Thursday, 31 December 2015

Somebody's Daughter

I'm so disheartened at the number of men in the Labour Party who consider the age of consent to be the sole determinant of wrongdoing. 
A child (for, in the eyes of the law, she is still that) of 17; a 49 year old Member of Parliament. Does that not strike anyone as inappropriate? It would have been pretty sleazy even if they had been the same age - that she's a minor makes it even more inappropriate. She asked about a job; he offered dubious sexual remarks as a reply.
And apart from anything else, he is a Member of Parliament - you know; one of those "people of good standing in the community" who can vouch for us mere mortals on passport applications, etc. Is this really the kind of person you want to confirm that you are of good character? I don't.

And yet, a number of male party members have today bravely stood up to say "I don't see what the problem is."

Which is exactly what the problem is.

We are the Labour Party - we should be better than this.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Today's Tories: Generation Not-a-Clue

Cameron's going to turn us into Generation Buy, is he?

When I was young and foolish (20), I took out my first mortgage - £11,000 for a studio flat. Two years later, we sold it for £15,000, and thought we'd done pretty well. A few years later, the late 80's Yuppie boom saw the same flats going for around £40,000 (they were close to the railway line to London). Quite a price for a 12' x 24' room with a kitchenette in one corner and a bathroom.

(They now go for £70-80,000)

When we took out our current £47,500 mortgage in 1993, I was a Scale 4 Admin Officer and my partner was a Clerical Officer, both working for a city council. Our combined income would probably have been in the mid-£20,000s at most. It was a bit of a stretch financially, but it was still cheaper than renting, thanks to MIRAS, etc. Of course, tax subsidies for mortgage payments were phased out, but we could still just about keep our heads above water.

Just before the crash in 2007 we had, through the "hard work" that Cameron and his ilk set so much store by, reached the heady heights of Senior/Principal Officer level, with a household income of around £52,000. Yippee!

Except that in that time, house price inflation had boosted the value of our house to around £250,000, so we couldn't have afforded to buy the house we were already living in, despite decent salaries.

Then came my outsourcing (a combination of New Labour government and council actions) and subsequent severance (from Capita - a merciful release), followed by my partner's departure from MCC thanks to coalition cuts. I'm now back at work (on a little under £16,000 a year), and he's surviving on £60 a week Carers Allowance (with no time off or outside support), and our house is now worth around £180,000. Again, we could not afford to buy the house we live in. And in today's inflated market, renting would also be beyond us.

So, Mr Cameron:

1) Do you realise how little most people actually earn in this country? The "average" of £26,500 is a pipe dream for most of us (I only earned at or above that for about 4 of my 22 years' local government service)

2) Do you remember the Blessed Margaret's devotion to home ownership, which resulted in profligate lending and rampant price-inflation? Boosted by that wheeze of selling off council houses as loss-leaders that brought the whole thing crashing down in the early 90's (which was how we picked up a decent 3 bedroom house for £50,000). If it was unsustainable when prices still bore some relation to reality, how's it going to work this time?

You can only be "Generation Buy" if you have secure employment and sufficient income to meet your lovely new mortgage. Nothing your government has done in 5 years has made anyone's employment more secure, and despite what we're told by the media, I know no-one who's had a salary increase in years.

Oh, and if you're under 25, forget home ownership - you're simply "not productive enough" to earn enough to take out a mortgage!

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Don't Risk Your Future with Labour? It's Not Much of a Risk, Dave.

Here's a thing. Listening to Chicken "Pumped Up" Dave the other day warning me how much worse off I'd be entrusting the economy and my livelihood to Labour, it occurred to me that I'm not, and never have been, better off under the Tories.

I left school in 1981, in the middle of a recession. It took months to find a job, despite my dad nagging me every day about going to the Job Centre. I got lucky in the November of that year - I landed a temporary job as a Library Assistant (Scale1) on the massive salary of £3,945 per annum!

Unfortunately for me, after 6 months, the woman whose maternity leave I was covering returned to work, so I faced a return to the dole queue. Fortunately, the Kent County Library Service seemed to like me, and were able to offer me another temporary post in another library, along with another girl whose fiance was in the Falklands. At the end of our 6 month contract, they had to let one of us go, and chose the other girl (even though she and I knew she was off to wherever the fiance was going to be posted on his return from the South Atlantic). So, back to the Job Centre...

Then, a couple of weeks later, they contacted me to say Jane had left, and would I consider coming back? I asked mum what I should do (I was only 19!). Her advice was "if you say yes, they'll always just kick you around whenever they feel like it" so I turned them down. A few months later I was again working for the Library Service, this time as a Cataloguing Assistant, repairing and processing books, and then, a couple of weeks short of my 20th birthday I got a proper, permanent job as a Scale 1 Clerical Assistant with the local education office.

From this point on, local government became my career (apart from the 4 year break I took to go back into full time education to get the degree I had no interest in at 18). By this time, I had managed to work my way up to the heady heights of a Scale 3 Admin Assistant, and a lot of people thought I was mad to give up a steady job to go to uni. But with no ties, it seemed like the best chance I would have, and I was right. I loved my course, I spent a year studying overseas, I met my partner, I made good friends who are now my kids' godparents - it was all good stuff.

I graduated in 1991.... in the middle of another Tory recession! Jobs were scarce, so instead of the graduate-level job I'd been hoping for, I settled for a Scale 4 Admin Officer post with Manchester City Council, working with the Advisory/Training team for the new National Curriculum. The work was interesting, and the team were great, but in terms of career progression it was stagnation. The body clock kicked in and in 1998, our first child was born. Despite her diagnosis of Sturge Weber Syndrome and epilepsy, I was able to return to full time work after my 6 months' maternity leave, and almost immediately found that there was finally an opportunity for promotion. Some advised against going for it, thinking it would be too much to cope with in addition to a new baby (and a disabled one at that!), but with the stunning support of my bosses, together with a brilliant, council-run nursery (later part of the Sure Start programme), I was able to "have it all" as the Daily Mail loves to put it.

So I found myself in a Senior Officer post (don't get too excited, it was still well short of the Average National Salary). A couple of years, and another child, later, I was redeployed into a team working on the development of the Adult Learning Grant, part of the last Labour government's Skills Strategy (A 'strategy'! When was the last time a government had one of those, eh?). I started out as a operational team leader, moving on to become Deputy and then (Acting) Scheme Leader. And then it all went a bit pear-shaped...

This, remember, was New Labour whose belief in outsourcing was every bit as evangelical as the Coalition's. In their infinite wisdom, they decided to group ALG with EMA and a bunch of other grants into a massive Learner Support contract. This meant that it was too big a scheme for the council to bid for, so the entire team (some 50 people) ended up TUPE'd to the private sector. For a while I carried on as before, but when the inevitable 'restructure' came, I was demoted and de-skilled and thoroughly miserable, as the project I'd spent 4 years of my life developing was changed beyond all recognition. Eventually, the contractor and I parted company by mutual agreement (they didn't need me and I hated working for them!), and I received a reasonable severance package which allowed me to take a year off (as I thought) to settle my daughter into her (mainstream) high school. And so I became a full-time carer. Paid around £3000 a year for a more-than-full-time, high stress 'job', caring for a traumatised autistic teenager. (see other blog posts for more details). Our household income halved, but my partner had been quietly plugging away at a local government career, too. Nothing flashy, but he was hard-working, conscientious and damned good at his job. so we managed. Money was tight, but we were OK - just. 

One year turned into two, three... she never really settled in mainstream and crashed out fairly spectacularly in Year 9, with six months out of school while a suitable place was found (it took an intervention by Sir Gerald Kaufman to get that sorted, so guess where my vote's going?). 

And then the killer.... the bloody Coalition and its Austerity-for-Some meant some of the harshest cuts in the country for Manchester. He avoided the first round of redundancies, but when the second round came up, he took voluntary severance (on the not unreasonable grounds that next time it might be compulsory, with a much worse financial deal). So that was it. 37 years' combined service, and both our careers over before we hit 50. 

I had been looking for a job since we realised our only income was under threat. Despite my experience there was very little about. I got interviews, but no success ("You have lots of experience, but it's more 'management' than this post needs" was one bit of feedback!). Finally, I got one! Almost full-time (30hpw); an Admin Officer. On a fte rate which was pretty much where I had left off when I went to university nearly 30 years ago. In the first 9 months I didn't earn enough to start paying tax (I'm supposed to thank Nick Clegg for that, right?). Don't get me wrong - I love the work; it's worthwhile, and I'm working with awe-inspiring people who are really knowledgeable, empathetic and effective, but the fact remains I have pretty much nothing to show for a nearly-30 year career. 

Resentful? You bet! And I'm not the only one. I know so many people in the same position. "Working People", "Hard-Working Families", whatever they're being called this week. Except many of them either aren't working because of the Coalition's public sector cuts, or are finding themselves in severely reduced circumstances (and we're not taking Daily Mail-style 'reduced circumstances, where Jacinta has had to give up her second pony and they've had to send the kids to a STATE SCHOOL!!!!). In all my years working for a local authority, I only earned at or above the average salary for about three years. 

So all in all, you can see why I'm not taken in by the Bullingdon Boys and their scare stories. Any government which has to promise to legislate so that it can't break its own taxation pledges really doesn't deserve our vote.

Labour isn't perfect (I'm still worried about their stance on social security and immigration), but faced with the alternative - a dog-eat-dog future with no civil society - I know where my vote's going in the General Election.

Here's a handy graph showing what my income has done over the course of my working life. Note the years where there was a Conservative government, and where a Labour one....

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Thoughts on the Hustings...

My first thought is: "Great! We have hustings, and they're well-attended."

One of the great things about Levenshulme is how engaged its residents are. We might disagree, squabble, snark and sneer, but ultimately we all love where we live, are proud of it and will defend it when outsiders look down on us. We go out on the streets, we campaign loudly and effectively and we speak up when we think something's wrong. So where other areas fail to engage voters in the electoral process (especially at local level), we have hustings, organised by the Levenshulme Community Association, which packed out one of the few secular meeting spaces in the area (that, in itself, is an issue) on a warm spring night when people could have simply stayed at home enjoying the weather. Thanks are due to the LCA for organising it, and to the Klondyke for being excellent hosts.

Many of us already knew each other socially; others, I suspect, will have been putting faces to names from social media pages. Some of us are overtly political, others defiantly non-aligned. The evening was designed to allow us to get to know the candidates who seek to represent us on Manchester City Council from next month, with written questions and some from the floor, addressed to all candidates in turn. We have five candidates, UKIP perhaps wisely recognising that they stand little chance in an inclusive multicultural area such as ours. 

The Conservative candidate was a no-show - pretty disgraceful, as the (admittedly few) Tory voters in the area deserve to be represented, just as the other parties were. To be fair, he did have a bit further to travel, I suppose - from a street just over the border in the Gorton South ward.  It seems that like their leader, though, Conservative candidates don't feel the need to turn up to debates.

The LibDem candidate was the veteran former councillor John Commons, eager to distance himself from his party, and emphasising his credentials as a longstanding Leve resident and activist. He gave a barnstorming performance (aided by knowing pretty much everyone in the room, residents and 'visitors'), and it will remain to be seen whether he can distance himself from his party sufficiently to win back the seat he lost a few years back.

The Trades Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidate was Fiona Higgins, a Leve resident and care worker who spoke with passion and integrity from a position of having experienced the effects of austerity cuts and zero hours contracts in the care sector. 

The Labour Party's candidate was Basat Sheikh, the owner of a care company (the only candidate present not to live in the ward). He was loudly supported by (as John Commons pointed out) a sizable number of Labour councillors and assorted supporters, who were both very vocal and combatative (one criticised the chairing of the meeting, another heckled and interrupted while others were speaking). The enthusiasm for Mr Sheikh appeared to be confined to this section of the room, though, and it begs a question as to why it was felt he needed so much partisan support, including a question from the floor from his campaign manager? 

Things got particularly tetchy around the issue of zero hours contracts (the widespread use of which the Labour Party has committed to ban), when he was tackled on whether his care company does (or did) offer such contracts to staff. He stated that he does not, and has never done so, a statement which was queried by several of those present, including one voter who had a copy of a letter which seemed to indicate otherwise.

The final candidate was Dick Venes of the Green Party, who also stood in 2014. Sadly, although I recently scored 97% Green on one of those 'Which party are you most aligned with?" quizzes (a bit embarrassing for a Labour Party member and former branch official*), I find, 24 hours on, that I can't recall any of his answers in any detail. I have the same problem with the Foo Fighters...

There were a range of questions on local issues, and most of the candidates acquitted themselves well on them. I'm sorry to say that 'my' candidate was severely underwhelming. Not having even an estimated completion date for the new leisure centre (possibly the biggest issue in the area over the last year or so), suggesting an Eric Pickles-style 'grace period' for those parking on yellow lines, telling us that he wants to make Leve "the kind of place you move to because you want to, rather than because you can't afford Chorlton or Didsbury" (which was met with a concerted response that many of us already ARE here because we want to be, and have no desire to live in Chorlton or Didsbury). He then compounded this by telling us that it really doesn't matter if the candidate lives in the ward (Yes, it does!) and telling us that "Sir Gerald Kaufman doesn't live in Levenshulme." It had to be pointed out to him that Sir G. might not live in Leve, but does live in the constituency he serves! So, factually irrelevant and very disrespectful to a much-admired MP who has served this community with great distinction for 45 years. It was not a high point.

All in all, it was a good evening but I have to say that, with a few notable exceptions, the clacque of Labour politicians present was a bit of an embarrassment. Do they consider their candidate so weak that he needs the support of so many councillors from other wards? Where were the Levenshulme Labour members who selected him for the candidacy**?

As I've said, Leve residents are intelligent, committed and engaged. We don't take well to being talked down to by someone who'd barely set foot in the ward before last year, or being told our area is a second choice stepping-stone to Hipsterville. We want to know who our candidates are and what their values are, which is why we turned out in pleasing numbers last night.

I will be voting again for Sir Gerald Kaufman on 7 May, but the local elections are another matter.

*that's a whole other blogpost....
** and that's another....

[Full disclosure: I was one of the unsuccessful nominees for the Levenshulme candidacy. If anyone would like to see my candidate statement, I'll happily post it and folk can judge for themselves whether the best man won.]