The West’s role in the Arab spring
I am hoping to travel to Egypt later this month to meet some of the new political parties vying for support in the post-Mubarek politics. Current events in Libya have dented some of the optimism that followed the fall of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt in the face of peaceful popular pressure. It is clear that the process of reform is only starting in the Middle East, and the motives of the army and interim government in Egypt are under suspicion.
But this still remains the greatest opportunity for democracy in the world since the fall of Communism, and despite the economic pressures at home, both government and opposition parties should focus on what we can do to help the birth of regimes based on freedom and the rule of law.
Sadly, Britain has a terrible legacy in the region, some of it recent enough to be in the living memory of the Arab populations. The British role in Palestine, our hasty exit from it in 1948, and military involvement from Aden to Suez has made this country, as much as the US in more recent times, the subject of deep suspicion. This antipathy does not extend to British people, and Arab hospitality is always humbling in its generosity, but current events provide an opportunity for us to show we now understand what we should and should not be doing to help.
So it is with dismay that I have watched the inappropriate, amateur and shambolic actions of the Government in the past two weeks. From Hague’s fatuous claim that Gadaffi might have fled to Venezuela, to Cameron’s arms sale trip, to Gove’s call for the use of military force all the wrong signals are being sent. Even in Libya the anti-Gadaffi forces have made it clear that they do not want Western troops on their soil. We do have a role through the UN and in offering support to popular forces when requested, but post-Iraq it is not our role to initiate military invention, or to supply arms.
I fear that it is already too late for Cameron’s Government to put themselves on the right side of the argument, and we must question if they even want to be. Making a statement to the Commons this week, he seemed out of his depth and came under attack from a number of MPs. Previous gaffes - that Iran had a nuclear weapon, that we were the junior partner to the US in 1940 and that Trident was a necessary bulwark against China - showed a lack of either interest or knowledge in foreign affairs. The divisions and wrong responses on the Middle East are more serious. If there is to be engagement and positive assistance from the UK to the emerging Arab democracies it is clearly not going to come from this Government.
Hundreds protest in Hammersmith
"Are you proud of this?"
This was the question groups from all over Hammersmith & Fulham came to ask the Tory hierarchy as they turned up for their London conference in Hammersmith Town Hall on Saturday. Boris Johnson, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond and election strategist Linton Crosby were among the speakers to a surprisingly low turnout of about 150 Tory activists – easily outnumbered by the protesters outside.
Hammersmith & Fulham Coalition against Commnunity Care Cuts, users of Sure Start and community buildings facing sell offs, the ‘Save EMA‘ campaign, London Citizens, the Labour and LibDem parties, trade unions and local residents’ groups all came together in a vocal but good-natured protest about the damage being done to the borough by Government and Council policy.
In my speech I highlighted the level of cuts locally which go way beyond even what Eric Pickles is demanding from local councils. While the Children’s Centre grant has been cut by 12%, H&F are increasing this to almost 50% and closing nine out of 15 centres. Hammersmith & Fulham have rejected the Big Society by deciding to sell off their community buildings, demolish housing estates and allow unrestrained private development, like the 15-storey blocks along the riverside, in shady deals with hand-picked private firms.
This runs exactly contrary to the Government’s rhetoric about giving power to the people – a Government Free School has just beeen rejected in Addison ward because hundreds of local parents and residents objected. In West Ken tenants are challenging the Government to give them control of their homes to stop the Council bulldozing them to make money for one of the world’s biggest development companies.
Cameron and Co cannot have it both ways – making speeches about the Big Society and localism while feting the Tories in Hammersmith who only listen to big business and ignore the wishes of local people.
Our Dosh. Their Nosh.
£15,000 is the police’s estimate of the cost of keeping the Tories away from the voters on Saturday. Over a hundred officers were on standby after Boris and the Council demanded the Town Hall was sealed off to all but their Party faithful. Opposition Leader Steve Cowan did go into the town Hall and found 150 Tories listening to a seminar on how to pick up Lib Dem second preference votes. We were paying £100 for each delegate to hear this and to ensure their lunch was delivered without incident. The next question is – how much did they pay to rent the whole Town Hall for the day?
The Town Hall Rat
As the demonstration against the Tories’ London conference was breaking up we saw something else sneaking into the Town Hall – a very fat rat. Ignoring the obvious heckles “it’s speaking after Boris”, “they’re in there, mate” and “it’s for the fat cats”, I wondered what the residents of Riverside Gardens, the flats right next door thought about this. They pay council tax and rent to have their rubbish cleared and yet the people who spend millions every year on propaganda can’t provide basic public health services.
Speaking out for Sure Start
We Build. They Destroy.
On the left of the picture is the £20 million Hammersmith Academy, financed by the Labour Government and opening this September. On the right is Cathnor Park Children’s Centre, also built by Labour in 1998 as the first Sure Start centre in the borough. But it will close in April when the Tory Council cuts its funding from £473,000 a year to £19,000 – along with eight of the other 15 centres opened in the last 13 years. At least some of the toddlers who passed through Cathnor Park can still look forward to a good secondary education. But if they come from poorer homes they may not stay on after 16 now the Government has cut Education Maintenance Allowance, or go on to higher education now they have tripled tuition fees.
Cuts to Sure Start Dominate Debate in Parliament
Proceedings at Parliament were dominated on Wednesday by the Government cuts to Sure Start. In the morning I attended a Sure Start seminar in Portcullis House, which heard evidence from a panel of experts including the Chief Executive of the Day Care Trust, Children’s Centre managers, the director of net-mums and a Father of a child attending a centre. MPs from all parties were in attendance, and quizzed the panel for an hour and a half about the effects of withdrawing Sure Start. The answer was clear from both the panel and the audience – re-introduce the ringfenced Early Years budget or services will close and parents will suffer.
This was a theme that Ed Miliband led on at Prime Minister’s Questions. In a heated exchange Ed called on the Prime Minister to drop his policy and reinstate the Early Years ringfenced budget. He quoted the PM from before the election, when he had robustly defended the Conservatives plans towards Sure Start, and had said that if anyone suggested otherwise it was, “an absolute disgrace.” Offering only a feeble response, The Prime Minister blustered, lost his train of thought and even appeared, at one point, to be laughing.
I can assure the Prime Minister, that the parents who depend on the valuable services offered by Sure Start Centres will not find anything remotely funny about cuts of nearly 50% in the total. The parents of Children at the nine Centres in Hammersmith having their budgets cut by up to 95% certainly won’t be in the mood to laugh about it.
Later in the day I spoke in a debate on the future funding of Sure Start Centres. I argued that the removal of the ringfenced budget has allowed the Tory Council to withdraw almost all the funding from nine of the 15 Sure Start Centres in Hammersmith, and that their choice to withdraw funding before carrying out a consultation could make them subject to a judicial review.
Wormholt Park Has Friends
You might think this Edwardian Park, (celebrating its centenary this year) was unloved, and I certainly get more complaints about it than any other in the constituency. Dangerous dogs, drug dealing and anti-social behaviour vie with neglected and unfunded facilities to make it one of the Council’s Shepherds Bush shames (why does the dosh all go south?)
But that all looks set to change thanks to a public-spirited group of residents – Bob Still, Penny Nagle, Georgina Attfield and Clare Fuchs – who last week launched Friends of Wormholt Park.
Firstly, they are looking to set up a committee to take charge of the park and improve it for all users. They would like volunteers to take an active role, so if you use the park please nominate yourself by clicking here.
Secondly, they are going to access over £1 million of developers’ and council funds that have sat in the bank for five years waiting for work to start on the White City Health Centre. Now that too is at last going ahead.
Merlene and Me
You may wonder why I have a photograph of me with my former Liberal opponent Merlene Emerson holding a poster saying ‘make your MP work harder’. Whatever my other faults I don’t think even my political enemies would accuse me of being lazy (or doing a Boris as its known). But although many LibDems have gone to the dark side, Merlene ran a clean campaign last May when most of the other candidates turned out to be bonkers.
Anyway, the poster is advertising www.Yestofairervotes.org which both Merlene and I are supporting. Under AV MPs need 50% of the vote to win, meaning fewer safe seats where voters are taken for granted and fewer extremists elected on a minority share of the vote – winning 50% means appealing outside your core-vote comfort zone. Appropriately the picture is taken at the demo against the Tories' cuts in H&F. Under AV the ultra right-wing would not be able to keep control of Hammersmith council, which is presumably why Hands, Greenhalgh et al are so much against it.
What else have I been up to?
I met one of my heroes, Albie Sachs, at Doughty Street Chambers, where I was a pupil barrister many years ago. Albie Sachs is both the leading South African jurist and a former freedom fighter, who lost an arm and an eye in a bomb attack by the Apartheid regime’s secret police.
As part of my Shadow Justice job I visited a Secure Training Centre for young offenders near Milton Keynes and a Youth Offending Team. The talk was inevitably dominated by the cuts of up to a quarter that most parts of the Ministry of Justice are being forced to make. STCs and YOTS were successful Labour projects which now face inevitable decline. I also met NACRO, the leading organisation for rehabilitating offenders and the legal aid lawyers fighting government cuts to social welfare law.
It was a similar story when I was briefed by Professor Steve Smith, head of Imperial College Healthcare, our local hospital trust, Lucy D’Orsi , the new borough police commander and the Chief Executive of West London Mental Health Trust. Incredibly, none of their budgets is finalised less than a month before the new financial year. But all were anticipating unprecedented cuts in funding. So much for protecting the health service.
I hosted a reception for Richmond Labour Party, in part to thank them for all the help they gave us in the election campaign. Like Hammersmith, Richmond has seen its membership almost double since the election, and new Labour organisations are springing up, like the King’s College Labour Club that I spoke at on Thursday.
On Friday I was on duty for the Justice team in the Commons responding to Private Members’ Bills.
On Monday I gave out awards to students learning childcare skills to help them find work.
I was forced to correct the Housing Minister (as usual) as he patronisingly described social tenants being ‘given’ their houses – he wants to take them away.