Thursday, 27 November 2014

Working Class: Narrowed Horizons

I had a moment of complete and utter clarity as I arrived at a hotel in Cardiff to attend a course recently. As I booked in, I could hear the hustle and bustle of other hotel guests going on around me, the anniversary couple, the pensioners coach outing, the afternoon tea goers. It hit me like an arrow.

These are people enjoying their lives. These are people enjoying a leisure break.  These are people for whom there is more to life than grinding poverty and getting by.

It really was like having a light switched on. The fact is that the less money you have the more your horizons narrow down. For the unemployed and carers, horizons may be as narrow as your own front door. As a Carer myself I know there are days when you don't venture outside, due to caring duties but also due to lack of money. Getting by is an all consuming, draining struggle. I have noticed that even when you explain to people continuously that you can't afford a meal out, you can't afford a trip to the cinema, somehow they don't quite believe it. But for those existing on benefits, and increasingly for those of us who are working poor, horizons are being narrowed like never before.

Somehow you yourself don't feel your horizons being narrowed until you do something completely different like I did, and go on a course to a hotel and see what other people are doing. Or you look at friends and acquaintances on Facebook and see photos of the weekend break,  the football away trip, the birthday party, the big shopping expedition and you feel a pang of envy. You say to yourself "When was the last time I did any of those? I can't remember. But there are people out there with lives doing all these things week after week. I should be doing those things too. It isn't fair." A friend spoke about how she was going to splash out in the January sales after Christmas, and I honestly thought to myself that in 25 years since I had my children, I never had a penny to my name to go sales shopping in January. Every effort has been made to pay the December bills and do what I can for Christmas presents, often heaving a sigh of relief when I had managed both without missing a bill!

But the pangs of envy in me subside and turn to guilt, when I see those sanctioned on benefits, where Christmas will involve an emergency Foodbank parcel, or charity gifts from strangers, or indeed seeking shelter and a roof over their heads on Christmas Day. A child caught up in a domestic abuse situation will wish for nothing more than peace over Christmas time, whose horizon is so narrowed that being at home for 2 weeks is a terrifying prospect. A particularly cold December will see many households turning their heating off and wrapping themselves in quilts and going to bed early in a desperate attempt to keep warm. The most vulnerable, the poorest people in our society have no horizons at all. Everything has been taken from them in a vicious pursuit by this ConDem government where the poorest pay the price for the greed of the robber barons, the robber bankers and the posh boy millionaires governing Britain.

Each day becomes a fight to feed yourself and your family, a fight to keep warm and a fight to "appear" like you are living a normal life. For many trying to appear as if nothing is wrong to relatives and friends is a completely draining experience which takes up as much energy as the fight to feed yourself. You become a master of deception. An illness faked as you can't attend a relatives wedding due to cost, the birthday card with money you posted to a sister but somehow it must have got "lost" in the post, the invitation to a child's party your own child receives, but it has to be turned down because "we are doing something else that day unfortunately" as you see the £ signs mount for a birthday present and party outfit and know it is beyond you.

Horizons shutting down are like lights going off one by one, especially for the working poor. I am not demeaning the poor here, but I am focussing on issues I have heard many working poor discuss with me this year.  The ConDems "Them v Us" campaign has been hugely successful pitting Working Poor v Poor. Many people working either part time or on minimum wage actually experience jealousy when seeing those existing on JSA get their full housing benefit paid. Many working poor
 took out mortgages in better times and are now struggling like hell to keep the roof over their head.
"If only we could get housing benefit to cover part of the mortgage" is what I hear. Others feel resentment they are working and paying rent, while the poor have their full rent paid. Horizons narrow to not being able to move house as you can't get another mortgage or being constantly on the look out for cheaper rented accomodation due to the benefit cap and bedroom tax. Both poor and working poor are experiencing the merry-go-round of annual house moves in many cases, where tenancies are often for 12 months. Sometimes tenancies are terminated after 6 months. The horizon is narrowed to having no stability and moving into one property before being on the look out for another. People feel no need to make a house feel like "home" because it won't be home for any great period of time. The stress to children in particular is great. Often a frequent house move can mean a change of school.

The disabled and carers are probably the most targeted and vulnerable group under this governments pernicious regime. Here, horizons are being narrowed to one day at a time. Huge cuts to services disabled people rely on like public transport ,libraries, leisure facilities and support services are seeing disabled people become more and more isolated. Those living in rural areas are hardest hit. Local councils are starting to cut the unthinkable. My local council is proposing a £25 charge for parents of severely disabled children to access respite care. How low is this? It  beggars belief that whilst rich millionaire pensioners enjoy a winter fuel allowance grant, rich children of multi millionaire parents can get a free school lunch age 5-6, disabled children's parents will be charged to
access respite care that is so desperately needed to ease the strain; not just for parents but also the NHS.

So while Cameron and his cronies attend a circus of Christmas drinks and dinner parties, spare a thought for those who wake each morning in dread of the day ahead, where fear, stress and strain are their daily diet, and getting beyond their front door an immense task. This government are guilty of not just narrowing working class horizons, but shutting down working class lives.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Dear Sir Bob Geldof...

...of course back in 1984/85 you were just plain Bob Geldof. You and your band The Boomtown Rats were adorned across many teenagers walls; myself included. In a time of Thatchers tyranny, you angrily fronted a band of  young skinny men with something to say and a whole heap of attitude. Your marriage to Paula Yates and exotically named eldest daughter Fifi Trixiebelle just cemented your reputation as a modern punk couple living the rock n roll lifestyle we all seemed to find so glamourous and exciting.

At 17/18 years old you were one of my idols, a rebel against society, but a passionate family man with always something to say. You saw the hunger, the poverty, the starving people in Africa and you wanted to change the world. Through your passion, through your unshakable self belief that music could indeed change the African people's lives, we teenagers and also parents and grandparents, stood alongside you Bob, bought "Do they know it's Christmas?" in record numbers and clamoured to get tickets for the unbelievable Band Aid concert on 13th July 1985 at Wembley. You believed and we believed, that if we raised  such a vast amount of money never seen before, we could cure African hunger in one swoop. The images of starving children on the news and in every programme charting the Band Aid phenomenon, was never apologised for. It was necessary. When you coined the phrase 'Give us your f***ing money" we loved you more and contributed more. While we were at it, could we cure world hunger in your name?... Such was the sheer passion of the cause. And you were our rebel leader Bob. You made it all happen. No one said no to you. The pop royalty of the day turned out at your request to perform in a concert in London and a simultaneous concert in Philadelphia, USA. Seeing Phil Collins perform on stage at Wembley then take Concorde at supersonic speed to the USA and perform in Philadelphia on the same day was unforgettable, trailblazing and downright  unheard of. Bob Geldof had thought the unthinkable, and made it happen. We had anointed you Sir Bob, way before you recieved your knighthood.

As for the record 'Do they know it's Christmas?" back  in the day  not many people analysed the lyrics or questioned the way in which money was being raised. Bono rasping out 'Tonight thank God it's them instead of you" may have been a line he didn't like singing, but to us it was simply Bono actually putting our thoughts into song. With the harrowing TV footage, we really did thank God it wasn't us. As for the image of the benevolent West deciding what was in Africa's best interests, I never heard anyone question that matter. Again it was a case of those who have, giving to those who were starving of hunger. Put that in context against a Thatcher government backdrop and we were just happy that we were helping to alleviate the incredible suffering in Africa. Our government was responsible for the start of the "I'm alright Jack" society, but we were the rebels with a social conscience, bucking what was going on in our communities, giving hope to Africa and perhaps even thinking we were giving hope to ourselves too. Bob Geldof and the pop stars involved were giving us a feel good about yourself factor - "Hey we may be skint, struggling or one of the millions of unemployed, but hell there are people starving out there we must help."

Fast forward to the recent events. Sir Bob got together another batch of 2014 pop singers to appeal to this generation of  kids. He had brought Band Aid together for a second version in 2004 which was successful at raising funds for famine relief. It was again a time of  following Sir Bob and euphoria prevailing-we were helping out again. But for this third campaign -a new version of "Do they know it's Christmas "with wording changed to raise money for the new cause - fighting the deadly disease Ebola - questions have been raised, reasons analysed and Sir Bob's halo starting to slip.

It's a very different Britain to 84/85. It's much worse! Thatcher drove much of the working class into poverty, but there were not wide spread cases of starvation and dying due to benefit sanctions as there are now. Foodbank was a term we had never heard of and certainly branches of the Trussell Trust were not seen in thousands of our towns and cities as there are now. So perhaps although this new record is to raise money for Ebola rather than starvation in Africa, many are questioning why money
cannot be raised to ease our own plight in Britain.  Alongside this we live in a very different world than we did in 1984.  We are asking more questions about charitable donations. Who is benefitting? Where is the money going exactly? What are the admin costs? How much money is going to the people actually suffering? Can't we help Africa help itself in a different way? Do the white western people feel smug about helping black Africans?

 We have seen millions of pounds spent on famine relief in Africa, but no structural change in making sure mass starvation does not occur again. Money has gone missing on the African continent to corrupt government officials, thus prolonging their own countries suffering. Feeding the starving simply is not enough. Global changes were needed to make sure the "benevolent West" doesn't have to revisit these scenes every few years, but that structural change has not happened.  Many countries in Africa are still as poor as they were in 1984/85. Now Ebola which is killing people in Africa is being used emotively, as it could soon be on the doorstep of the West in vast numbers. Fling enough money at it and we will make sure the USA and UK do not have to suffer, is what is coming out of this charitable effort.  The record is a third run out which is is also a bit desperate - the thing  has been done and is frankly looking as tired and pained as Sir Bob himself. Adele didn't respond to Geldof as she is raising a family - even  my kids could not name everyone on the new video of the song.

At first I felt admiration for Sir Bob. Over the years he has lost his ex-wife Paula and his own daughter, Peaches to drugs and has had unimaginable personal loss in his life, while stepping in to bring up Paula and  Michael Hutchence's daughter  Heavenly Hirrani, Tiger-Lily. But in one expletive  this week he literally threw off his saintly halo and dashed it to the ground for anyone of  socialist, humanitarian leaning, and threw the shards of glass straight through our hearts. Whilst being interviewed about the re-release of the song for Band Aid 30 he was asked would it simply have been better if the pop stars in the room all,paid their taxes?

"B***ocks" said Sir Bob. When asked again he repeated it - B***ocks

Probably basking in the notion by being taken off air and the interview halted he would be plastered all over the evening news bulletins, thus raising awareness and more money for the record, Sir Bob probably had no idea of  the change of heart from many people 45+ who had been around in 84/85 when he could do no wrong.

Oh Bob. What an awful reply. It was such an opportunity to have a go at the big corporations - Vodafone, Amazon etc. you could even have side stepped pop stars if you needed not to cause offence to your profession. You could have said something along the lines of -

" Lets get the big corporations like Vodafone and Amazon paying their dues in taxes, the multi millionaires paying mansion tax, the bankers being held to account and paying fines for the recession they led us into and f***ing hell we would have the money to fight Ebola within 24 hours!"

Instead whilst indeed you got the kids to download the record in droves, just as I did in vinyl back in 1984 without question, the scales dropped from my eyes and sadly tarnished your image for me and
other Band Aid originals for ever. Why should honest, decent ,struggling working class people pick up the tab to fight Ebola, Sir Bob, when we are the ones struggling like hell to make ends meet in a country where corporations pay next to nothing in tax, pop stars live abroad with their money tucked safely away and a government turns a cold stone heart to its own people?

I have sadly waved goodbye to Bob Geldof: hero, rebel leader, humanitarian, doting dad.
SIR Bob Geldof is part of the Establishment, part of the very force striking daily terror into my working class world.

All I can say is " Tell your compatriots to pay their f***ing taxes Bob and find a cure for Ebola. It can't be down to ordinary people to "dig deep" into empty pockets again. Let this cause be funded by those who have, for the majority of us working class simply have not."

Friday, 7 November 2014

It's our Labour Party: Own it, Campaign for it, Fight for it!

There is  an excellent article written by Jon Wilson on the LabourList site saying that ordinary Labour members as well as MPs have caused the current leadership crisis within the Labour Party. Why? Because we have allowed successive Labour leaders to have, or appear to have, sole power of OUR party.

On this I have to agree wholeheartedly.  Back in the 70s and 80s the Labour Party housed a myriad of opinion from centre left to militant  and we all aired our views - activists, PPC's and MPs - roared our opinions and fought at conference to get our say on policy. At times it felt there were so many opinions and so many views they could not possibly fit into one Labour Party. But when we came into the 1990s and had spent so many years sitting on the opposition benches,  Blair and the doctors of spin (good name for a pop group!) felt the Labour Party needed total reorganisation.

In 1994 when Blair gained the Labour leadership, a process began of gagging the activists, halting MP dissent and a new Presidential style of politics took over. The vision was a Labour victory in 1997. We got it of course and subsequently two further election victories, but the cost to both the party and the wider political arena has been huge, and often detrimental. What we have now  is a party that is gagged by spin. Any other ideas emanating from grass roots activists or MPs is filtered through the spin doctors sieve and analysed like a dissected rat, before being presented to Ed Miliband if it is considered fit for him to see. The cautious back room team, hellbent on getting Labour elected in 2015 on a 35% "just over the line" approach, allow nothing to come to the leaders ears that has not been chewed over continuously.

The back room team and the spin doctors are so woefully out of touch with working class labour activists, so out of touch with anything happening outside of the Westminster bubble, and so cautious about keeping the 35% target in sight, some bewildering "barely there"  policies have been presented to Labour Party members. A whole party therefore has policies made for it in the hands of a tiny percentage of out of touch apparatchiks; making the party look afraid of its own shadow on many occasions.

No MP is permitted to put their head over the official party line, unless they have no personal political ambition within the party, debate with  the left of the party and trade unions is scaled down as worried spin doctors have no answer to the right wing press harping back to the "bad old days" of 70s strikes. A constant worry of appearing to be a socialist party has succeeded in alienating a loyal core working class vote, who have looked to Ukip to provide answers; something  the back room boys had not anticipated.

But we are at fault! It is OUR Labour Party! Instead of tearing our membership cards up in annoyance at the way the party is going, we need to be more active and more vocal and act to shape our party. We moan at MPs who have gone straight from university to politics and have no idea of the way ordinary people feel. Then we need to sit down in our CLPs and elect more diverse parliamentary candidates; more working class, more ethnic minority, more disabled people who live our lives!  So what if a candidate doesn't have the in depth political science knowledge that we have come to expect from potential MPs. We no longer need identikit Labour MPs. We need MPs who passionately believe in the issues affecting ordinary people and seek to work to improve the lot of the working class. We moan we no longer feel able to debate policy at conference. Then we need to make it known within our CLPs we want to change our stage managed conferences and debate the issues and set policy the majority of the party want to see. We don't have to keep matching the Tories in the way we import political styles from the USA. We don't have to put up with being the equivalent of social democrats in America. Our party is still as diverse as it was thirty or forty years ago and still has a myriad of views that need airing. But we need to wrestle back control to Labour activists. Let's hear personal opinions from our MPs, instead of them looking cautiously over their shoulders in case they speak slightly differently from the official party line.

I have heard  people from our own number criticising some candidates as they "don't have the in depth knowledge required" Maybe not, but they will learn soon enough and can let their own life experiences be their guide. The frontbench have their speeches written by back room media staff. Well let's have some personal input and some of their own soul put into their speeches. Let's hear their opinions and not a soulless, gutless party line, devoid of life and colour.

It is OUR Labour Party. Let's ungag it, breathe new life into it, own it, campaign for it, shape it and
fight for it. Its leader should lead it on behalf of us all, representing all the different shades of red within it and welcome its unique diversity and sell it to the electorate on that basis. In turn we get behind our leader and do all we can to ensure he is elected as the next Prime Minister of the Labour Party. His loyalty to us will ensure our loyalty to him.

Monday, 3 November 2014

My CLASS Conference Speech 1st Nov 2014 - Working Class Woman Representation

Imagine a working class woman, educated at the local comprehensive, bright enough to go on to A levels but then marriage and a family come along; not University. One of the children is autistic so any hope of a decent job is plucked away as a full time carers role is the only option. Then picture a car accident that leaves this working class woman disabled with a mobility problem, but nonetheless a burning desire to climb into the political arena and change the narrative. But being outside the ‘political bubble’ it is like being led to a pitch black, dark alleyway with closed doors leading off and told to navigate down it with various hazards on route. Whichever way she turns, she can’t work out the trick to make the doors open because they are controlled by the political elite, politicians and the right wing media who can unlock the doors as they have the correct contacts, the passwords and the secret handshakes.

Then enter Unite the Union and Len McCluskey. With the birth of the new concept of Unite Community that opens up union membership at 50p pw to people who don’t work in the traditional unionised workplaces like carers, the disabled, students, the self employed and retired, the working class woman is opened up to a world of new education: public speaking courses, community activism, setting up a community branch, and access to Unite tutors to help her navigate the political representation route. Unite help out with all the travel costs that previously held this woman back from participation and education. Unite give the woman self belief and self confidence that she WILL be able to change the political narrative and enter the arena, as the courses provide a toolbox of skills she can use.

That woman is hungry to change the austerity story. That woman is me.

In 1979 in Westminster 40% of elected Labour Mps were from a manual or clerical working class background. In 2010 this had dramatically decreased to 9%. Where I live in Wales well over two thirds of the 30 assembly members come from a middle class background of law, PR and heads of public bodies. It is time for change.

While the Labour Party recognises the under representation of women in Westminster, by using All Women Shortlists. It certainly does not recognise the woeful under representation of working class people and disabled people. Watching from the sidelines while people applaud all women shortlists is frustrating. Most of the women selected are from middle class backgrounds. This may even be acceptable if some of the women had working class values. But there is nothing worse than seeing these women and indeed shadow female ministers, lamenting the opportunities and the way in which austerity is effecting the working class, then driving home in their Chelsea tractor to the nanny who has put the kids to bed as she relaxes with a nice glass of claret and looks forward to dinner parties at the weekend!

WALK A MILE IN OUR SHOES. Have your day interrupted by school who want you to turn up ASAP as your child is having a meltdown. It’s the third time in as many weeks and your employer is more than annoyed. Fear of losing your job is a daily worry. My husband and I are self employed and low paid. I have a regular features column in the Morning Star covering topics on working class austerity and political representation. We have 4 sons and we are on working tax credits as a top up to our low pay. Income fluctuates a lot. Now walk round the supermarket with £40 to feed the family for a week. You get innovative, but there is no room for treats or fripperies.

There are working class people living lives the Westminster elite can’t begin to guess at. Not for a month or 6 months but day in and day out all year round on a Tory enforced austerity that affects us the most, the people at the bottom. The Tories have been successful at pitting people against each other; old v young, working poor v poor, able bodied v disabled, men v women. The politics of a selfish, ‘every man for himself’ society. And women are bearing the brunt of austerity the most. But we hate being represented by people who only seem to empathise but have no idea at all what it is like to live our lives.

With the help of Unite I am able to lift my personal barrier to political representation and unravel what is essentially an upper middle class jigsaw to becoming an MP or in Wales an AM. I have this week been accepted onto the list for an AM seat in 2016.

But there needs to be a wholesale cross-party change into how ordinary people can gain access to political representation; how candidates are selected and indeed financial barriers removed entirely as this is what makes it so near impossible to enter politics for working class people of both sexes.

There has been much said in my paper The Morning Star about opportunities for women in politics to job-share on a part time basis. Caroline Murphy the leading businesswoman in construction on the left and campaigner is a huge advocate of the part time job share MP. Cameron and his party are just about to dismantle the Access to Political Office fund in May 2015 for disabled people wishing to enter politics. What was damned hard will be near impossible if this rung of the ladder is taken from us.

My union mentor me and are always there at the end of the phone or by email should I need specific advice. Personally I have made connections via twitter and at the events I attend with many of the trade union group of MPs like Ian Lavery and Grahame Morris who are always happy to offer advice. But that help is not available for women outside of a union environment. There are no courses or mentoring or explanations of the almost impossible political navigation process by the Labour Party. Whilst our selection is undertaken as democratically as possible by CLPS, is this always the right way? For example many disabled candidates are being overlooked the minute they come through the selection door as many of the panel see their health as an issue and a barrier to selection. CLPS are selecting some working class candidates but not enough. However there are more 1st generation university people who still hold dear working class values of solidarity and the strong helping the weak.

For the private school educated Eton boys it’s a smooth stroll to that safe seat in Parliament. For this woman there is Everest to climb. I will do it with the help of my union behind me all the way. Working class people in working class communities deserve to be represented by one of their own. The House of Commons does not look or even think like the electorate. It’s a democratic deficit to be addressed and resolved. Now it’s time to stop talking and time to start acting for the Labour Party.  Let Labour MPS reflect the people who built the party; the bricklayer, the miner, the nurse, the shop worker, the carer. Political reward waits if the party acts; political wilderness if it refuses to listen.