Sunday 31 October 2010

Brighton Vodafone Stores Shut Down By Protesters

Happily I was in Brighton yesterday to see some old friends and so popped along to Western Road, where protesters were responding to the call-out from UK Uncut by shutting down the Vodafone store, one of dozens of actions around the country against the tax-avoiding mobile phone company.

Vodafone has become a target because of a shabby deal it cut with HM Revenue and Customs, allowing it to avoid paying vast amounts of tax on profits from a subsidiary based in Luxembourg. Instead of a £6 billion tax bill, it paid only a lump sum of £800,000 and a further £450,000 over five years. The company has replied to criticism by insisting that the deal is completely legal, which technically of course it is: its complex tax avoidance scheme is sanctioned by the state. But it has quickly become a symbol of Cameron's Big Lie that "we are all in this together." Not only are companies like Vodafone treated with incredible leniency whilst the poorest and most vulnerable face huge cuts in services they depend upon. What also infuriates people is that government connivance with corporate greed is carried out in secret arrangements by a department that is never shy of hounding ordinary taxpayers, or managing to balls-up people’s tax codes for that matter.

Around 1pm yesterday, it was all quiet at the Western Road branch of Vodafone, with just a police car parked opposite, waiting for something to happen. But within 45 minutes, the store was hurriedly closed as a small group of around 20 protesters blocked the entrance. The company's other store, in the Churchill Square shopping mall, was also shut by staff. After about an hour of good natured banter and peaceful protest, with loads of sympathetic support from passing shoppers, the police started making arrests.

Unsurprisingly, there were Evidence Gathering Team officers present, recording activists for future reference - these two characters look particularly familiar:

I know some leftwingers are rather dismissive of this kind of 'flash mob' activism. But in the absence so far of massive protests against cuts, which take time and energy to build for, the anti-Vodafone campaigners are showing the importance of creativity and that the next five years need not, as one put it, "just be about marching on Whitehall to hear Tony Benn speak".

More pictures on Flickr

Friday 29 October 2010

Fright Weekend

It's almost Halloween so this seems appropriate - John De Lancie (Star Trek's Q) with a very cool version of Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven.

Tomorrow I'll be in Brighton, arriving just in time for the march called by the local Stop The Cuts Coalition against the plans of the diabolical Michael Myers-like George Osborne, as well as direct action against the sinister tax-dodgers Vodafone. Then its down to the Druids Arms in the evening for a few drinks, to see off my friends Ken and Lizette before the leave the country for jobs in Europe. If you've ever been to the Druids, you'll know what I mean: the horror, the horror...

Thursday 28 October 2010

Trade Award Brings Newham Council Excess To Wider Audience

Finally, the mainstream media has picked up on the fact that London's most deprived borough has spent £18.7m on the cost of the design and décor at the council's offices at Newham Dockside. As we already know, the local authority, which is about to embark on a swathe of cuts in public services, also runs the most expensive council festival in London and, with the Newham Mag, has a fortnightly rag that costs more than any other in the capital.

It's just a shame it has taken an London regional award by a trade body dedicated to "best practice in all aspects of the office sector" for this news to finally reach a wider audience!

From the BBC News website

Cost of giving Newham Council the 'wow factor'

By Ed Davey BBC News, London

London's most expensive council-funded festival, offices with the "wow factor" costing £18.7m and an in-house newspaper costing more than £500,000 a year.

As local authorities digest a 26% funding cut, BBC London examines the outlay in one of the UK's most deprived boroughs.

One critic said the offices resembled a "five star hotel or West End nightclub"

With its reflective floor and designer bird's nest light fittings, Newham Council's new back office looks impressive.

Last week's spending review ushered in an age of austerity for local authorities, ordered to make 7.1% savings annually for four years.

But at Newham Council staff are celebrating winning a top award from the British Council for Offices.

Judges called it an "outstanding transformational workplace environment", saying the "innovative, lively and colourful design contributed to a dynamic environment".

Daniel Windor, of interior designers Sheppard Robson, who carried out the work, said: "You have to have the 'wow factor' in that environment. You need to give it a bit of sparkle or it will fall flat."

More here

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Mickey Fenn on Fighting the Fascists

From a BBC Open Space programme from 1992, the much missed Newham anti-fascist activist and dockworker Mickey Fenn talks about the 1970s, when the most militant elements of the Socialist Workers Party and the Anti-Nazi League formed fighting ’squads’ to physically confront the fascists. The squads, which were later disowned by the leadership of the SWP, were the forerunners of Anti Fascist Action.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Just Wages - The Fairest Cut Of All

Someone asked me today whether I am opposed to all cuts and the answer is of course: no. Cutting Trident would undoubtedly cost jobs in the defence industry but the £20 billion cost of its replacement is indefensible when the alternative is making the poorest and most vulnerable pay for the biggest part of the deficit, the cost of bailing out the banking sector - unless your real reason for spending cuts is an ideological desire to destroy the welfare state. But at a local level, the one cut I would welcome is to the salaries of senior council staff.

The practice of massive salaries at senior levels of local government is the result of introducing private sector values into public sector management, with pay pressure at the top of the public sector originating completely from the inexorable increase in pay at the top of the private sector. The outcome has been the abandonment of any notion of 'public service', with 'boomerang bosses' leaping from one local authority to another, the delivery of decent services secondary to securing the latest rung upwards on the career ladder, all fuelled by the ludicrous notion that a huge salary is necessary to recruit "the best people". If Trident's costs are indefensible, so too is paying £240,000 for a chief executive in one of the poorest boroughs in the country like Newham, or many hundreds of thousands more for its senior management team (the exact figures have mysteriously been removed from Newham council's website).

In opposing cuts, we always need to argue for a more democratic, more accountable local state rather than simply defending the status quo. One simple first step would be to support the introduction of a system of just wages.

Currently around 80% of us earn less than £35,000 a year, well below the sums paid to senior council staff. As the Equality Trust as shown, wide income gaps lead to more unequal societies and worse outcomes for every member of society, contributing to social problems from crime to mental illness. A local government 'just wage' system would mean that the gap between the highest and lowest paid workers should be no more than a ratio of 1:5. This would act as a brake on excessive senior pay in local government, as a salary of £100,000 at the top would require the lowest paid to receive £20,000, but it would also increase wages at the lowest levels by creating a more equitable pay structure.

Moreover, if local authorities were to take a lead in introducing just wages, it would provide ammunition to start pressing the private sector, where the fat cat mentality was born, to explain its own executive excess.

Those who oppose cuts understand that the public sector we defend is far from perfect - importing private sector practices has, over the years and under Labour's 'reforms', distanced services from the people they are intended to serve. But the scale of the cuts are so great that their impact will be felt by everyone and that means the worst elements of private sector entryism, like massive income inequality within local government, must end immediately.

It's time to make the 'boomerang boss' with a fat wage seem like an embarrassing anachronism.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Photographing Newham

I've been meaning to get this particular project started for ages and have finally created a set on Flickr devoted to photos taken around Newham.

The idea is to gradually add to it over the next 12 months and to include... well, basically anything that catches my eye (interesting buildings, landscapes and places that are likely to disappear very soon are favourites). There are a couple of contrasting new pictures below: the first taken in West Ham Park this morning and the second showing one of the storage towers at the British Bakeries factory in Forest Gate,

Now - can someone help me to legally get inside the derelict bus garage on Green Street? I'm really not in a fit state to be clambering over gates at the moment!

Census 2011 - Who Reads Your Responses?

Next year, we’ll all have another opportunity to list our religion as ‘Jedi’, as envelopes marked with a big purple C start dropping through people’s letterboxes in time for Census Day on Sunday 27 March 2011. This is the date when the personal details of all usual residents and any visitors staying the night must be included in a 32 page questionnaire.

Last year, the borough of Newham was one of three places chosen for dress rehearsals for the 2011 Census and results were far from impressive. According to an evaluation by the Office of National Statistics [PDF], only 28% of the households selected in Newham returned forms, compared to 48% in Lancaster and 49% in Anglesey. The ONS concluded, however, that “the majority of non-responders did not return their questionnaire because the rehearsal was voluntary”. Next year, those who fail to return their questionnaire face a possible £1000 fine (although in 2001, only 38 people were actually fined).

The evaluation goes on to say that “despite breaches of government security publicised widely in the media, it appears that worries about the confidentiality of information given are relatively low” at 12% of a survey of 994 non-responders. However, according to a fairly obscure article by Nigel Hawkes of the pressure group Straight Statistics that was buried in yesterday’s Independent, more people are likely to start worrying about what happens to their personal information as we get nearer to next year’s Census - and with good cause.

Privacy is supposedly guaranteed under the Census Acts of 1920 and 1990 but according to Hawkes, the Statistics and Registration Act introduced in 2007 can force the ONS to hand over individual data for non-statistical purposes to the European Union, the police or MI5. Circumstances where confidentiality can be breached include “a criminal investigation or criminal proceedings” – including those taking place outside the UK – and that inevitable catch-all, “the interests of national security”. Hawkes suggests, quite rightly, that “even non-criminals may hesitate to provide data which, as the law stands, could be demanded by any police force in the world”.

As I mentioned back in 2007, allaying our suspicions is hardly helped by the knowledge that the Census' main contractor is a US arms company, Lockheed Martin, which provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services for the Department of Defense and other US government agencies. Nor is there a lack of precedent for the security services having access to census data. Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew's authorised history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm, says (on page 48) that the 1911 Census returns were:

“used to record the particulars of all male aliens aged eighteen and above of eight nationalities (in particular Germans and Austrians) living in areas which would be closed to aliens in wartime. Information on aliens taken from the Census was then circulated for checking to chief constables, who were also asked to take note of those on the Register [of Aliens] in their areas."

When filling in next year’s Census form, what you include may therefore not be quite as private as the Office for National Statistics claims. Potentially, for every adult in a household, the police and security services can read answers to detailed questions such the name of your employer, your qualifications, how well you can speak English, how many passports you hold and, if you are a migrant, your date of arrival and how long you intend to stay in the UK.

For people in comfortable, white, middle-class areas, this may not present much of a concern. But in places like Newham, where people feel they are targeted because they are Muslim, or Arab (a new ethnic category in 2011), or Pakistani or a migrant, there is rather more to carefully consider than whether to jokingly add ‘Jedi’ to the question about your religious beliefs. Many who have escaped from oppressive states around the world to this part of London have found British state agencies are far from models of tolerance, objectivity and anti-discrimination. Is it any wonder, then, that the response here to the Census is therefore so poor?

Saturday 23 October 2010

At Today's London Anarchist Bookfair

So it was off this morning to Queen May College in Mile End for the London Anarchist Bookfair, an annual event as unchanging as the seasons. As always, it had the mix of bookstalls, t-shirts sellers, hawkers of pirate DVDs and loads of tiny-print pamphlets with obscure titles, along with lectures and workshops on everything from anarchism in Croatia to setting up a co-op.

The big draw was evidently Michael Albert, the American activist and co-editor of Z Magazine, whose session Life After Capitalism was an introduction to his ideas about participatory economics (parecon). Unfortunately, it was so popular that I couldn't get in. I did manage to catch the Fitwatch workshop, which was as interesting and informative as ever but also revealed the level of self-absorption within what even the police have come to call 'the protest community'. There was far too great a focus on the possibility of infiltration of protest groups by undercover police (perhaps not completely surprising, considering the revelation only two days ago that a well known activist called Mark Stone was secretly an Met copper). There wasn't enough time, however, for debate on the alarming implications for anyone, 'protest community' member or first time demonstrator, of intrusive surveillance by the different police units responsible for 'domestic extremism'.

The other event I made it to, at the request of ur32daurt in Sheffield, was Ian Bone and Martin Wright’s preposterously titled "Annual Address to the Movement". This was the chance for Bone, always an entertaining speaker, to don the mantle of cider-fuelled political commissar and berate the entire anarchist 'movement' for its inaction and ineffectiveness (a completely fair and valid accusation, depending of course on who is making it). He then announced that the Whitechapel Anarchist Group, buoyed by their burst of activism back in June against the possible appearance of the English Defence League in Tower Hamlets, will stand in elections in 2012 for the London Assembly seat currently held by Labour's John Biggs and that covers Barking & Dagenham, City of London, Newham and Tower Hamlets.

Like previous comedy candidacies offered by the likes of Screaming Lord Sutch, the WAGs have no chance or expectation of winning. With Martin Wright as their candidate, more pub bore to Bone's bar room wit, with no apparent message other than the old Class War standard of 'bash the rich', with an incredibly narrow view of east London's working class (basically, pub goers who look like WAG members) and with a tiny number of supporters, they'll lose their deposit spectacularly. Still, Bone was kind enough to give the thumbs up to the Save Wanstead Flats campaign in his oration. So that's nice.

I finally managed to pick up a copy of Beating the Fascists, the Red Action version of the history of Anti-Fascist Action. I guess everyone who was involved in anti-fascism campaigns in the late 80s and early 90s will have done what my friend Cilius and I both did today - flick through to find mentions of people we know. I see Newham councillor Unmesh Desai, now Executive Member for Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour, is certainly in the book - and I suspect that this part of his past is probably something he'd prefer not to see in print. I'll write up a review as soon as I've had a chance to read it.

Friday 22 October 2010

'Take Back Wanstead Flats' on 21 November

On Sunday 21st November, the Save Wanstead Flats campaign plans to use wooden stakes and tape to mark out the boundaries of the proposed police base on the Flats, in order to show just how much space it will swallow up in 2012.

Maps or drawings can never make as much sense to local residents as seeing its massive size for themselves but campaigners would prefer not to wait until construction starts and it’s too late to stop these plans.

As you can see from the publicity, the message behind this action also harkens back to the historical opposition by local people to enclosure of the Flats. We hope people will see this as an opportunity to come along and celebrate in their own way our right to enjoy our open spaces – although it is late November, so we do recommend that people wrap up warmly!

Download: A4 PDF flyer | A3 PDF poster

Thursday 21 October 2010

BBC's Nick Robinson Catches Diva Fever

Hilarious - unsubtle Tory sympathiser and BBC journo Nick Robinson manages to lose it (or 'loose' it, as the YouTube contributor who posted this online manages to suggest) with an anti-war protester after a live broadcast during yesterday's Six O'Clock News. The Guardian describes it as another example of Diva Fever and Robinson has admitted on his blog that he acted like an unprofessional twat.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

PVE In Newham - Where Has The Money Gone?

On 4 November at one of the community centres run by the charity I work for, a Muslim community-based network called Islamic Circles has organised a Question Time time event entitled PVE in Newham - £2 million missing & unaccounted for?

Islamic Circles has invited two Minsters, Baroness Warsi and Andrew Stunell from the Department for Communities and Local Government, to discuss what happened to nearly £2 million of public money given to Newham council under the Prevent and CONTEST programmes to tackle "violent extremism". The group makes this extraordinary allegation:

There is now growing evidence from individual public investigations of rampant corruption within the Council and their wonderfully transparent and accountable decision makers. Examples of excellent usage of money to prevent acts of terrorism include:
  • Employing relatives of councillors to attend "English language classes".

  • So-called "advisory" consultancy payments for former spooks and Met Police officers which bill into the thousands.

  • Instead of English and Maths, we have undue patronising focus on "GCSE Islamic Studies"

Every Newham councillor - plus the Dear Leader Sir Robin Wales - has been invited to attend, although the chances of any of them turning up are practically zero.

However, the event is open to the public, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, from 6.45 to 8.30 on Thursday 4th November at the Froud Centre, 1 Toronto Avenue, off Romford Road, London, E12 5JF.

It should be a fascinating evening!

Wanstead Flats Campaigners Threaten Judicial Review

The Save Wanstead Flats campaign has issued a 'pre-action' warning to Home Secretary Theresa May, saying that it "reserves the right to take legal action by way of Judicial Review" against her, the Metropolitan Police, and the City of London Corporation if essential information concerning a Home Office consultation is not fully disclosed.

In a letter sent today, campaigners allege that the Metropolitan Police has failed to provide information to local residents about alternative sites it considered for an Olympic operational policing base proposed for Wanstead Flats and only limited details about the precise criteria adopted for site selection. This means the Met and the City of London Corporation, who manage the Flats on behalf of the public, have a "grossly unfair" advantage in responding to the Home Office's consultation about an as-yet unseen Legislative Reform Order to amend the law that protects the Flats from enclosure. The letter adds:

The Save Wanstead Flats Campaign would wish to make its own submissions about alternative sites considered by the Metropolitan Police and/or the Corporation and with reference to the precise criteria used by the Metropolitan Police. The Campaign does not have the resources to independently commission a survey of all possible alternative sites in the Greater London area, and indeed such an exercise would be futile without knowledge of the exact criteria and requirements the Metropolitan Police claim are essential for the choice of site. There would be no equality of arms.

Without full disclosure, the campaign says the result would therefore be "a flawed, unfair and inadequate consultation". To avoid facing future legal challenge, the Home Secretary has been asked to disclose information about alternate sites - and the criteria against which they were rejected - at least six weeks before the deadline for consultation submissions on 9 December, so that others have proper time to prepare their responses. The campaign has suggested that "if need be the consultation period should be extended".

We await Theresa May's response with interest. The threat of legal action is just one element of campaign plans to escalate opposition to the Met's proposals over the coming months - more to follow soon.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

REVIEW: Restrepo

Depending on your world-view, there's two ways to approach a documentary like Restrepo, a Sundance Festival Grand Jury Prize winner this year. Either there is something heroic about the camaraderie of a company of American soldiers stuck for a year in Korangal Valley in Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous deployments in the US Army, or it's a damning indictment of just how pointless the war really now is after nine years.

The film captures a series of moments involving a bunch of young, gung-ho and fairly unsympathetic men with no clue what they are stepping into, who are completely cut off not only from the outside world but from the Afghans villagers they are surrounded by and who rarely even see the people who are shooting at them. They take casualties, friends are killed, their outpost is named after one of their dead compatriots, PFC Juan Restrepo, and many end up suffering nightmares they can hardly describe. Their utterly moronic Captain Kearney has no clue why the actions of his men are deeply resented and seems to believe that the construction of Outpost Restrepo was some kind of major achievement of their tour, although their mission to improve security along a road through the valley has clearly failed. Then in April 2010 the Americans pull out of Korangal, having lost 50 men in total. There's not much that seems heroic about any of that.

Restrepo has been compared to The Hurt Locker with its suggestion that war can become a drug, but its a very different film, far more depressing and and far less contrived. I can also see why the Sundance jury praised it and there's no doubting the courage of the two filmmakers who shared the terrifying experiences of the men they lived with. And yet...

I still didn't really enjoy it. It was just too impersonal to enjoy.

Monday 18 October 2010

Registration Now Open For Coalition of Resistance National Organising Conference

Registration has now opened for the Coalition of Resistance's National Organising Conference on:

Saturday 27 November
Camden Centre
Bidborough St, London WC1H 9AU


  • Unemployed/Student Rate £3
  • Standard Rate £5
  • Representative £10
Details of speakers and workshops to follow

Trades unionists, campaigners, academics, students, pensioners and others have signed the statement issued by Tony Benn in the Guardian in August, which proposing a Coalition of Resistance to the ConDem cuts and the dismantling of key elements of the welfare state. They are asking others to join by signing up and coming to the conference at the Camden Centre on 27th November 2010.

The conference intends to debate proposals for an alternative solution to the deep economic crisis that is destroying the lives of millions. It will hear speakers from struggles in Europe and from delegates from anti-cuts and anti-privatisation groups springing up in this country, as well as workshops.

There will also presumably be elections to confirm or amend the interim national steering committee, which will undoubtedly be where much of the interest and tension will focus.

To register, either download the conference registration form or sign up online with PayPal.
Conference Registration Online
Email Address

Sunday 17 October 2010

Walking Wanstead Flats

When I was first approached by a group of Forest Gate residents for assistance with their efforts to set up a campaign against the Metropolitan Police's plans for Wanstead Flats, I was happy to help for partly personal reasons. Since I was knocked off my bike back in March, I've really missed long cycle rides and the way that they always helped to clear the cobwebs after a busy week. Around the same time that the Evening Standard first leaked the Met's proposals, I'd started walking as much as possible instead and the obvious place to head to on a Sunday is the Flats.

I ambled over there again this afternoon, enjoying the sunshine while it lasts and taking a few photos. There are more on Flickr.

Manor Park Cemetery

There's definitely something about the stillness and solitude of cemeteries, as well as the combination of light and shade on a beautiful day like today, which makes for interesting photographic opportunities. In September 2009 I explored Highgate Cemetery but today I was rather closer to home - wandering the lanes of the graveyard in Manor Park.

More photos on Flickr here.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Climate Activists Blockade Coryton Oil Refinery

With news from France that protests by striking workers have already jeopardised supplies of airport fuel, it was the turn of of UK activists from the groups making up Crude Awakening to stage their own direct action, heading down to Stanford-le-Hope in Essex to blockade Coryton Oil Refinery, the busiest in the UK. Here's a video from Sky News of police making arrests and some photos from the #crudeawake photo feed - including a Essex-bound train full of activists and coppers and pictures from outside the refinery:

Friday 15 October 2010

Cop Related Photo Friday

I've been too busy today for a Lazy Friday distraction - but I like these photos.

The Newham Recorder headline I spotted earlier on Green Street and it will come as a shock to local activists, as the paper never reports campaigns positively. I guess the Save Wanstead Flats campaign has crossed a line because of the amount of support it has attracted. Meanwhile, the photo on the left is something new, which Sussex Police unveiled at a demonstration against the arms manufacturer EDO in Brighton - it's a seriously heavy-duty police cordon. I'm expecting to see something similar when the Olympics arrive in Newham...

Thursday 14 October 2010

ConDem Cuts Betray Bereaved Custody Death Families

In amongst the detail released today about the quangos and public bodies that face abolition by the ConDem government is a reversal of plans to overhaul the failing and fragmented coroners inquest system.

The system is in a complete mess, with largely unaccountable coroners who have no formal training and whose decisions are dependent on their individual approach to hearings, rather than on agreed national standards. Inquests are particularly ill-equipped to deal with deaths that raise questions of state or corporate accountability, such as deaths in police custody or in prison - lessons are rarely shared and the legal rights for bereaved families during proceedings are so severely restricted that there are overwhelming concerns about the ability of the inquest process to offer a effective investigation in accordance with the Human Rights Act. More often than not, it has been the families of those who have died - people with the least power, the worst access to information and the fewest resources - who have been the driving force in the search for truth after a death in the dubious care of the state.

An important step forward would be a professional, properly funded national Coroner Service, which was promised in last year's Coroners and Justice Act that received overwhelming cross-party support in both Houses of Parliament. Lobbying by organisations like INQUEST has been pushing for fundamental reforms since at least 2004. Now the Coalition government has announced that the post of Chief Coroner for England and Wales is to be abolished before it has even been established. In a press release today [PDF], Deborah Coles of INQUEST, said:

Bereaved families have been betrayed as - once again - their needs and views have been ignored.

This announcement shows a failure of vision and courage by the Coalition government. The dysfunctional and flawed inquest system is in need of complete reform. It is dishonest to suggest these proposals to tweak rules and regulations will deliver the fundamental change that is needed urgently. The new model set out by Parliament in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 is rendered completely hollow without the driving force and national leadership of a Chief Coroner.

During a consultation and parliamentary process which lasted over six years, bereaved families shared their painful experiences of the inquest system with policymakers. They did so with the expectation that the system would be reformed and other families would not have to undergo the unnecessarily distressing process they were forced to endure.

Not only does this decision fail bereaved families but also society, which should have an inquest system fit for purpose in the 21st Century. The inquest is usually the only public forum in which contentious deaths such as accidents, deaths at work, deaths in custody or deaths of military personnel are subjected to public scrutiny. The current system is failing to perform its preventative function. Today’s announcement by the Coalition government will frustrate the opportunity to create a system which saves lives.

Deborah's final point is a really important one - for the sake of a minor cost saving, the government is prepared to continue with a crumbling system that does little to stop more people dying due to the lack of accountability of state and corporate interests. Scrapping the Chief Coroner and the reforms associated with the post will probably attract little media interest compared to the more high profile cuts. But that doesn't make it any less of a disgrace.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Defending Newham's Services - A First Step

A meeting this evening at Durning Hall Community Centre in Forest Gate took the first faltering steps towards setting up a network to defend services for local people in Newham and to oppose massive cuts imposed on us by central and local government.

Now there are those who persist in saying that every campaign meeting, even one with forty people in attendance, is "brilliant". Everything always is. Inevitably this surfaced again tonight, but in my view it would be a considerable exaggeration. Two hundred people packed into Durning Hall's main meeting space, like the Save Wanstead Flats event a week ago, is what I call brilliant - tonight was a respectable start in testing the level of support for local campaigning against cuts, which is all it had been intended to achieve when we set out to arrange it.

Not everything we had hoped for worked out well. Although Sarah Ruiz and others from the voluntary sector were able to provide a wealth of detail about different groups facing a funding crisis and Tom Nixon from Unite spoke very well on his fears about the impact of cuts on local council staff, there was regrettably nowhere near enough testimony, based on people's personal or work experience, about the actual effects that cuts will have on the lives of Newham residents.

Instead there was a gap into which poured everything I often find so deeply disappointing about some sections of the British far left. I'm talking about long-winded rhetoric praising past struggles that I seem to recall largely ended in ignominious defeat and almost fetishist debate about the abstract merits of strike action. The considerable overoptimism that sees everything as "brilliant" was applied just as much to how angry (as opposed to worried) local people currently are and on the prospect of thousands rising up in protest against cuts. One or two participants seemed to have come along primarily to publicise one or other march taking outside of the borough. At times, it was extremely frustrating.

But there were useful ideas too - suggestions about involving the borough's many faith groups, organising street stalls, collecting and sharing information and encouraging local groups to defend their services by starting their own petitions of their members and users. One contributor, an experienced activist and SWP comrade, pointed out the very real danger that some local charities might actually benefit from decisions to shrink the number of services delivered directly by Newham council , if it decides to contract out to the lowest bidder. The division and mistrust that this kind of unseemly scrabble for limited resources can cause is something we'll all have to guard against. A number of people also emphasised how building up support for a broad campaign and spreading the message about a network that encourages mutual aid and solidarity always takes time and effort. Unless we can find both, we will continue to face an uphill struggle.

After an hour and a half of discussion, the meeting agreed to establish an e-mail list so that different people can share their skills, to set up a planning meeting and to persuade others to participate in the emerging campaign from the existing networks we are all involved in. It has no name yet, but I hope we will eventually chose something positive - 'Save Newham Services', perhaps, rather than 'Newham Against the Cuts'. That's up for discussion in three weeks time.

The first campaign planning meeting will take place on Thursday 4 November at 6.30pm at Durning Hall Community Centre. Everyone who supports the defence of services for local people in the borough is very welcome.

Angry Rant - Nation's Most Obnoxious Writer Wins Man Booker Prize

The loathsome Howard Jacobson last night won publishing's most prestigious prize, the Man Booker, for another one of his 'comic' novels packed full of Jewish stereotypes.

Jacobson already holds the title of Nation's Most Rambling and Incoherent Newspaper Columnist™, a position he has used to abuse all kinds of people - like a Richard Littlejohn with a background in the classics. Take this example from 2005, attacking the campaign supporting the family of Jean Charles de Menezes:

If we are to speak of immorality and barbarism, "the real" barbarians are those who have enlisted the de Menezes tragedy to their political agenda. A ghoul is a malevolent spirit or person who robs graves. Asad Rehman and his fellow campaigners aren't just feeding on Jean Charles de Menezes' body; they are dining out on the family's grief as well.

You can obviously see why the judges think he's hilarious - except the people Jacobson libellously and disgracefully called "ghouls... dining out on the family's grief'' are my friends Asad, Yasmin, Estelle, Cilius, Mike - oh, and me. What a absolute wanker the man is.

As it turned out, everyone who believed that the death of Jean Charles was rather more than "accidental death of an innocent bystander" were right, whilst history will judge middle-class warmongering anti civil libertarians like Jacobson as writers who badly misjudged the times they lived through. But at least he has his writing to fall back on and now a boost in sales. That should keep him in enough fine wine to continue rambling incoherently for the Independent.

That doesn't mean, however, that some of us aren't holding a grudge and still waiting for an apology. If Jacobson has the balls to show up in east London for a reading of his side-splitting novel, he can definitely expect a very pissed-off section of the crowd - wearing 'Ghoul' t-shirts, no doubt.

Go on, Howard - I dare you. Disrupting an event involving an arsehole like you would really make up for all the health problems I've had this year.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

REVIEW: The First Movie

Although director Mark Cousins introduced this evening’s screening of The First Movie at Stratford Picturehouse, it was s a real shame that he was unable to stay to answer questions. As he apologetically explained, the strain of touring his new documentary around cinemas had made him ill. I’m sure it would have been fascinating – Cousins’ rhythmic Belfast drawl is such an essential part of the film, as is his personal motivation for making it.

Captivated by cinema as a child growing up in the north of Ireland in the 1970s, Cousins travelled to another beautiful place, Iraqi Kurdistan, where people have lived under the shadow of war. He spend 20 days in the village of Goptapa that was bombed with chemical weapons during Saddam Hussain’s genocidal Anfal campaign in 1988. His mission was to take films to the children of the village, including ET, the rather disturbing fairy-tale The Singing Ringing Tree and Palle Alone in the World, a Danish film about a child whose world becomes a playground when all the adults disappear. These were the first films Goptapa's kids had ever seen.

The real stars of The First Movie, if they can be described as such, were the children: playing with balloons, jumping around excitedly at their first glimpse of cinema and telling stories. But they were far more than the passive subjects of the documentary. Cousins also gave groups of children mini digital cameras to make their own short films and the result was the kind of access into the world of the village, from interviews with mothers explaining the loss of so many members of their families to father breaking their fast during Ramadan, that probably would have been impossible for an outsider. It also helped to turn the children, who had none of the experience of cinema that their European counterparts develop from an early age, into filmmakers themselves, whose imagination has the potential in Cousins' view to become more real than the wars fought around them.

It was immensely enjoyable and repeatedly very moving, with a superb and surprising choice of score, the gentle unravelling of Cousins’ personal reflections on the role of filmmakers and his attachment to one little boy, Mohammed, who filmed a friend playing by an irrigation channel because there was nowhere else to play, “giving his dreams to the mud”.

The First Movie is about as far away from the output of the Hollywood blockbuster machine as it is possible to be – and yet it is undoubtedly one of the best films I have seen this year. Kudos to my local cinema for screening it (rather than something pointlessly terrible like Vampires Suck).

Monday 11 October 2010

High Up Above Forest Gate

I love the way London looks so different when it's possible to look down onto its streets.

Part of Durning Hall Community Centre in Forest Gate includes a homeless hostel, an unlovely Sixties tower block that nevertheless provides just such an different viewpoint. For the nine years I've worked at the Centre, I've been hoping for an opportunity to get up onto its roof with a camera, up amongst the mobile telephone towers, and on the pretext of collecting prospective images for our next annual report, I finally had a reason to do so today. Here are some of the results (click on photos to enlarge):

Looking west to the rapid construction in Stratford

Looking south towards Canary Wharf

More photos on Flickr - plus more of Durning Hall here

Sunday 10 October 2010

Met Police - Escaping The Rule Of Law

In the name of saving money, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner is seeking to make it harder to challenge abuses of police power, according to this report in the Guardian:

Sir Paul Stephenson, the commissioner of the Metropolitan police, has privately lobbied the home secretary to make it harder for people to take legal action against his force, the Guardian has learned.

Critics say the plans amount to an attempt by the police to put themselves beyond the rule of law and undermine constitutional safeguards against abuses of power. The Met's chief says money is being wasted on speculative claims, with lawyers gaining large fees that would be better spent fighting crime.

The proposals are contained in appendices to a letter marked "confidential" and sent to Theresa May by Stephenson, who is Britain's most senior police officer, on 22 June.

Suing the police for damages through a civil action doesn't achieve justice. However, because of the unwillingness of the CPS to bring prosecutions when people have been on the receiving end of police misconduct and abuse (and because of the equal ineptitude of the Independent Police Complaints Commission), it is often the only way to at least try and find an opportunity to bring evidence to court and have it examined. This seldom happens, of course - usually the police are desperate to reach a financial settlement without admitting liability before a claim reaches a courtroom. I'm not sure what the current figures are, but in 2007 the Times reported that over a five year period, these settlements reached more than £44 million over 55 police forces. Nor is Stephenson the first Met Commissioner to try and shift blame away from his officers - his predecessor Paul Condon made the same argument in 2004. It's a standard response of the Met to point the finger elsewhere.

If the Met wants to deal with the amount it spends on settlements, it should look to the reasons why cases are brought in the first place, not make it harder for people to bring them. And if it is looking for savings, perhaps it should look instead at the expenses of its senior officers.

Friday 8 October 2010

LAZY FRIDAY - Never Say No To Panda

Today's Friday lunchtime distraction comes courtesy of an Egyptian advertising agency, who clearly have a very odd sense of humour. Don't feel its OK to pour scorn on this because it's made by weird foreigners - it's more a reminder that ad execs are as mad as a bag of doorknobs the world over:

Hat-tip: Owen Jones

Thursday 7 October 2010

Wanstead Flats Sold For A Pittance

Checking my e-mail this morning, much of the feedback from last night's Save Wanstead Flats consultation meeting contains a reoccurring theme - the belief that the City of London Corporation were initially reluctant to grant permission for the Met's Olympics operational base but were told very pointedly that the police would simply go around them, so they caved in. This may also explain the minuscule rent that has been charged for the use of the Flats for 90 days in 2012.

Local resident Kevin Mansell mentioned yesterday evening that one of his neighbours had compared the rent demanded for the operational base to how much Newham council is charged for holding an annual fireworks display, a figure that was disputed by representatives of the Corporation. However, he has forwarded on the calculation this morning and the thinking behind it seems sound:

"While browsing through the Agendas, Minutes and Reports of the Epping Forest and Commons Committee, I came across [a report] giving permission to hold a fire work display on the fairground site on Wanstead Flats. Newham Council are being charged £5,000 for 2 hours access to the site. That’s £2,500 an hour!

Ninety days is 2,160 hours. I think you can reasonably argue the police operation will be 24/7 so 2,160 x £2,500 is £5,400,000... At a massively discounted rate of £500 per hour, it would be £1,080,000. The paltry £170,000 equates to £78 pounds per hour."

If the City of London Corporation was actually asking for £5 million, or even just over £1 million, I'm certain that the proposed Wanstead Flats site would suddenly become far less attractive when compared to the commercial options considered by the police. Many will recall that the Superintendent of Epping Forest, Paul Thomson, admitted at the Mass Community Picnic on 5 September that the Flats was chosen because it is the cheapest option.

On this basis, one of the main reasons local people have been forced into a battle against the Met's proposals is that the 'custodians' of Epping Forest sold out our open space for a pittance. Put this together with how easily they buckled under pressure from the Met and it's little wonder Thomson's plea for people to place their trust in the Corporation was met with such derision last night.

Continuing Adventures Under The Knife

I guess I'll blame this oversight on how busy it has been recently but I had an e-mail on Tuesday that asked, "should we take the silence on your blog about your latest trip to the Royal London as good news about your shoulder?" Of course, I mentioned here that the appointment last Monday was a crunch one and even who I bumped into in the waiting room, but not the outcome. It's the memory that starts to go first...

The news isn't exactly great. The last two rounds of surgery didn't completely fix the serious damage to my shoulder, which was worse than I realised. I finally saw the x-ray taken on my first morning in hospital back in March and it was sobering moment. So I need another operation, a final fix, which will involve another month off work and six months of further recovery. It may well also put the kibbosh on a planned trip to visit the Gilly Mundy Memorial Community School in India next year. On the plus side, it won't be before January, will include the removal of all the metalwork from my arm (so no more Borg jokes) and will mean that I'm no longer in constant pain.

There's little prospect that I'll be back on a bike until June 2011 at the earliest, mind. But at least I'll finally know what the long-term damage is.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

This Is What Real Consultation Looks Like

As I only had about four hours sleep last night because of severe shoulder pain, I'll keep my initial thoughts brief on tonight's excellent consultation event arranged by the Save Wanstead Flats campaign.

There were around 200 people packed into Durning Hall Community Centre this evening for a lively and at times angry question and answer session. It was an event that ultimately shouldn't have been forced upon the City of London Corporation and the Metropolitan police by local residents and should instead have been part of the official 'consultation', but the speakers did at least turn up. Chief Superintendent Alaric Bothron was better briefed that others on the platform and the most adept at repeated stonewalling, whilst his police colleague seems particularly animated only when it came to discussions about drainage issues. There was little that hadn't been said already at the exhibitions that the police held in Wanstead, Leyton and at Durning Hall last month and little sense that the Met has any plans to do anything but try and ride out the opposition to their plans in the hope it will drift away.

However Sue Ireland, who is the Director of Open Spaces at the Corporation, seemed remarkably unprepared, which was a real surprise, whilst her colleague Paul Thomson continued his run of public statements that seem to antagonise people even more. His somewhat paternalistic plea for people to trust the Corporation because of its history of protecting Epping Forest went down particularly badly, I thought, because we are obviously way past the point where that kind of trust can be taken for granted. People needed convincing arguments and aside from the absolute pledge that the police's operational base will last no longer than 90 days, the speakers repeatedly said that plans were subject to changing events. This is exactly the reason, however, why local people feel that the proposed site is entirely the wrong place for a operations centre of this size and nature.

The underlying message from the police was that they intend to press on, that local people have had their opportunity to complain and should now engage with them on issues like the best way to provide sewage for the site. But as the Americans say, that dog just won't hunt. Had the Met's own 'consultation' been rather more than a half-hearted marketing exercise, it is likely that many people's attitudes may not have harden quite so much since the initial public meeting in mid-July.

Since then and no doubt helped by the way that official information has been so vague, an informal gathering of people has coalesced into a unusual community action group. It's one that has no formal leadership or money but enough local support that it believes it can win, despite the huge obstacles we obviously face in terms of access to power and resources. Whether that is the case will be tested over the next couple of months, but both the Met and the Corporation should expect a torrent of planning objections, pressure on local MPs and councillors and even the prospect of a judicial review. Someone I spoke to at the end of tonight's meeting who comes from a legal background has offered to look in detail at this last idea.

One final observation: there were a couple of councillors at tonight's event but not one of them was from Newham. For every single elected representative in Forest Gate to stay away from one of the largest residents-organised meetings in recent years, right in the middle of their local area, speaks volumes about the state of electoral politics in the borough.

More photographs of the meeting here

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Secret Inquiry Into Police Shooting Opens Tomorrow


The inquiry into the death of Azelle Rodney, who was shot dead by Metropolitan police officers over five years ago on 30 April 2005, is to begin on Wednesday 6 October. It is being held instead of an inquest because there is evidence that is deemed to be so sensitive that it cannot be seen by a coroner, a jury or the family and their legal team.

The inquiry is chaired by Sir Christopher Holland, a retired High Court Judge. Sir Christopher’s appointment was announced to Parliament on 10 June 2010 by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clarke, following the previous government’s announcement on 30 March 2010 that an inquiry would be held.

The terms of reference of the inquiry are: “To ascertain by inquiring how, where and in what circumstances Azelle Rodney came by his death on 30 April 2005 and then to make any such recommendations as may seem appropriate.”

The suppression of some of the evidence relating to this death gave rise to the highly controversial proposals for ‘secret inquests’ twice rejected by Parliament, first during the passage of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008 and subsequently during the passage of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. However, the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 does include the power to substitute an Inquiries Act 2005 inquiry for an inquest.

Susan Alexander, Azelle Rodney’s mother, said:

I have been waiting for over five years to find out how and why my son died. I hope this inquiry will be full and fearless in exploring the full circumstances of what happened to Azelle and that it is held as much as possible in public and with the maximum disclosure possible of relevant evidence.

Daniel Machover, solicitor for Susan Alexander, said:

After this long wait, Susan and her legal team fear that the inquiry is going to be immediately stalled when it confronts the same problem as the coroner faced over three years ago: English law has to find a way of complying with the procedural protections of the ‘right to life’ under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (and the Human Rights Act 1998). We can’t see how a bereaved mother can lawfully be locked out of hearings that examine core evidence relating to the circumstances of her son’s death at the hands of the state.

Deborah Coles, co-director of INQUEST, said:

Susan Alexander has been waiting for almost five and half years to find out the truth about her son’s death, having found herself at the centre of a political controversy. We will be watching the progress and conduct of the inquiry to assess whether it ensures proper public scrutiny of this use of lethal force by state agents.

The inquiry opens at 10.30am tomorrow, sitting at Court 9, Fourth Floor, Technical and Construction Court, St Dunstan’s House, 133-137 Fetter Lane, London EC4A 1HD

Met Police Admits Wanstead Flats 'Consultation' Is Meaningless

Dave Lee of the Olympic Borough website has an interesting exclusive showing that the Metropolitan Police has so far spent over £50,000 to publicise its proposals for an operations base on Wanstead Flats in 2012.

But what is really interesting about the information that he has dug up is not so much the amount of money, although it is significant - it's the police's unguarded admission that its so-called 'consultation' has had nothing to do with listening to local people and has been primarily about preparing a favourable case for planning officers in Redbridge council.

The Met's response to Dave's Freedom of Information request confirms that its spending has gone to a public relations company called London Communications Agency (LCA) for the following:

“Drafting, production and distribution of material for the consultation – exhibition panels, flyers, letters to local residents and user groups, preparation of presentations to stakeholders and arranging the logistics for five public exhibitions and a meeting with local user groups. They also drafted and sourced material for the consultation website and are responsible for responding to any questions raised and collation of comments from the public to support the planning application to Redbridge Council.”

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly - LCA's role has been the 'collation of comments from the public to support the planning application'. Not to actually listen, but to gather whatever favourable information it could in preparation for the next stage.

The public relations experts at LCA were also expected to find ways to brush objections aside.
That much isn't a great surprise. But anyone who decided to leave comments on the £4000 'consultation' website now knows for certain that they will have been completely ignored unless their views happen to be helpful in convincing Redbridge council to grant planning permission.

I've been saying for months that the police consultation is a sham and those organising it haven't the first idea what proper engagement with local communities even means. Now the Met have admitted as much, I'm really looking forward to their more indepth explanation tomorrow.

Monday 4 October 2010

Saving Wanstead Flats - A Timeline

A quick reminder that the Save Wanstead Flats consultation event is in two days time - this Wednesday at 7pm at Durning Hall Community Centre.

Meanwhile, I have found a way to put together a rather neat timeline for the campaign so far, which obviously I'll be adding to:

Sunday 3 October 2010

Crude Awakening

The Crude Awakening
A mass action to switch off oil

Saturday 16 October 2010
| Central London

Floods in Pakistan, drought in Russia, huge glaciers breaking up in Greenland... Our climate system is rapidly sliding into crisis, as oil companies destroy people's lives and the environment to keep sucking up their profits.

Oil saturates every aspect of our lives. Oil profits lubricate the financial markets and its sponsorship clings like a bad smell to our cultural institutions. It flows through pipelines to the pumps, airports and factories of our cities.

The failure of the UN COP15 process showed us – if there was ever any doubt – that government and industry can’t tackle climate change. It’s up to us and it’s time to up the ante. As a movement, our actions against coal and aviation have made a real difference. Now oil’s time is up.

Together, on October 16, let's give the oil industry a Crude Awakening. Meet in central London. Be ready to move, to HOLD A SPACE and to leave that space in a way that shows we've been there.

Be creative. Be prepared. Be there.

Find out more, get involved and sign up for text alerts at:
Twitter: @crudeawake

Part of the Climate Justice Action global week of action for climate justice.
Supported by: Space Hijackers, Climate Camp, Plane Stupid, Rising Tide, Liberate Tate, Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, UK Tar Sands Network and Earth First

See you on the streets

Crude Awakening

Saturday 2 October 2010

REVIEW: Sparking A Worldwide Energy Revolution

My review of Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution appears in the current issue of Red Pepper magazine.

Can ‘green capitalism’ really save the planet? Leaders of the G20 countries certainly think so. They insist that through the market in renewable energy, new technological solutions and regulatory reform, it is possible to achieve both major reduction in CO2 emissions and save the global economy.

Unfortunately, as Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution sets out to explain, there are one or two problems with this rosy picture of capitalism solving climate change on its own terms. To begin with, regulation has been an almost completely failure, as we saw with the collapse of the talks last year in Copenhagen and more recently in Bonn. It has failed not least because the bigger problem is the most obvious one: a system of production based on endless growth and expansion is completely incompatible with a long term reduction in energy consumption.

Technological fixes such as carbon capture or agrofuels, which essentially seek to maintain consumer demand and continued fossil fuel dependency, are an appealing way for rich nations to avoid making hard choices about their unsustainable consumption. Meanwhile, the growing energy crisis is resulting in huge profits for oil companies.

The result has been rising prices for basic necessities, the kind of environmental disasters we see in Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico and a greater number of economic refugees, who are either exploited as cheap labour or excluded entirely from the world’s centres of wealth. From this perspective, the battle to shape the transition to post-petrol world is just as much about class as any of the struggles that have preceded it.

Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution is not, as it confesses, a “book of soundbites”, not least because there are no easy answers. At more than 650 pages spread over 59 chapters, it is also a book that is almost impossible to read from cover to cover. Its real strength is as a comprehensive reference guide to the huge range of interconnected issues facing climate activists and to the struggles for the control of energy taking place around the world.

Its mix of essays by frontline organisations, academics and campaigners means that anyone looking for arguments about whether a ‘green new deal’ is really possible, or how a just transition for energy-sector workers might be achieved, or what the impact of privatised ownership of new technologies has been on indigenous communities, will find concise and thoughtful contributions.

Together, they help explain why long-term solutions are indeed possible, but ‘green capitalism’ certainly isn’t one of them. An essential book for the committed climate campaigner, then, but probably too dense and too overwhelming for anyone new to the subject.

Sparking A Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-Petrol World - Kolya Abramsky [editor] was published in July by AK Press

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.