Pulling myself together

I have been out of active politics since January. I was overcommitted and exhausted. I needed some time to get my life back into balance and to figure out how to make a contribution without sacrificing my whole identity to a never-ending round of “crucial” but painfully unproductive meetings and actions.

It’s been a useful and educational process, and I’m glad I took a break. I’m sorry to anyone who felt let down by my abrupt departure from the campaigns I was involved in, but I was simply unable to carry on at that pitch.

After two and a half years of campaigning against austerity through the People’s Assembly, I also felt frustrated by our failure to reach beyond the usual suspects of left wing activism – people like me – and make real connections with people whose security and safety was most profoundly threatened by the onslaught of benefit cuts, rent rises, precarious employment and racist sentiment.

There was – is – something seriously wrong with our whole mode and model of activism. I think, looking back on it, that the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party was the thing that demonstrated this most clearly to me. Last September, I wrote:

“If anyone thinks that “we” – whether that means Corbyn’s team, the activist left, the left within the Labour Party, or any defined group of people that can agree on a course of action and carry it out – can control what happens next, they are sadly mistaken.”

Unfortunately, what happened next was (possibly) the absorption of Corbyn’s supporters into an internal faction fight in the Labour party, while the Tories mistook a battered and angry population for pawns in their own faction fight and delivered us all into the chaotic disaster we face today.

Like everyone else, I’ve spent the last few days obsessively reading about the unfolding crisis caused by the UK’s vote to leave the EU. I was on holiday in Barcelona when the result was announced – we spent Friday in a daze – looking at beautiful art works in the Catalan National Art Museum and wondering what on earth would become of our country and our continent.

This referendum result feels like a gigantic act of self-harm, akin to burning down your own community centre or smashing all the windows in your own and your neighbours’ houses. I understand the urge to turn things upside down, to dig ones heels in and say no, you can’t take us for granted any more.

But the strongly anti-immigrant and racist nature of the Brexit campaign (and, for that matter, the Remain campaign and all mainstream political discourse for the last decade) is undeniable. I am very scared for the safety of everyone perceived as “foreign” in the coming months and years.

I am not in any position to say what “we” should do next. I think the proliferation of “what next for the left” articles is less than helpful, to be honest. I’m afraid I think that Paul Mason’s excellent proposal for Labour’s strategy is wishful thinking, given the current media feeding frenzy which seems likely to see Corbyn deposed in the next few days.

What I plan to do next is to get involved in grassroots volunteer support for people who are being done over by disaster capitalism. To listen to what they need, offer my skills and challenge racism when I can. To love my family and friends and try to find laughter and joy despite our fears. These are dark times. We need to stay strong for each other.


Go, Move, Shift

I’m a very lucky woman. Despite the occasional unorthodox lifestyle choice (no marriage, no car, no school), I’m generally treated respectfully by people I meet. My right to exist is not usually questioned or challenged.

I’ve never had to cope with moving into a new area, to be greeted by something like this:

I’ve never been homeless, never come up against the myriad architectural features that exist to make urban spaces unwelcoming for people with nowhere else to go.

anti-homeless spikes in London

It’s much more than spikes – click the picture for an article about the whole range of hostile architecture.

As I say, I’m lucky. What I don’t understand is why other people, also blessed with stable homes in a country not currently riven by war, feel the need to drive the unlucky ones so far out of sight.

Is this happening more? Maybe it’s always been like this and I’ve just noticed it more this year. In the last five weeks alone, 28% of voters supported a party whose main policy was opposition to immigration, refugees have had their makeshift shelters bulldozed in Calais, there’s been an outcry about spikes to prevent rough sleepers bedding down in the ‘wrong’ places, and the annual round of traveller evictions has begun again in Brighton.

Here are the lyrics, for those who prefer or need to read, rather than listen.

Despite my luckiness in life, I do have some small insight into being one of the unwanted ones, thanks to my obstinate choice to get around by bike. Like gypsies and travellers, “cyclists” are an acceptable target for violently expressed hatred.

I’ve often wondered if, in both cases, this is born of envy. Watching someone whizz past the traffic jam on a bike must be a bit galling, I suppose. A travelling life doesn’t appeal to me, but I guess it might look like an easy option for people who work in jobs they don’t enjoy to pay sky-high rents, while the travellers seem to come and go as they please. There’s a feeling that the outsider group is somehow getting away with something and should be made to knuckle under like the rest of us.

Even though it would make so much more sense to design cities, as they do in the Netherlands, in order to encourage and welcome cycling by people of all ages, for all kinds of journeys, riding a bike in the UK at the moment means negotiating an environment so hostile it might as well have been designed by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Last week, I went to a consultation workshop on the proposed new road layout in North Street. A large part of the conversation focused on concerns (expressed mainly by the police and representatives of the Chapel Royal) that additional seating in North Street might inadvertently provide a refuge for the rough sleepers and street drinkers who are apparently soon to be driven out of New Road and Pavilion Gardens. The developers did their best to be reassuring, explaining that the new development will flatten the building fronts on North Street, removing all those enticing doorways.

When I said the street drinkers didn’t prevent me from enjoying New Road and Pavilion Gardens, I was told I must be very unusual. Am I? I don’t think so. Both areas are always busy and bustling when I go there. The street drinkers don’t dominate, because the space has been made welcoming for everyone.

It seems to me that these problems are not caused by the existence or presence of those unwanted people, but by our inability to share nicely. If we can make our cities and continents into places where there’s a bit of space for all kinds of people, then we might have a chance of working out how to actually help those among us who are down on their luck, instead of spending all our energy trying to sweep them away.

After all, as we are rapidly finding out to our cost, there is no “away” on a finite planet. There is no bottomless pit for our rubbish, no sink big enough for our carbon and no safe storage for our nuclear waste. And there is no “someplace else” for the refugees, the travellers, the street people and the cyclists to put themselves.

This Saturday, at the People’s Assembly Against Austerity demonstration in London, I heard a young woman speak simply and powerfully about the campaign by a group of young single mothers to be housed in London, after Newham council evicted them from their hostel.

The Focus E15 mums are an inspiration as they continue to fight for decent housing for everyone, not just themselves. Here in Brighton, housing is also a major issue. With 28% of local households living in private rented accommodation and house prices continuing to rise, tenants are facing increasing demands to pay more rent and higher agency fees or find “somewhere else” to live.

Brighton People’s Assembly Against Austerity and the new Living Rent Campaign have called a public meeting on July 10th, to talk about how we can begin to turn things around. I’ll be there and I hope it can be the start of a more hopeful conversation.


Crunch time for Brighton & Hove Greens

I was invited to speak at the Green Left and Green Trade Unionists group fringe meeting at Green Party conference last night. The meeting was about how Greens in local government can fight austerity, and naturally they wanted to hear about what had happened here in Brighton.

I only had 5 minutes to speak, and couldn’t fit in everything I wanted to say, so here is a kind of extended remix.

What has been the local impact of the Green administration’s decision to balance the budget over the last three years?

I think there are four main aspects of this:

  • The direct impact of cuts to the council budget
  • The impact of cuts in housing benefit, which is administered by the council
  • The danger of privatisation as the logical next step, once “efficiency savings” become impossible
  • The damaging impact on the ability of people and organisations in the city to make alliances and fight back against the cuts

Cuts to council budget

It’s true that Brighton & Hove has so far seen no big ticket service cuts such as closure of branch libraries or children’s centres. As far as I’m aware, there have been no compulsory redundancies so far at the council.

You might say, in fact, that the Greens are doing a pretty good job of being a Labour council, which of course explains the state of constant fury in which the local Labour Party finds itself.

But there are two large groups of people in the city who have been directly affected by the council’s budget cuts.

The first group is the people who work for the council.

Over the last two years, 250 posts have been lost from the council’s workforce. Those left behind are dealing with increased pressure of work and uncertainty due to massive restructuring, not to mention a continuing pay freeze.

Obviously, this has an impact on their ability to deliver high quality services. We have seen the Connexions service redesigned, with staffing cut by more than half, the catering contract for the museums outsourced and staff transferred to a private employer, and the loss of our beloved mobile library service.

As an audience member eloquently pointed out on this week’s Question Time (minute 53:30), local government workers have paid the price of George Osborne’s so-called recovery – in wage cuts and job losses.

The second – larger and more vulnerable – group is people previously entitled to Council Tax Benefit.

Like most other councils in the country, Brighton & Hove has passed on to residents the majority of the 10% council tax benefit funding cut. Everyone of working age now has to pay some council tax [PDF], up to an initial cap of £3 per week (this will be increasing in the coming years).

This change affects 17,000 households in the city. The impact is not evenly distributed; in 5 wards, over 30% of households are affected, with the highest proportion being 42% in East Brighton.

These are, of course, the poorest people in the city – unemployed, sick and disabled people, single parents. Over 7,000 of those households include children, including nearly 600 households with disabled children. 20% of the adults affected are disabled.

Housing benefit cuts

14% of households in the city – that’s also (and not coincidentally) just under 17,000 households – have been affected by one or more of the housing benefit changes introduced since April 2011, namely the major cuts and changes to Local Housing Allowance for private sector tenants, the bedroom tax and the overall benefit cap.

Their average loss of household income due to these changes alone is £1,500 a year [PDF].

Many of these people are also affected by the changes to disability benefits and the horrific sanctions and workfare schemes being imposed by the DWP.

Through the Brighton Bedroom Tax Victims Support Group, I’ve been hearing first hand from local people about how they have been affected by all this. Here are just two examples:

“My home used to be a safe space – now I’m frightened of what the next post will bring.”

“With a starting income of £71 income support, the bedroom tax and council tax takes off £26 per week.  After paying direct debits for utilities like gas, electricity, water and telephone etc. I am left with £12.50 per week to live on, to cover food, [transport] and any other thing I might need.”

We put some of these stories together in May and presented them to the Housing Committee. Later, we took some more along to a meeting with Jugal Sharma, the Director of Housing.

Partly as a result of our lobbying, Brighton & Hove Council has agreed not to evict people for Bedroom Tax arrears. However, this doesn’t actually do much to ease the anxiety people feel or prevent them being pressured to pay.

This is the context in which Brighton & Hove Council is asking people to find £3 a week for Council Tax.

No wonder people are not paying it – they simply can’t afford to.

But in contrast to the headline-grabbing Bedroom Tax policy, the council is pursuing Council tax arrears aggressively, sending out court summonses to people who owe just a few pounds, with the threat of £100 extra court costs.

Privatisation

Brighton & Hove Council has done what it can to weather the storm by shedding jobs, reorganising departments and minimising the number of people affected by benefit cuts.

I’d say this last aim is highly dubious, given the nature of the wider cuts and the way the Tories have framed the debate. The effect has been to concentrate the impact onto people already being hit hard.

But there’s not much further they can go in that direction. More cuts are heading our way and we now hear rumours that the council is looking at privatising health prevention services like the sexual health clinic and even core council services like Adult Social Care.

This is not a huge surprise, given the direction of travel so far, but it’s still deeply shocking from a Green administration.

Alliances

For anyone elected to public office, it’s important to keep asking “Whose side are you on? Who do you represent?”

It seems to me that the Green group in Brighton & Hove have listened too much to senior officers and not enough to front line staff.

They have squandered the chance their Living Wage policy gave them to make strong alliances with the trade unions at the council, leading to this year’s disastrous dispute with the Cityclean workers.

As campaigners against cuts and austerity in Brighton & Hove, we should be able to feel we’ve got some of our people on the inside, but (by and large) we don’t.

The position of Green Party members in local campaigns has been very difficult – they’ve found themselves on the defensive and unable to act as an effective bridge between council and activists.

I think the confrontational tone of the anti-cuts movement also contributed to a collective failure to open a real dialogue when the Green administration first took office.

With the establishment of the People’s Assembly in Brighton, we are only now beginning to rebuild some strength and confidence.

The 2014-15 budget is crunch time. There are no more efficiency savings to be squeezed from council staff. To keep balancing the budget, we are now looking at harsh service cuts or privatisation.

More than ever, we urgently need creative dialogue between anti-cuts voices inside and outside the council.

We need to find a way to support and work with those councillors who are not prepared to vote through another cuts budget, so that their stand represents something more than a split or personality clash, and indicates the spirit and strength of opposition to the onslaught faced by thousands of residents of our city.