‘With us or against us’

BRAVE or foolhardy, a handful of Camden councillors stepped into a lion’s den last night when they appeared at a packed meeting of welfare cut campaigners. The invitation had gone to all councillors. Less than a fifth turned up to listen to what became a harrowing recital of hardship. Those who did appear and left feeling scarred will at least always be able to say they did not shy way from facing the sheer public anger out there. That’s surely worth something.

It was nevertheless an uncomfortable Valentine’s Night for our elected members. Camden’s residents and campaign groups can bind together to become a challenging lobby not afraid to spell out what they want in simple terms. Past community campaigns to save everything from libraries and hospitals to council homes have always been strong here. Their strength have been badly underestimated many times before.

chief2Repeatedly, councillors were asked last night to resign from their positions and have new elections on the issue of public spending cuts and benefit caps. The idea here is that if councillors everywhere refused to implement government cuts, then they would be impossible to enforce. If it happened at every local authority in the country, the coalition government – the theory goes – would be hamstrung.

Councillors in Camden, the Labour ones who have the final say on policy, say this might sound like a striking form of resistance but it would fail on the grounds that control of council affairs and budgets would instantly be swallowed up by the government and civil servants, removing a line of defence against cuts – however thin it is – fostered at the Town Hall.

That doesn’t wash with the welfare campaigners, who accused the council’s decision makers as lacking back bone. They say the cuts hurt so much already that no councillor should want to be associated with them. The drastic move of placing families affected by the housing benefit cut as far away as Birmingham was mentioned several times.

It got fractious, an indication of the frustration that is out there. It was aggressive too, as people who clearly would never countenance voting for the Conservatives in the room warned that they would not be forced into voting Labour either. When it was announced that the councillors would explain their position at the end of the meeting, somebody in the back row muttered: “Right. Make sure you see the whites of their eyes before you shoot.” Another screamed: ‘Shout the Labour Party’.

Do not think this meant there weren’t any considered, rational viewpoints during the evening. There were. In fact the tragic stories recounted here were what created such a melting pot of anger. In the later stages of the meeting, there was ferocious heckling as councillors passed up each invitation to refuse to vote for a budget of cuts. They were told simply that they were ‘with us or against us’.

Theo Blackwell was drowned out in the noise. Sally Gimson suffered a similar fate.

By the time, Conservative councillor Jonny Bucknell, the only Tory there, tried to explain the welfare bill from his party’s point of view, he was speaking to a backdrop of somebody shouting: “Shut up, you’re a bullshitter.” See the video below. You got the impression similar scenes of public anger will follow.


12 Comments on ‘With us or against us’

  1. I actually thought the meeting was, right until the end, a really important discussion into the impacts of the Government cuts on peoples’ lives. The depth of the cuts and how they have been handled have left people feeling disenfranchised and angry at politics and politicians – because of scapegoating and unfairness. We heard this from Camden residents as well as those what had come to the meeting from Barnet, Brent and Hackney.

    That said at the end there was confusion from the platform – perhaps because of competing agendas. Councillors had been invited along to sign a Pledge to campaign against the Welfare Rights Act – almost all of which we can do – but this suddenly morphed into a call for something quite different when we were asked to reply to all of the speeches.

    The first of these was to resist changes by ‘not implementing’ them. The welfare system is based on money from the government distributed through the council. ‘Not implementing’ changes to welfare allowances is asking us to ‘not implement’ less money – impossible.

    The second was to resign in protest and stand for re-election. This makes no sense. Symbolic resignations would just hand power in the Town Hall to a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, or to council officers. The hardship fund and measures we put in place have been are solid and exceed those of other authorities – gestures like this would risk or take away what help we can give to local people. The person to my right behind the camera wanted Labour councillors to do this, I disagreed strongly: a sacrificial pound of flesh won’t stop George Osborne and local people would lose more.

    Camden will do all it can to help people, but we can’t fill in the gap that the government has created, which hits Camden residents – because of 4th highest private rents in the country – very hard. But the movement for fairness must embrace more than an ‘anti-cuts’ message. I think there needs to be a fundamental discussion about rents in the private sector and a push for rent controls, like they have in other industrialised cities, and house building.

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  2. All credit to Theo and Jonny – at opposite ends of the spectrum – for attempting a rational conversation. Standing back, one wonders whether having local elected members (in this case Labour) forced to carry out nationally elected members’ policies (Con/libdem) can be the right one. Is there an alternative?

    Brian

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  3. Theo Blackwell states:

    I think there needs to be a fundamental discussion about rents in the private sector and a push for rent controls’

    Sadly, any discussion won’t be enough to secure the future of many families who will now be forced to leave the borough!

    Campaign groups and tenant representatives highlighted the very real risk of this happening at least a couple of years ago – see below link – and now one of our local political leaders stands up and says we need a ‘fundamental discussion!

    http://www.camdennewjournal.com/letters/2010/sep/benefit-cuts-will-bring-rise-bill-our-homeless

    Is it any wonder so many local people have no faith or indeed trust in our politicians, as they just don’t seem to care enough about ‘bread and butter’ issues!

    The reality is if politicians put as much effort into representing the very real concerns of their constituents, as they do when campaigning to get themselves elected (let’s all wait for the next by-election in Gospel Oak!) we might see some of these most vital issues get pushed higher up both a local and national agenda!

    Is it any wonder so many local people are just fed up with listening to party political broadcasts, especially when their own immediate situations are coming under such fierce attack.

    I understand not one politician inside or outside the meeting was willing to sign the Pledge , which also includes a clause to oppose baillifs and evictions of people affected by the reforms!

    No Cllr from any political party is without blame (and yes, we will see vulnerable individuals being evicted from their homes!) but our Labour Cllrs have not only been elected to lead, but are also in office to oppose, including speaking out against these most deplorable of reforms!

    Daz

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  4. Well the clips show that councillors weren’t being asked to sign the Pledge – we were being asked something else. In any case I get confused as to whether we are being asked to lead or resign.

    I was talking about rent controls – later part of Ken’s 2012 Manifesto and a policy which needs to be seriously considered for London, and requires primary legislation and a change of Mayor and Government. Tom Copley AM has been pursuing this at the Assembly, and there should be a major push for policy and regulation.

    Of course housing benefit changes and lobbying started in 2010…in fact we convened a meeting with the welfare sector warning of changes in August:

    http://www.camdennewjournal.com/news/2010/aug/cuts-%E2%80%98will-force-families-away%E2%80%99-camden

    – the early start to this enabled some concessions to be won from the Government (delay of 9 months, discretionary HB grant). Our MPs voted against the WRA, we have gathered more evidence on the impacts than any council I know of and make our case to government whenever we can.

    Statements in the local and national press make it abundantly clear where we stand, so I’m afraid I don’t accept your criticism.

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    • Sorry Theo, but not quite as simple as that!

      Copies of the pledge were outside the meeting for everybody to sign, including a leading Camden Cllr who said she was unable to sign due to the baliffs and evictions clause – many people witnessed this!

      After your statement, people can now rest assured that a signed copy from our finance chief and his colleagues is in the post! This may not save the very large number of families who are in the process of being moved out of camden (sadly many of us had to find out about this through the local and national press!) but it may assist those over the coming months who because of the reforms may find themselves and their families living in greater poverty and as a result may face eviction from their homes!

      Sorry, but many campaigners will stand by the view that more could have been done to not only highlight the impact of the reforms – some of the material you refer to relates to the obstacles local authorities and their staff face in implementing the reforms (ie, uncertainty and chaos in continuing to deliver some services, etc) – but instead of joining with Labour colleagues up and down the country who are refusing to implement more cuts and hardship on their residents (and those Cllrs from other areas who have chosen to do this have become quite a force!), services have continued to be cut to the bone and many vulnerable groups throughout Camden continue to bear the brunt, but for how much longer??????

      The combined impact of the reforms and cuts to services will push many families over the edge, although much evidence exists to suggest it’s already happening!

      In private, many Camden staff are already expressing grave concerns about their ability to cope with greater and much more complex workloads.

      I suppose when a politician is left to make choices these can be difficult, but when the choice is between finding millions for a new Town Hall building (and people did raise the issue during the meeting!) or cutting essential services, it’s no wonder that feelings run high!

      It’s also no wonder that in view of some of the harrowing stories heard at Thursday night’s meeting, that some residents raised the issue of Cllrs resigning

      Should the choices being made by politicians always be so difficult????? In their eyes, clearly not!!!!!!!!!!!

      Daz

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      • The clip paints a different picture on the Pledge – but I think the irony of being asked all these questions to clarify repeatedly where we stand on issues from someone who remains anonymous, but was at the public meeting and is pretty well-informed, won’t be lost on readers.

        The issue of evictions – which has been answered before in detail – is more complicated than you suggest, as the UNISON rep said that the meeting: i.e. do you distinguish between someone falling into arrears because of the changes or because of other personal circumstances? Council evictions are always a last resort. The greatest impact of Government cuts will be felt in the private rented sector where the council is not the landlord and the Cap impacts most. Of course we will work as hard as we can to avoid any eviction resulting from the Government’s changes to welfare benefits, including the Local Housing Allowance cap, the Total Benefit Cap and the localisation of Council Tax Benefit.

        The new public office is one-off capital investment and it is not possible (and even if it were, bad economics) to sell public buildings to backfill government cuts in the ongoing welfare budget as you seem to suggest. Moreover:

        – the Town Hall isn’t being sold off as claimed. We are downsizing our old or empty 1970s public offices and investing in a new one at no cost to the taxpayer
        – without investment the cost of upkeep for a large number of empty public buildings would be £77m over 30 years, which is unaffordable, and would drain capital investment from school repair budgets
        – the new building is cheaper to run, a new public asset, greener and enables us to protect and improve public services for our 230k+ residents in years to come
        – in addition, 300+ council and social rent homes will be built on the sites of the old public offices
        – it delivers new community facilities (new public library+leisure centre) to NW1, space we won from developers at King’s Cross in 2007, but without the building investment they wouldn’t be there

        But I feel we have drifted from the main point now…

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  5. Fair play to the Labour coucillors that turned up to the meeting they did get a lot of flak. The people of Camden are looking to Labour councillors to show some lead in the campaign against benefit cuts. Theo you need to be a bit more imaginative than just saying I quote you ‘We hope to soften the blow’.

    Unison have said they will not co-operate with evictions due to cuts in benefits. Will Labour councillors sign the pledge that was circulated at the meeting not to evict ? will you commit to supporting Unison members that refuse to co-operate with evictions ? Will you support the march planned to take place in the borough on the 23 March.? Why dont the London Labour boroughs that are affected by these obscene rent levels get together and come up with a plan of action to resist these housing benefit cuts?

    Lets face it it is not just the poor who will be affected by housing benefit cuts who can afford the private sector rents in London up tp £300 for one bed flats , £300 to £400 for two bed £400 plus for 3 bed flats. No one knows what is round the corner these days even modest savings dont last long when you are sick or out of a jobs at these rent levels . The ‘bedroom tax’ will cause hardship to many in council and housing association properties moving home can be very daunting for older people and people with serious health problems. If we want under occupiers to downsize let the rich and wealthy be first to be expected to do this with their mansions and second homes in London they only stay in for part of the year

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      • The fact that local people had to beg Cllrs to call a borough-wide meeting on this subject but were then left to organise it themselves, is an absolute disgrace!

        Your earlier post refers to impact assessment material, but sadly reports such as the attached say very little about the obstacles many local authorities will and are indeed facing in trying to implement some of the measures described in the report – it’s what many staff are reporting!

        Unfortunately the report paints a too glossy picture of how Camden will cope with these changes and I think Camden (and this includes its politicians!) would be doing it and its residents a massive favour if it could at least be a little more honest about this fact.

        The message from Camden to this wretched government is nothing less than ‘Just throw anything at us (and our residents most in need!) and we’ll cope, slowly but surely, but we’ll cope’!

        As one gentleman in the clips rightly states, “These are not numbers, they are people who could be made homeless”!

        After cuts to so many front-line services, many departments in Camden are already struggling to provide half decent services to residents, but with the additional strain of responding to the welfare changes, some of these services are just not sustainable!

        A number of quality advice agencies also need to cope with the double impact of having much of their funding withdrawn, but are now expected to deliver a more comprehensive and tailored service to residents in the face of the reforms. As you possibly also know, many agencies and departments are also having to turn away people who need advice and support due to the additional workload.

        As was also said at last Thursday’s meeting, these days Camden politicians seem to behave more like ‘gentrified social workers’ rather than coming out and attacking the injustice and inhumanity of the changes!

        Daz

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  6. Terry Wiggett // February 18, 2013 at 7:41 am // Reply

    Dear Richard

    Your chosen word of foolhardy Councillors entering the “Lion’s Den” is an understatement, should it not be the “Gladiators Chamber” whereby the “David & Goliath” battle ensued with the people verses local politicians!

    I personaly would like to take my hat off to those few Councillors that had the “Gumption” and “Strength” to stand and face the truth, insofar if any, to only reflect upon the harsh reality of things to come. Although this cannot be said for those elected one’s who failed to attend or even show some formal gesture of support to the many, who not only travelled some distance, but gave up their own commitments to attend such a worthy debate and discussion.

    Hopefully, both Cllr Bucknell and Cllr Gimson can see for themselves the many victims of this governments hardship campaign, which is one that can only be construed to promote, invoke and endorse “Poverty” and “Hardship” on the normal ordinary people of this borough and indeed the country as a whole. I think some would agree with me, that you do not need a scrutiny panel, or a questionable community impact assessment or elected councillor or officer to tell us otherwise!

    One only had to look at the many attendees of this peaceful meeting, to reflect upon the horrors of this governments discriminative attack on the poor, which was before our very own Councillors, and yet not one elected Councillor could commit to answer the repetitive questions being asked of them “Are you with us or against us” . Which is clear beyond any resonable doubt, that the look on some of our elected ones faces said it all, they were suppressed and governed to tow the party line, irrespective of their own personal views and opinions on the subject, which is to the detriment of their own constituents, which in its own right is undemocratic and non transparent by any means! Although, I do know of some councillors who do not agree with the governments welfare reforms, but are unwilling to speak out.

    One only had to look at the Conservative Party’s dismal representation at this meeting, insofar, it should be perceived, that this was the one and only occassion that the Conservative party, pulled out all the stops, and as a gesture of goodwil put the “Joker” of the party “Jonny Bucknell” into the “Gladiators Chamber” a well known politician who is known within Camden for defending the indefensible “Tory policies”. Although on first glance Cllr Bucknell seemed full of himself, but after a couple of minutes within the chamber, appeared somewhat dishevelled and taken back, by the criticism and comments directed at him by the peoples voice.” Wake up Jonny” the people have spoken, they deplore your government!

    Equally, one only had to look at the non attendance from the coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, who appeared to be playing “Hide & Seek” catch a glimpse of us if you can, what a disgrace, it shows there are cracks and trust issues within their own coalition partnership! Nonetheless, I don’t think Labour will be offering any of their opposition colleagues a life line to jump or abandon ship come the next election !

    It must be said that all elected party members have been “Guilty” of non compliance to representing their constituents views and concerns fully within Camden, which has not only been about the welfare reforms, but cuts, service deficiencies, rents etc, for some 2 years now, it can be said with some merit that the lack of public confidence in our political masters is fast deteriorating both within local and central government, which given the current shenanigans of all parties to date, you only have yourselves to blame for the public’s opinion and lack of confidence in your abilities to act as competent politicians!

    It is also suggestive from the public opinion polls around the country that “Politics” is the worse profession of all, people don’t trust any politicians these days, and have lost all respect and confidence, in it’s leadership and ability to act in the interests of this country! My own view is one,

    Politics Is The Art Of Looking For Trouble,
    Finding It, Misdiagnosing It, And Misapplying,
    The Wrong Remedies, As In The Case of “David Cameron & Co”.

    Again it is my view and opinion,

    Instead Of Giving A Politician The Keys To Downing Street, It Might Be Worth Changing The Locks,
    As Under Democracy One Party Always Devotes It’s Energies To Trying To Prove That The Other Party Is Unfit To Rule – Normally Both Commonly Succeed And Are Right!

    Referred to within this blog, is the pending Bye – Election within Gospel Oak, which many local residents are already preparing for, I feel given the events of last weeks meeting, it would be only fair to have a “Hustings” within the area, to give potential perspective candidates from any political parties, the opportunity to make their views known to local residents, especially around the crucial decisions being undertaken by today’s government to create poverty and hardship for the many residents of Gospel Oak who will ultimately be affected by these changes.

    Although, I only know to well, that it is not to late for me to throw my own hat into the Bye Election arena as a peoples ” Independent ” whereby, I will not be afraid or oppressed to speak out or represent the peoples concerns within this ward!

    T.Wiggett

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