Monday, 28 July 2014

Letter to Iain McNicol: Don't price the poor out of Labour Conference

Dear Mr McNicol

I am writing to you as General Secretary of the Labour Party to look at an issue that is causing many grassroots Labour members, concern, anger and upset over the cost of attending this years Labour Conference in Manchester.

In recent years the cost for attending conference has risen to the point where it is now more than the cost of 1 weeks Carers Allowance. The cost for carers, the unemployed and disabled is £63 for the conference week, whilst Carers Allowance is £61.35pw. Even if we decided to go for one day of conference the cost is £28 per day.

Firstly, I completely understand the Labour Party have no option but to raise funds for the 2015 Election Campaign by charging a fee for Conference entry. The Labour Party does not have huge millionaire banker donors like the Tories and it is harder for Labour to raise funds. Secondly I also realize CLPs send delegates to conference. However my CLP is low on funds and sends the same person every year, so other people do not get the chance to attend.

What I would like to get over to you is the following: Please try and find a way for the working poor, poor, carers, disabled, retired, unemployed to attend conference without it costing a whole weeks income. There are many working class members like myself who are eager to participate, eager to get involved, have as much right as other people to hear Ed Milibands vision post 2015, yet sadly cost prohibits us attending.

I know you have no control over accomodation costs in Manchester in September but even Premier Inns are charging £600+ for four days. Once conference pass, food and transport have been added on, the four days are the cost of a family holiday! Labour could, and in my view should, make it clear it wants to hear our voices too - the voices of the working class loud and clear, supporting Ed Miliband and the party in its drive to victory 2015. Does Ed merely want his words to echo around a room of MPs, and people who can afford to attend?

Money should not be the price the poor pay for being locked out of participation.

I urge you to seriously look at how the Labour Party prices its conference passes to those for whom £63 is a weeks income or more. £5 per day or £20pw would be a lot more comfortable for the majority of poor Labour members.

Please make this change. There are thousands of Labour members out there depending on you to let their voices be heard.

Yours faithfully

Bernadette Horton
Carer and Proud Member of the Working Poor and Labour Party.

I am sending this in written form to Mr McNicol today. As soon as I have a response I will update this blog.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Working Class Homes ; Let's Build, Build, Build!

Going back to the 1960s and 70s our council houses were homes to be proud of. Whilst not made of the costlier materials of private homes or to the grandest of designs, they were real homes. My mum was brought up in a lovely 3 bedroomed pre-fab house, put up quickly after the war with huge gardens front and back. My abiding memory is my grandfather tending the roses at the front and growing his vegetables at the back. Everyone worked in his road, everyone prided themselves on the neatness of their homes and gardens.

We need to return to this. Council homes that are built where tenants can be proud to live and proud of the community they belong to. Currently there are 4.5 million people on a council house waiting list. When Thatcher came to power in 1979, 150,000 council houses were built every year. When Thatcher left in 1990 only 1500 were built. Whatever we think about Thatcher, she was a clever woman. She sold us the aspiration of working class home ownership. "Buy your council house, live the dream, become one of us" she said and like fools we, the working class, fell for it.

 But for every council house sold under right to buy, next to none were built to replace them. Once Thatcher had got us hooked on the aspiration of owning a house, the drug lingered from one generation to the next, where renting was frowned upon and soon council and social housing was looked down upon as necessary places to "warehouse" the unemployed, single parents, the disabled, criminals and people washing up on the shores of the fringes of society. Early on working class low paid workers, shunned council housing entirely, going straight to home ownership with the lure of 100% mortgages. Many of course ended up, back on council housing lists when interest rates shot up in the late 80's and their homes were reposessed!

With the relentless rise in  numbers needing council housing and successive governments stubborn refusal to build, we have now reached a tipping point crisis, started by Thatcher and ramped up by Cameron. For the first time since records began home ownership is declining. Well done Dave! A family loses their home every 15 minutes under the ConDems. Private tenants  are on a merry-go-round of 6 month tenancies as landlords can evict so easily.

In London we have the great "buy to leave" crisis where oligarchs living abroad buy expensive London houses then leave them to stand to go up in price with no one living in them. The UK spends £20bn a year on Housing Benefit, plugging the gap for renters in the private sector whose rents are soaring under greedy landlords. Yet we spend £1bn a year building new homes currently. The ConDems  decided to point the finger directly at the poor as expected, and social cleansing of London is ongoing by setting a benefit cap, driving tenants often  hundreds of miles from the capital.

So what can be done? Ed Miliband is talking a very good start on the issue for the Labour manifesto. In Europe and even USA rent control is mainstream and expected. We desperately need some kind of rent control in the UK. The buy - let landlord needs curbing. Ridiculous photographs of "flats" with £700pm rents where you can't open a kitchen cupboard door as the bed is in the kitchen next to the sink is becoming the norm. Miliband recognises this and will move to bring in rent controls, a move decried by the Daily Mail as being "communist!"

Labour realises that Housing and the crises surrounding housing is a top 5 burning issue for people in the run up to 2015. Ironically housing hasn't even figured as an issue prior to the run up to 2010. But then the Tories hadn't been in power since 1997!  Ed  Miliband  has said Labour will build 200,000 houses every year of a Labour government from 2015. Admirable. He has a grip of the crisis. But we need to hear more on affordable homes and council housing. Letting local councils borrow to build social housing is a first move. Making sure these new homes have a mix of housing, green areas and a social mix of working, retired, disabled and unemployed people is also a key factor for new council houses fit for the 21st century. Let's not use the lowest common denominator as a starting point. Let's build housing that looks like the private housing around it ,so new council housing is not pointed at, ostracised and looked down upon as inferior.

Before we do this, we need to campaign to change the narrative. The Tories have bombarded the media with programmes on welfare and scroungers and have convinced swathes of the working class everyone is on the take and more cuts to social security are well past due and needed! Tosh! It's a media - newspaper and TV campaign to get their austerity message across and turn us on each other taking the heat away from them! The Tories are casting suspicion on charities like Shelter who are calling for more housebuilding and campaigning for the homeless as if homeless people are "undeserving" of a roof over their heads!

But look at our kids! I have a 25 year old son and a 22 year old son both are low paid. One is a care worker, the other on zero hours in a factory. My eldest moved out to a tiny 2 bed house with his partner which they rent privately at more than my mortgage! My 22 year old son  still lives  at home, renting out of his sphere of possibility. Zero hours, agency employed on poverty wages.. That's our kids lot in life and a new generation of renters and kids staying at home well into their 30s is what is happening in 2014. We can't meekly sit back and see the next generation far worse off than our own. We need decent social housing and we need it now! Join with me and tell a future Labour government : It's time to build, build, build!

TTIP - What it means to you and I ...

You may have heard briefly on the news, at work or within your union about TTIP.  It all seems to be global, between countries,  a bit lofty and academic for the likes of us ordinary people to get to grips with. Many people say it means nothing to them or is something the governments discuss between themselves and has no bearing on our lives. That's what the Tories want you to think. Believe me TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) will have more impact on ordinary working class people than you could ever imagine.

While we were passively voting or not voting in the recent European elections, big corporations across the globe were holding negotiation meetings  under the disguise of "free trade agreements" to give corporations new powers to challenge governments to "regulate, legislate and take back privatisations into public ownership" (Unite Briefing). Basically it is a free trade agreement between the USA and Europe. This treaty is about "harmonising standards" but  the corporations will determine what these standards actually are!  The negotiations took place furtively behind closed doors that ordinary people knew nothing about. The secrecy was because  the free trade agreement is about removing barriers to trade across the US to Europe. These "barriers for trade" just happen to include trade unionism, labour rights, food standards, climate and environmental factors, things that make the big corporations answerable and accountable. Yes you read it correctly! They want these removed!  TTIP would give these corporations the right to sue governments, councils etc who breached the free trade agreement by not implementing or refusing to implement directives.

TTIP is about increasing power to multi national investors, while reducing regulation on them. The USA wants to use TTIP to prise open the markets of Europe for the benefit of US capital. But how does this effect us?

Let's start with our NHS. Cameron is keen on TTIP because under it he could contract out and privatise the entire NHS. A future Labour government would then not be able to challenge the privatised contracts and get the NHS back in the public domain as the contracts would be unchangeable over 10 or 15 years for example. We all know of the "welfare or ghetto" hospitals in the USA. Well they would be here in no time under TTIP with our NHS being sold off to US investors and our service, already creaking under the ConDems would turn into the same system as in America. Turn up at a hospital with your cheque book. Unable to pay? Tough! Attend the "welfare" hospital if you can find one in your area! If we get a Labour government their hands would be tied and they would have to put up with a privatised NHS, sold to the highest bidder who puts profits before people. Andy Burnham told a recent meeting he would not sign any deal that did not exempt the NHS from TTIP. Good, but not good enough. We don't want the Labour Party Party signing ANY TTIP deal.

Already under the NHS Act 2012 all NHS hospitals will be Foundation Trusts this year. This allows them to take 49% of their income by treating paying patients. Poor patients will now miss out on treatment as rich people jump the queue. Andy Burnham will repeal this act on
Day 1 of a Labour government. But if TTIP goes ahead he will be unable to do anything!  This trade agreement will be binding on all governments, taking away our elected right to transfer the NHS back into public ownership.

The USA has always been traditionally hostile to trade unions. This would not change under TTIP. The US has ratified only 14 of 190 Labour Organisation Conventions and only 2 out of 8 core conventions dealing with child labour, forced labour freedom of association and discrimination. With Cameron already promising a huge Trade Union crackdown should he be elected in 2015, do we really need a US backed trade agreement that would be enforceable.

Around 70% of all processed food sold in American supermarkets contains GM (genetically modified) ingredients. Not so in the UK and Europe. The USA want to use TTIP to launch an assault on EU regulations - an EU that David Cameron wants to withdraw from and he is getting louder on the subject with a real zest to withdraw the UK from the Human Rights Act for starters. No one knows the long term effects of GM foods yet under TTIP we could be forced to eat GM food, like it or not!

In the USA upwards of $400m of taxpayers money has been spent in courts  and paid in compensation to corporations when they took authorities to court over banned and toxic substances and water and forest protection.

Over 90% of US beef is produced with the use of bovine growth hormones. The EU including the UK have had restrictions on the import of this beef since 1988. Again using TTIP, the USA want to
remove this under the freedom to trade clause.

If TTIP comes into being it will place the rights of investors above the rights of people's protection of  social and workplace rights, health, food and environment protection. It is a huge issue that is being talked about behind our backs, but under our noses. Be aware, tell your friends, neighbours and colleagues and most of all campaign to stop it in your communities. If it gets passed in late 2014 it will not only change our country, it will change our world for the worse.

Thanks to Joy Johnson for the TTIP Literature briefing from Unite, contained in the above.

From School Uniforms to Childcare; from Days Out to Food; the Working Poor hell of the 6 week School Summer Holiday.

That time of year has rolled around again; the 6 week school summer holiday. While the rich jet off abroad the poor and working poor will suffer like never before on a variety of fronts.

 When I was young, growing up in the 70s it was simple. Dad worked full time and Mum worked 2 evenings a week part time. While we were never well off, Mum handled the school summer holidays childcare wise for myself and my sisters on her own, with Dad's help on the 2 evenings she worked. Days were filled with bike rides, little picnics to the local park, trips to fetes or building dens in the garden. This then culminated in the 1 week caravan holiday to either Cornwall, Wales or Great Yarmouth which was looked forward to every year with great excitement. A working class school summer holiday that ended in the last days of August, when Mum marched us off to town for the school uniform buying. I never heard her complain once about the cost of kitting us out, even though a couple of items had to be bought at the school shop.

Fast forward to recent years when I have had all four of my sons straddling High School to Primary. I used to start buying my school uniforms for the September start at Easter! School logoed blazers and jumpers are the curse of the working poor parent! Every year successive governments have applied pressure to schools encouraging them to have a generic uniform with no school logos. I know of none where this is the case. Those navy jumpers all over supermarket adverts are useless when your school charges double or triple the price because the school badge has to be emablazoned on it. There were many years when I simply did not have the money to buy 'quality' school uniform items from M+S and the like and had to buy cheaper uniform. This frankly was so poor quality it barely got to October half term without having to be replaced, and thus defeated the object of being 'cheap'. Since Cameron came to power you can then add on certain GCSE textbooks as schools do not have enough to round. To kit 4 boys out in the whole uniform plus blazers,coats, shoes, football/gym shoes, PE kit and stationery would always come in at around the £800 mark. A huge sum to find in the school holidays and one I dreaded every year! Currently I have 2 sons left at High school and have become wiser, buying mens trousers, shoes etc in the stores summer sales.

I should be thankful I have not had to find 6 weeks school holiday childcare. That is only because my youngest son is autistic and I exist on the £61.35pw carers allowance.  For those who have no option, the juggling required and sheer cost is immense. I have a friend who is in this position. She and her partner have 3 children. One is 14 at High School and the other two are 5 and 8 in primary school. There are no grandparents living nearby. She takes the first week off school to stay home, her partner takes the second week off. Then she relies on her 14 year old to fill in the gap for the 3rd week which she feels guilty over, but has no choice. She then pays for two weeks childcare for the 5 and 8 year old full time and then  the whole family has a final week together in a caravan holiday in the UK. She would love a holiday abroad but school under Michael Gove have made it clear this is not allowed in term time, and she can't afford to go abroad in August as the cost doubles. Her school uniform costs are around the £500 mark. She is in favour of a shorter 3 week school summer holiday with the option to remove children for a holiday for up to 10 days a year excluding exam times. She feels this is fairer and far more do-able for working families.

For those families totally unable to afford a holiday, days out are no longer a cheap option. Once the 'free' days of a trip to the park, wandering around town with a visit to a cafe perhaps, bike riding etc are done children are often moaning about wanting a proper day out like their peers at school. For a family of 4, once petrol/train fares have been taken into consideration, entrance fees paid to a theme park or other attraction, a mid day lunch bought there is no change out of a few hundred pounds. While Cameron and his Cabinet jet off abroad, the working poor are wondering if their employer will give them full hours next week on their zero hour contract. Full hours of 35+ may give scope for a day out, but of course this is not assured! Rents and mortgages and other bills still have to be found in August. If ever there was a 'payment free holiday month' August would be top of my list!

Feeding your children for 6 weeks should not be a problem but in 2014 foodbanks are bracing themselves for unprecedented summer holiday demand. When poor children are in school, they at
least get 1 meal a day. In the summer holidays this is not the case. Couple this with bored children whose parents can't afford days out or a holiday and this results in 6 weeks of food hell. The older they are the worse it gets as tempers flare.

In my own household I plan carefully the main meals for the summer holidays week by week, but find I am buying a lot more bread, ham and salad for sandwiches, cereal and milk, bottles of squash etc as the 'fridge raiding' is far more frequent than in term time. My food bill soars and I always welcome September with relief on the food front. Families who get free school meals during term time are frequently unable to cope during the summer. Working Poor families who are not entitled to free school meals are already  sending their children to school with no lunch on some days of the month, as they simply have run out of money until payday. In 2013 a local foodbank reported a 40% surge in referrals during the school summer holidays. I witnessed 2 small children dancing around their kitchen delighted the foodbank had provided them with breakfast cereal for the week. Not treats, but cereal, a staple for the majority of families.

Huge pressure has been put on the backs of the working class by the ConDems. It is us and our children who are bearing the burden. Cleggs answer was to provide free school meals to all 5 and 6 year olds. He forgot many schools have no kitchens but was hell bent on ploughing on with his hare brained scheme! He never thought for one moment, that while the 5 year olds of the children of Cabinet members were enjoying a free school meal, impoverished working poor children aged 7 were going without a lunch as mums whispered 'Tell the teacher you're not hungry just for today' as she wracked her brains trying to figure out how she would pay for lunches for the rest of the week! That's real life Clegg; that is what is happening in your 2014 Britain!

Yet still the politicians wring their hands and do nothing. Gove has gone but he has been replaced by privately educated Nicky Morgan whose philosophy has so far constituted that 'University Education is not a right'. No change there then! Successive governments have talked the talk over the school summer holiday then done absoloutely nothing. Gove just decided to punish parents for taking
children out of school in term time. This has annoyed the middle class particularly, but Nicly Morgan is adamant government policy will remain unaltered: Punish parents who can't afford a peak summer holiday. No thought for the working poor.

It's time to support parents by any government that gets elected in 2015. More parents are having to work but childcare is unaffordable. Poor parents and parents of disabled children are unable to feed their kids over the 6 week summer holiday. Days out are luxuries. These are the lives of the working class in 2014 - lives far removed from Westminster where a couple of holidays, treats and days out are the norm for children of MPs during the summer! Walk a mile in our shoes during this summer and  try to change things to make our lives just a little easier. A time when feeding the kids, buying the  new terms uniforms and a 1 week holiday are once again within reach. After all haven't things progressed just a little bit since my 1970s childhood? To the poor it appears not.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

My Year as a Unite Community Member...

It's almost 12 months since I decided to join a trade union. Up until that point people like myself - full time carers, the disabled, the unemployed, the self employed couldn't join a union as we did not work in the traditional unionised workplaces.

One of the most innovative, bold decisions ever made by a Union General Secretary was when Len McCluskey decided to open up Unite to the community. Len instinctively knew that people in communities were suffering under the Tory imposed austerity. He knew that  people were fighting to stop community facilities from being closed, the disabled were fighting against ATOS, carers were struggling on their £61.35pw and needed a voice to get their reasonable demand for recognition and  an increase in the paltry carers allowance, and unemployed people were suffering due to Job Centre sanctions, and many working class people were losing their homes under the Bedroom Tax.

So Unite Community was born to join up communities with workplaces and give people in the community a voice,  education through training courses , and the linguistic tools to fightback against the dark Tory forces seeking to return working class people to a bygone age.

I grabbed my chance of Unite Community membership with both hands, relishing the opportunity to play my part in changing the narrative on austerity, telling people in my community and beyond that we really do not have to take austerity on the chin, and that ordinary working class people like myself  have the power to change this government in 2015. So what have I learnt?

One of the first things I quickly found was that I am never alone. The Unite family are always there to help. I am part of Unite Community in N Wales and my community officer Jo, covers the whole country and  is always there should I have a query or require training. She has encouraged me to embark on training courses, and to have self belief  that carers like myself have a huge role to play in shaping not only our communities but also the wider national political picture. From Community Activism to Public Speaking  courses, Unite tutors have encouraged me all the way. I have used the Unite website as a useful educational resource, campaigned on various issues both online through social media and also out in the community. My self belief that I can play a part in changing things has soared and even though I have limited mobility, I have recently taken part in campaigning against job centre sanctions on a picket line and represented Unite Wales at the Durham Miners Gala - proudly holding a banner!

 Unite Community have supported me to travel to hear inspiring speeches and to learn from the likes of Ian Lavery MP, Katy Clarke MP, Tom Watson MP and many people involved in the campaigns to save our NHS from TTIP. Passing on these messages to my local community, getting more people to be involved in local campaigns and speaking out publically myself is the only real way to tackle this governments rancid policies foisted on the working class and the most vulnerable.

I know that myself and other proud Unite Community members will be instrumental in the task to get the Labour Party elected in 2015 and the upcoming months will be tough and we expect the Tories to do the only campaigning they know best : smear the Labour Party, play on the politics of fear, and talk a dirty fight. But Cameron and his cronies are up against us now; ordinary people who are equipped to not only counteract his Etonian rhetoric, but to have real knowledge and the power to change the narrative, change the mantra that for the past 4 years has set neighbour v neighbour, poor v working poor, British v Immigrant.

 There is a growing awareness and hatred in the very working class communities so despised by the Tories, that austerity, privatising our NHS, making zero hours contracts the norm, producing Generation Rent, ensuring wages are so low that working families are visiting foodbanks is what us ordinary people have to put up with in life, while the Cabinet Millionaires and the bankers get richer.

Using your vote in 2015 to vote for any party other than Labour is a complete waste! If Labour are not elected we get 5 more years of even worse Toryism as Osborne seeks to cut a further £11 billion from the likes of us. I like to tell Labour waverers ; don't think about the leader of the Labour Party, think about the policies he is implementing: stopping the Bedroom Tax, making sure our NHS remains public and stopping Camerons privatisation by stealth, part renationalising our railways, giving our kids a future with Technical Apprenticeships, giving 25 hours of free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds, putting an end to zero hours contracts and pressing employers to pay the Living Wage. Isn't that preferable to 5 more years of huge cuts, making zero hours the norm and ensuring even renting is beyond our kids dreams? That is Toryism post 2015; that is Organised Spivvery in action.

So my first year as a Unite Community member can be summed up as : exhilerating, educational, dynamic and the most wonderful aspect the Tories will shudder at: EMPOWERING. Unite have given me the tools to effect change, and enabled me to become a real activist. Isn't that something you would want to join too?

I urge anyone in the community who wants to get their voice heard, campaign for their community, feel part of a vast movement of people v austerity and this government - Join Unite Community today!¬ You also receive the same benefits as full Unite members for only 50p pw !

Unite Community Membership Information