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.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

My Message to Trade Union Members for May 7th.

I have spoken at many factories over the past few months to people on the shop floor about trade union activism and the General Election coming up on May 7th. Here is the speech I have been giving.

You may be asking why I’m taking up your time when there are better things to be doing. Well let’s talk about you and your relationship with both your union and who you’re going to use your precious vote for at the General Election in May.

Ok. You pay your union subs every month but the union is only useful when you need something, you have a grievance, you need a workplace rep, you want a pay rise. You may work in a factory that has a proud percentage of workers in a union.

My history of joining Unite – my union - is different to yours as I am a member of Unite Community. Community is the conception of Len McCluskey. With the birth of Unite Community that opens up membership of the union at 50p pw to people who don’t work in the traditional unionised workplaces, like carers, the disabled, students, self employed, unemployed and retired Unite help out with all travel costs that previously held me back from participation and education. Unite give me self belief and self confidence that I WILL be able to change the political narrative and enter the political arena in the future as the courses provide a toolbox of skills I can use.

This woman is hungry to change the austerity story. This woman demands change!

It is not enough for me to simply speak to you about your union. I need to know what is going on in our workplaces; factories like yours. I am currently doing a workplace reps course because I feel it is vital anyone who claims to want to represent you in Parliament in the future has to have some kind of idea of the issues facing ordinary people like us.

You may have been in the union a long time, you may have recently joined, but each individual is needed and more importantly your input. We can all be guilty of standing back whilst others arrange events, but we need committed trade union activists, people coming from our number to represent us working classes locally and nationally.

I love to see representatives from our communities like local councillors come forward to stand up and fight for us on a range of issues like the bedroom tax, job centre sanctions, foodbanks and low pay. I have the privilege of having met such a councillor recently. He is passionate about social justice and standing up for the most vulnerable in our society. Putting his head above the parapet to represent local people as a councillor on top of his work commitments may be daunting to some, but it epitomises the true working class hero we have on our doorstep. I for one am proud to know him as he puts his energy into his community. We urgently need more like him to shake off our fear and apathy at coming forward.

Even if you can’t play such an active role you can play a huge role within your union. Educate, Agitate and Organise is our motto and that is the only way we really are going to see changes in our workplaces and our communities. There are many educational courses you can take through Unite or your own union, free of charge, to improve your knowledge and skills. I’ve been learning about the sheer power of collective bargaining on my course and this is burned into my soul as the only way the working man/woman can achieve results.

As for the Labour Party and May 2015. Never has there been a time when your vote is so precious and the right choice for not just yourself but working class communities is vital.

I chat to people all the time as a member of Unite Community. All I hear is the plea:
‘ We need MPS who have done a factory job, worked in a supermarket, cared for a disabled relative, shop in our shops, don’t just TRY to look like us but ARE one of us’. Indeed recently an elderly lady complemented me on the dress I was wearing whilst speaking at an event. She had had her eye on the same £14 Matalan dress but felt it was too young for her but added ‘Well at least you’re one of us love and not all fur coat and no knickers like most women MPS’.  I smiled with her. Her view entirely of course but a view echoed in different situations on the doorstep. Walk a mile in our shoes…

Compassionate MPs are needed urgently in our communities. Our working class people have born the brunt of this austerity going into a 5th year in 2015. We are austerity battered, weary, frightened and trying to hang on in there as best we can, often living from week to week on zero hours contracts, and a pay day away from losing our homes. I know this because it’s happening to me too. As my 3rd son started 6th form last September, HMRC already cut to the bone with staff shortages, inadvertently cut all working tax credits from every family in the UK with a child starting college or 6th form that week. It meant an immediate £50 cut in income, a time where every penny counts as you kit your child out and spend money on bus fares, lunches, books for their first week in a new part of their lives. That error made me panic over what to cut down on, alongside all the thousands of other families affected too. These ‘errors’ can tip us over the edge into financial peril; such is our grip on the cliff edge of austerity.

Why I believe you should vote Labour? We are the party of social justice. We are a party of compassion for the vulnerable. If we get a Tory government in May we are signing up to 5 more years of savage cuts, the like of which you have never seen before. Cameron has said he will clamp down on trade union activities, and make it virtually illegal to belong and participate in a union. Ukip and their chancer leader Nigel Farage want a privatised health system, waving goodbye to our free NHS, an end to maternity leave for women in small businesses and an end to paternity leave; a far right vision of a wealthy middle class England breathing fear and xenophobia into our land. Is this what we want? Is this your vision of Britain?

Labour are the party of the NHS. We build it while the Tories destroy it. It is so precious to us a vote for any other party in May will see it end forever. The Tories and Ukip want us all signed up to private health insurance like the USA.

Labour are the party of opportunity for the young. New technical apprenticeships, highly skilled have been announced. Tuition fees for universities will be cut from £9,000 to £6000 per year in England and just over £3000 in Wales under a socialist government. Votes for 16 yr olds will be  brought in. Hope not despair for our young.

Labour are the party of families. Free 25 hour a week childcare for all ¾ year olds,  and paid extended paternity leave. Family centred policies. Not tax breaks for millionaires like the Tories hand out.

Labour are the party of workers. The only party to promise to push employers for a  Living Wage for all and the minimum wage to be increased to £8 an hour. The same party that brought in the minimum wage to employers screams and it’s worked out alright hasn’t it?

You will of course make up your own minds shortly on how you will vote. You may already know. But make no mistake this will be the general election that will be a catalyst for years to come. I cannot even imagine another 5 years of Tory rule with £12 billion of cuts being targeted at the disabled, working poor and carers.

Let me leave you with this;

Our Unions built the Labour Party.
In numbers we stand United.
Unity is strength.

Together we are ‘un-bloody breakable’!!!!!           

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Tories: Baby Milk Snatchers!

I visited two Foodbanks recently and spoke to the fantastic volunteers who are now virtually pseudo social workers, in the absence of the safety net that was once the proviso of local authority social services.

Row upon row of tinned food and pasta, long life milk and  even donated tins of pet food (contrary to popular belief, those who have been sanctioned or are poor do have pets!) were stacked neatly. Volunteers informed me they also try and ask for toothpaste, shampoo, sanitary towels and soap to be donated as those on the breadline still need these vital products the rest of us take for granted. Being clean and being able to brush your teeth is not the sole preserve of the rich! But I stopped when I came to one shelf in particular which contained large tins of baby milk formula, and also jars of baby food.  Before I had time to ask, one of the volunteers told me-

"Recently we have seen parents sanctioned due to various minor reasons at job centres.. Not being on time or phoning up because their child is ill and asking to sign on at another time, even going for a job interview that coincides with signing on time. Once a parent gets sanctioned, so do their baby milk tokens. This means that while parents need to turn to us for food parcels during the time they are sanctioned they also arrive here in a dreadful state as they have no baby milk formula to provide for their babies. Now we are asking for baby milk tins as well as all the usual food items. This part of Foodbank work is not being highlighted enough. Babies are being punished for being poor."

To be frank I was numb for a minute trying to take this in. Here is a coalition government led by Tories where sanctioning people for being unemployed is routine and so this forces them to seek food aid to get them by as without food parcels they cannot survive. On top of that if they have a baby, the baby is at the mercy of the Foodbank and its generous donors to survive too! In 21st century Britain! The sixth richest country on earth!

This is not just a national disgrace, it is downright evil political idealogy!  Many of us remember Thatcher coming along as the then Education Secretary and taking the free school milk away from  our schools. She earned the title of "Thatcher, the Milk Snatcher" among many other names at the time, but her Tory spawn of Cameron and Duncan-Smith have sent our society to a place where babies are denied milk  because their parent(s) are poor!  Of course these right wing posh boys will deny this practice goes on in Job Centres, just as they deny that there are no sanction targets, just as how they deny the poor are getting poorer. But it is up to us to fight back and get these pernicious and  politically motivated attacks out into the wider psyche of society.

On Thursday 19 March Unite Community will be demonstrating all over the UK at Job Centres to call for a complete end to sanctions. I don't want to live in a UK which takes the food out of innocent babies mouths. I am disgusted and ferociously angry that I live under a Coalition government that thinks this is acceptable.

Punishing the most vulnerable, punishing the poor and punishing babies must stop. Full stop.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Dehumanisation of our Welfare State

I want to point out one fact: The Welfare State, just like the NHS belongs to us all. It was set up by a socialist Attlee government to protect citizens in times of great need. It is OUR welfare state. A rock solid tangible acknowledgement that the Britain we live in protects its most vulnerable citizens in their time of need. As socialists it is our biggest achievement alongside the NHS. In times of crisis it says to me "Turn to your country. We will look after and protect you through this hard time".  To  disabled citizens, many with lifelong disabilities, the Welfare State has without question stepped in and declared " As a compassionate,caring, civilised country, the state will  protect you financially from poverty. Full stop."

Right up until Thatcher's regime the Welfare Stare was never questioned regarding its role. It existed to protect vulnerable citizens unreservedly. Then the right wing Thatcher government set about undermining and  prepared to dismantle the welfare state as we knew it. Three consecutive years of freezing child benefit and targeting women and children was eventually thrown out by John Major when he took over from Thatcher, but the damage had already been done; thousands of children thrown into poverty. But Thatcher was just the start. How proud she must be of Duncan-Smith and Cameron for daring to do what she couldn't, as public opinion back in the 80's would not have tolerated it. How times change.

The toxic elements of a ruling class Tory cabinet and front bench, stuffed full of individuals who think they have a divine right to rule the country, coupled with a march of right wing media people, both on TV and in newspapers, has produced a hatred of anyone who has to claim any benefit from the Welfare State. It started off with the complete dehumanisation of the unemployed. Unemployment for the vast majority of people is a temporary predicament. Who the hell wants to live on £71 a week by choice? Yet that is exactly what Iain Duncan-Smith and the DWP have pushed into the media and into working class lives. Osborne jumped in with the 'hard working people going to work every morning while they see other neighbours curtains drawn'. By 2011 this Coalition had made unemployment shameful. Something that had to be hidden at all costs when in conversation. Within a year of coming to power, we were seeing TV programmes like 'Saints and Scroungers' on the BBC. The Daily Mail has weekly articles on unemployed people, many with large families as their centrepiece, praying on people who have no idea they are being ridiculed and scapegoated: the offer of a quick shot at 'X factor style' notoriety of celebrity, soon to fade with the next days salacious headlines.

Being unemployed however is not good enough for the ConDems. There has to be an element of 'sport' in it for our over priveleged Eton boys. Benefit sanctions have been brought in. We are sold the lie thousands of unemployed people can't be bothered even going to the Job Centre so its worthwhile giving them a kick by stopping their benefit altogether. However, its not quite so simple is it? Here in my rural area of N Wales some 'local' job centres are 10+ miles away. So the staff at Job Centres are told to sanction claimants for being 5 minutes late. To hell with the fact the buses and trains are ultra expensive when on benefit anyway, but when they are late too, your whole existence can depend on it! Funerals of close relatives are sanctioned too because you can't be in two places at once and the 'icing on the cake sanction' is when you get a job interview on the same day as signing on. Often a choice has to be made; job interview or survival. But if you attend the job centre, you get sanctioned for not attending the job interview! Unite Community branches throughout the UK are demonstrating against these sanctions in a National Day of Action on 19 March at job centres everywhere. I am leading the NE Wales Unite Community demonstration in Wrexham, and I urge you all to find out locally what is happening in your area on 19 March so we can highlight this scandalous abuse of power by the DWP. More info on the Unite Community website;Unite Community v Benefit Sanctions

Hellbent on demonising not just the unemployed in people's eyes, the ConDems and the media barons then decided to turn their sights on the disabled. Disability hate crimes in 2013-2014 rocketed accounting for 4% of all hate crime. Much of this can be attributed to both the right wing newspapers highlighting the tiny 0.7% of disability living allowance fraud, but conveniently overlooking the 99.3% of genuine disability claimants. There have been suicides by disabled people directly attributable to stoppages of benefit and having nothing left to live on since 2010.

What kind of government hounds its disabled citizens to the point where the only way out is to take your own life? The dehumanisation of the disabled is being felt acutely as Cameron steps up his attack on this section of society. New announcements include a promise to end disability benefit for the obese and people with an addiction. No announcement on any help or support however, to deal with either affliction. The Tory way of course; sink or try to swim with no lifejacket on. The disabled are judged to be the flotsam of society and not worth helping as the spin doctors have us way down on the list of electoral priorities. The rest of society have been sold the lie again on TV mostly that the disabled are 'scroungers' and 'putting it on' and not worthy of being treated with dignity by our government. The only disabled people Cameron seems to favour are Paralympians. If only all disabled people could aspire so high, he says.

But isn't it up to us working class people to say enough is enough? There have always been a tiny percentage of people trying to game the system. But we have been sucked into this Tory mantra of believing the majority of benefit claimants are unworthy of our support. This simply is not the case.Now we are left with whole sections of our society, villified, verbally and physically abused, and met with disgust at being unemployed or disabled.

Hold this thought. If we devalue, dehumanise our once proud Welfare State, what will happen when misfortune comes yours or your families way? You are one accident, one redundancy, one factory shut down away from perhaps having to claim a state benefit. Don't you want a compassionate government to be there and help you out in your hour of need? I do!

So support your Unite Community National Day of Action v Benefit Sanctions on 19 March and shout from the rooftops enough is enough! And secondly ensure you vote in a Labour government in May. The alternative is a Tory or even a Con-Kip coalition that will destroy the welfare state for good. Don't let that be the legacy you leave your children and grandchildren. I personally will fight until my last breath to preserve our Welfare State. Make sure you do too.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

International Womens Day - From Wales

International Women's Day 2015 is a celebration of strong, inspiring, talented and downright hardy Welsh women here in Wales! There is a warrior-like spirit among the female bretheren of Wales, that has produced singers, actors, doctors, writers, musicians, but also ordinary working class women - miners wives, carers, community leaders who are the real backbone of our great nation.

Whilst many newspapers will be full of the celebrity women who adorn their covers weekly on IWD, here in Wales we will celebrate the working class women who keep this country running; the real heroes doing the jobs no one else wants to do; caring for disabled relatives, nursing elderly people through dementia, those working in mundane zero hours contract jobs to make ends meet.

On top of the mundane jobs that the Con-Dem government take for granted, Welsh women are very active and vocal in their communities. Fighting to save local community facilities, volunteering at sports clubs, running foodbanks, school breakfast clubs. This is where you will find inspirational, intelligent, highly articulate women. Leaders of their communities. This is why I am very proud to live, work and write in Wales, and hopefully one day be honoured to represent us all in Parliament.

I wish women everywhere, but especially in Wales, a celebration of IWD, and an outward roar of  fiery praise from our own Welsh dragon, at the greatness achieved daily by all Welsh women.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Wales and EMA - A Land of opportunity for our Young.

For the record, let's put this straight from the start. From the Welsh side of the Offa's Dyke we are  redrawing the education line. In plain language I serve notice on Cameron and his side kick Stephen Crabb, the "so called Secretary of State for Wales" the Welsh side of the Offa's Dyke path is the difference between educational opportunity for ALL young people regardless of income as opposed to  those who are able to afford it in England. In Wales we have Education Maintenance Alllowance at £30 per week but step over the border into Tory imposed England, and many are not able to access further education if they are poor. Cameron with Gove in charge pulled the rug under poor sixth formers and abolished EMA without a thought in England. With his Eton education Cameron was certainly taught all the prerequisites of today's Tory politician: empty stone hearted automatons, whose core belief is their divine right to rule.

Not so here in Wales. After a blistering performance by both Owen Smith, Shadow Welsh Secretary and Carwyn Jones, First Minister of Wales at Welsh Labour Conference last week, we are fortunate in having 2 leaders with a clear vision of  protecting the poorest in our society and providing opportunities to escape poverty. The best way to tackle poverty is through education  and the decision to retain EMA in Wales is helping record numbers of 16-18 year olds access further education and become the skilled workforce of Wales in the future. Nearly 30,000 Welsh teenagers are being helped with the weekly £30 which is a lifeline for books, expensive bus and train travel, often in rural areas and college lunches. This important lifeline makes huge differences in our communities and eases the burden for poor and working poor parents too. I shudder to think of the sheer scale of the waste of talent currently going on in England due to the abolition of EMA by the Nasty Party. But then empathy is not a quality you find among Tory MPs in general.

Why am I so passionate about EMA in Wales? My own son has access to it. He is nearly 17 and doing A Levels. His sixth form cannot afford to supply pupils with the course books he needs for the 4 subjects he is studying so he has to buy them all himself. English Literature and History for example have an extensive reading list. It is a sheer relief as parents that the £30 EMA is used to cover the course text books and he is able to study independently at home as a result and not just on loan books at the school library. This September our youngest son will join him in sixth form. We will have 2 sons doing A Levels. In England we would certainly have to consider whether we were able to support both sons further education. As Working poor parents, there are no further belts to tighten or cuts to be made. Would a decision to support one son and not the other have to be made? That's the kind of  issue facing many parents in England I am sure. In Wales opportunity and talent are embraced and nurtured under a socialist government. Children from poorer backgrounds can blend into their sixth forms and embark on school educational trips knowing that EMA is there supporting them.

 My sons sixth form also insists that although 2 hours voluntary work a week is optimal, it positively discourages any evening or weekend employment as the A level courses require 20-25 hours a week of study outside school. The EMA £30 support means my son is not juggling work and study and  worrying whether he can fit it all in. Instead he commits to volunteering with Childline and the NSPCC 2 hours a week which is providing him with valuable workplace experience. The sixth form is a level playing field for all, and ensures everyone is able to participate and take an active role in their studies regardless of income.

Abolishing EMA in England was not only a grave error of judgement from this abominable coalition government, but a direct attack on the poorest children in our society. And before the LibDems moan I most definitely point the finger at them! The LibDems had the power to halt the worse excesses of Toryism. They blatantly voted with their Tory masters to pull up the ladder of opportunity from children of the poor. Not only EMA but university tuition fees will be the shameful legacy of Nick Cleggs time as party leader.  They deserve the misery of electoral annihilation in May as a result.

The Tory War on Wales is unprecedented. Never has there been a Prime Minister and  Welsh Secretary hell bent on the destruction of a sovereign country within the UK. Like the right wing media, it's a fact that those who are shouting and protesting the loudest about Wales obviously have something they fear. Cameron fears Welsh success stories. Whether that is EMA, Free Prescriptions, Jobs Growth Wales or our early years Flying Start scheme, he broods within Westminster, with his out of touch extreme right wing spin doctors who are so London-centric they couldn't plot Wales on a map!

It's time to shut up Dave! There's a reason this side of the Offa's Dyke is loyally socialist. We want to live in a land of opportunity for all, not just for millionaires. We want to be led by leaders of integrity and vision like Owen Smith and Carwyn Jones. We want to live in an inspired powerhouse of Wales and Welsh success stories. We urge the people of England to boot you and your rancid party out  of No.10 in May and replace you with a Labour government.  Hope, compassion and empathy need to be returned to the UK and nothing less than Tory long term political wilderness will suffice!