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