Friday, 6 March 2009

Defending Lambeth

I've just sent this letter to the Plymouth Herald, following slurs against Lambeth by a Conservative councillor in Plymouth. The letter is self explanatory. I have no idea if the Plymouth Herald will do the decent thing and allow Lambeth a right of reply, but here it is.

Dear Editor,

As a senior member of Lambeth council I must set the record straight after your report of Plymouth’s recent council meeting, and in particular the prejudiced attacks on Lambeth Council by Cllr Joan Watkins, one of Plymouth’s Conservative councillors.

You correctly reported that Labour Lambeth set a council tax freeze of 0.0% with no cuts to frontline services, in marked contrast to Conservative–controlled Plymouth rise of 4.8% with devastating cuts.

The ill-informed Conservative Cllr Watkins claimed to have visited Lambeth, which she described as ‘appalling’ and said the roads are terrible here. She implied that the tax freeze was achieved at the expense of road repair. All three charges are UNTRUE.

Lambeth is currently rated by the independent Audit Commission at three stars out of four and is the best improving council in the country. Plymouth is rated at two stars. So Lambeth is hardly appalling, unless Cllr Watkins knows something I don’t, which I doubt.

Labour Lambeth has in fact committed extra millions to fix roads and pavements in our budget, whilst freezing the council tax. Even Lambeth’s Tory councillors – who voted to raise council tax by 40% - that's forty per cent - when they ran the council, have advocated a freeze.

In Lambeth we recognise that people may be struggling because of the global economic situation and because of the failures of bankers. I mention bankers because we should not forget that around a third of donations to the Conservative Party have come from bankers.

On behalf of Lambeth’s Labour Council I would be happy to share our best practice with the cabinet of Plymouth’s Conservative Council. Perhaps after some tutoring they should then stop above-inflation tax hikes for hardworking Plymouth residents whilst they cut their services.

Yours faithfully,

Cllr Mark Bennett
Cabinet Member for Safer and Stronger Communities, Lambeth Council
Labour councillor for Streatham South

Monday, 2 March 2009

Greed is Goodwin: shred his knighthood, not just his pension

I doubt there is anybody in this country at the moment who does not find the greed of Sir Fred 'The Shred' Goodwin, the man who presided over RBS banking losses of £24 billion, a matter for disgust.

This is a man who, despite notorious failures as a responsible banker, wants to cling on to his £16 million pension pot and the £650,000 it would yield every year.

My view is that not only should Goodwin be made to give up his his current pension 'entitlements' but he should also be stripped of his knighthood. He deserves the benefit of neither.

Since the knighthood was awarded for services to banking, and the only service to banking he has ultimately performed is to throw it into chaos, Goodwin should do the decent thing and hand back the cash and the gong.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Two malicious peas in same slimy pod

After a break from blogging, I've decided to get back into it. I've been asked to post the text of my 2006 Tribune article, in which I compared the Liberal Democrats to the BNP in pandering - in their campaigning methods - to the lowest common denominators in British politics. Nothing much has changed.

There are two parties where it is said that just talking about them gives them more legitimacy than they deserve: the fascist British National Party and the cosier Liberal Democrats. Neither is a party of solid, time-weathered principles. Both are active seducers of the angry, the impotent, the dissatisfied and the marginalised. They feed on issues that allow them to become receptacles for protest votes. Their entire existence relies on negativity.

In my years as a member of the Labour Party and active trade unionist in the GMB, I have fought the BNP on many doorsteps. As a press officer for my union, I was certain it was right to name and shame a “dirty dozen” BNP activists with criminal records. I received a range of surprisingly creative death threats as a result, which only demonstrated that the correct course of action had been followed.

A comparison between the Lib Dems and the BNP isn’t drawn lightly. The Lib Dems are not a bunch of overt racists. Nevertheless, there are similarities in their campaigning methods. Also, where they think they can win votes, the Lib Dems can be every bit as divisive as the BNP, particularly at a time when they are desperately seeking a unique political anchorage, with David Cameron’s chameleon Tories eyeing their territory. Look at the vicious campaign the Lib Dems fought at the recent by-election in Bromley.

True colours are never hard to discern. Look at Burnley where, in 2004, the Lib Dems were more concerned with ousting a Labour administration than opposing the BNP. Consider Birmingham, where the Hodge Hill by-election saw the Lib Dems putting out two kinds of leaflet: one for the Asian areas showing Asian voters, and another for the white areas with Asian voters expunged.

Look back to 1993 and the Isle of Dogs where the Lib Dems sought to exploit BNP propaganda and ended up assisting in the election of a BNP councillor. Further back, what about Simon Hughes as “the straight choice” against Peter Tatchell in the 1982 Bermondsey by-election?

Last October, I was the Labour candidate in a council by-election in Streatham South. The full, obsessive Lib Dem arsenal was aiming to gun me down. It misfired, and then exploded on itself in the borough-wide elections in Lambeth in May this year.

The Lib Dems’ shambolic alliance with a handful of Tories had been disastrous for Lambeth, with a 38 per cent council tax rise, £3 million lost in fraud and a parking fine system that amounted to piracy.

One of the most serious faults of the Lib Dems in Lambeth, apart from their obvious incompetence, was their willingness to divert much-needed resources away from the most deprived areas - often those with the highest black and ethnic minority populations. This was coupled with an enthusiasm to impose the borough’s least attractive amenities on those same areas. For instance, they were enthusiastic about bulldozing a public park simply to give Lambeth’s dustcarts a home.

Lib Dems exploit fear and division within communities to win votes. Consider this advice in a Lib Dem campaign handbook: “Be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly”. In Streatham, they claimed, wrongly, that Labour had cut 40 “local” police, and told voters we would be spending more money “in Brixton instead”.

In Lambeth, there is a subtle Lib Dem code for “black”. You won’t find it in any handbook. It relies on exchanging one “B” word for another. In Streatham, there were constant references in Lib Dem leaflets to Labour’s plan to “spend money in Brixton” and “snatch the money to build a second school just for Brixton”, clearly hoping to pander to racist sentiments. In the council chamber and on the streets, I’ve seen Lib Dems in full battle cry. These people, like the BNP, make themselves look ridiculous from one angle, yet they have the capacity to be poisonous from another.

For four years in Lambeth, they had two ethnic minority councillors, one of them a former parliamentary candidate. Neither reached the all-white Lib Dem executive. In spite of their claims about inclusivity, Lambeth Lib Dems returned only 2 black and ethnic minority councillors out of 17 at May’s local elections. Labour returned 12 out of 39. The Lib Dems lost 11 council seats. They remain bitter and ungracious in defeat. Few hands were shaken by Lambeth Lib Dems on the night of May 4. One of my newly-elected Labour colleagues was called “slime” for his efforts by a departing Lib Dem.

The architect of their campaign, a pure maths graduate who left Lambeth’s finances in disarray, was duly anointed as their leader. In one of London’s most diverse boroughs, he is a white, middle-class Surrey male who lists politics and Wagner as his major interests. He has sneered in the past about Labour’s “unthinking vote”. Perhaps the Lib Dems were the ones not thinking when they sought to disenfranchise a whole swathe of Lambeth’s black and ethnic minority population by cutting funds for electoral registration. People can draw their own conclusions.

Labour makes no apology for holding Lambeth’s Lib Dems vigorously to account for their failures. That is the job of a party in opposition. The response of the Lib Dems - the doyens of negative campaigning - was to accuse us of “negativity” and “lies”. It was all a bit rich coming from the party which warns its activists “positive campaigning will not be enough win control of the council”.

Labour in Lambeth ran a tight, focused and organised local election campaign in 2006. We crafted our manifesto and message carefully spoke to as many voters as possible. Unlike the Lib Dems, we believe that any voter is a thinking voter. Unlike the Lib Dems, we promised what we believe in, rather than saying something merely to win votes.

Experience had shown us what we were up against with the Lib Dems: crude propaganda leaflets - shrill and venomous, but effective. Just as the BNP resorts to ruthless sensationalism and shrieks out its message, so do the Lib Dems.

In Lambeth, we proved that Labour can be strongly local, strongly critical and overwhelm the Lib Dems’ output while remaining true to a positive agenda of our values. Like the BNP, the Lib Dems specialise in a brand softly-spoken pavement politics that actually rely on suggestion, smear and distortion. Labour refuses to go down that road.

We have a duty to defuse extremism in all its forms. In Lambeth, our first task is to implement our manifesto - thus delivering quality services and tackling inequality. At the same time, we will continue to shine a spotlight on Lambeth’s Lib Dems and Tories for their failings, nationally and in this borough.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Lib Dems: Eyes Wide Shut

How about this for a subtle attempt by the Lib Dems at image manipulation?

It seems that the unfortunately named Lib Dem councillor Michael Howard, who represents Holmwoods in Mole Valley appeared in a recent Lib Dem election snap with his eyes shut.

The snap was forwarded to the Surrey Advertiser for publication. The paper pointed out that Cllr Howard appeared to be asleep on the job, confirming what Labour councillors in Lambeth tend to think of Lib Dems. The paper refused to use the substandard picture.

Rather than take another picture, this blunt refusal prompted some Lib Dem, who I can imagine sitting alone in a Mole Valley bedroom, to painstakingly provide Cllr Howard with some makeshift eyes.

Have you ever seen anything like it? Blinking Lib Dems.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Happy St George's Day!

I spent the beginning of it outside the new entrance to Streatham Common Station with Labour's Val Shawcross, London Assembly Member for Lambeth and Southwark. We were of course campaigning to win votes in the forthcoming elections, and got a good reception.

Val was a big help in the campaign to get the new entrance built and open after years of struggle, as well as the new N133 night bus for Streatham Vale. She is a very hard worker and I hope she is re-elected.

After cycling to the Town Hall in the rain I was pleased to see, as I sped down Brixton Hill, that the red cross of St George had been run up the flagpole.

There's a constant reminder of England's patron saint in the form of an impressive stained glass window at the top of the main stairs. It's always an impressive sight when you are climbing the stairs, not because it is Edwardian stained glass speaking of England and Empire, but because the Third Century Anatolian-born martyr is also a patron saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Palestine, Portugal and Russia. An appropriate figure in stained glass for a town hall serving a diverse borough like Lambeth.

Talking of unity, I was pleased, as the new Cabinet Member for Culture, Leisure and Sport, to help launch the Lambeth year of reading at Brixton Library this afternoon. The intention is to encourage people across the borough to read more, and pass a love of reading down to the next generation. The Lambeth Readers and Writers Festival will be a series of inspiring events for all ages and tastes. There will be talks by bestselling authors, discussions with new authors and poetry readings, as well as a play to mark the 60th anniversary of the Empire Windrush.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Wednesday in the Park with Lib, Jim, Nigel and Flo

This evening I did the 5k Your Way run, which had been organised by the central London boroughs. The run was around Regent's Park, and it was great to see so many keen Lambeth staff taking part - out of work hours - and doing really well at the finishing post.

My fellow Labour councillors Lib Peck, Jim Dickson, Nigel Haselden and Florence Nosegbe ran alongside me. Conservative councillor Andrew Gibson was there too, not running but filling in with the civic aspects as a former Mayor. I didn't spot any Lib Dem councillors in running gear, but I'm happy to be corrected.

I used to do a fair amount of long distance running at school and university, and I still jog when I have time - mostly round Streatham Common, using the hill there for endurance.

But I currently have bruised ribs from a cycling accident a few nights ago, so I took it at a steady pace and finished in something like 28 minutes. Chief Executive Derrick Anderson was at the side of the course, loudly spurring on the Lambeth runners.

It was a great experience for all involved, and personally I feel inspired to do more 'competitive' running, which was one intention of the event. I picked up a flyer for the Royal Parks half-marathon later in the year and hope to be able to take part in that and maybe raise some money for charity.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Sorrow for Vassall

After a determined, exploitative and corrosive campaign against Labour by the Lib Dems in Vassall ward, we had to accept defeat at around midnight last night.

I was in the Assembly Hall at Lambeth Town Hall for the count, watching uncomfortably as the greater number of ballot papers stacked up for the Lib Dems.

In the end Labour's Andy Flannagan - a good comrade and hard-working campaigner - lost by 859 votes to identikit Lib Dem Steve Bradley's 1209. Andy, a candidate of substance and character, would have made an excellent councillor and I hope he goes the distance and is elected in 2010. As a by-election candidate myself, I know what it's like to be personally attacked by Lib Dems, and how hard Andy worked to promote a positive vision for the ward.

The weather was terrible - bitterly cold, windy and wet - for much of the day, which is never a good sign. The recent attacks on Ken Livingstone by the Evening Standard and various other warped anti-Labour messages exploited by the Lib Dems in their tsunami of leaflets, meant much of our hoped-for support stayed at home. There is much to learn from this defeat, and I hope that learning will make Labour in Lambeth stronger.

In my polling day role, cycling round the four polling stations from 7am to 10pm collecting numbers to take back to the committee rooms, I knew that we were not getting our voters out in sufficient numbers - particularly in the Labour-voting areas of the ward. But it was good to see so many Labour activists out on the streets, including many councillors from Lambeth and neighbouring boroughs, and Stephen Twigg braving the harsh weather without a coat.

We faced a swing to the Lib Dems which, if it were to be repeated on a wider scale in the GLA election, would give those charlatans more than enough votes to gain the marginal Lambeth and Southwark division. The challenge for Labour campaigners is to get out on the streets in bigger numbers and make sure that the terrible prospect of losing Val Shawcross as our assembly member, and Ken as our Mayor, is averted.