tom Watson, the conviction politician, the campaigner and indeed I believe unifier of the Labour Party should he be elected as Deputy leader. Use your vote to ensure as a party member or union affiliate we get a Deputy Leader who understands Labour is rooted in local regions and communities and listens to the people and their issues and ultimately will act upon them.

"We need to rebuild the Labour Party in the interests and image of our communities. That means listening- really listening- when people tell us we're not getting it right. But also having the courage to keep going when we are."

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Do the poor no longer deserve a holiday?

Like a thief in the night, without telling hardly anyone who didn't need to know, I went on holiday recently. And I went Spain. You may wonder why I am being so furtive and secretive about something as innocent as a holiday.

Last year in 2014 there came a turning point, doubtless driven by "scrounger"  and benefit programmes on TV, sensational Daily Mail and Express headlines of large families on benefits going on holiday etc. My working poor family had saved like mad for a holiday in Scotland. Naively I expressed my delight on social media about how as a carer, I was excitedly looking forward to taking our sons (including our autistic son) to a scottish island, and how the whole thing was a big adventure. Doubtless there will be families out there with members who are carers nodding their head in agreement with me. A break, a holiday is a big cause for celebration. It's a change of scenery, a chance to relax for a few days, hell if you're lucky a bit of sunshine too to get you through our long UK winters.

But then a nasty online troll took it upon themselves to take me to task as to why I "deserved" a holiday as  I  am working poor claiming working tax credit. This person went through 5 months of getting in touch with my followers on Twitter telling them I had the audacity to go on holiday to Scotland despite being a "benefit claimant". The persecution got so bad I had to threaten the troll with police action if they didn't give up the constant abuse. Blocking them didn't help one bit as they just followed the people who followed me and kept up a constant stream of abuse against me; all down to this one holiday.

Wiser this year, I sneaked away with no photos on social media or the usual status updates to friends and family about how lovely our holiday was. As I write this, I keep thinking "How have we come to this?" Are the poor so "undeserving" we should be bullied and ashamed into not going on holiday or keeping our holiday plans secret?

I live in a seaside resort town in N Wales. We welcome a vast array of holiday makers from every conceivable class and background. Go to the train station and see the excited faces of young children arriving from the big cities like Liverpool and Manchester this time of year and you know what a holiday means to them. I spoke this week to a young single mum with 2 children who had saved in her local credit union for her one week break in N Wales. She works part time and this one week break has been talked and planned about since this time last year. She has gone without so the kids have the time of their lives at the local holiday camp. Precious memories and photographs to be looked back on in future years. Yet she told me that there is indeed a new element of fear in telling too many people or broadcasting the fact on social media she was having a holiday. It seems she didn't want neighbours knowing she was on holiday as she was already having the finger pointed at her as a single mother. My point is: Are her children and the children of the poor and working poor unworthy of a holiday? We're not even talking of a month in Barbados here but a good old fashioned bucket and spade  one week's holiday in the UK!

My own holiday to Spain was blissful. But I still felt unable to join in with the usual pictures of hotel pools, sunsets on the beach and exotic food like so many others flout on social media. Yet my holiday was the break I needed. Oh how those days of sunshine have invigorated me, given me strength, revitalised me, allowed me to feel normal like everyone else! Do I deserve a holiday? Hell yes! Holidays should not now be the preserve of the rich and middle classes, and the "undeserving" poor to think a trip to the Foodbank is a day out! Why should working class kids whose only fault is being born into a poor family not have some kind of childhood holiday to look back on? A trip to the seaside, seagulls, ice cream, buckets, spades and bunk beds in a caravan, eating chips in the rain and for one week having no worries or pressure at all?  It's hard enough surviving through these savage government cuts, hearing rhetoric thrown at you for being on a benefit of any kind, caring for a disabled relative or being disabled yourself  without having some kind of  break away from it all. It's almost as if society now wants to dehumanise the poor and vulnerable by denying us things ordinary people take for granted.

On my return I have vowed to visit local places of interest (which are abundant in N Wales) for day trips during the school summer holidays. As a member of the National Trust I am guilty of not exploring the historic treasures on my doorstep, but always going further afield. Last week I visited a local castle and this week a country house and gardens. However, whilst I was walking around with my family two things hit me: the first was how most people were white and middle aged or elderly, and the second was the lack of working class families there. Instantly I knew it is cost prohibitive. It's not the National Trusts fault; they have to maintain the buildings, but Labour got it right when they opened up museums for free in the previous administration. Why should trips to our historic castles, stately homes etc be confined to a rushed day out on a school trip? Local children often only experience their local history through school visits. It's high time these places were open for all to enjoy without worrying about cost. At least make it free for under 18s so  children can visit and enjoy  local history. As a socialist of course I would say it is vital for children to see how servants were treated and how the grandiose rooms for Lords and Ladies were far different to the sparse servants quarters! We need young minds to explore our culture and heritage and history. Cost shouldn't prevent that.

It doesn't matter whether you are rich or poor. Everyone deserves time away, a break, a holiday. No one deserves to be demonised for that.

Sunday 2 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: Compassion, Honesty and Hope at last!

For a few minutes, forget the media hype of the Labour leadership contest, the furore of the right wing newspapers using their tired and worn phrases of "hard left, militant, extreme left wing" when saying anything about Jeremy Corbyn - (prefixes gone mad) - and let's concentrate on three of the key aspects of Jeremy's bid that is setting him apart from the other candidates; compassion, honesty and hope.

Compassion. Pre Blair it is what the Labour Party stood for. Whilst the Tories and their millionaire mates made money and to hell with everyone else, the Labour Party had compassion for those vulnerable people: the disabled, the carers, the poor, those fallen on hard times and made redundant and unemployed, those who suffered workplace injuries and could no longer work. Then as Labour cosied up to big business, lost the last 2 general elections, we ceased to be compassionate, we ceased to care. Instead the special advisors in the London dominated Wesrminster bubble decided that the disabled and carers, well they were not worth bothering about because the computer said so. As a focus group the disabled carers and poor simply didn't matter as the computer said they were so far down the list of those who would potentially vote Labour, it wasn't worth spending time talking to them about their concerns and what policies they would like to see Labour adopt. Labour let the suits talk "about" the poor but not to us, the middle class vote all too important to court and catch. After all that was how Blair had won his elections, surely the same formula could still work?

The answer is a blunt no. It didn't work. Labour left its core vote behind and arrogantly presumed we would have nowhere else to run to. Compassion was a dirty word. The special advisors were in charge and they knew best because anything that was happening outside the London bubble didn't count. How wrong they have been proven.

So in walks Jeremy Corbyn; a candidate for the leadership who the right of the party and the suits dismissed in the early days as merely the voice of the left getting heard but who would surely finish a distant fourth in the race. Wrong again! Corbyn has articulated a vision of Labour and indeed of the wider society that ordinary people yearn for. Read any Corbyn speech, hear him at any public appearance. In an almost gentle manner, he has ,whilst making arguments about renationalising the railways, protecting public sector pay, arguing for a living wage, then reached out and put an arm around the vulnerable and spoken about compassion. He knows how desperate disabled people are about the closure of the Independent Living Fund, the stress terminally ill people are being placed under in order to claim the new Personal Independence Payment that has replaced Disability Living Allowance, and he knows intrinsically how carers who are struggling by on £62.10 a week are providing such a vital service  and then having  social services care and respite being stripped away from them.

Jeremy Corbyn realises that a decent society has compassion for the vulnerable.  He knows the work capability tests for severely sick people and the PIP assessments made by private firms like Capita  are just a means to save money and not help people at all, but hand vast millions to the private firms running the tests. Jeremy connects with all sections of society and not just the wealth creators that the other candidates and previous Labour leaders are so keen to triumph. He listens and acts as he sees the poorest in society and increasingly more working poor people being forced to turn up at foodbanks for food handouts, as their wages cannot cover the rent, the heating and food any longer.

And Honesty. An honest politician would make most of us laugh until we cried. But Jeremy's honesty and open approach when looking at the way forward, when giving us his vision of a Labour Britain under his leadership has connected with  Labour members aged 16-105! He simply doesn't accept Tory austerity. He knows there is another way and while Ed Miliband was shackled with "balancing the books" (same as the Tories), being tough on immigration,( same as the Tories) and being even tougher on welfare (same as the Tories) Jeremy Corbyn is honest in saying lets make the big corporations pay their taxes and then we can free young people from the burden of huge student debts. He wants to ensure those who are earning in excess of six figure salaries contribute to society as they have the broadest shoulders to do so. Corbyn will rid us of "welfare" and bring back
 "social security" as leader. Workers will pay in for when those hard times fall and then have the
security of knowing the state will step in with compassion. Isn't that what we want? A fair and decent Labour Party who put workers first, collectively bargain for workers rights and protect the vulnerable from poverty? In Foodbank Britain where soup kitchens are on the rise for those who work, where working mothers are visiting and using clothes banks to clothe their kids and get their school uniforms we need a Labour leader who is not in the Westminster bubble looking out. We need a leader who thinks for himself without being advised by special advisors who have never travelled north of the Watford gap and spent their time jumping from university to parliament without having any experience of the wider world.

Hope. Hellfire we have had little of that both as Labour members, supporters and voters, but also as a movement of working class people with our own dreams and aspirations. Post 2010 hope has been very thin on the ground. Hope that we could defeat the ConDems in the election, hope the policies threatening our very way of life would be consigned to the Tory dustbin of history. That was all we had and it was taken away from us. We listened in vain for Labour policies that would bring some stability to our lives, - granted the bedroom tax abolition was one, but where were the rest?  A vain promise a Living Wage was 5 years in the future,  and then the incredible Child Benefit freezefor a few years! Where was our hope that by then we would even have  a decent roof over our heads?!

Jeremy Corbyn is offering real tangible hope. Hope to the young who have mostly given up on politics. JC is speaking the language of the young on tuition fees,the environment and decent jobs and homes. For those of us wearied by constant attacks on the cost of living he is promising a fair days pay for a fair days work and a purge of zero hours, unstable work. All ordinary people want is what previous generations had: a warm secure home, a job that pays the bills, clothes for the kids and enough to allow for a holiday; an NHS in public ownership we can turn to when needed, knowing we will get the best possible healthcare available for free without fear of having to have a cheque book in our hands to pay for it first. Simple things but precious things. Jeremy is offering hope that we have lost and that the younger generation can't even remember having. And hope that lives will improve for the better and the working class can follow our own aspirations is intoxicating for a people whose
backs have been used to bear the burden of Tory imposed austerity.

So those of you who are party members and those who have a vote through the affiliation of their union, vote for Jeremy Corbyn as leader and let's have compassion honesty and hope at the heart of  a Labour Party. A Labour Party where social justice is guaranteed by a leader who has courage, boldness and conviction to do politics in a different compassionate and honest way.  #JezWeCan

Sunday 28 June 2015

Wales County Councillor: Up Close and Under Scrutiny - Exclusive Special In Depth Report!

Who are our local elected Councillors?
What do they do?
Councillor: Up Close and Under Scrutiny
By Bernadette Horton

In Wales local government will soon be undergoing radical reform with recommendations made by The Williams Report and Welsh Minister for Public Services, Leighton Andrews, implementing the changes. Mr Andrews is keen to see a raft of changes aimed at reforming and governing our elected local community, town and county councillors be brought into force. The aim is to improve local government, streamline it, and make it more accountable to the people it represents.

 But who are our Councillors? What do they do? How much are they paid and what hours do they work? Are they worth the money they are paid and just how accountable are they to the people they represent? Is it one long gravy train with ‘jobs for life’ once elected with little work done? I was keen to find out exactly all of the above, but would I find a councillor willing to spend 2 months under close scrutiny on my terms, with their whole officially elected life accountable at all times?

I approached an Independent County Councillor in Wrexham, N E Wales who is not governed by party politics or has to follow a party line. He agreed to my strict terms of scrutiny and I was surprised at what I found. I have always been as sceptical as the next person about local councillors and have found there is a mixed bag of very inactive ones, brilliant ones, and frankly stupid ones who shouldn’t be let anywhere near public relations! For my study I spent considerable time with the councillor asking many questions and grilling him on his role, attended council meetings and committees he sits on, received feedback from constituents and also a school he is a governor of. I wanted an honest, accurate, in-your-face, in depth report, and that is exactly what I got!

So I will introduce you to the brave councillor who put his head above the parapet and agreed to be under the spotlight for this article; Independent County Councillor Mark Owens, aged 52 of Rhosllanerchrugog near Wrexham.

Mark Owens is the youngest of 5 children and has lived in Rhosllanerchrugog (Rhos), Wrexham all his life. His dad was a coal miner, member of the NUM, and he comes from a strong Labour household tradition. When Blair delivered a Labour victory back in 1997, Mark initially thought that some of the working rights for working people abolished under Thatcher would be restored, but this was not the case. It so influenced his perception of the Labour Party that when he decided to enter local government as a councillor he decided to stand as an Independent rather than follow any party line.

He is married with two daughters aged 26 and 23. His eldest daughter is autistic and his wife is a full time carer. He works full time as well as being a councillor. His daughter’s disability has had a huge impact on his life and the issues that he cares passionately about include disabled and carers rights. He says ’When Cameron came to power in 2010 he said he understood the issues affecting carers and disabled people. Due to his own experience of caring for his disabled son, he would certainly look after the most vulnerable. It is appalling that this has been proven to be quite the reverse!’

Mark started off as a voluntary Community Councillor for Rhos at the same time as he was elected Independent County Councillor for the Pant ward in May 2012. There are 2 groups of Independent Councillors in Wrexham one with 20 members which Mark is part of, and the other with 8 members making the Independents the largest group on the council. The Pant ward he represents is a mixture of both private and social housing with an adult population of roughly 1800 people.

Mark works full time on the shop floor for Coveris Advanced Coatings in Wrexham. He works quite a complicated 12 hour shift pattern which varies from week to week and between day and night shifts. However, the company are extremely supportive and give him time off for a lot of his councillor work. I was amazed when I found out the roles and committees he sits on for the county council. These include:

*      Full Council
*      Audit Committee
*      Democratic Services Committee of which he is Vice-Chair. (Vice Chairs receive no additional payments on top of their councillors salary)
*      Safeguarding Communities and Well Being Committee
*      Scrutiny Committee/Crime and Disorder Scrutiny Committee

On top of this he is an LEA Governor for both Ysgol y Grango and Ysgol Maes y Mynydd schools and Vice-Chair of Rhos Community Council!

As a county councillor he receives a taxable remuneration of £13,175 per year. He personally does not claim any travel or other expenses, although other councillors do. Is he worth it? What do his constituents think? What makes him tick?  My initial reaction is that working full time and sitting on all these committees would surely need some kind of superhuman effort?

I asked the councillor what he believes are three of the most important issues currently, which are important to him both nationally and locally, as he has strong views on political issues.

‘Nationally I would definitely say it is the state of our NHS. There is a lack of funding for cancer patients and a lack of suitable drugs available under this ridiculous postcode lottery patients seem to suffer all over the UK. I believe firmly that the NHS is far too top heavy with admin staff and we need to recruit more doctors and nurses.

‘In Wales the Williams report itself, is, (in my view) an assault on local democracy by Welsh Labour and the local government minister. Under the reforms it will definitely be harder for Independent Councillors to stand for election. Wards will be a lot bigger and a heavier workload will ensue. Possibly this will have a detrimental effect and restrict the role required to older non-working councillors, which I believe is the one thing Leighton Andrews wishes to avoid.

‘Locally, affordable housing in both Wrexham and the villages is sorely needed, especially for young people. We need more social housing built in village communities plus a mix of greatly discounted starter homes. I would like to see incentives for builders brought in to encourage this mix. I could go on as I believe better paid jobs and more funding for road repairs are urgently needed too!’

As someone involved in party politics as a member of the Labour Party myself, I have often wondered why people stand as Independents on councils. In the past I have always seen it as a maverick, lone-wolf type person who stands as an Independent, so what are Mark’s reasons?

‘Independents don’t follow a party line or are forced to vote a certain way by the party whip. They have been elected by constituents to represent their local community, and do their utmost to do just that. I believe the role of a good councillor is to always address constituent’s problems with an honest, open and frank approach, and to only promise what you can 100% deliver. It is my duty to also speak up on behalf of those who cannot, and try to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.’

‘But how can constituents know how you are going to vote on local issues, if there is no official party line to follow? Surely you could end up voting for what a minority want?’ I queried.

‘I reassure all constituents that they can contact me anytime to discuss which way I will be voting on various local issues. If there are conflicting interests I go with the majority decision. If it is too close to call, I trust my instinct to do what I consider to be the right thing for the benefit of all.’

After shadowing the councillor closely, I have been able to see what both his normal full time job workload is like, and also his councillor workload. I have been present to a phone that never stops ringing; morning, afternoon and evening council meetings, community visits, workshops, training and school meetings, and have seen the deluge of emails he receives. My estimate of his councillor workload is in excess of 40 hours a week, because I have witnessed it across several different weeks; something he agreed with me upon.

‘My employers are very supportive and I often take half day holidays to fit everything in too. It would be easier if scrutiny meetings were combined into one meeting, rather than the 2 or 3 we have currently where we can scrutinise all the reports’

It is no secret that 60% majority of councillors across Wales are retired older people who do not have to work full time too. But after shadowing this working age councillor it is no surprise. It seems virtually impossible to manage full time work and a councillor’s workload effectively, without seriously damaging your home/work/life balance. Mark agreed wholeheartedly!

‘Local councils do have a lot of retired people as councillors, and I don’t believe we could afford to lose that wealth of experience. I also believe in total democracy and that any adult, irrespective of age, should be allowed to put their name forward to stand for election, it is only the electorate who can decide who they want to represent them.

However I think there does need to be better support for working age councillors and to encourage younger people to come forward and stand for election. I’d like to see statutory rights for time off for councillors that employers have to abide by. My employers are exceptionally supportive, but that is rare. We need a bigger age range of councillors with different experiences and we need to encourage that by making it easier to stand for local office.’

We moved on to the thorny issue of money! Councillors in Wrexham receive a taxable £13,175 P/A and on top of this are expenses and travel expenses, although Mark does not claim the latter, just the basic salary. The general public perception is that this is far and away too high. I too, (prior to this research) thought it was very generous, compared to many jobs on zero hours or agency employment but have altered my view for working age councillors in particular. What view did our Councillor have?

‘I think it should be higher to attract younger professional full time councillors who don’t have to constantly fit in working commitments alongside council commitments. For example, it is pretty difficult to pay a mortgage on £13,175 per year if you didn’t work full time as well. For retired councillors the sum is a nice top up for their pension, but I firmly believe the councillors I am associated with in Wrexham, (cross party) earn every penny of their salary.’

Do constituents therefore have a realistic view of a councillor’s role? Due to the salaried aspect of the job when is a councillor actually required to ‘work’ I wondered.

‘I’ve been called at 3, 4, 5am on various issues’ Mark says, ‘Some that could have waited and others that couldn’t. I am very often on the phone until 11pm at night, especially when I have worked a 12 hour day shift at work too. I never had a realistic view myself prior to becoming a councillor of what the job actually means and entails. It’s only when the public need to contact us about an issue that they can see what we do and the hours we work’

‘So there are no set hours really,’ I questioned. ‘You are on call 24/7?’

‘Yes you could definitely say that!’

Mark has an impressive campaigning record since 2012 and is not backwards at coming forward on issues that affect his ward. He is very concerned at closures of community facilities, particularly in the village areas, and has spoken out time and again on the closure of Rhos Nat West Bank, Rhos Library, Funding cuts to the Miners Institute and on safe routes to school, to name but a few. He also produces regular newsletters informing constituents of the work he does and the great pride he takes at developments in the local area. Successes have included many things that benefit the community like garden furniture and planters for residents in warden controlled flats, WI-FI installation for residents to participate in an IT club, plus new fencing for bungalows, security lights, and the need to arrange regular litter picks for untidy areas of community land. Mark has helped in organising events for Rhos community council which have included 2000 people attending a bonfire event in 2014. The list is impressive by any standards, all of which can be attested to by his constituents.

I spoke to several constituents about their views on their councillor. John White lives in the Pant ward that Mark is councillor of in Erw Gerrig Sheltered Housing Units. He said-

‘I knew of Mark when he was growing up in the village, but have got to know him properly as a local councillor. I think Mark has been an excellent councillor during a tough few years of austere times when councils have limited funds. If you approach Mark with an issue or query he always researches whether things are possible to do or not and always comes back with an honest answer. He makes a point of going out of his way to help. I run a computer club and he has been instrumental in getting Wi-Fi put into the sheltered units. He has helped to secure other items for the gardens too. I hope he is re-elected in 2017 as we definitely need more like him.’

Cheryl Vaughn is a resident in the Pant ward too, and she has had dealings with Mark over contentious planning issues and neighbour problems.

‘Mark grew up in Rhos and knows the area better than anyone. He connects to the people who live here very well. He is always at the end of the phone and regularly visits people in the area to discuss issues. I find his best quality is that he speaks to people on their level and explains things properly. He is a local lad who fights for local people and this is what makes him a great councillor.’

During my research asking constituents about their councillor, I did not come across one negative comment or adverse opinion. Everyone agrees Mark is an exceptionally hard working councillor.

Mark is also a keen supporter of N E Wales Unite Community branch and gave his support recently to the national day of action Unite Community took against the benefit sanctions regime. Mark believes the system of routinely sanctioning benefit claimants for being 5 minutes late for appointments, or for attending a family funeral on signing on day is pernicious and an attack on the poorest in society.

 During my research for this article, I witnessed the councillor speaking in the arena of Wrexham Guildhall. Attending council meetings is not something generally thought of as an afternoon or evening out for the public (myself included) but I was curious to know how all our councillors perform in meetings and in particular Mark himself.

I came to the conclusion I would definitely like to see time limits put on some councillors who frankly like to hear the sound of their own voices- repeatedly it seemed, even when similar questions had been asked by other councillors! Mark is one of the more thoughtful councillors, intervening and asking pertinent questions when necessary. He is fully tuned into the discussions and has an enquiring firm style of engagement.

 I attended a Lifelong Learning Scrutiny meeting where he enquired about the data available on how Parents are engaging with the Welsh Flying Start programme – a programme that begins intervention with specialised help and support to parents even prior to the Childs birth to age 4. Flying Start helps to prevent children in the most deprived communities coming to school at 4+ with huge gaps in attainment levels already. Mark recognises this as a vital programme but wondered how parents were engaged in the home environment.

Although Flying Start is out of the remit currently of the committee, he pushed for the committee to be provided with a Flying Start report at future meetings, as he felt the link between this programme and early years in school was essential to make. Frankly while some councillor’s nit picked over technicalities, Mark was engaged in the issues that people need to know about and which are necessary for the committee.

Part of a County Councillors responsibility is to act as a school governor for the local education authority. Mark is a school governor for 2 schools; Ysgol y Grango a local High school and Ysgol Maes y Mynydd in Rhos. I spoke to Headteacher Steve Garthwaite at Ysgol y Grango to ascertain Mark’s role and how well he does his job there!

‘Mark is an excellent governor. He is involved with the strategic running of the school and sits on the finance and disciplinary committee, but also is integral to interviewing new staff members etc. Mark provides us with an excellent link to the community as a very informed and active county and community councillor, and he also brings things to us that we can act upon. For example, he has supported us 100% in our campaign to close a public footpath that runs right through the school grounds that was a risk to our pupils. Likewise if he hears of any community issues that affect the school he brings these to our immediate attention. Our school rates him very highly, and we are proud to have such an excellent school governor on our team.’

High praise indeed, but fitting in 2 school governorships on top of full time work and his councillor’s work, is a tough task. Again, in my opinion, this severely impacts on working age councillors. To do a thorough job, while holding down full time work, seems almost impossible.

As previously outlined the Williams report and Welsh government proposals for the reform of Welsh councils and councillors are currently causing a stir in local government in Wales. I asked the councillor about some of the findings and recommendations in the report that have been put out for public consultation. One recommendation is that councillors should be able to communicate with local people in a wide variety of ways – one of which is social media, as well as face to face, email and phone.

‘Personally I am happy to converse with constituents in any form- whether that be phone, email, at their front door or social media. I don’t believe however, engaging on social media should be compulsory. We have a lot of older people who have never heard of social media in our communities, and for them the phone or face to face talking to their councillor is essential. However, local government could offer social media training for councillors, but again time constraints are demanding if councillors work too. We are offered media training and core training currently but this could be improved in my opinion. Training for new councillors and ongoing training is essential, but fitting it all in under the current system is frankly impossible.’

Currently only 30% of councillors in Wales are women. What are Mark’s views on this anomaly in the figures?

‘It is a shame that there are only 30% of councillors who are women. Women are juggling work and frequently caring duties for children or older relatives. I believe women should be encouraged to come forward to stand for election with specific targeted support. This could be in the form of perhaps a crèche facility in the town hall, less meetings and more family friendly timed meetings. However, I do believe the electorate should decide who they want to represent them ultimately regardless of gender. I do not believe in quotas but the best person to do the job.’

The recommendations are also to reform council elections. A range of options are open which include 4, 5 year fixed elections or the same phased system in England where one third of councillors are up for election every year. What are Mark’s views?

‘I would be happy for either 4 or 5 year fixed elections to take place but I feel phased elections like the ones in England would lack continuity with different councillors coming and going. It would interfere with the councils work programme and committees as new members would not be up to speed with discussions.’

Controversially the Williams report recommends compulsory annual reports on an individual councillors record and performance and what they have achieved in the given 12 month period. Is our Councillor in favour of this scrutiny?

‘I feel we should have an individual report on each councillor as it is in our and the electorates best interests. It should be both a report and an appraisal done by the leader of each group. However with the lack of funding coming to individual councils currently, and councillors not being able to achieve all they wish to for constituents, this may reflect badly on a councillors individual performance. This aspect should be taken into consideration when reports are made.’

I wondered whether Mark would like to see more use of Youth Councils which are also being talked about for the new look local government in Wales-

‘Absolutely. In Rhos we already have a youth council, as well as one in Wrexham. I would like to see younger people playing a bigger part in local government decisions and having a bigger say. It is vital to engage younger people in democratic decisions and enable them to become future potential councillors themselves.’

There are currently 1,245 councillors in Wales. Under the new proposals there will be considerably less in fewer larger councils. I wondered how this would impact councillors, but particularly Independent ones like Mark? He took a strong view on this –

‘It will impact Independent councillors more than those in the political party groups as we have no party machine behind us. Imagine either standing or canvassing as an Independent candidate who works full time in a much larger area? It’s a very tough task now. I think it will totally discourage Independent candidates from standing for election and this is not particularly democratic in my view.’

One major proposal is to cap terms of office for councillors at 25 years and for leaders of councils 10 years. Whilst Mark has already told us of his views on 25 years, what does he think of 10 years for leaders?

‘I disagree with 10 year fixed terms for leaders of the council. By the time you get used to being leader after 4 or 5 years and gain your stride in a second but final term of office, you then have to step down. I do not believe this is necessarily the right option for excellent leaders.’

I put it to Mark that currently some leaders of councils had been in post for over 20 years and many deputies might never get the chance to be leaders of the council as under the current rules leaders can stay on indefinitely. Mark thinks that if leaders were voted for at the start of each term of office this would be more democratic. Those leaders who were doing a fine job could then stay in situ having been voted for in the democratic process and so avoid the definite step down after 10 years.

The power to recall a councillor as well as the current discussions to recall MPs are also under the spotlight. The report is recommending 10% of the people in the area sign a petition calling for a councillor to step down if they have broken the law and been convicted of an offence or been imprisoned. Did Mark agree with this?

‘In some ways I disagree as I believe it should be crime dependent. For serious crimes yes, but for something like speeding then no. I do believe that when a councillor has been voted in by the majority in the constituency to remove him/her on 10% is far too low. If there were a robust system of monitoring recall then I would agree with it, but there has to be a well planned and well thought out system in place to go ahead with this.

The report is looking at whether county councillors should be stopped from serving as AM’s at the same time as being county councillors and also whether to stop them also serving as community councillors. What were Marks thoughts on these proposals?

‘My opinion is a county councillor should not be able to stand as an AM simultaneously. It is the equivalent of 2 full time jobs and you would not be able to do justice to both. I do believe serving as both a county and community councillor is a must as you have been voted in to represent community on the county council anyway. Community councillors are voluntary and receive no remuneration so there is no conflict of interest between community and county councillors.’

After 3 years as a county councillor what advice would Mark give to someone thinking of standing as a councillor and how did he find the process of co-operating for this article?

‘Do your homework first. Read this article! It’s all about being passionate for the local area and wanting to make a difference in the community. It can never be about financial gain. You must be willing to put yourself out for constituents and grow a thick skin because sometimes when you cannot get a good outcome for someone, they tend to forget the favourable outcomes you have secured in the past. I would definitely recommend sitting on a community council first to get a taste of wha
ts involved and if you are the right person for the job. Speak to existing county councillors in your area and sit in on public meetings at the town hall. Be honest and frank with people, and above all never promise anything you cannot deliver!

‘I found the process of co-operating for this article intriguing but certainly challenging! Being grilled in depth made me explore my views on the wider issues involved in my role as a councillor. I would like to thank Bernadette for the length of time she spent shadowing me and researching this article. It was indeed a challenge! I hope the wider public respect my views even if they disagree with them. I would like it to be known all views are my own personal ones, and are not associated with Wrexham County Council in anyway at all.’

After 2 months of intense research and scrutiny for this article, personally my opinions on how our councillors work and the job they do has changed dramatically. I firmly believe there should be changes to the working practices of our councils and that far more support for working age councillors should be given, in order to balance out the age and gender gap of our current councillor make up in Wales. It simply can’t be right that 60% of councillors are aged over 65 due to the time demands of the job, and that only 30% are women, while tiny percentages are disabled and of black or ethnic minority. This is not a true reflection of the electorate and radical proposals need to be made and put into place as soon as possible. The proposal of fixed terms for councillors of no more than 25 years is a double edged sword. In order to bring down the high percentage of elderly councillors, many of whom may have served 25 years+; can it be right to say to a 30 year old active councillor, you are no longer required aged 55? I feel a blanket approach is not needed, but a realistic proposal to allow younger councillors to gain experience and then go on to leadership roles without having to wait decades to achieve those roles.

I believe there is a definite need to either make a councillors role full time with a salary to suit so they can do the job properly with no financial worries, or if the current system remains, there needs to be statutory requirements on employers for time off with pay to do the councillors role. A dividing line in the sand needs to be drawn: Do we need intelligent, highly skilled, professional motivated local councillors who are properly paid to do the job? Or do we continue with the same system that is heavily biased towards retired people and also has very low proportions of women, disabled and black and ethnic minority representatives? A 21st century Wales now needs to move to 21st century local government, but the people of Wales need to have a big say in how they want their local communities to be governed too. Volunteers on community councils and their skills and enthusiasm should not be lost just for the sake of making local government more accountable.

It has been a pleasure working with Councillor Mark Owens on this article and I would like to thank him for his complete co-operation, time and effort into producing a worthwhile piece of work. Hopefully readers are more informed and want to have their say in the reforms taking place in Wales currently.

Austerity for the Poor

Austerity has covered acres of newspaper space since 2010. There has been excellent coverage by journalists who have penned millions of words on austerity from every conceivable angle. Yet by virtue of their job, not many actually ‘live’ austerity; spend day in and day out experiencing austerity on the front line, sleep, eat and breathe austerity as a way of life. They can only record the details of ordinary people’s struggles; the struggles of the poor.

Since 2010 being ‘poor’ has taken on a whole new meaning. Us, the poor, now have our own subsections – the unemployed poor, the disabled poor, the carers poor, the student poor, and probably for one of the first periods in UK history, whole battalions of working poor, of which I am a member. An austerity driven Tory government, once in coalition and now masters of their own universe until 2020, have created more poor people than Thatcher could ever dream about. You could argue we have always had the unemployed poor, the vast majority of which move back into work within 6 months. No government has ever got to grips with being a compassionate government for disabled people and carers. They, including myself, have remained bottom of the focus group ‘to do’ list since we are the unseen, invisible, 11 million votes the political parties have refused to court. The young student poor are now having every dream of a good career, decent house, decent standard of living ripped away while they carry thousands of pounds of student loan debt into their adult lives. Students were encouraged to believe university was, and is, the only option of a good job, while no emphasis has been placed on technical apprenticeships to provide the next generation of skilled workers on our shop floors.

The working poor. A phrase that would have been thought comedic twenty, thirty years ago when going to work paid. Having a job, whether you were a factory production line worker, a hairdresser, a bricklayer or a teacher meant having a permanent job, renting a flat or house with friends when young, then your own home either in the social or private sector mostly by your twenty-fifth birthday. Work paid to get that car, to pay your bills, save for a new cooker or carpet, a summer holiday, and a few pints down the pub. And while you were toasting the fruits of your labour, parents knew their kids were well clothed and fed, birthdays enjoyed and pocket money given for a trip to the cinema on a Saturday. Sure, it wasn’t utopia, but work damned well paid back then. So what has gone wrong? Why is austerity being borne on the shoulders of the poor and working poor? And don’t forget the ‘in word’ at the moment among politicians cross party – Aspiration. What has happened to the hopes and aspirations of the poor?

First of all, us poor are our own worse enemies. The Tory/LibDem government peddled the lie austerity is needed and we are ‘all in it together’ and judging by the result of the recent General Election far too many believed the Tory lie. Those at the top, the Tory MPs, the bankers, the right wing media were and are definitely all in it together! They decided the poor must suffer and should the poor dare to aspire to a better way of life, like heaven forbid a permanent job on a decent wage, then that ladder of opportunity will be denied from the outset with the introduction of mass zero hours contract jobs. Employers who treat the minimum wage as the maximum wage proliferate, both partners in a couple are expected to work and once their kids are 5, then full time. The message is let the childminder bring your kids up. The right wing media find poor people with little or no education to exploit as scroungers in a never ending diet of poverty porn TV, which many now believe is the norm of society among the poor. Foodbank programmes rarely show struggling families, but always the chancer or the people we deem not to be pitied like alcoholics and drug addicts. And sadly as the programmes are screened endlessly the right wing media work their magic and we poor turn against each other.

Austerity for us is a daily struggle. The aspirations of the poor that our politicians talk about are a pipe dream for many. In short our aspiration is survival. Having a decent home free from threat of having to constantly move, a house with a garden for families has been replaced with having a roof over your head in the short term. Any roof that does not require moving every 6 months is aspiration. This form of housing is often poor quality owned by buy-let landlords not interested in providing decent accommodation, but just viewing you as an easy way to make a fast buck through housing benefit. The working poor, once able to pay rent on their council house now need housing benefit to subsidise sky high rents in the private sector for basic accommodation. This is often where both partners work too, and is not confined to lone parents the pariahs of this capitalist Tory government.

Austerity for the poor is a grinding daily struggle of being able to keep a roof over your head, feed yourself and your family and pay the bills, and in the winter months particularly taking the choice to eat or heat your home. These are the choices forced on people the government say are undeserving of support. While we used to tell our children a good education, studying hard and perhaps a chance at university is the way out of poverty, which is sadly no longer the case. Many university graduates are in zero hours minimum wage jobs too. A whole new young generation of 16+ are being told low pay is the norm and your aspiration, zero hours contracts or as Duncan-Smith calls them ‘flexible working contracts’ is the norm and your aspiration, and belonging to a union is a thing of the past and something you should not belong to. This generation were only 9 years old or more when the Tories came into power in 2010.. They know no different. They have been indoctrinated with TV and newspaper articles insisting they must look down and despise the poor and those less fortunate, not feel compassion for the unemployed and understand that ‘hard work’ is the correct and only thing to do now from nursery age to 70. If you are poor, your education will be poor too with schools full of teachers who teach to a set curriculum to get results and meet targets, not there to answer questions of enquiring young minds and nurture and educate young people’s ideas and hopes.

On Saturday June 20th thousands of people from across unions and communities will march in the People’s assembly national demonstration against austerity. Demonstrating and protesting is what we have left to tell this Tory government we are not allowing the poor to take this burden for another 5 years. Osborne is planning another £12 billion of welfare cuts to fall on our shoulders and we literally cannot tolerate any more cuts to tax credits, working tax credit, disability benefits or carers allowance. Our kids need to be able to go to university or take a technical apprenticeship without fear of lifelong debt.

Aspiration should not be the preserve of the middle classes. Working hard with noses to the grindstone on a zero hours contract with no stability on low pay should not be the aspiration of the poor. If you cannot make the demonstration in London take to social media and use twitter and facebook as your protest weapon. Take compassion on your neighbour, made redundant and seeking a new job, open your eyes to the carer down the road getting £63 a week to look after a disabled person, note how many of your community are suffering due to the bedroom tax and job centre sanctions and stop living in a selfish bubble of I’m alright Jack. Its only by standing together us poor will defeat the dark forces of Toryism that seek to destroy us.